A Skeptic’s View of Counseling Part 7: Whose Turf?

We’ve seen differences among various groups within the Christian Counseling Movement regarding the theory and practice of counseling; the questions before us now are who will counsel, and under whose aegis.

The current practice varies between pastoral/church officers only to free-standing fee-for-service clinics, reflecting the diverse ecclesiologies within Evangelicalism. JE Adams wrote:

“In short; God gave the task of counseling as a life calling to the ruling officers of His church. This may be demonstrated in many ways. I shall mention two:

“the New Testament commands the shepherd-teacher—as such—to counsel;

we see from descriptions of his work that he is precisely the one who, in the early church, did counseling.

“While God assigned the counseling task informally to all Christians just as all are expected to teach, exhort, and perform other tasks informally), He assigned the work of formal nouthetic counseling to the church elder.* Such counseling is a part of his official job description (36).”

D Powlison of CCEF concurs:

“According to the Bible, caring for souls—sustaining sufferers and transforming sinners—is a component of the total ministry of the church, however poorly the contemporary church may be doing the job. There is no legitimate place for a semi-Christian counseling profession to operate in autonomy from ecclesiastical jurisdiction and in subordination to state jurisdiction. The Lord whose gaze and will the Bible reveals lays claim to the cure of souls. If counseling is indeed about understanding the human condition, if it deals with the real problems of real people, if it ever mentions the name of Jesus Christ (or should mention, but doesn’t), then it traffics in theology and cure of souls; it ought to express and come under the church’s authority and orthodoxy(37).”

If counseling is strictly a church ministry, what of reimbursement?  Adams’ answer to the question of whether a counselee will be charged for services is

“I hope not. Since biblical counseling is done under the auspices of local congregations, it is usually offered as a free service to the members of the church and to the community. If any sort of financial arrangement is made, that will ordinarily not go beyond the amounts needed for added heat, light and secretarial services. The counselor himself will counsel as a ministry. If, where there is no fee charged, as counselee wishes to give an offering, he should make out his check to the church, not to the counselor (38).”

CCEF begs to differ, and posts fees of $95.00/hr for a counselor, $50.00 for an intern, and $100.00 for the initial hour to cover set-up costs.  A discount is available to those who consent to be videotaped (39).  It bears mentioning that CCEF, while headquartered at a seminary, and whose counseling staff are members of churches and practice under the aegis of the seminary and, like it, is a para-ecclesiastical organization answerable to no church body.

At the other end of the spectrum are the many independent, for-profit, integrationist clinics like Christian Counseling Services in Lynchburg, VA.  The practice describes itself as

“…a private agency of professionally trained therapists who hold advanced professional degrees.  We adhere to the standards of practice as regulated by state law, and are committed to providing services to individuals, couples and families.  Our staff is composed of dedicated Christians who combine professional skills with a sensitive, Biblical approach (40).”

Its services are usually covered by most major insurers, and payment is expected at the time of service (41).   The profiles of its counseling staff reveal one ordained minister out of full-time ministry, the rest being clinical social workers and counselors (42).  Needless to say, there is no ecclesiastical aegis.

So, which is right:  ecclesiastical, para-ecclesiastical, or independent?  Ideally, since counseling is a form of ministry of the Word, counseling has historically been recognized as the domain of the clergy.  However, this is problematic for several reasons.  First of all, there is a “credibility gap” resulting from the church’s having sloughed-off its troubled members onto secular or even independent Christian counselors for so long; it would be hubris for the church to now demand a return to the status quo ante without proving itself both worthy of and prepared to resume an effective ministry of cure of souls (more on this later). Secondly, there is an established tradition of independent and interdenominational evangelical agencies and personnel doing work historically regarded as churchly; eg mission work (Independent Board of Presbyterian Missions), education (Ligonier Ministries), Bible translation (Wycliffe, Trinitarian Bible Society), seminaries (Westminster Theological Seminary), camps and retreat centers, etc.  These organizations answer to no church board, raise their own money by fees and donations, and pay employees; why, then, is counseling off limits to all but the institutional church and without fee for service?

A third and more personal problem is that of what has been known as the “seal of the confessional;” ie the sacrosanctity of what is confessed to a cleric.  While the RCC is very explicit in defending this practice and will not yield on it, the same cannot be said of Evangelicals, who have no theology of the confessional. Blogger Nick Barden at “The Evangelical Pulpit (patheos.com)” wrote:

“Unsurprisingly, many Protestant churches have found themselves accused of covering up myriad sins. Clergy are torn between seeking to keep in confidence the confessions of a repentant sinner, while recognizing the need for temporal authorities to intervene and administer justice. Add to the mix that American jurisprudence has a bifurcated doctrine on the issue – clergy are often classified as mandatory reporters, but a distinction is drawn between those who approach a pastor as a ‘friend and adviser’ and those who approach the pastor as a penitent.

Here the ill-defined ecclesiology and political theology which often afflicts us, particularly those of non-denominational persuasion, blurs that line between ‘adviser’ and ‘clergy’ in our churches. Does the repentant sinner speak to Pastor Bob, or Bob simpliciter? It may be that Pastor Bob himself does not know. The implications are enormous, not just in regards to keeping the confidence of the penitent. It is essential that we may give a defense of our actions to a scrutinizing world (43).”

The degree of privilege depends largely upon state laws, which provide more protection to clergy in churches which clearly state the obligation of members to confess than to those churches which have a looser or non-existent concept of confession (44).

There are two other aspects to the problem of communication between pastor and parishioner.  One is gossip resulting from a minister who breaks the seal by telling others (including his wife and children, who are not ministers) what was understood by the parishioner to have been spoken in confidence, with consequent embarrassment and social consequences.  A RC priest is under threat of excommunication for breaking the seal, while Evangelical minsters face no such threat – which, given the lax disciplinary milieu of the modern church, would provide scant deterrence anyway.  Another is the fear of discipline in the form of public humiliation; churches in which confession is a sacrament generally privately discipline what is privately confessed; there is no such safeguard among Evangelicals, which may hinder a parishioner from going to his pastor; independent counseling centers alleviate this burden.

The fourth problem is that the institutional church is structurally incapable of reclaiming counseling at this time, with no evidence of taking any measures to rectify the situation.  According to Powlison:

“How can this problem be remedied? Let me identify five needs. First, the church needs to become wise in the face-to-face care of souls. We cannot practice, teach, or regulate what we do not know how to do or think…

“Second, we need creedal standards for the care and cure of souls, or at least a widely recognized corpus of practical theological writing…

“Third, we need educational institutions committed to the Bible’s distinctive model of understanding persons and change. For many years seminaries taught virtually nothing substantive about progressive sanctification and the particulars of hands-on, case-wise, heart-searching, life- rearranging care for souls…

“Fourth, we need cure of souls to become part of the church’s qualifying procedures that recognize fit candidates for ministry…

“Fifth, we need ecclesiastically grounded supervisory structures for cure of souls. The secular mental health professions usually offer continuing education, case supervision, and discipline for morals offenses (breach of trust in sexual, financial, or confidentiality matters). The church has often offered continuing education in the form of books, seminars, and doctor of ministry programs. The church has often disciplined for morals or doctrinal offenses. But cure of souls tends to drop through the cracks; it is an optional activity with optional beliefs and practices (45)….”

Conspicuously absent from this list, and emphasized in the article from the Valparaiso University Law Review (see footnote 44), is the nature of the counseling relationship, especially regarding its seal for ministers and its importance vis-a-vis status as sacrament, sacramental (46), or holy rite (47), so as to enjoy the protection of the law.

Thus, if Mother Kirk is serious about reclaiming the cure of souls, she has her work cut out for her.  The problem, though, is what a parishioner seeking guidance today is to do:  if his pastor is inadequate or averse to counseling, the choices for a particular area may be very limited, making all of the above discussions academic at best.  I hope to offer suggestions for solving this problem, as well as providing some final thoughts, in the next article.


36.  http://www.nouthetic.org/who-should-do-counseling

37.  http://www.ccef.org/cure-souls-and-modern-psychotherapies

38.  http://www.nouthetic.org/will-i-be-charged-a-fee-for-nouthetic-counseling

39.  http://www.ccef.org/counseling/philadelphia

40. http://www.lynchburgcounselor.com/index.html

41.  http://www.lynchburgcounselor.com/7.html

42.  http://www.lynchburgcounselor.com/2.html

43.  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/evangelicalpulpit/2015/03/american-protestantism-and-the-seal-of-confession/

44.  http://scholar.valpo.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2062&context=vulr

45.  http://www.ccef.org/cure-souls-and-modern-psychotherapies

46.  https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/library_article/49/Sacramentals__their_role_in_Catholic_Sacramental_Life.html

47.  Those rites other than baptism or eucharist referred to as sacraments by catholic churches of various stripes (eg RC, EO, etc); see https://anglicanrose.wordpress.com/st-louis-affirmation/


Posted on April 12, 2015, in Counseling. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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