Chapter 1.
Where Do We Start?

Varied Options in Counseling

Christian counseling has come a long way in the last quarter of the twentieth century and early into the twenty-first century. More and more people are appending the prefix Christian, biblical, or pastoral to their title of counselor. In addition to the increased professionalization of the psychotherapy field, signified by the introduction of licensing requirements in many U.S. states, Christian counselors also face an array of options to choose from in counseling organizations and associations, with a variety of memberships designed to address their needs. The American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC), Christian Association for Psychological Studies (CAPS), American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC), and the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC) provide alternatives to such secular associations as the American Psychological Association (APA), the American Counseling Association (ACA), National Council on Family Relations (NCFR), National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), and the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).

This alphabet soup of options can be confusing for individuals who believe that God is calling them into a counseling ministry. Students regularly ask me for advice on the courses, degrees, and programs needed for work in counseling and psychotherapy. Invariably, they are overwhelmed by the options. Past professional choices were limited to psychiatry, psychology, the pastorate, and chaplaincy or the clinical pastoral education (CPE) programs. Now students are faced with the additional alternatives of social work, which offers the Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW); the Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), which is a minimum requirement in many states; the Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), which is being offered in an increasing number of states; the National Certified Counselor (NCC), which is administered by the NBCC, and even the burgeoning field of applied and clinical sociology with its attempts to introduce certification as a sociological practitioner.

All these alternatives represent underlying assumptions about counseling. They rest on foundations or philosophies concerning the nature of counseling and the components required to produce an effective counselor. Aspiring Christian counselors may find themselves living in states where licensing requirements dictate the number and type of courses they must take, particularly if they plan to practice outside the local church setting. More than ever before, Christians entering the counseling field need a clear and strong foundation, a firm understanding of the elements and origin of biblical caregiving. For the Christian counselor, the beginning does not lie in selecting a particular program or licensure; the origin and knowledge of Christian counseling must be far more fundamental.

Discovering a Standard of Truth

Whether or not we care to admit it, we all have a basic source of authority upon which we base our beliefs and evaluate the world around us. What is yours? For millennia the basic sources of truth centered on what we were told. Tradition dictated our view of life and interpreted the world around us. Elders passed on truths to younger generations. In the Western world around the seventeenth century, emphasis began shifting away from tradition. Scientific inquiry involving observation and the measurement of phenomena led to a belief that reason and formal procedures of investigation could reveal basic truths in the natural world around us. Early scientific pioneers like Francis Bacon (1561-1626) were careful to point out that their methods and results revealed orderliness in our world and affirmed the work and the existence of a Creator. The rational and inductive approach to science was a tool that complemented biblical truth and was subject to the grace of God. One outcome of this new inquiry, however, was that reason and grace became separated as science became more secularized.

Modern scientific inquiry has developed meticulous methods that generally rest on a belief in a universe of natural cause and effect that views the realm of grace and faith as supercilious fantasy at best or unnecessarily meddlesome at worst. Science systematically studies humans and their environment and identifies the facts, truths, and laws governing the material or physical world. Hence, the argument goes, faith, theology, and religion should either recognize scientific knowledge as the supreme arbiter of reality or stay on their own nonscientific turf of rituals and church dogma while maintaining a policy of noninterference. Evidence for this position may appear in the form of horror stories about religious bodies that have interfered with scientific progress and caused pain and suffering as a result. The story of Galileo is often cited as a case in point. The problem with this position is that science does not occur in a vacuum. Scientific inquiry rests on decisions, attitudes, philosophies, belief systems, and even interpretations that have moral and religious foundations. In fact, debates about the separation of science and religion and the tension and antagonism between the two fields cloud the important role that religion has played in the development of modern science.

In his 1905 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber suggested that certain branches of Protestantism (Pietists, Methodists, and Anabaptists) following the Reformation reframed the biblical concept of calling to apply not only to the work of the clergy but also to the laity and to trades and occupations in general. In other words, any honorable work or activity could become a means of glorifying God. The Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of every believer, not just the professional priesthood or clergy, meant that all Christians had a calling to honor and glorify God in whatever trade or profession they were engaged. Weber claimed that this belief resulted in higher levels and a better quality of work as people sought to express their obedience to God. Weber demonstrated that Protestant areas in Europe showed higher levels of economic production than other areas. The goal of these Christians was not to increase their rates of production in order to earn more money; rather, increased wealth was a byproduct of their efforts.

Sociologist Robert Merton studied the effects of this Protestant ethic on scientific development in the seventeenth century. In 1957, Merton argued that the cultural attitudes embraced by the Protestant ethic promoted rational and empirical scientific inquiry. If this is true, we should see a higher proportion of successful seventeenth-century scientists affiliated with the branches of Protestantism that embraced the Protestant ethic. These scientists would be driven by a desire to discover the truths and laws of God in his creation. They would accept their enterprise as a divine calling and evaluate their work by the way it glorifies God. One effect of their endeavor would be an increase in the likelihood of these believers rising to the top of their profession. In England the Protestant group most representative of the beliefs that Weber and Merton described was the Puritans.

Merton examined the religious affiliation of the founders of the Royal Society in England, a prestigious organization that accepted only scientists who had made significant contributions to their field. Puritans in England at the time represented a small minority of Christians, so it would be highly unlikely for any of them to be members of such an elite group. Merton's findings were surprising. Of the ten founders of the society in 1645, seven were clearly Puritan; one, Scarbrough, definitely was not; and of the two remaining there was some uncertainty, although one, Merret, had some Puritan training. Among the sixty-eight members in 1663 about whom we have information on their religious orientation, forty-two were clearly Puritan.

A small religious group was responsible for producing some of the most highly regarded scientists of the century. Puritan values promoted scientific knowledge and education. In fact, these scientists would often formally dedicate their work to the glory of God, and they regarded the true goal of science as revealing the works of the Creator. This relationship between Protestantism and science was also evident in New England, where scientists affiliated with the Royal Society were all trained in Calvinism and where this Calvinistic culture was instrumental in the founding of Harvard University Although changes have occurred in both the economic and scientific fields, Protestants are still disproportionately represented among Western scientists in comparison to the general population. Yet a separation has arisen between the Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism. The early work ethic based on a desire to honor God has faded, and a secularized version has replaced it. Money and materialism are no longer the side effects of holy activity; they have become independent goals—the new idols in our culture. Hard work has become a means of accumulating wealth and honoring self, and selfish greed has replaced service to God as the motivating factor in life (cf. 1 Tim. 6:10).

The same separation that has occurred in the economic field has also transpired in the scientific field. In science the standard of truth has shifted as faith has become secondary to nature. Scientific ideologies have fostered opposition and intellectual challenges to religion. The irony is that the scientific field is constantly changing. New discoveries demolish old "truths," and textbooks require constant updating. Science is, in effect, a moving target where information and investigation are always in motion, producing new insights and more ideas for further study. Yet science is no longer motivated by a desire to glorify God but rather by a desire to serve the self and others. This shift in focus is no less evident in the field of counseling and humanistic psychotherapy where an idolatrous form of selfism has emerged.

A Christian worldview provides a stark contrast to secular perceptions of knowledge and truth about human nature. We acknowledge the revealed truth of God in the Bible and accept Scripture as the infallible standard by which all values, ideas, and concepts are evaluated. The Bible, through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, gives us the true and undistorted picture of human nature, our purpose, and how we are related to our Creator (Rom. 15:4; 16:23-26; 2 Tim. 3:15-17; Heb. 4:12; 1 Pet. 1:25; 2 Pet. 1:21; 1 John 5:6-8). It is the standard by which we are able to interpret and make sense of the general revelation of God in creation (2 Tim. 3:16).

The Bible tells us that there are an order and a purpose in our world and that all of creation, both the living and the inanimate, depends on God's will for their design, development, and survival or continued existence (Pss. 104; 135:6-7, 9-10). A common grace from God allows both believers and nonbelievers the wisdom to identify some of the laws, patterns, and truths found in creation and the natural world (Esther 1:13; Ps. 19; Prov. 31:1; Dan. 2:12-18; Matt. 7:9-11; Rom. 1:18-23) and to develop an orderly and moral society. Theologians throughout church history, including Justin Martyr (AD 110-165), Augustine (AD 354-430), For example, "For no one ought to consider anything his own, except perhaps what is false. All truth is of Him who says, 'I am the truth,'" and, "Nay, but let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found it belongs to his Master." Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Preface, 8; 2.18.28, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 2, Augustine: City of God, Christian Doctrine, ed. Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1887; reprint, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 521, 545. Augustine elaborates on this principle in Book 2 (40.60) of On Christian Doctrine, 554:Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves were not making a good use of (Ex. 3:21, 22; 12:35, 36); in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God's providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also,—that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life,—we must take and turn to a Christian use. and John Calvin (1509-1564), among others, have recognized the value of discovering and appropriating truth wherever it is found, even among profane and ungodly sources.

A full and complete explanation of human nature and our world necessary for an effective counseling ministry cannot be understood outside the revelation of God (Acts 17:22-31). In comparison to the wisdom of God, our knowledge appears as foolishness (1 Cor. 3:18-21; James 4:6; Prov. 16:5, 18). Attempts to develop systems of counseling and caregiving will always be inadequate without an awareness and acceptance of the biblical revelation. The ideas, research, theories, and techniques in counseling warrant our attention; but unless they are built on the foundational truths of Scripture, they will inevitably be distorted, lacking a complete and true context; and they will be at times misleading and harmful.

Christian counselors must guard against spiritual arrogance that unilaterally dismisses truth claims and ideas based solely on a superficial and judgmental evaluation of a particular theory or theorist. They must avoid ad hominem arguments and narrow-mindedness that take the place of wisdom and discernment or become confused with them. Further, although all of Scripture reveals truth, not every known truth is found in the Bible. In addition, we must be humble and realize that some things lie beyond all human wisdom and understanding and can be revealed only through the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:8-11).

Counseling from the Whole Bible

This book will not tell you which counseling certification to pursue or which organization to join. It will not present a formal training model in counseling or give a detailed description of techniques and procedures. The focus will be on building a foundation and developing the components necessary for a biblical approach to counseling and on the attitude and disposition of a biblical Christian counselor. In order to do this, we must go back to the beginning. But where, exactly, should we begin?

Books on Christian counseling usually stress the importance of building models and approaches to counseling on a biblical foundation. They suggest various ways to accomplish this task. Some books stress biblical themes on the nature of God and humankind as they apply to pastoral care; others focus on techniques, skills, and theories in counseling, often borrowed, with varying degrees of caution, from secular models; still others address a particular word or theological concept as an organizing principle for counseling.

Most Christian counseling texts will reveal that most of them draw heavily from the New Testament with examples from the ministry of Jesus and the disciples and biblical quotations drawn regularly from the writings of Paul. This tendency to cite Paul is natural in light of the rational organization and structure of his epistles. Writers of these counseling books usually have advanced degrees in theology or psychology. They have been trained in an academic arena that emphasizes rational thinking and systematic development of thought and argument. They are comfortable with Paul's didactic style; it has an air of familiarity to them, a reminder of sermons, graduate lectures, and studies. Paul's style also fits well with a Western or European mode of logical thinking.

I do not wish to challenge these approaches in any way, least of all to question the value of the Pauline epistles. There can be no doubt as to their inspiration and authority, and we will refer regularly to them, particularly in discussing spiritual gifts. The epistles are at the end of God's biblical revelation chronologically and in the canon. As such, they interpret for us the themes of the Old Testament and the narratives of the Gospels and Acts, and they develop basic theological principles that are foundational for biblical Christian counseling. Yet nearly 70 percent of Scripture is written in a narrative form. The didactic approach, as a style of communication, represents around 30 percent of Scripture. What does this mean? I do not pretend to have all the answers to this question, but I would suggest that a closer examination of the other writing styles, particularly the narratives, is warranted. God is conveying the message of his Word in more than one form or style of communication. One obvious area of study for finding directions and insights into models of caregiving would be the Old Testament.

Our study should emulate the Bereans, whose noble character was expressed in their eager desire to search and examine the Scriptures to ascertain the truth of Paul's words to them (Acts 17:11). Scripture warns us about difficulties that can arise in reading Paul's epistles. In 2 Peter 3:16, we are told that in Paul's letters there are "some things that are hard to understand" and that some people distort his message, as they do the rest of Scripture. The Greek word Peter uses is dysnoetos, and it is found only in this passage in the New Testament. The word describes people who lack spiritual insight into the acts and will of God. They misread and misunderstand what Paul is trying to say and so distort or twist the meaning of Scripture to suit their particular interest or purpose. Underlying this problem, Peter implies, is the fact that, although Paul wrote with a godly wisdom (2 Pet. 3:15), his meaning is not always clear to his readers. This word of caution should not discourage us; rather, it should encourage us to be careful in our scholarship. Rather than going over old ground and limiting our focus to the New Testament alone, I believe that we can find edification and some valuable lessons about counseling by examining the Word of God, starting "In the beginning."

Questions and Exercises for Reflection

  1. What is your view of biblical authority in counseling? Give your definition of the term as it applies to Christian caregiving.
  2. Where do you believe counseling should begin? In other words, what should be the first principles or starting place for Christian counseling from a biblical perspective?
  3. Examine and compare the mission and beliefs of some of the counseling organizations mentioned in the chapter (e.g., AAPC, CAPS, AACC, NANC, APA, ACA, NCFR, NBCC, and AAMFT). You can find most of this information on the official Web sites of each of these organizations.
  4. How should scientific inquiry relate to biblical truth in counseling?
  5. Review some books on biblical and Christian counseling and describe the different ways they approach the subject.


Augustine. On Christian Doctrine in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 2, Augustine: City of God, Christian Doctrine. Ed. Philip Schaff. Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1887; reprint, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translation of Institutio Christianae Religionis. Trans. Henry Beveridge. Reprint, with new introduction. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845-1846. Oak Harbor, Wash.: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1998.

Holmes, Arthur F. All Truth Is God's Truth. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1977.

Martyr, Justin. The Second Apology of Justin, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1885; reprint, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.

Merton, Robert King. Social Theory and Social Structure, Revised and enlarged ed. Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1957.

Schaeffer, Francis A. Escape from Reason. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1968.

Shaeffer, Francis A. How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. Old Tappan, N. J.: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1976.

Vitz, Paul. Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self Worship, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1994.