We recently encountered a book titled The Care of Souls; Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart (COS) by Pastor Harold L. Senkbeil, Executive Director of DOXOLOGY, offered on Amazon with a 4.7 overall rating. The book is advertised as “2019 The Gospel Coalition Ministry Book of the Year” and Christianity Today “Book Awards Winner 2020.” If there were ever a book that would be a sterling example of what is greatly amiss with modern-day soul care in the Church, this would be the one.
In addition to the accolades just mentioned, Dr. Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California, wrote a very complimentary “Foreword,” and the following notable Christians have written glowing endorsements for the book:
Timothy George, Founding Dean, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University; General Editor, Reformation Commentary on Scripture.
Matthew C. Harrison, President of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.
Mark Seifrid, Professor of Exegetical Theology, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.
Todd Wilson, President of the Center for Pastor Theologians.
John T. Pless, Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry and Mission/Director of Field Education, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.
Michael A. G. Haykin, Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminay.
Jason G. Duesing, Provost and Associate Professor of Historical Theology, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Missouri.
Paul F. M. Zahl, Former President and Dean, Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry.
Robert Kolb, Professor of Systematic Theology, Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis.
Gene Edward Veith, author of God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life.
Rod Rosenbladt, Professor Emeritus, Concordia University, Irvine.
Dale A. Meyer, President, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO.
Lawrence R. Rast, Jr., President, Concordia Theological Seminary (Fort Wayne, Indiana).
Before beginning this critique, we state for the record the following: We believe that all the trials, tribulations, and troubles of life that pastors send to psychotherapists are the same trials, tribulations, and troubles of life for which God has already prolifically provided in His Word. Both psychotherapy and the Bible provide answers for the same trials, tribulations, and troubles of life. However, both psychotherapy and the Bible have only and solely words to provide for the trials, tribulations, and troubles of life. It is a matter of whom you will trust—the words of fallen and fallible mankind (psychotherapy) or the true and trustworthy Word of God (Bible). Because we trust the words in the Bible over the words of fallen and fallible humanity for the same trials, tribulations, and troubles of life, we are totally opposed to psychotherapy for Christians.
If you agree with our statement, you will see, after reading this article, that you are more biblically knowledgeable about soul care than Senkbeil, Horton, and the 13 notable Christian endorsers of COS. Read ahead and see why God will be pleased with you and displeased with Senkbeil and the 14 notables regarding soul care and the Bible.
The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart
COS is Senkbeil’s testimony in which he reveals that he does not believe in the sufficiency of Scripture for all the trials, tribulations, and troubles of life now therapized by psychotherapists. He, instead, recommends the using both the Bible AND a psychologist. We have selected several places in COS to reveal Senkbeil’s penchant for using psychotherapy, where Scripture has already spoken. All such references show the apparent influence of “Christian psychologist” Dr. Beverly Yahnke (COS, p. xviii). Keep in mind that any expose and criticism we make of Senkbiel falls equally on the distinguished theologian Dr. Michael Horton, the notable thirteen persons who wrote glowing endorsements of COS, The Gospel Coalition, and Christianity Today.
In the “Preface” to his book, Senkbeil reveals the origin for the “idea for this book.” He says:
This book didn’t arise out of a vacuum. Many had a hand in its development. The idea for this book first surfaced in conversation with my treasured colleague, Dr. Beverly Yahnke. Bev and I have been involved in that conversation for nigh unto twenty years. Insights from her long experience as a Christian psychologist supporting church workers and their families were of incalculable value in the design and launch of DOXOLOGY: The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care and Counsel (www.doxology.us). Almost since the very beginning, she has been pushing me to sit down and write a book for pastors. What I’ve learned from her and with her as founding co-executive directors for DOXOLOGY has profoundly influenced what you are about to read. (Bold added, COS, p. xviii.)
Yahnke’s fingerprints are seen throughout the book as Senkbeil has followed the fallen and fallible wiles and ways of psychology because of her influence. What is it that Senkbeil learned from this “Christian psychologist”? He learned to trust psychotherapy and psychotherapists to do much of the very work that the Bible promises to do. Senkbeil’s clear and revealing overall statement, which shows forth his belief and confidence in the Bible PLUS psychology and which undergirds his recommendations throughout COS, is the following:
While there are multiple dimensions to every person’s life—bodily, social, emotional and psychological—as a pastor I’m especially attentive to that person’s relationship to God. Therefore the soul’s spiritual life is my ultimate, though not exclusive, concern. (COS, p. 66 bold added.)
Senkbeil is saying that “the soul’s spiritual life” is his “ultimate” concern, meaning final or most important concern. However, he modifies his ultimate concern by inserting “though not exclusive” or full concern. He expresses himself with the kicker, “not exclusive” to leave enough room for the “psychological,” which is an open door to the psychotherapist’s office for which he establishes no cautions, concerns, or restraints.
Following the prior statement, Senkbeil explains what he means in the balance of the paragraph. He says:
As symptoms arise in that person’s life—be they fear, anxiety, distrust, misery, joy or sorrow—I’m always keen on interpreting them in terms of what they disclose about the soul’s relationship with God. I’ll be misled in my diagnosis and treatment of this soul if I limit my attention to social, emotional or environmental symptoms. Worse, I’ll be derailed if I focus on treating a person’s emotions rather than the person as a whole. To my way of thinking, that’s where pastoral care has taken a left turn; for much of the twentieth century pastors reinvented themselves as activity directors, corporate executives or psychotherapists (poorly trained, unlicensed, and rather inept therapists at that). At best, the results have been spotty. At worst, they’ve been harmful to people and detrimental to the life and mission of the church. (COS, p. 66, bold added.)
We agree that pastors should not attempt to be psychotherapists. Yes, pastors are “poorly trained, unlicensed, and rather inept therapists.” Psychotherapy is not a profession to which pastors should aspire. Biblically based soul care comes not from the fallen and fallible opinions of humankind, but from the Bible. The Word of God deals with everything related to the soul and spirit. The Word can divide asunder the soul and spirit, but there is no hint that the mind, will, emotions, and behavior (which psychology deals with) are not included within the spiritual life after a person receives new life in Christ. Hebrews 4:11-12 is clear about the Bible revealing and addressing the soul and spirit and the thoughts and intents of the heart:
For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.
If one goes to the Bible and sees what it contains and even promises, a pastor will find answers even as promised in 2 Peter 1:2-4.
Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord, according as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
Senkbeil divides psychological problems from spiritual problems to accommodate his choice to use and promote psychotherapy, but psychotherapy can only treat the flesh or old man. Senkbeil addresses the new life in Christ numerous times in his book, but in adding the psychological wisdom of men to the Word of God, he reveals that he does not trust the Scriptures alone for soul care. God-given power in the new life in Christ can overcome sin without resorting to psychotherapy, which simply rearranges the flesh but fails to mortify it. Every trial, tribulation, and trouble of life can be used to conform a believer into the image of Christ through the ministry of God’s Word.
The following discloses Senkbiel’s confidence in “qualified and competent therapists” to care for “family and other institutions”:
The complexities of the twenty-first century compel us to re-examine the church’s longer heritage of the care/cure of souls as a useful template for contemporary pastoral work. As social structures—notably the family and consequently other institutions—come unraveled and lives fall apart, we can use all the help we can get from good business practices, quality social scientists, and qualified and competent therapists. (COS, p. 66, bold added.)
Senkbiel apparently knows very little about psychotherapy. One of us was trained as a Rogerian (Carl Rogers) therapist and knows the business of therapy, and the part of therapy that therapists do worst at, by their own admission, is marriage therapy.
The main trials, tribulations, and troubles most often sent to a psychotherapist by a pastor are marital problems. However, this is the one area of therapy that psychotherapists do their worst. As more and more people have been going to marriage counseling, more and more have become divorced, and this includes professing Christians, who are divorcing at about the same rate as unbelievers. With all the time and money and the great expectations that counseling will help married couples, it is disconcerting to learn that marriage counseling only helps about half of the time, which is similar to sham treatment. Why are the results so poor? Psychotherapy Networker, a journal for practicing psychotherapists, hosts “one of the world’s largest annual conferences for therapists.” The editor, who is a psychotherapist, confesses that “most therapists who actually do marital therapy (about 80 percent of all clinicians) don’t really know what they’re doing.” He says:
Untrained in and unprepared for work that requires a highly skilled touch and nerves of steel, many therapists blunder ineffectually through sessions until they’re fired by their clients or, overwhelmed by a couple’s problems, they give up too soon in trying to save a marriage.
But then he admits that skilled, experienced therapists are often unsuccessful as well. In fact, marriage counseling is one of the most sin-infested counseling because of the way spouses talk to and about each other in the presence of a third party, the therapist.
Senkbeil even recommends that fellow pastors seek psychotherapy for their own troubles. The following is an encouragement for pastors, themselves, to seek help from psychotherapists for their “burnout” rather than the help that was readily available to all pastors prior to 1958 when the first psychotherapy license was issued in America. Senkbeil says:
Research has shown that increasing numbers of clergy suffer from debilitating emotional dysfunctions. Collectively called “burnout,” some of these disabilities stem from something now identified as Compassion Fatigue—the consequence of constant immersion in the emotional rollercoasters of the people to whom they minister. Likewise, research shows that clinical depression among pastors exceeds rates common in the general population. Sadly many pastors don’t seek care from licensed clinicians, though emotional dysfunction responds very well to treatment by mental health professionals. Sadder still, far too many church leaders and ecclesiastical supervisors remain uninformed about the extent and impact of these illnesses and available treatment. (COS, pp. 210-211, bold added.)
Pastoral “burnout” is a spiritual problem but not a problem for the words of fallen and fallible humankind (psychotherapy). What is referred to here as “burnout” is one of Satan’s ploys; focusing more on self through psychotherapy often serves to strengthen the flesh but not the new life in Christ. What is needed is spiritual encouragement and prayer. The Psalms of David often address discouragement and the answer was always related to his relationship with the Lord. Too often those in ministry place ministry over their own devotional life with the Lord. Pastors need to develop a consistent, meaningful, and powerful daily walk with the Lord andteach their congregants likewise. Pastors should have confidence in the power of the Word ministered by the Holy Spirit to help themselves as well as others, instead of relying on the words of fallen and fallible psychotherapists.
Senkbeil further encourages pastors to use therapists to augment soul care to congregants, when the Bible already fully provides all that is needed for those experiencing the trials, tribulations, and troubles of life: He says:
If the pathways of the mind are strewn with the wreckage of life, God’s promises may sound like a foreign language, and such a person likely needs more comprehensive treatment than you can provide. You are neither trained nor licensed as a therapist. That’s why as a pastor you will do well to find a competent psychologist who is skilled in the relationships between cognition and behavior. A skilled therapist like that will be of great assistance in helping an emotionally scarred individual to hear and appropriate the transformative spiritual treatment you’ve been called and authorized to deliver in Jesus’ name. (COS, p. 180, bold added.)
If God’s promises “sound like a foreign language,” one reason may be that the Word of God has not been ministered adequately from the pulpit, and/or the person in the pew has not received, believed, and followed. Faithful preaching and teaching the Word of God from the pulpit should equip believers for when the trials, tribulations, and troubles of life come along. When believers know and follow the Lord daily, they will be extraordinarily equipped for difficult times, and God’s Word will not “sound like a foreign language.”
Indeed, some people do need much more than what a pastor alone can provide. That is why Christ formed his church in such a way that all are priests in the Body of Christ:
Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ…. But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 5, 9.)
Members of the Body of Christ can, therefore, minister to one another according to their God-given gifts (Romans 12). Senkbeil’s theological training has strongly separated clergy from laity, in such a way that he evidently does not believe that the pastor plus well-taught-from-the-pulpit members of the Body of Christ can participate in soul care. So instead of or in addition to teaching the congregation in living the Christian life and using members to minister to one another in matters of the mind (thinking), will (choosing), emotions (feelings), and behavior (walking according to the new life in Christ) he has turned to psychotherapists, who by their state license and professional ethics must follow the words of mere men (psychotherapy). Moreover, research on the effectiveness of psychotherapy does not support Senkbeil’s assumption that a therapist, “skilled in the relationships between cognition and behavior,” can assist a believer any more effectively than a fellow member of the Body of Christ, as revealed later.
Sadly, one of the false and damaging mantras of many Christians is that people often need psychological help before they can respond to the Gospel and the teaching of God’s Word. Yet God’s Word transformed people who had been abandoned, sexually abused, sold into slavery, and worse throughout the history of the church. No one needed professional psychotherapists until they arrived on the scene just over 65 years ago. Without the appeal of psychotherapy, people heard and responded to the truth of God’s Word and were transformed. This penchant for psychological counseling is a sad commentary on the spiritual condition of the Church and its leaders today. Every pastor has the most “comprehensive treatment” plan in the Bible.
Senkbeil also expresses a need for psychotherapists to augment care for alcoholism, sex addiction, and porn in his description of various cases, when the testimonies of the myriad believers who found deliverance through biblical soul care alone contradict what he says here:
Ned made good use of professional therapists. Besides alcoholism treatment, he sought the help of a competent sex addiction therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy has a proven track record in addressing the destructive patterns of thought that feed destructive lifestyles. However, addiction therapists recognize there’s a crucial spiritual component to recovery. So Ned came to me for what I was qualified and authorized to provide: care and cure for his soul. (COS, p. 185, bold added.)
Senkbeil, who may never have heard of the terms “statistical significance” or “null hypothesis,” has concluded here and elsewhere in his book, without academic evidence referenced in footnotes, what he says as he puffs and promotes psychotherapy, possibly at the behest of “Christian psychologist” Dr. Beverly Yahnke.
Not only does the Bible address the issues of alcoholism and sexual lust, but the Holy Spirit also enables believers to overcome sin as they develop a consistent daily walk with the Lord that is serious and moment by moment. God’s forgiveness is powerful, and His constant presence within the believer continues to give power, if the person truly wants to change. It is not the therapists that work; it is the Christians, themselves, empowered by the Holy Spirit, who must work for change to occur.
Again, Senkbeil undermines the power of God’s word and Holy Spirit when he sends believers to psychotherapists.
Don’t kid yourself. Left to itself, the vicious destructive cycle of porn quickly becomes habitual. Every indulgence brings immediate remorse and corresponding self-loathing and revulsion, which then only fuels the obsessive compulsion for more and more indulgence. This tragic pattern must be broken, and the first step is to initiate a fast. A competent therapist can be of immense help; your own will-power is powerless to break the toxic cycle of addiction. (COS, pp. 207-208, bold added.)
Here the Bible isn’t even considered. The choice is between a do-it-yourself project or a therapist. The Word of God is left out, apparently because Senkbeil does not believe Christians can benefit from the ministry of the Word from the pastor and from within the Body of Christ without the use of a psychotherapist. After individuals receive new life in Christ, they have more than the “will-power” of the old self. They have the Holy Spirit who enables them as they walk according to the new life rather than the old self.
Next, Senkbeil contends that women who have been demeaned and harmed by their husband’s addiction to pornography (sexual lust) need psychological help as well. He advises:
If you’ve been dabbling in porn your wife will need help too—both psychological and spiritual. Since you are one flesh with her, sinning against your own body is sinning against her. You can imagine how absolutely devastating it is for a woman to discover that her husband finds gratification in the naked bodies of other women. So if that’s what’s been going on in your marriage, your wife will likely need concentrated help long after you’re well on your way toward recovery. Make sure your wife finds a caring, competent counselor and an attentive, intentional spiritual physician to tend her wounded soul. (COS, p. 209, bold added.)
Again, the suffering soul is referred to a “competent counselor” (psychotherapist) in addition to the pastor when the pastor, the Word, and the Body of Christ are all that is needed. The Bible speaks of the God of all comfort, the pastor preaches it, and members of the Body of Christ can minister to one another the comfort they have received from the Lord.
Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. (2 Cor. 1:3-4.)
A woman who has suffered from an unfaithful husband who has been using porn to feed his lust outside the marriage bonds may benefit from another woman to comfort her and pray with her and for her in addition to the pastoral ministry of the Word.
Psychotherapy and Psychotherapists
We will next discredit Senkbeil’s confidence in psychotherapy and psychotherapists. One major failing and fallacy of his book is the damage that a psychology mindset has had on Senkbeil’s soul care message.
Dr. Beverly Yahnke, whom Senkbeil identifies as a “Christian psychologist,” is obviously the source of this great failing and fallacy and has “profoundly Influenced” Senkbeil’s entire book. Before discrediting we will give several snippets from our book PsychoHeresy: The Psychological Seduction of Christianity, Revised and Expanded, which has 475 pages and over 700 endnotes that support what we say or quote. In addition, our work is endorsed by noted psychiatrists and Christians.
Once upon a time there were no licensed psychologists as we know it today. There were NO degreed and licensed psychologists who charged money for ongoing conversations about the issues of life. A little over sixty-five years ago in the US there was no state licensing, no insurance reimbursements for psychotherapy (less than fifty years ago), no graduate programs leading to licenses, and no Christian schools, including Bible colleges, universities, or seminaries, offering psychotherapy related classes leading to a state license. In California psychologists were nationally the first to be licensed in 1958 and the Marriage and Family therapists were nationally the first to be licensed in 1964. All fifty states now have licensing. One of us qualified for both licenses, but never applied.
Dr. Beverly Yahnke, a “Christian Psychologist”?
The Christian Association for Psychological Studies (CAPS) is an organization of Christian psychologists. At one of their meetings the following was stated:
We are often asked if we are “Christian psychologists” and find it difficult to answer since we don’t know what the question implies. We are Christians who are psychologists but at the present time there is no acceptable Christian psychology that is markedly different from non-Christian psychology. It is difficult to imply that we function in a manner that is fundamentally distinct from our non-Christian colleagues … as yet there is not an acceptable theory, mode of research or treatment methodology that is distinctly Christian.
Since each state has its own licensing laws, we cannot speak for the State of Wisconsin where Yahnke lives, but in California, where we live, we are told by the licensing office that licensed psychotherapists are expected to do their therapy according to the education they received to obtain the license and they are also expected to follow the standards of their professional associations. A therapist would be unethical in violation of her license and professional standards if she were ever evangelizing to any faith in any way.
Clinical psychology and its active arm of psychotherapy have indeed adopted the scientific posture. However, from a strictly scientific point of view they have not been able to meet the requirements. In attempting to evaluate the status of psychology, the American Psychological Association (APA) appointed Sigmund Koch to plan and direct a study which was subsidized by the National Science Foundation. This study involved eighty eminent scholars in assessing the facts, theories, and methods of psychology. The results of this extensive endeavor were then published in a seven-volume series entitled Psychology: A Study of a Science. Koch describes the delusion from which people have been suffering in thinking about psychology as a science:
The hope of a psychological science became indistinguishable from the fact of psychological science. The entire subsequent history of psychology can be seen as a ritualistic endeavor to emulate the forms of science in order to sustain the delusion that it already is a science. (Italics his.)
Koch says: “Throughout psychology’s history as ‘science,’ the hard knowledge it has deposited has been uniformly negative.” (Italics his.) He contends that much of psychology is not a cumulative or progressive discipline in which knowledge is added to knowledge. Rather, what is discovered by one generation “typically disenfranchises the theoretical fictions of the past.” Instead of refining and specifying larger generalizations of the past, psychologists are busy replacing them. He adds, “I think it by this time utterly and finally clear that psychology cannot be a coherent science.” (Italics his, bold added.) Koch suggests, “As the beginning of a therapeutic humility, we might re-christen psychology and speak instead of the psychological studies.” (Italics his.)
There are about 500 different psychotherapies with thousands of techniques, but all amount to non-scientific words from fallen and fallible humankind used for both therapies and techniques, whereas the Bible contains the very true and trustworthy Word of God.
Psychological Opinions (Words)
We could give many examples of the competing and contradictory theories and techniques of psychotherapy. The examples just used above should logically lead one to conclude that the psychological theories and techniques of psychotherapy are merely words from the opinions of many theorists. No matter how temptingly presented and popularly practiced, all psychotherapies nonetheless remain as the opinions of the theorist, which are merely human words.
Psychologist Dr. Harvey Mindess reveals in his book Makers of Psychology how all his research supports the major theme of his writing, which is clearly stated in his subtitle, The Personal Factor. Mindess says:
It is my intention to show how the leaders of the field portray humanity in their own image and how each one’s theories and techniques are a means of validating his own identity. The Freudian man, we will see, is very much like Freud himself; the Jungian man is much like Jung, and so one down the line. In Nietzsche’s words, each one of their philosophies is “the confession of its author.”
The only target I wish to attack is the delusion that psychologists’ judgments are objective, their pronouncements unbiased, their methods based more upon external evidence than personal need. Even the greatest geniuses are human beings, limited by the time and place of their existence and, above all, limited by their personal characteristics Their outlooks are shaped by who they are. There is no shame in that, but it is a crime against truth to deny it.
The field as a whole, taking direction as it does from the standpoints of its leaders—which, as I will demonstrate, are always personally motivated— may be regarded as a set of distorting mirrors, each one reflecting human nature in a somewhat lopsided way, with no guarantee that all of them put together add up to a rounded portrait.  (Italics his.)
The enigma of human nature, we may say, is like a giant Rorschach blot onto which each personality theorist projects his own personality characteristics. (Emphasis in original.)
Psychological counseling was first embraced by those Christians who became educated to be teachers or licensed practitioners. The activity of conversation as therapy and rhetoric as remedy is promulgated through counseling, which is now the respected standard outside and for way too many inside the Church.
“Only Mild to Moderate Relief”
Some years back the American Psychiatric Association (APA) Commission on Psychotherapies published a book titled Psychotherapy Research: Methodological and Efficacy Issues. In it the APA stated: “Whether the magnitude of the psychotherapy effect is medium or small remains a moot point; no one has claimed that it is large.” (Bold added.) While no researchers would claim that psychotherapy’s level of relief is large, many practitioners and popularizers of psychology infer that they do.
Many new psychotherapies and research studies have occurred since the APA’s findings, but the same conclusion remains. In an interview with Dr. Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association, he was asked:
As a therapist and researcher who has spent three decades trying to build a bridge between the world of science and the world of everyday practice, are you impressed with the hard evidence of psychotherapy’s effectiveness?
After discussing the results of averaging all the therapy outcome studies, Seligman admitted that “by and large, we produce only mild to moderate relief.” After “regularly revising a formal textbook about abnormal psychology that has gone through five editions” over the past 25 years, Seligman indicated that not much has changed over the years with respect to his conclusion of “only mild to moderate relief” from psychotherapy.
Contrary to the repeated research result of “mild to moderate relief” produced by fallen and fallible humans, the Bible gives truth and transformation. God does not promise “mild to moderate relief.” God’s Word changes people inside and out, and God’s Word declares the following:
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. (2 Tim. 3:16-17.)
Will we believe God’s Word, or the words, theories, and therapies of fallen and fallible humans?
Another interesting research result is that of the one essential ingredient for success in psychotherapy. The current research stresses the great importance of rapport for success in counseling and calls it the“therapeutic alliance.” This term and its significance in successful counseling is repeatedly seen in the literature.
A Psychology Today article says:
Researchers who compare the success rates of various schools find that by and large, techniques and methods don’t matter. What does matter is the powerful bond between therapist and patient. The strength of this “therapeutic alliance” seems to spell the difference between successful therapy and a washout. (Bold added.)
The Harvard Mental Health Letter refers to the therapeutic alliance and says that it is “the working relationship between patient and therapist that is probably the most important influence on the outcome of therapy.”
Psychotherapy Networker says:
The incontrovertible evidence is in: studies of the top 25 percent of therapists—those whose success rates are at least 50 percent better than the average—show unequivocally that neither training, experience, personality style, theoretical orientation, nor (get this) innate talent—has anything much to do with what makes the greats better than all the rest…. The therapeutic alliance—the ability to engage a client in therapy, to forge and maintain a strong, personal connection with her, convince her that the two of you are on a common path—remains the single most important element of all therapy. (Bold added.)
Regardless of the counseling approach, the most important factor for success is the rapport that exists between the counselor and counselee (therapeutic alliance). However, the kind of Godly love and fellowship available in a local church far surpasses what is available in a psychotherapist’s office with all of its restrictions. In church believers can express love with words and actions, unheard of in the therapist’s office. As helpful as the therapeutic alliance is for the therapist to keep clients, the relationship established is an artificial relationship, not like the real world.
Artificial, Paid-For Relationship
In their book The Lonely American, Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz discuss one of the serious realities of counseling: the artificial, paid-for relationship. They first mention “a curious set of rules” that exists in the conversations of counseling and say, “the rules are quite different from the rules for ordinary relationships. The most striking difference is that the usual expectation of reciprocity disappears” (bold added). All the drama and narrative dialogue are about the counselee and her issues and problems. The counselee gets to talk about herself and her litany of personal problems and the counselor does not get to talk about herself and her litany of personal problems, except for something brief that might be said to establish rapport. The expectation is that the focus of the conversation will be on the counselee’s “problems and life and words.” The counselor does not get equal time for her own issues. The spotlight during the counseling “hour” is on the counselee.
The therapist/client relationship is diametrically different from normal conversational relationships where there is reciprocity. Turn-taking occurs in normal relationships. One person speaks and another listens, but the listener gets to speak as well. The focus of attention is shared between one another’s “problems and life and words.” In normal conversations there is generally a freedom to speak taken by both parties. The downside of the counseling relationship is that it is not the normal way conversations are carried on in the real world.
While “there are no reliable statistics” on what is called “self-disclosure,” it is considered to be unprofessional for a counselor to disclose her own personal issues to a counselee whether the time is paid for or not. Imagine a counselor talking about her own marriage problems or her own relational or her own professional issues, saying for example, “My husband and I do not see eye to eye lately on a lot of matters,” etc., or “This has been a tough month. Some of my counselees have not returned and I have expenses to cover and my own personal income needs.” When such self-disclosure occurs, it is typically the end of the counseling. Why? Because the counselee is there to talk about her own problems and not to listen to the counselor’s problems.
Regardless of how dull and boring the counselee may be, the counselor has the responsibility to listen thoughtfully and often to hang on every word the counselee utters in an effort to obtain an accurate understanding of the problem and to respond appropriately. Normal friends will seem mundane after a therapeutic love-in that can occur in counseling. Olds and Schwartz aptly describe such skewed relationships:
The special partnership that allows a therapist to earn a good living and a patient to focus on neglected aspects of his life and experience would be a disaster outside of the office. Used as a template for other intimate relationships, it is selfish and self-absorbed. Other than therapists, only an occasional very self-sacrificing parent or a spouse who aspires to martyrdom is likely to sign on for that long term. A problem with psychotherapy is that it can make all other relationships look like they fall short when it comes to sustained, attentive caring and leave the patient circling back to therapy as the only relationship that is good enough.
Although this may sound like love, it is a paid-for relationship that cannot, by professional standards, extend to normal friendship where friends can go to lunch together.
Psychotherapy uses an office arrangement: meeting usually one day a week for a fifty-minute “hour,” one week after another for a price, one client or couple after another in a one-up (therapist), one-down (client) relationship. Add this to the fact that it takes over 20 clients per week in order to make a professional salary. University Professor and psychotherapist Dr. Jeffrey Kottler, in his book On Being a Therapist, says: “A therapist with a large turnover might require more than four hundred new referrals every year just to survive, whereas another clinician could get by quite comfortably with ten or twelve.”
Few know the profession of psychotherapy better than Kettler, who brings reality to the business of therapy as he says the following:
We cannot agree on whether therapy takes a shot time or a long time, whether it ought to focus on the past or the present, whether the therapist or the client should define the problem we are to work on, or even whether the therapist should talk a lot or a little. And perhaps more important, we cannot decide whether therapy is essentially a profession or a business. [Psychiatrist Jerome] Frank (1979) candidly admits that once upon a time he did therapy to help people, but now he does it for money. Whereas once helping people was fun, now it is work. And he is not ashamed to admit that a part of every therapy hour is spent calculating how much he earned while listening to someone tell his or her story.
A psychotherapist may express an element of kindness and compassion while establishing the needed rapport with a client. The client may develop a needy kind of love for the therapist, but this paid relationship is a far cry from Christian love wherein believers are to love one another as Christ loves us (John 13:34; 15:12). Because God is love, all interactions among believers within the Body of Christ are to be motivated by love, expressed in love, and acted in love.
Believers need to be equipped with God’s Word applied by the Holy Spirit to walk in love as a body, ministering the gifts God has given as enumerated in Romans 12, being “kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another” (v. 10). If a church is operating under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit according to Romans 12, the pastor will not be alone in being the one to minister the Word. Sadly, many churches run on one wheel (the pastor) and a spare (a psychotherapist), when God has provided so much more for His people! His love spread abroad throughout the congregation!
There are relationships and ministries that exist in a local church that can never be offered in a therapist’s office. For many years we headed a soul care ministry to those suffering from personal and interpersonal problems. Those of us who ministered did things that should happen in every church. We list only some of the many relational things that occurred.
Being available 24/7 was possible because the ministry was shared rather than one person having a “case load.” Moreover, several different people may be involved in ministering to an individual in need.
Visiting a person at home, hospital, or workplace would occur naturally as necessary because these are simply fellow believers experiencing problems of living. Thus, neither a specified place nor restricted office hours can interfere with ministry as in psychotherapy.
Shared meals and refreshment times are opportunities for fellowship and ministry as fellow believers and friends, whereas with psychotherapists such activities are considered “unprofessional.”
Providing food, money, and such practical assistance as child or elder care, help with household chores, etc. are included in the benevolence activities of local churches. In addition, a church member could provide information regarding social services provided by the city and county. The person who ministers personally may be the one to perform these additional acts of love or they can be shared with other members of the Body of Christ.
Praying for one another and praying together personally, on the phone, or through other means of communication.
Expressions of love and care in the local fellowship, including hospitality, ongoing encouragement, sending cards for various occasions (from congratulations to condolences).
Relationships that continue on and develop further after the initial trial, tribulation, and trouble ends. The paid relationship in psychotherapy does not go beyond the counseling time, where “time is money” and bills and salaries must be paid.
Shared dependence on the Lord where no one is in a one-up position and the one in need does not become dependent upon a therapist. All are at the foot of the cross seeking Him and His provisions.
The above are merely examples that biblically and practically distinguish a church from a therapist’s office. The local church puts to shame those who offer their 50-minute relationship hours with a price that pales in comparison to what happens in a truly biblical local church free of charge and given in love. These are all in addition to the vital worshipping and fellowshipping together, which would be absent in psychotherapy.
The local church is the place for soul care and the mutual edification of all believers, under the authority of the foundation laid by Scripture and as given by Jesus Christ to the pastor and the Body of Christ as they care for one another through mutual encouragement, admonition, confession, repentance, forgiveness, restoration, consolation, and comfort.
The controlling sentence for Senkbeil’s book The Care of Souls contains the words “ultimate, though not exclusive.” This has been the mantra on the part of many pastors and congregants in the Church who have participated in the fallen and fallible means and methods of psychotherapy. In doing so, they have undermined and abandoned the abundant provisions and promises in the Bible for soul care.
This erudite sounding “ultimate, but not exclusive” is the platform on which all those who do not believe that the wise words and ways of the Bible are sufficient for all the trials, tribulations and troubles of life that are now sent to psychotherapists with their fallen and fallible words and opinions of humankind.
But Senkbeil has had the support for what he has said in The Care of Souls by The Gospel Coalition, Christianity Today, the eminent Professor of Theology and Apologetics Dr. Michael Horton, and thirteen notable others who should all know better. Yet, The Gospel Coalition, Christianity Today, and all fourteen of these distinguished Christians, by their awards and endorsements, have indicated, by their glowing comments, they too believe the “ultimate, but not exclusive” rationale for referring congregants to psychotherapy. We conclude from their affluent affection for The Care of Souls that they believe and recommend it to all, to read, and from which to learn.
Prior to churches and pastors being open to psychological theories and therapies, the proverbial camel of psychology nosed itself into the tent of the church. The camel of psychology came in a friendly way and seemed to offer much help. However, these theories and therapies subtly diminished confidence in the truths of the Bible for soul care until there is now far more camel and much less tent. Gradually, but surely, the psychological way was added to or supplanted the biblical way for soul care. From that time on, psychotherapy with its underlying theories and therapies have resulted in a plethora of pastoral soul care referrals to therapists.
We had hoped to stem the tide in 1979 with our book The Psychological Way/the Spiritual Way. However, we were too late. By then the camel was a welcome partner throughout all levels and facets of the Church. The camel of psychology has become so popular that it is now a highly esteemed necessity in Christian churches, denominations, colleges, universities, seminaries, and mission agencies. Senkbeil, The Gospel Coalition, Christianity Today, and his 14 notable Christians are simply walking in step with the camel of psychology by agreeing with the “ultimate, but not exclusive” motto for all pastors and churches who trust the words of fallen and fallible humankind (psychotherapy).
We earnestly pray that The Gospel Coalition, Christianity Today, and these 14 notable Christians would reconsider, repent, and rescind their endorsements. Otherwise, the epitaph on their Christian life and ministry will read: “Fit for heaven but did not believe in the Word of God alone for The Care of Souls.”
 Harold L. Senkbeil. The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019. Page numbers are given as references from this point on. Copyright Disclaimer: See Section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976, where allowances are made for “fair use,” https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/17/107.