Dr. David Powlison is the Executive Director at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF). Arguably the two best-known names in the contemporary biblical counseling movement are Jay Adams and David Powlison. In his book titled The Biblical Counseling Movement after Adams, Heath Lambert places Jay Adams as the leader of what he calls the “first generation” of biblical counselors and David Powlison as the leader of what he calls “the second generation.” of biblical counselors. Lambert rightly says, “It would be difficult to overstate the influence of Powlison’s contribution has had on biblical counselors.”1 Powlison is widely known, highly praised, and carefully listened to by many. Thus it is important to examine what he says to his vast audience of followers in the biblical counseling movement, which includes Bible colleges, Christian schools and universities, seminaries, mission agencies, and para-church organizations.
Powlison begins his lead article, “The Local Church Is THE Place for Biblical Counseling,” in a recent issue of CCEF NOW by asking, ”Can local churches become a natural home for counseling ministry?”2 He then says, “Here are five of the numerous advantages to counseling being localized in the church.”
Before discussing Powlison’s five advantages of counseling in the local church, we first describe counseling as practiced at CCEF, in contrast to his model of counseling for local churches. CCEF is a para-church organization, which has four locations with counselors in Philadelphia, West Philadelphia, Montana, and New England. The Philadelphia home office has over 20 counselors. All of the counselors at all of the locations have a brief blurb on the CCEF website about their education, family and personal interests. The fee structure listed for the home office counselors is the following: “Our counseling fee is $95 per hour. The initial hour costs $100 to cover set-up fees. All counseling charges are due before each appointment” (bold added).3 They also say, “CCEF no longer submits for insurance.” According to their latest available IRS Form 990 (2011), their total assets are $2,714,044. As an aside, Ernest R. Groves, an early secular marriage counselor, when asked if he charged for counseling, said he had decided not to because “it seemed like taking pay for throwing a drowning man a rope” (bold added).4
CCEF uses some of the same sinful practices that psychological counselors use. We have often referred to the “onerous ones,” which CCEF follows and which are similar to what happens in the psychological counseling movement. Those at CCEF have regular offices and follow these onerous ones: one-to-one (most of the time there is one counselor and one counselee, except in marriage counseling and in training other counselors); one day a week (while this is the standard, some counselors meet more often with their counselees); one hour (the 50-minute hour is the standard); one week after another (for some it goes on weekly, month after month, and even year after year); one fixed price ($95 per hour due before each appointment); one right after another (counselees often follow other counselees in the counseling lineup); one up/one down (the counselor is one up as the expert with all the credentials and therefore the counselee is one down). While this is standard practice, there is no biblical precedence for it! Those who function in this way are merely following those in the psychological counseling movement. In fact, if the psychological counseling movement did not exist, the biblical counseling movement would never have developed such a format.
Powlison says, “First, a wise pastor (or friend, elder, small group leader, mentor, etc.) has many advantages over the secular paradigm of the office-bound counselor” (bold added). Notice that he recognizes, yet utilizes in his own practice at CCEF, a “secular paradigm.” Powlison then describes how people in the church can get to know one another more intimately as individuals and families and see how they interact within their families and with others. Also, one knows the “Christian nurture” the congregants are receiving.
Powlison says of this first church advantage, “In addition to a wider knowledge base, you relate at multiple levels” (bold added). In contrast, picture the CCEF office-bound counselor at her desk and the office-bound counselee who comes for counseling. Typically one female counselor is talking with one female counselee, since most counselors and counselees are women. Because of this preponderance of women in counseling, the secular literature generally uses the female gender when referring to either a counselor or counselee, unless a man is literally the counselor or client.
In counseling the conversation is limited by what the counselor asks and what the counselee desires to reveal. This may or may not be a true picture of the reality that exists in real life situations that one would experience firsthand and that exists in various facets of the church. The CCEF counselor would not normally see the counselee in her family, church, or other “multiple levels” of life to gain a “wider knowledge” of her.
Powlison says, “In contrast, office-bound counseling is structurally passive, only on the receiving end of inquiry or referral.” CCEF counselors are “office-bound” counselors where conversation becomes the sole means of ministry. The office-bound counselor is in a one-dimensional, contrived, artificial relationship with the counselee simply because the counseling relationship is not like the real world either in or out of church.
As we have said elsewhere, there is “a curious set of rules” that exist in counseling that are “quite different from the rules for ordinary relationships. The most striking difference is that the usual expectation of reciprocity disappears” (bold added).5 The focus is on the counselee and her issues and problems. The counselee talks about herself and her litany of personal needs, but the counselor does not get to talk about herself beyond something brief that might establish rapport. The expectation is that the focus of the counseling will be on the counselee’s “problems and life and words.”6 The counselor does not get equal time for her own issues. Such a counselor/counselee relationship is diametrically different from normal relationships, where reciprocity involves conversational turn taking, in which they both speak and listen to each other. The one-sided focus of the counseling relationship may lead the counselee to become more self-absorbed and even unhappy with normal conversations outside the counseling office that do not center on her.
Describing another advantage of church-based counseling, Powlison says:
Here is a second advantage. It is a premise of biblical counseling that people are not just “problems.” They are not defined by a “diagnosis.” People come with gifts and callings—from God Himself.
Powlison speaks of the person’s “new identity—in Christ” and the role believers play in the church as they are gifted. The office-bound, separated-from-the-church CCEF counselor may hear about a person’s spiritual gifts if the person chooses to share such information, but the counselor cannot see those gifts actually played out in the church or know if any counselee is truly gifted or merely misperceiving her gifting and misrepresenting her role in the church.
Powlison begins his third advantage of church counseling by saying:
Anyone can help anyone else. God delights in apparent role-reversals. Counseling in a church context is far richer than “designated expert” meets with “needy client.”
The point Powlison is making is that the “needy client” can act as a “designated expert” in certain situations. This is an excellent contrast between mutual care and “office-bound” counseling. The “office-bound” counselor at CCEF is a “designated expert” by virtue of all the education listed, the official title of “CCEF counselor,” counseling office, office hours, and a designated “cash, check or credit card” fee to be paid in advance. Role reversals would not occur and would not be appreciated in such an office-bound setting as at CCEF. While a counselee may say things that might be helpful to the counselor, the counselee is still the one paying for the 50-minute hour.
Powlison describes the fourth advantage of biblical counseling in the church:
You have the freedom to be completely open about the life-rearranging significance of God’s gift of himself, and you can participate together in his gifts of Scripture, worship, prayer, sacraments, and bearing one another’s burdens.
None of this occurs in the CCEF office-bound, pay-as-you-go counseling
Powlison concludes this section by saying, “The counseling implications could not be deeper.” Office-bound counseling, such as at CCEF, cannot reach the depths, the heights, or the breadth of the spiritual experiences that exist in a biblically functioning church.
Powlison says of this fifth advantage:
It is natural to talk about the Big Questions, as well as the practicalities of problem solving or the process of coming to truer self-understanding. You can ask pointed existential questions.
While talking about “the Big questions,” etc., the CCEF counselor is drawing in $95/hour for her own pay check and income for CCEF. As Powlison concludes this section by saying, “The church is uniquely equipped to ask, to talk about, and to offer real answers to the biggest questions,” it is doubtful that CCEF, as a para-church, commuter counseling center can “offer real answers to the biggest questions” because they are boxed in four walls where the sole, pre-paid commodity is conversation.
As mentioned earlier, no reciprocity occurs in the confines of office-bound counseling. The usual give and take that can occur in the church setting is absent and thus for the counselor “to offer real answers to the biggest questions” does not generally happen in office-bound counseling, because the counselee has come to talk about her own issues and problems and may never look for “real answers to the biggest questions.”
The office-bound counselor treads a very thin line between a personal and expressed perception of the counselee based on the biggest and smallest questions and the risk of stating an obvious conflicting truth or confronting a blatant lie. The $95/hour counselee is unlikely to return if the counselor confronts, judges or even seems to disagree in any way.
Professor Jeffrey Kottler, in his book On Being a Therapist, says, “Various studies of therapy dropouts estimate that roughly one-third of clients don’t return after their initial interview, and close to half don’t come back after the first two sessions.”7 He adds, “A therapist with a large turnover might require more than four hundred new referrals every year just to survive.”8 The same is probably true of the office-bound, fee-based CCEF counselor.
As a finale of the “five advantages to counseling being localized in the church,” Powlison says: “Local churches flourish as they become places where counseling flourishes” (bold added). We disagree! We would say: Local churches flounder as they become places where counseling flourishes! Evidence of the strength of a church filled with growing and biblically active believers would be that little or no biblical counseling is needed or even wanted.
After the final sentence of his five advantages, Powlison includes a one paragraph justification for para-church ministries. Powlison describes CCEF as a “multi-faceted para-church ministry” and adds:
There are particular things that a counseling ministry like CCEF does—distance education, seminary teaching, counseling training, conferences, and publishing—that a local church would have a hard time replicating.
Our two main criticisms of CCEF are directed at their rigidly office-bound counseling ministry, which is separated from the church, and their pay-in-advance-by-the-hour service.
As a reminder, CCEF stands for Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation. Powlison elaborates on “things that a counseling ministry like CCEF does” and lists five things CCEF does “that a local church would have a hard time replicating”: “distance education, seminary teaching, counseling training, conferences and publishing.” They are all alike in that they can be regarded as educational. However, there is one major difference between “counseling training” and the other four activities. The other four involve subject matter and learning, but do not specifically involve the personal lives and problems of the people who enroll in distance education, seminary training, conferences, and publishing. Although individuals participating in these four activities may learn about their own and others’ personal issues, they are not enrolled to voluntarily reveal their personal lives as happens in counseling, but rather to learn academically from the teachers and books.
It is the CCEF “counseling training” that we object to because the counselees are there to share their personal lives with the counselors and to do so in a para-church setting. The counselees are absent from their own church, which could provide them with more than the five advantages described by Powlison. Para-church counseling offered at CCEF and similar entities usurps the means of grace given by God to His people in a church setting. Not only are these counselees deprived of “five of the numerous advantages,” but they are charged money to be subjects of counselor training. Thus they are being used at their own monetary expense as well as being deprived. CCEF’s “counseling training” could very likely manufacture clones of the office-bound, “biblically” justified, “pay-for-play” format, which would jeopardize any well-intentioned church that is exercising the gifts of the Spirit.
Biblical Counseling Movement
Prior to the rise of the biblical counseling movement, which followed on the heels of the psychological counseling movement, there were no separated-from-the-church biblical counseling centers such as CCEF. No one was sent away from a church for counseling because there was nowhere to send them. We trace the history of the cure of souls in Against “Biblical Counseling”: For the Bible9 where we demonstrate that there was never a referral away from the church to an independent counseling center like CCEF for Christian soul care. Such ministry was and is a clear responsibility of the local church.
Referring individuals away from the church to a separated-from-the-church center to accomplish what the Lord has empowered His people to do in the local fellowship is a travesty on biblical teaching and a failure of the local fellowship. The local church is the place for soul care, according to Scripture, within the mutual ministry of the saints one to another, for the purpose of building up the Body of Christ through mutual encouragement, admonition, confession, repentance, forgiveness, restoration, consolation, and comfort.
We encourage biblical counsel to be given through the ministries of the church and through mutual care, one to another in the body of Christ.However, we are concerned about biblical counseling separated from those ministries ordained by God. If the church had been teaching sound doctrine, pursuing the ministries and gifts designated in Scripture, and helping individuals to grow in the fruit of the Spirit, psychological counseling would have never attracted Christians, and biblical counseling would never have become a separate ministry either in or out of the church.
Church leadership necessarily includes biblical teaching, worship, and, if necessary, biblical discipline. A separate ministry like CCEF cannot hold an individual responsible through discipline. A separate ministry cannot remove a person from fellowship for the purpose of restoration. Furthermore, a separate counseling center may teach different doctrines from those of the individual’s own church. Therefore, the individual who is experiencing problems of living needs the church and its ministries, not a separate counseling office away from the church or even, in most instances, a specified biblical counseling office in the church.
The Local Church: One More Advantage for Biblical Counseling
The whole thrust of Powlison’s article is in his title: “The Local Church Is THE Place for Biblical Counseling.” Note the subject is “biblical counseling” and the setting is “the local church.” As we read Powlison’s “five of the numerous advantages to counseling being localized in the church” and examined each advantage, what we saw were five excellent reasons why counseling should not be in a para-church situation such as at CCEF.
People relating on “multiple levels” (first advantage); people exercising their “gifts and callings” (second advantage); the “needy client” helping the “designated expert” through “role-reversals” (third advantage); people participating “together in his gifts of Scripture, worship, prayer, sacraments, and bearing one another’s burdens” (fourth advantage); people dealing with “existential questions” and talking about and offering “answers to the biggest questions” (fifth advantage). All of these are important in building up individuals and families in the faith and helping to draw each one closer to the image of Christ, BUT none of these advantages mentioned by Powlison are found in the para-church biblical counseling center, which is typically limited to two women talking to one another. The ministry depth of the church, through its gifts, activities and relationships, challenges the shallow offerings of para-church, pay-as-you-go counseling ministries like CCEF and numerous look-alikes.
We agree with the title of Powlison’s article, except for his word “counseling.” We affirm that the local church is the place for the biblical ministry of soul care. However, if the church has designated counselors who have been trained in a methodology of “biblical counseling,” they may still end up in office-bound counseling in the church building with the “needy client” seeking help from a “designated expert.” Churches that have such trained counselors may fall into the same trap as CCEF and therefore may not truly offer all of the advantages that Powlison lists. Yet, we must add that CCEF and other like biblical counseling movement groups ARE NOT the place even for biblical counseling. Biblical ministry belongs in the church and every biblical counseling group that functions like CCEF is functioning contrary to biblical precepts!
1 Heath Lambert. The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012, pp. 47, 76.
2 David Powlison, “The Local Church is the Place for Biblical Counseling,” CCEFNOW, 2014, pp. 2-3.
4 Eva S. Markowittz. In Therapy We Trust: America’s Obsession with Self-fulfillment. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001, p. 83.
5 Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz. The Lonely American. Boston: Beacon Press, 2009, pp. 164-165.
6 Ibid., P. 165.
7 Jeffrey A. Kottler. On Being a Therapist, Fourth Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010, p. 126.
8 Ibid., p. 120.
9 Martin & Deidre Bobgan. Against “Biblical Counseling”: For the Bible, Santa Barbara, CA: Eastgate Publishers, 1994, Chapter 2, pp. 23-55
(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, July-August 2014, Vol. 22, No. 4