Consider the idea of a court of law where a judge hears one side of a case and pronounces judgment without ever hearing the other side and without seeking solid evidence regarding the accusations. Think about a person spending day after day listening to someone gossip about others behind their backs, some of which would amount to slander, and even asking for details without seeking corroborating evidence or hearing the other side before using what is gleaned from the gossip to make an unbiased evaluation and to direct a person to emotional healing from whatever was conveyed. Consider the idea of a Christian listening to a fellow believer dishonor spouse, parents, in-laws, siblings, and others through such corrupt communication and even encouraging it.
Why would any believer want to be involved in listening to this kind of talk and even encouraging it? Why would any believer encourage fellow believers to dishonor their spouse, parents, and others? The reason often given is that information gleaned in this way is necessary for helping people. Wrong! It is unnecessary and reveals an erroneous underneath assumption that people sin because of what happened to them, not primarily because they are inherently wrong-doers and sinners by nature. Much of this kind of information leads to psychological explanations, speculation, and worldly techniques and advice, mixed in with biblical principles and admonitions, which do not depend upon information gleaned from corrupt communication.
There is a great deal of evil speaking (Eph. 4:31) not only in psychological counseling but also in “biblical” counseling, as one can see from examples found in a book titled Becoming an Effective Christian Counselor, published by Bob Jones University Press.1 (Bob Jones University is referred to by many as the bastion of fundamentalism.) Though possibly based in part on real situations, the cases in this book are contrived, but nevertheless typical of what goes on in biblical counseling. As in most of such case studies, the dialogue in this book is not given verbatim. Instead, a description of each case reveals that there has been problem-centered, evil speaking along with psychological explanations, speculation, and contrived happy endings.
The case study in the section “Bitterness” involves Gary and Madge, who “came to the counselor with a big problem in their marriage. Gary had come reluctantly after Madge had threatened to leave him” (p. 123). Some of the things Madge said about Gary can be seen in the following quotes:
Madge said that ever since they’d been married, Gary had been sullen and would get upset at the least little thing that she did. He would ridicule her in front of other people and was always trying to pick a fight with her. She said, “I would do anything to please him, but I never could do it right….” She said they’d been in eight different churches in fifteen years since they had been saved…. She said he was the most negative man about the things of the Lord that she had ever known (p. 124).
Here again there is no restriction on speaking evil of each other. Madge also told the counselor that Gary “was from a very combative family and he was just like his father and three brothers” (p. 124). Thus there is no restriction on dishonoring Gary’s father or speaking ill of other family members not present.
Interestingly, in this case the counselor figured out that it was what had happened to Gary that had made him the way he was. “The counselor explained to Gary that his family background and his service in the marines had left him with a bitter spirit toward people” (p. 125).This is a psychological explanation rather than a biblical explanation. The world says it’s our circumstances that cause us to sin; the Bible reveals that sin comes from within. Not only is the communication evil in this case; but the explanation is psychologically tainted and biblically wrong.
Obviously Madge sought counseling to change her husband, not to find out how to walk pleasing to the Lord. What might have happened if, rather than focusing on the sins of the husband, the direction of conversation had been changed to talking about each one’s own walk with the Lord? The discussion could include a clear presentation of the Gospel, information about the new life in Christ in contrast to the old nature and the flesh, about identifying when one is walking according to the new life or the old, and about how suffering can be used for spiritual growth. Then there could be instruction for walking according to the Spirit rather than the flesh. This would include what to do when one discovers that he/she has reverted to walking according to the flesh. This would be to confess sinful thoughts, words, and actions as soon as they are noticed (1 John 1:9), to remember the cross and the new life in Christ, and then to start walking according to that new life. Finally there could be a plan and encouragement for developing a daily time of prayer and Bible reading. Such ministry would not encourage evil speaking or analyzing why a person is sinning. Instead it would promote the possibilities for salvation and spiritual growth.
The case study under “Materialism” is about Ben and Eileen, who “came to the counselor with a big problem in their marriage” (p. 169). From the description given, consider the ways in which the problem-centered nature of biblical counseling is an ideal place for evil communication regarding one’s spouse:
Ben, who was a dedicated Christian, a deacon in the church, chairman of the missions committee, and a successful businessman, felt that he and his wife were going two different directions spiritually. He said that she was dedicated to spending money and acquiring things for herself and the house. She was interested in worldly things and had little spiritual interest…. Ben said that money was not the question but that Eileen made a god out of acquiring things…. She also liked to go on several cruises each year…. Eileen told the counselor that Ben was very unromantic. He was an “old stick-in-the-mud” socially and never wanted to have any fun (p. 169).
Ben may be a very “dedicated Christian” with all his important involvement in the church, yet he grossly violates his wife by his evil communication with a third party and thereby breaks the commandment to love his wife. She responds by not showing respect and reverence to her husband. The counselor obviously did not prevent such wicked communication or instruct them about how their speech is both unloving and disrespectful, because the counselor is dependent on hearing their complaints about each other in order to bring forth a so-called solution.
Along this line, “The counselor had Eileen discuss her home background,” which included a father who was “a busy, successful businessman who never spent any time with his family” and who “bought them things to show that he loved them.” The reason given for her behavior was that “shopping and having things around her gave her a feeling of security and peace, which Ben never gave her” (p. 170). Thus, a psychological explanation for Eileen’s problem is accepted as the reason for her sin, rather than that she has been living her life according to the flesh. Here again the assumption is that the sinful behavior arose from external circumstances rather than from an inherent sinful self. The “Case Study Solution” included a discussion of the “Identity with Christ principle.” However, with all the external reasons having been given for sin, one wonders if perhaps the goal is to give Eileen “a feeling of security and peace” rather than a true conviction of sin and understanding of the cross and new life in Christ.
While Ben’s corrupt communication was overlooked, he was “admonished” regarding “his extreme interest in business and church activities to the neglect of his family” (p. 170). The solution also includes having Ben read two books by Gary Smalley, a psychologist entrenched in psychoheresy. Biblical teaching, either from the pulpit or person to person would provide what the couple needs without either the problem-centered, sinful communication or the psychologically tainted solutions.
The case study under the section on “Lying” is about Monica who went to a counselor by herself, talked about her husband’s sin of lying, and described his lying in detail. After the counseling session, “The wife agreed to tell Abe [her husband] what she had told the counselor and to see if he would come in for counseling.” When Abe came in for counseling, “The counselor asked about his background, trying to find out when the lies started.” The penchant for exploring the past during counseling started in the world and continues on throughout much of the biblical counseling movement and it nearly always brings forth some kind of external blame for sin. For Abe “it started very early, around five years of age, when he lied to his parents about his frequent escapades in the neighborhood.” Next, we learn how the habit was established: “His parents always believed him and would take his side, claiming their boy was innocent…” (p. 190). Notice how the parents are implicated in his habitual lying.
What is the point of knowing when the lying began if one recognizes the difference between the sinful natural man and the new life in Christ. The lying belongs to the works of the flesh, and the Bible is clear that those works are to be mortified (Romans 8:13). Where in the Bible is one to look back to find out when one began committing a certain sin? That is the way of the world, not the Bible. The answer is not within one’s past, but in Christ crucified, buried, and risen again and in the new life He purchased on the cross for every believer.
While the counselor took Abe to verses about lying, he also suggested that for Abe to meet his “desire to gain attention and entertain people with interesting stories, he should collect funny stories … and then preface them with a statement such as, ‘I don’t know whether this is true or not, but…’ and then go on to tell his story” (p. 191). But isn’t this just one more way to feed his “desire to gain attention”?
The case study under “In-laws” features Norm and Gloria, who have been married eight years. The counseling unfortunately involves much dishonoring of one another’s parents and much complaining about each other being under the influence of parents. Norm complains about Gloria being tied to her parents, about the expense of her extended long-distance calls, about her seeking her mother’s advice regarding their decisions, and about the way Gloria’s mother had over-protected her and made her dependent on her. Gloria complains about the way Norm’s father has interfered with their marriage since the very beginning, including paying for their honeymoon, loaning them money for buying a house, and directing Norm’s financial investments. She further enumerated ways in which she had felt deprived of various things because of his investments. And they were still talking about the family feud over the expense of the wedding and which parents had paid more (pp. 298-299).
After much violation of Ephesians 5:33 and 6:2 and details no doubt gleaned by the counselor, “Norm began to realize that his father was using money as a means of controlling their marriage” (p. 300). Of course this is an assumption, because no one knows if that was the father’s motivation. Nevertheless in this kind of counseling such assumptions about motivations of others are made behind their backs and treated as factual information. No suggestion is made that the father may have had good intentions rather than a desire to control their marriage. After Norm and Gloria’s verbal violations against one another and their parents, encouraged by the counselor so that he could glean enough information to give the couple some advice about what he called the “leave-and-cleave” principle for marriage and to suggest a possible budget, the couple agreed to make some changes (p. 299).
What might have happened if Norm and Gloria had only said they were having marriage disagreements regarding each other’s in-laws. Would it not have been possible to go to the Word about their own walk with the Lord, about what the Word says about Christ’s life in each believer, and about the biblical teachings on marriage in order to help Norm and Gloria to solve their own problems without exposing one another’s sins and dishonoring parents? We certainly believe so and that is one reason we wrote Person to Person Ministry: Soul Care in the Body of Christ.2 In fact, much more can be accomplished when the focus is on Christ. The way is by grace through faith in Christ and His Word. The goal is spiritual growth, with the outworking of the law of life in Christ Jesus, being filled with the Spirit, and abounding in love and faithfulness.
Based upon the counseling conversations that we have examined over many years, we find that biblical counseling is highly problem-centered and very unbiblical. While we would neither ignore the problems nor deny the seriousness or the suffering, the central content of personal ministry in the Body of Christ should not be ongoing discussions of problems along with unnecessary details and vain speculation. Instead, these problems should be treated as timely opportunities for following Christ, growing spiritually, and glorifying God. While Scripture encourages believers to be thanking God in all circumstances, counseling encourages evil speaking and preoccupation with problems which may lead to ingratitude and thereby inhibit spiritual growth.
1 Walter and Trudy Fremont. Becoming an Effective Christian Counselor. Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1996 (page references to be given in the text).
2 Martin and Deidre Bobgan. Person to Person Ministry: Soul Care in the Body of Christ. Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Publishers, 2009.
(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, January-February 2011, Vol. 19, No. 1)