Counseling the Hard Cases: A Critical Review

by Martin and Deidre Bobgan

Biblical counseling has been growing in status within the evangelical community along with the increasing use and popularity of psychological counseling, which took hold shortly after the middle of the twentieth century. Since some Christians wanted biblical help rather than worldly psychological help; a biblical look-alike was created. Although the intent was to replace psychological counseling, which is based on a psychological understanding of man, with a biblical ministry based on biblical truth regarding the nature of man, much of what we call the biblical counseling movement (BCM) reflects psychological theories and therapies. In many cases what biblical counselors do is simply not biblical!

The errors of the movement show forth in what might be considered the stellar example of the best of what the BCM has to offer: Counseling the Hard Cases (CTHC), co-edited by Stuart Scott and Heath Lambert. Rightly stating the superiority of what God says and does over what psychology has to offer, Scott and Lambert, both seminary professors in biblical counseling, say in their “Concluding Reflections”:

The editors and contributors all believe that the Bible is comprehensively sufficient to deal with any problem that requires counseling. Additionally, we believe that both the descriptions and prescriptions of human problems found in God’s Word are far superior to anything that secular psychology has to offer. Only God understands the problems of humanity at the deepest level— and how to fix them.1

While we are in agreement with this statement and have taught similarly for many years, we are in drastic disagreement with how their aspirations are carried out in most of the ten cases presented in CTHC.

Before launching into this critique of CTHC, some disclosure on our part is necessary. Importantly, we believe and have taught for over 40 years that the Word of God and the work of the Holy Spirit in the fellowship of the saints are sufficient to deal with the nonorganic issues of life without sending Christians out of the church to psychotherapists. Additionally those who suffer from the biological trials and tribulations of life can profit greatly from biblical ministry as they seek help. We have taught and practiced from the beginning that all the personal, relational issues of life which are now popularly referred to licensed psychological counselors for “cure” through conversation can best be done through those in the church ministering to one another. Building up the church spiritually is far more important than erecting biblical counseling offices, which in many ways are often just knock-offs of what psychological counselors do.

Scott and Lambert subtitle their book True Stories Illustrating the Sufficiency of God’s Resources in Scripture. While on the one hand we believe, practice, and teach the “Sufficiency of God’s Resources in Scripture” for the “hard cases” of life, we demonstrate in this critical review that the hard cases presented in the book are not “True Stories.” The ten cases are all reconstructions or remembered cases from the past and lack the literal dialog of the original biblical counseling sessions to qualify as “True Stories.” They are at best approximations of “True Stories,” which likely contain some of the natural, fleshly, inadvertent twisting of actuality, which would happen to all who attempt to restore the reality of an original case. Anything less than a literal live case with literal live dialog is less than the literal live truth. The less it is of the literal live case, the less accurate it is likely to be. Look at all the Bible verses used, look at all the educational and professional credentials of the counselors, look at all the happy endings to the cases. Note also the slick, seamless counseling stories that are told, but do not believe any of the CTHC cases to be true stories, because they are not truly true.

Problem-Centeredness

One of the key reasons we left the BCM years ago is its problem-centeredness, which often involves sinful talk about problems in a manner similar to those in the psychological counseling movement.2 In fact, biblical counseling as conducted today is nowhere found in Scripture. According to David Powlison, a leader in the BCM, biblical counseling as conducted in the BCM is newly arrived in the church.3

Although biblical counseling was designed to help people with the Bible rather than with psychology, the CTHC hard cases reflect the psychological counseling movement in many of its methods, practices, and procedures, which are very problem centered.4 Those who say they are being biblical often practice the same sinful problem-centeredness that inevitably leads to sinful speaking about self, situations, and sufferings.5 Biblical counselors such as those in CTHC, much like their psychological counterparts, place a high degree of emphasis on determining the root cause of problems through observing external behavior or by looking for “idols of the heart.”6

In checking all the instances of counseling in the Bible, there is no example of a woman or of a man being counseled about the kinds of personal problems often discussed in biblical counseling. No instances occur in the Bible with individuals or couples murmuring or talebearing in a biblical counseling type of setting. Because the ten cases in CTHC are not live cases in that the full dialog of the conversations is not given, much of the murmuring and talebearing that normally occur in biblical counseling are not revealed.

Also there is neither one-to-one cross-gender nor marital counseling anywhere in the Bible. Thus, the terms used and the problem-centered conversations are from secular counseling and should be avoided by all who desire to be truly biblical in ministering to others. There is no biblical precedence or examples of any of this! Those who function in this way, plus other ways mentioned later, are merely following those in the psychological counseling movement. In fact, if the psychological counseling movement did not exist, the biblical counseling movement would not have followed in its footsteps in the problem centeredness in which it currently exists, and that certainly applies to the ten recreated cases in Counseling the Hard Cases.

Counselor, Counselee, Counseling

In speaking about the biblical counseling movement (BCM), we use the terms counselor, counselee, and counseling because that is their terminology. The three words counselor, counselee, and counseling are the three most popular words to describe who does the counseling, who receives the counseling, and the type of conversation between them. The way these terms are used in the BCM and in CTHC does not match the use of these words in Scripture. Moreover, not one of these roles (counselor, counselee) or activity (counseling) of the modern biblical counseling era equates with anything in Scripture. (See Appendix)

It is understandable that those in the BCM and those counselors who did the ten “hard cases” in CTHC use the contemporary terms counselor, counselee, and counseling, because these three worldly words rightly fit what they do, since their counseling is reflective of the psychological counseling movement. As a matter of fact, the ten “hard cases” use the words counselee(s) (83 times), counselor(s) (100 times), and counseling (73 times) for a total of 256 times. In contrast, we use the word minister for what we believe Christians should do to help fellow believers in need. The word minister, along with its variations, is found over 200 times in the Bible. If one checks the various Hebrew and Greek words translated minister and its variations, it should be obvious that minister is the right biblical word and activity to use among believers rather than counseling.

Most of the words in the New Testament that are translated minister(s), minister(ed), ministering, and ministry come from words that have to do with serving, helping, and supplying what is needed as from a position of servant rather than from a position of one exercising dominion and authority over others. In other words, all who minister according to the Bible do so at the foot of the cross, dependent upon the work of the Holy Spirit, and under the authority of the Lord and His Word. While the biblical word ministry and its variations are used in CTHC, the unbiblical use of the terms counselor, counselee, and counseling predominates.

We found it odd that in all of CTHC, out of 143 “counsel” verses in the Bible, only Proverbs 20:5 is quoted, but not to justify the kind of counseling that biblical counselors do. Perhaps they assume that what they do is biblical and requires no justification. A word of caution: Christians are used to and frequently use the words counselor counselee, and counseling. We do not personally correct individuals or couples who use those words when they come to us for help. However, when we describe the help we provide, we refer to it as ministry rather than as counseling.

CTHC Counselors

The backgrounds of the contributors to CTHC emphasize the credence those in the BCM give to educational backgrounds. The contributors to CTHC are two MDs, two PhDs, one PsyD, four DMins, and one RN. While on the one hand we would not rule out such backgrounds, on the other hand we have, in our training and calling others to mutual care ministry, ignored educational credentials and emphasized the importance of finding believers who: (1) are knowledgeable in the Word, (2) are filled and gifted by the Holy Spirit to minister to others, (3) have shown through their behavior that they are growing in sanctification, (4) and have walked with the Lord and been dependent upon Him through their trials in life. Such knowledge, life, gifts, and callings become apparent as believers come to know one another in the Body of Christ in the local church.

The CTHC counselors are a somewhat limited, one-sided, in-house group in that seven of the ten counselors belong to the Biblical Counseling Coalition. Though they come together from different origins and backgrounds, they all share the same BCM mentality. Also, it is noteworthy that, of the ten counselors, only two are women, even though at least two-thirds of the counselees are typically women. Nevertheless, that is understandable since the men in the BCM believe it is their biblical prerogative to counsel women, and, yes, even alone!

Whenever we have asked them, “Did you ask the husband’s or father’s approval to counsel his wife or daughter?” as the case may be, they answer “no,” wondering why we would even ask. If this one wholly unbiblical practice of men counseling women, especially without the husband’s or father’s approval, stopped, that would be a dramatic change for the BCM.

Most of the counselors contributing to CTHC spend far too much time attempting to analyze the flesh, “the old man, which is corrupt according to deceitful lusts” (Eph. 4:22). In doing so, they succumb, some naïvely, to recycling psychological interpretations and reframing them into biblical terms. While they may sound erudite, they are wasting their time analyzing the flesh, because even if one aspect is identified and corrected, it will only be replaced by another. The heart of the old nature will always be deceitful (Jer. 17:9). Although it may be reframed and reformed, it is still the flesh, “the old man, which is corrupt according to deceitful lusts.” When they are in this mode, they are attempting to help their clients understand their flesh, rather than to count it dead (useless, putrid, sinful, and rotting). What many biblical counselors do best at times is teach the Word, clarify biblical doctrine, and guide people into putting off the flesh, being renewed in the mind, and putting on the New Life, which is Jesus living in them through the blessed Holy Spirit. In contrast, so many of these writers are analyzing the past and the heart of the old nature and attempting to identify “idols of the heart.”

Lack of Internal Criticism

There seems to be an unspoken agreement that biblical counselors are not to be critical of sinful practices within the movement. Because internal criticism happens so infrequently, it is a sure sign of how weak the biblical counseling movement truly is. We challenge leaders in the biblical counseling movement to openly criticize unbiblical practices and teachings of leaders in the movement, document those errors, and provide the names of leading biblical counselors and/or popular organizations that are in biblical error.

The only popular review naming names of teachers is by Lambert in his PhD dissertation-turned-book. Specifically he names and critiques Jay Adams, the first person to whom he dedicates the book. However, Lambert makes himself clear when he says:

This is a book about how biblical counselors have grown up and matured since the initial leadership of Jay Adams, but it is not a strike against Adams. To the contrary, the ministry of Jay Adams changed my life, and I love him. One of the great honors of my life has been to get to know him a bit over the last several years…. Beyond any personal connection, I believe Adams has been one of the most consequential men in church history in the last 150 years. His work revolutionized the way thousands of people do ministry. In the last forty years everyone who ministers the Scriptures or has had the Scriptures ministered to them according to the principles of biblical counseling has Jay Adams to thank.7

Lambert does say that “Jay Adams’ work was imperfect”8 and he once criticizes him for “an unbiblical harshness” in a talk. No person in Lambert’s book is exposed for being unbiblical, even his fellow seminary professor Eric Johnson, who deserves the label.

It is strange that there is such a reluctance to name names of those in the biblical counseling movement who are involved in unbiblical practices when Adams, who fathered the modern-day, newly arrived movement, wrote the following in his endorsement for our book PsychoHeresy: The Psychological Seduction of Christianity, defending us for doing so:

Some people will say the Bobgans are hitting too hard—naming names and all that—but I don’t think so. Whenever someone writes for the Christian public he sets forth his views to the scrutiny of others, but if others think what he says is dangerous to the church they, like Paul (who named names too), have an obligation to say so.9

Adams has also said elsewhere:

Any Christian who sets himself up as a teacher in the church of Christ and publicly teaches anything thereby opens himself up for criticism by others (cf. James 3:1). If they think what he is teaching is harmful to the church, they have an obligation to point it out just as widely as it was taught. Such public warning or debate on a topic should not be considered a personal attack at all.… What a critic of a public teaching does in pointing out his disagreement with that teaching has nothing to do with personal affronts or lack of reconciliation; he is simply disagreeing at the same public level as that on which the teaching was given in the first place.10

This same standard should be applied to anyone who criticizes any individual or organization in the biblical counseling movement.

Scott and Lambert’s “Preface”

In their rush to beef up their bragging rights about counseling the “Hard Cases,” Scott and Lambert say, early on, that counselees from the 10 cases “sought help from secular, medical, and religious professionals before finally coming to biblical counselors for help” (p. xi). This impression is repeated in some of the cases and serves to dramatize by contrast the success of the ten cases that follow and the inferred success of others in the BCM. Such remarks accentuate the seeming past failure of professionals’ and others’ attempts to help and thus elevate the status of biblical counselors. This is a not-too-subtle boastful contrast to puff up and promote the ten cases that follow, as well as biblical counseling in general. Surely Scott and Lambert must know that, after “they sought help from secular, medical, and religious professionals,” some? many? have come to biblical counselors, received counseling, and been worse off!

The editors refer in the “Preface” to the disagreements and “differences of opinion” that exist regarding the “sufficiency of God’s Word to administer an effective counseling ministry.” They speak about being “united by something much more profound—the blood of Jesus Christ.” They proceed to say:

In light of that union, it is regrettable when the exchanges between our various groups are not loving and productive. We want to confess plainly in this book that you are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we love you (p. xii).

This comment and throughout CTHC is proof positive that those in the biblical counseling movement (BCM) wish to remain harmoniously irenic at the cost of failing to expose the error that is running rampant among them and the integrationists as well as the Christian psychotherapists. They are ironically irenic, but, while all the leaders of the BCM that we know claim a heritage from the Reformation, they cannot name one Reformation leader who was irenic in his disputations. In fact, if any of the leaders of the Reformation were living today they would be biblically blunt, blatant, and prominently public about their concerns of what goes on in the name of the Bible among many of those in the BCM. The editors of CTHC have a biblical responsibility for naming names of individuals and organizations even though that may not seem “loving and productive.” They have a greater obligation to expose by naming names those who are in error, which is the most loving thing that can be done for the most people involved and that especially includes criticizing leaders in the BCM.

Speaking to a vast audience who will read CTHC and saying that “you are our brothers and sisters in Christ,” when there are many who might read this book whom Scott and Lambert would clearly not know well enough to declare that they are saved (brothers and sisters in Christ), sounds like sheer flattery. Many of us know individuals who have talked the talk, been in church for years, and even seemingly been born again, who were not saved, but some of whom later come into the faith. Hopefully we can all agree that only God truly knows who assuredly belongs to Him. We can call believers with whom we are spiritually acquainted “brothers” and “sisters,” but to identify a vast unknown audience in that manner is frankly an unbiblical assumption. In addition, to say to this vast unknown audience, “we love you,” without critically naming names as did Jesus and the apostle Paul, sounds more gratuitous than biblical.

Moreover, Scott and Lambert are implying that those who disagree with them are “not loving and productive” while they themselves are “loving and productive” even to the point of saying, “we love you.” God’s people are admonished to love family, neighbors, and even enemies. Jesus and the apostle Paul spoke repeatedly of love. However, Jesus critically confronted the Pharisees and others and Paul even “delivered unto Satan” both Hymenaeous and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:20), but Jesus and Paul never coupled their criticisms with a baseless bouquet of “I-love-you’s.”

Scott and Lambert’s Lynchpin

As we reveal later, the lynchpin for Scott and Lambert’s house of cards is their view of mental illness. Their fallacious view is a disaster in the making and a danger to those who counsel and their counselees. Believing, teaching, and promoting such a view of mental illness will lead to calamities as it places in litigious danger those who will foolishly follow and copy-cat counsel with confidence accordingly. This can easily be a great detriment and disaster to those who receive such counseling.11

Be aware and very wary of Scott and Lambert’s view of mental illness, as it is not only a functional backdrop to the ten cases in CTHC but also sets an example for all those in the BCM to follow. CTHC is sure to be read by a vast majority of biblical counselors because it is written by ten of the BCM leaders. Because of this, we write with utmost concern and anxious alarm over the possible compounding consequences of those in the BCM mimicking Scott and Lambert in their unproven notion.

Additional reasons why we recommend against believing and following the practices exemplified in the ten cases are related to general unbiblical practices of those in the BCM. Reading our entire critique will save both those who counsel and those who are counseled from unbelievable, unbiblical practices and potentially dangerous ideas being carried out.

WARNING: Do not blithely, blindly and blatantly play follow-the-leader with the ten case studies showcased in CTHC. Do not take literally these ten cases and the inferred claim that you, too, can cure12 through biblical counseling the hard cases listed in CTHC plus, by extension, the other 300 mental disorders13 listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) that do not have medical markers and where no organic issues are found after a full medical workup!

(The above article is from Chapter 1 of Counseling the Hard Cases ~ A Critical Review)

EndNotes

1    Stuart Scott and Heath Lambert, eds. Counseling the Hard Cases: True Stories Illustrating the Sufficiency of God’s Resources in Scripture. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2012, p. 301. Hereafter page references to this book will be in parentheses within the text.

2    Martin and Deidre Bobgan. Person to Person Ministry: Soul Care in the Body of Christ, Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Publishers , 2009; Stop Counseling! Start Ministering! Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Publishers, 2011.

3    David Powlison, “Cure of Souls (and the Modern Psychotherapies),” www.ccef.org/cure-souls-and-modern-psychotherapies.

4    Martin and Deidre Bobgan. Against “Biblical Counseling”: For the Bible. Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Publishers, 1994, Chapter 7, pp. 73-92.

5    Martin and Deidre Bobgan. Christ-Centered Ministry versus Problem-Centered Counseling. Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Publishers. 2004; Person to Person Ministry. op. cit.; Stop Counseling! Start Ministering! op. cit.; Against “Biblical Counseling”: For the Bible, op. cit.

6    Martin and Deidre Bobgan. Person to Person Ministry, op. cit., chapters 3, 4, 29, 35.

7    Heath Lambert. The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012, p. 46.

8    Ibid., p. 47.

9    Jay E. Adams, “About this book…,”  PsychoHeresy: The Psychological Seduction of Christianity, Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Publishers, 1987, endorsements page.

10   Jay E. Adams. Grist from Adams’ Mill. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1983, p. 69.

11   We will not repeatedly use quotes around the word biblical when used with the words counseling and counselor, but let it be understood that, as we demonstrate in our past writing, biblical counseling is not biblical because it is sinfully problem-centered like the psychological counseling movement. Also, to avoid confusion we will use their (biblical counseling movement) terms of counselor, counseling, and counselee, even though there is no biblical support or justification for the use of such terms as we have demonstrated in our books Against “Biblical Counseling”: For the Bible, Chapter 3, and Person to Person Ministry, Chapter 5.

12   We use the word cure throughout. Lambert prefers the term heal, as he has a series of blogs titled “Can Jesus Heal Mental Illness?” In J.I. Rodale’s The Synonym  Finder, cure is the first synonym for heal and curing is the first synonym for healing.

13   We use the term mental disorders to stand for mental-emotional-behavioral disorders, sometimes referred to as mental illness, with the understanding that the word mental is used metaphorically. The mind itself is not a biological organ and therefore cannot be literally ill, but the symptoms may be mental, emotional, and/or behavioral.

 
(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, January-February 2016, Vol. 24, No.1)

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