Why should the church be interested in counseling? The word “counseling” does not appear in the Bible. Combine that with the fact that churches often outsource counseling, and it becomes easy to draw the conclusion that the Bible is not really that interested in counseling. I have often heard the argument, “The Bible is not a textbook on counseling.“ So how can the body of Christ be persuaded that we have a mandate to do counseling?
For starters, and half in jest, I like to point out that the words “sermon,” “pastoral prayer,” “personal evangelism,” “discipleship,” “prayer meeting,” “hymn book,” “worship music,” and “church planting” also do not appear in the Bible. And the Bible is not a textbook on preaching, worship, or missions any more than it is a textbook on counseling. To say it another way, the Bible is about counseling in exactly the same way that it is about preaching, worship, and missions. The activities that these words describe are long-established applications of Scripture. So counseling in the church has a long-established history as the personalizing of Christ’s transforming purposes, usually under the labels “pastoral care” or “cure of souls.”
As Christians, we want to restore Christ and the soul to counseling. And we want to restore the cure and care of souls to the church. Here is one small way to come at this. Start with the “Great Commission.” At a key juncture in my growth as a counselor, I realized that “biblical counseling” is not just about “counseling,” per se, but about Jesus’ final call to make disciples. Counseling is intrinsic to remaking people. Discipleship means to remake marred, distracted, and distorted men, women, and children into followers of Jesus. It necessarily means dealing with “counseling issues”: anger and forgiveness; anxiety and trust; addictions and self-control; suffering and meaning; despair and hope; broken relationships and peacemaking; presumption and humility; isolation and community. Christ is about this radical makeover of the human personality. Faith and love come to predominate over unbelief, fear, self-will, and self-absorption. This form of counseling is not just for those who obviously “need counseling.” It is equally for those who don’t think they need counseling.
Jesus’ call to remake people into his image comes with two subordinate clauses. First, “Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This is not simply a verbal formula to be repeated at a baptism service. It describes union with God himself, the first act in being made like Jesus, the most radical change imaginable. To be baptized into the Name means to be joined to the three persons of the Trinity. We are embraced by the forgiveness of sins. We are united to the steadfast love of God and all his promises. Like the Lord’s Supper, Baptism intends to picture and communicate a reality that has to do with God, not a ritual that we perform by rote. Usually people think of this “first half” of the Great Commission as having nothing to do with counseling. It seems to be about evangelism, conversion, baptism, church planting, missions—all the ministries and the initial changes that bring entrance into the kingdom. But union with God, his mercies, and his purposes are of prime importance in counseling.
And obviously, the “second half” of the Great Commission also entails counseling. “Teach them to obey” all the love, wisdom, trust, and hope that Jesus commands. How do people learn to know and follow Jesus? Meaningful conversations about things that matter are one key part of the process. The entire Christian life is a process of changing, learning, growing, struggling to become wiser and more loving. Biblical counseling is one component of this call. It is among the means of grace that work unto our renewal, transformation, reconstruction, and renovation.
So counseling is the interpersonal part of the overall ministry of Christ to us and of us to each other. It is a given that Christ reshapes us in three spheres: publicly, privately, and interpersonally. The public means of grace—preaching, teaching, the Lord’s Supper, worship, and fellowship—meet people in crowds. You never have to attach anyone’s name to what is said, but the Holy Spirit acts to personalize the public ministry of the gospel and the truth of the Lord. Then there is the private ministry of the Word of Truth. This is your own prayer life, meditation on and study of Scripture, personal application, journaling, and the meditations of your heart. Finally, biblical counseling is one form of interpersonal ministry of the Word. God means for us to bear each other’s burdens. It’s a good goal to become more competent at self-counsel (while in public worship or in private), but we always need other people. We need their prayers, encouragement, and insight. There may be something you have said to yourself a hundred times, but then you hear it from the lips of someone else, and the Holy Spirit chooses to work. Hearing it from another person’s voice makes it come to life. Wise counseling brings that personalized relevance of interpersonal ministry of the eternal Word of Truth that turns our lives upside down and inside out.
The Great Commission…and counseling! We don’t usually put those words together. But Jesus’ final words don’t mention any of the specifics of how to do it. Like preaching, parenting, and quiet time, counseling is one more way that Christ makes his disciples. I understand counseling more broadly than I once did. It is not just the Christian analogue or alternative to what secular people do. It is part of the cosmic, communal, and personal renewal that operates at the center of our Christian faith. Coming to faith out of a secular background, I was excited about biblical counseling. I had been a psychology major and was working in the mental health field when I came to faith in Christ. My life was turned upside down. Christianity taught a whole different dance step from the secular training and models I had learned and practiced. I initially saw this as the radical way the Bible taught us to approach counseling. But it’s bigger than that. It’s the Bible’s approach to life.
Thank you to Paul Tautges who interviewed me in December 2012. This blog represents a further development of the ideas we talked about.