The Biblical Counseling Movement: Origins and Philosophy

Jay E. Adams, father of nouthetic counseling

The series continues. For part one, click here.

Before I delve too deeply into the organization and theology of the Biblical Counseling Movement, a little history is called for.

Jay E. Adams is considered the father of the BCM – also known as Nouthetic Counseling. However, the movement’s origins begin with psychologist O. Hobart Mowrer (1907-1982). This surprises me, considering just how illustrious Mowrer’s contributions were to the field of modern psychology. He became a foremost expert on learning theory, performed groundbreaking research on fear and anxiety, and was one of the leading founders of GROW therapy groups in the U.S. At one time, he was president of the American Psychological Association. And unlike many of his peers, Mowrer believed that mental illness could have a biological or genetic basis.

However, Mowrer spent his career afflicted by depression. The treatment du jour was Freudian psychoanalysis, which Mowrer underwent several times. When that failed to permanently banish his depression, he became disillusioned with Freud’s theories and methods. He began to think that maybe mental illness was the result of hidden secrets and genuine guilt in a person’s life. Reading the works of Congregationalist Lloyd C. Douglas solidified Mowrer’s belief in unconfessed sin as a root cause of mental illness. But he found no satisfaction in the way churches addressed sin in theology and practice – namely through the doctrine of justification by faith (one of the cornerstones of Christianity, BTW).

Instead, Mowrer structured his therapy groups around the concepts of confrontation, confession and integrity, and he began teaching his theories on sin and mental health to others, including seminary students. One of those students was Reformed Presbyterian pastor Jay E. Adams.

Adams readily agreed with Mowrer that modern psychiatry (and the Church) was ignoring sin as a potential factor in emotional distress. But Adams took the theory a step further – that virtually all distress had its roots in sin. Not only that, but psychiatry had usurped the Church’s divine right and authority in counseling the hurting. Adams viewed the growth of professional psychiatry as a war against the Church, which sought to replace faith in God with humanistic, self-centered thinking.

David Powlison, a student of Adams and one of the BCM’s main leaders, sums up Adams’ position in his dissertation-turned-book The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context:

“Adams’s dispute with the mainstream understanding of personal problems was organized around a knowledge system framed in explicitly theological terms. He objected to the prevailing notions of mental illness and mental health. In his view, the medical model, as an interpretive schema mapped onto troubled emotions or troubling behavior, excised human life of its fundamentally moral character. It defined men and women as basically nonresponsible, both for themselves and to God. Corresponding to this presumed misdiagnosis of the human condition, the medical model misinterpreted the therapeutic ideal, contenting itself with producing untroubled emotions and untroubling behavior. Adams did not think that either peace of mind or socially acceptable behavior prescribed an adequate goal for the “cure of souls.” He asserted instead that the church should understand the vast majority of problems in living in terms of an explicitly moral model […].

“Given his redefinition of both the human dilemma and its solution, Adams logically objected to the institutions of the psychiatric and psychotherapeutic professions. In Adams’s eyes, the systems of education, training, and licensing; the instruments of publication and public relations; the agencies that delivered services—all these were enemies, not friends, because they were prejudiced against the beliefs and purposes of the conservative Protestant churches. […] Expert authority in the personal problems jurisdiction needed to be reallocated to pastors and pastoral theologians—away from mental health professionals who did not interpret or address problems in living in terms that Adams found acceptable” (pg. 2).

“He showed no interest in contributing to forms of counseling that could be tailored to the diverse worldviews of people who did not share his belief system. He thought others should come to share his beliefs, hence he was explicitly evangelistic in counseling. He had no interest in simply gaining an increased role for pastoral counselors within the existing mental health system; he intended to build a parallel, alternative system” (pg. 4, emphasis added).

(You can read the first two chapters of Powlison’s book here.)

If I’m reading Powlison correctly (and I think I am), Adams believes that (1) counseling and mental health services should solely exist within the domain of the Church and its leaders, and (2) counseling should only be done from his Reformed Calvinistic interpretation of the Bible. For those outside of the Church or who hold a different biblical perspective, I believe the attitude expressed here is “screw you.” Seriously, though, how radical do you have to become before you conclude that peace of mind is not a good goal in counseling?!

“[B]iblical counseling did not pursue “healing” as the goal of face-to-face resolution of emotional and behavioral problems. Adams saw healing only as a metaphor when it came to problems in living, and he contended that the metaphor had lost virtually all utility because of the medicalization of human moral existence. Adams did not view problems in living as dysfunctions to be diagnosed, nor did he conceive of counseling as therapeutic treatment” (Powlison, pg. 10).

“’Only a knowledge system governed by abstractions can redefine its problems and tasks, defend them from interlopers, and seize new problems—as medicine has recently seized alcoholism, mental illness, hyperactivity in children, obesity, and numerous other things.’ Jay Adams would have read that list and accused medicine of trespassing into functional problems in living. He attempted to seize back what he would call drunkenness, flight from responsibility, willfulness, gluttony, and numerous other things also in need of relabeling” (pg. 7, emphasis added).

Well, there you go. Counseling shouldn’t be therapeutic, mental illness is a “flight from responsibility” and healing is a “metaphor.” (And these statements are found in the Bible exactly…nowhere.)

In 1970, Adams published his own counseling handbook entitled Competent to Counsel, in which he introduced the term “nouthetic counseling.” The term “nouthetic” comes from a biblical Greek word meaning “to admonish.” And that, to Adams, was what counseling was all about: confronting counselees and admonishing them to live biblically. He went on to establish the Institute for Nouthetic Studies (INS), the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC), and the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF) to advance his views. He designed certification programs and seminary courses for those wishing to become biblical counselors. To date, Adams has written over 100 books, the majority on counseling and counseling issues.

Pretty impressive for a man whose sole scientific degree is in speech.

The BCM encountered its first major controversy in 1980, when Walter Nally sued John MacArthur and Grace Community Church for alleged counseling malpractice, which he said led to the suicide of his son, Kenneth. Twenty-four-year-old Kenneth Nally had undergone biblical counseling at Grace Community Church in the months before he ended his life. The Nally family contends that Grace’s counselors knew their son was suicidal but failed to refer him to a psychiatrist or inform the family about his state of mind. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court before it was dismissed.

Coincidentally, the same year as Kenneth Nally’s suicide, more biblical counseling certification agencies and seminary programs appeared on the market. One of these was featured in my first post: the International Association of Biblical Counselors (IABC).

There are many more: Association of Biblical Counselors (ABC), Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC), Biblical Counseling Coalition (BCC), American Academy of Biblical Counselors (AABC), the Biblical Counseling Foundation (BCF) and the Institute for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship (IBCD). After experiencing a slump in the 1980s, biblical counseling has experienced a resurgence – helped namely by the hundreds of books published by its leaders and the adoption of biblical counseling programs at several conservative seminaries.

Granted, Adams’ was not the only anti-psychiatry movement that emerged in the 1960s. Many psychiatric theories, methods and medications were just coming into vogue, some of them dubious and highly subjective. Psychiatry, much like medicine, has some pretty dark spots in its history. Many voices, including professional and secular ones, rose up in the 1960s to criticize and even denounce modern psychiatry. Some, like Adams, developed their own anti-psychiatry treatment programs.

And despite amazing strides in our understanding of mental health over the past two decades, the field is hardly perfect. There are still valid concerns over certain psychiatric practices, and critics are still rightfully attempting to address them. But this refining process is true of any field of science dealing with the human body. Human health is incredibly complex and often unique to each individual person; no one has gotten it right on the first shot.

However, as Powlison himself stated, the BCM has no interest in improving professional mental health practice; its aim is to wrest it away from the experts entirely. Adams’ himself stated that the best education one could obtain for counseling was not a science degree, but a theology degree. As a result, the majority of biblical counselors, including the ones currently leading the movement, have never even attempted to study modern psychological theory. The IABC goes as far to suggest that Christians who have studied psychology are no longer qualified to counsel fellow believers!

The problem is, the movement is still operating based on the psychological boogeymen Adams outlined in 1965. Some of those boogeymen no longer exist. Yet biblical counselors claim that they do, warning people that psychiatry is merely a pseudoscience of disorganized theories. Essentially, biblical counselors have been parroting one man’s outdated and biased perception of psychiatry from 40 years ago.

If you want to know how far the BCM’s leaders have gone to legitimize and expand their practice, stay tuned for the next installment.

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8 responses to “The Biblical Counseling Movement: Origins and Philosophy

  1. I think these so-called Biblical counselors are two things—but not because of anything you have written. Based on my own personal experiences, I think they are as follows:

    1) Just plain nuts

    2) Dangerous

    Sure. Your own sin could cause you emotional problems—like say if you have a conscience and secretly murdered someone 30 years ago. However, most emotional problems develop in very early childhood—many while we are still babies in our cribs. We know this. There is no great mystery here.

    For example, we now know that babies have amazing powers of perception and sensing that are done instinctively—and accurately. A tiny baby can sense when its mother is mentally ill and be seized with perpetual anxiety that it may die because its mother is mentally incompetent to take proper care of the baby. We know this happens. Who’s sin is this? A baby that has never learned a word of language commits sin because Jesus said to not be anxious about tomorrow?

    We live in a society today where Republicans (I hate their evil) have pushed the idea that everyone is always self-responsible. Let’s say an airplane loses a wing at 50,000 ft. The wing falls, hits, and kills a kid playing second base in a Little League game. Is the airline or airplane responsible? Hell no!!! The kid should have been self-responsible and known better than to be standing on second base when the wing fell!!! This is nonsense. The fundamental fact of the matter is that someone else’s sin can be responsible for our mental illness. Take your 2 -year old daughter. Slap her around, burn her skin with cigarettes, and talk mean to her every day for 5 years. When she comes up mentally ill (surprise!!! surprise!!!), is that her fault? I do not think so. It was mom’s fault. Enter a Republican or a representative of the Heritage Foundation. “Hell no!!! It’s all the 2 year old’s fault because the little bitch should have been strong enough to withstand it—stiffen up kid—you gotta be strong in this world—you should have womaned-up early.

    Forgive my language, but I am trying to make a point here. What entity in this universe could possible reap benefits from convincing this 2-year-old girl—now grown up and age 33—that her mental illness is all a result of her past sin and not the mother who abused her like an inmate in a North Korean concentration camp? I’ll give you a clue. He is in the Bible, his name starts with the letter “S,” and he is the Lord of the Republican Party, Southern Baptist Convention, many Christian fundamentalist/conservative evangelical churches.

    Jay Adams can kiss my sloppy behind.

    Rant over. Thanks for your time.

    • Glad that rant is over. As a right-leaning libertarian, I take exception to your rant. This issue has nothing to do with politics. I am also a trained life coach, and leaning conservative makes me an anomoly in that profession. But the prevailing thinking among a lot of coaches, executive coaches too, is something called 100% Responsibility. That’s where apparently people are set free by admitting that, say, they are responsible for their cancer or for someone abusing them. Of course, I reject it, and after being abused with it in my training, prefer something more balanced–being a just judge–and usually the blame can be fairly spread around. You are responsible for your part only. My point is that the peddlers of this 100% Responsibility stuff, and you can find it throughout many popular New Agey self help books, are Democrats. The problem stems from human beings knowing that they feel better when they are in control. So, when there is a situation where one is not in control, to blame one’s self, if they are willing to do it, gives the individual an odd sense of control. People from differing philosophies have different expressions of it.

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  5. I want to thank you for this series. I once was a member of a well-known abusive church. The entire church went through David Powlison’s biblical counseling materials in our home groups. I remember thinking it was “off” and tried to ask questions…but one does not ask questions in such an environment. One “quiz” question in the book went like this: Mary’s husband has left her. Mary is depressed and does not want to get out of bed. How do you counsel her? The correct answer is to show her her sinful self focus. Kinda funny now, 20 years later, because it’s so ridiculous. Sounds more like training in being a Job’s comforter.

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