The Biblical Counseling Movement: The Tangled Web

Photo by Jenny Downing

This is my series on Biblical Counseling. Click here for Part 1 and Part 2.

In my last post, I highlighted the origins of the Biblical Counseling Movement. One thing I mentioned was that the movement’s founder, Jay Adams, viewed secular education and certification as enemies of biblical counseling. His goal was to create a non-professional counseling practice, deeming only those who had (in his opinion) been thoroughly instructed in the scriptures as “competent to counsel.”

But in a field dominated by academics, it’s really hard to get your views taken seriously without a few letters behind your name. Enter Christian Education Enterprises (CEE).

CEE was founded as a 501(c)(3) non-profit in 1979 to make “Christian education programs available to all persons without respect to age, geographical location, economic status, social standing, ethnic or racial background.” Through this non-profit entity, the board members chartered an online distance learning school called Master’s International School of Divinity. The lead board member of CEE, Dennis Frey, was named president of the school, which offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in ministry and, in particular, biblical counseling. It is based in Evansville, Indiana, and is unaccredited.

Frey has his Master’s of Ministry, Master’s of Divinity, Doctorate of Divinity and Doctorate of Theology from Trinity Theological Seminary–also located near Evansville, Indiana, also offering degree programs in biblical counseling, and also unaccredited. Trinity was founded just 10 years before Master’s International. And Frey earned all four of these graduate degrees from Trinity in a span of just six years: from 1982 to 1988 – while also attempting a Doctorate of Philosophy program at another college, and after making himself the president of his own seminary school. (Interesting coincidence: Frey founded Trinity’s online division.)

The list of BCM leaders reads like a class reunion roster:

– David M. Tyler, V.P. of CEE: M. Min and Ph.D., Trinity Theological Seminary

– Ed Bulkley, IABC President: Ph.D., Trinity Theological Seminary

– Kevin Hurt, IABC V.P.: Doctorate from Master’s International School of Divinity

– Steve Gallagher, Founder and President of Pure Life Ministries: M. Min from Master’s International School of Divinity (and certification from IABC)

– Jeff Colon, IABC board member and Senior Pastor of Pure Life Ministries: M. Div. from Master’s International School of Divinity

If you think that’s scary, you should see the curriculum vitae of the faculty and staff of both Master’s International and Trinity Seminary. Nearly every faculty member at Master’s earned their highest graduate degree from Master’s. Likewise, about half the faculty teaching at Trinity earned their degrees from Trinity.

The truly interesting part about Master’s International, though, is the curriculum. The majority of the required textbooks for biblical counseling were authored by – you guessed it – the school’s faculty/alumni. Gallagher, who by all appearances doesn’t even hold undergrad hours in an intro to psychology course, is practically the sole author of the texts used in the sexual addictions concentration of the biblical counseling degrees, all levels – including D. B. S. Also, a student at Master’s International can earn up to a third of their required credits for a bachelor’s degree in “life experience.”

Life 2

Something’s fishy in Evansville.

I don’t know about you, but it appears to me that in 1979, Frey et. al. chartered a school, used that school to “earn” doctorate-level ministry and theology degrees, used those unaccredited degrees to affix “Dr.” in front of their names, published books with “Dr.” in the author line, then made those books required texts for the school they founded.

I know. I was dumbfounded, too.

But it doesn’t end there. The BCM’s leaders went on to create their own certification programs and training centers for those wanting to enter biblical counseling. Coursework in the certification program can count as credit toward a Master’s International degree in counseling, and vice-versa. The IABC and Pure Life Ministries are listed as Master’s International educational partners, along with the Gateway Biblical Counseling and Training Center.

Whose director is David Tyler.

Who is also president of the American Academy of Biblical Counselors (AABC).

And the Dean of Biblical Counseling at Master’s International.

And the author of four books used as part of the curriculum at Master’s.

As far as I can determine, none of this is illegal. Both Trinity and Master’s operate under the religious exemption clause in Indiana’s state constitution. As long as an unaccredited school is classified as a seminary, it can grant degrees however and to whomever it wants without much interference.

What might be illegal (depending on the state) is using the so-called credentials attached to that degree to advance your career. In other words, you can’t give yourself a doctorate through a school you created and then go around putting “Dr.” on your resume. If not outright criminal, it’s certainly dishonest and in very poor taste.

And although Master’s International claims to serve students in all 50 states and overseas, the degrees they grant are not valid in every state. This is why Master’s is very selective about where they hold their training seminars for course credit; some states do not recognize Master’s as a legal, degree-granting institution. Some have speculated that the school could be a degree mill – though it’s difficult to say for sure.

However, it’s interesting to note that Master’s physical office in Indiana is now for sale.

for sale

The Southern Baptist Connection

It is not entirely clear just how connected the group in Evansville is to the Southern Baptist Seminary, but it is clear that prominent Southern Baptist leaders are big proponents of biblical counseling. Al Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Seminary, recently penned a foreword to the book Scripture and Counseling, which is being heavily promoted by the Biblical Counseling Coalition. The Coalition’s website links to the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF), run by David Powlison, student and admirer of Jay Adams. (You may remember Powlison from Part 2.)

The Coalition also lists links to the websites of NANC (Adams’ organization), John MacArthur, Elyse Fitzpatrick, Howard Eyrich, and Lou Priolo. What’s special about them? They are all authors of books used as part of the curriculum at Master’s International. Eyrich in particular is listed as an adjunct faculty member at Master’s, though his degree was earned at another institution.  

It is also interesting to note that John MacArthur oversees his own Christian college and seminary called The Master’s College and The Master’s Seminary, respectively. The similarity in name to Master’s International could merely be a coincidence, since MacArthur’s college (at least) is regionally accredited and offers degrees in subjects other than ministry and theology. And it may also be a coincidence that MacArthur and his church was sued for alleged counseling malpractice the same year CEE and Master’s International popped onto the scene.

But that’s a lot of coincidences.

The Shepherding Movement Connection

What really disturbs me is the link between biblical counseling and the shepherding movement – which also emerged in the 1970s in the aftermath of the Jesus Movement. The shepherding movement claims that believers should come under the authority of a pastor or “shepherd” who watches over the believer’s life, holds them accountable to God’s Word, and acts as a spiritual counselor and guide. The movement went underground in the 1980s after several prominent leaders and churches were found guilty of using shepherding to control and spiritually abuse believers.

One group of churches most prominent in the modern shepherding movement is Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM). Which was founded by C. J. Mahaney. Who is close friends in ministry with Al Mohler. Who publicly defended Mahaney when he was recently sued for covering up decades of child sex abuse at SGM. Near the height of the scandal, Mahaney moved SGM’s headquarters from Maryland to Louisville, KY, to be closer to the Southern Baptist Seminary, where Mohler is president.

SGM has also been accused of rampant spiritual abuse; former members have their own survivor blog.

Mohler and MacArthur are both connected to Mahaney through the Together for the Gospel (T4G) conference, held twice a year. David Powlison was featured on Mahaney’s SGM blog in 2009.

Now, all of that doesn’t prove biblical counseling’s direct connection to the shepherding movement. This might, however:

Where are we headed? In the next ten to twenty years, I’d love to see:

Churches thinking of a shepherding or counseling pastor as a vital priority, or, for smaller churches, equipping their sole pastor and/or assistant pastor through a robust biblical counseling program which few have historically gotten in seminary.

This came from a recent interview with Alasdair Groves, the Director of Counseling at CCEF, on the Red Letter Christians blog. Here, Groves uses the words “shepherding” and “counseling” interchangeably, and he’s not the first to do so. Other BCM leaders refer to biblical counseling as “discipling.” And one biblical counseling handbook I came across in my research encouraged counselors to not just limit counseling to the counseling room, but to get involved in the counselee’s life in order to provide ongoing direction and accountability.

Um, boundaries, anyone?!? An ethical licensed therapist would never do such a thing; such relationships are strongly discouraged and, in many cases, outright banned by both the American Counseling Association’s (ACA) and the American Psychological Association’s (APA) code of ethics.

Not a surprising stance, though, when you consider that a written code of ethics for biblical counselors is practically non-existent. For all its emphasis on counseling, Master’s International doesn’t offer a single course in counseling ethics.

But I imagine that professional ethics would pose a major barrier to the kind of “counseling” these leaders are advocating.

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11 responses to “The Biblical Counseling Movement: The Tangled Web

  1. This is truly horrifying. My family and my childhood church were/are HUGE into biblical counseling. My brother even went to Indiana for “classes.” Couple months ago, when I was considering therapy, he asked me to talk to him instead – but it gave me a really bad taste in my mouth, and I said no. For one thing, he isn’t a professional. And for another, he’s family!

    Ugh. My skin is crawling right now. Like I’ve been close to danger this whole time and didn’t know it.

    • Julia, this is a case of RUN, don’t walk … I mean, run from this kooky, dangerous form of counselling (I use the word loosely) … not from God. God is just fine, but we often need to be saved from His followers. I wish you all the best.

    • My response could prolly be the size of a senior thesis on this subject, but, suffice it to say- I used to be deeply involved in this whole mindset and religious setting for a long time. Then- I had an emotional breakdown that shook my entire world for a long time- no amount of trying to root out my sin and confess it, or blaming myself or any of the stuff these people tell you is the reason for your emotional problems, would do anything about my problem. It wasn’t until I realized I was in a severely emotionally, financially, sexually, psychologically abusive marriage and that I was slowly being driven crazy, that I started seeing some light. I left my husband of 23 years and finally began to feel better.
      My pastor at the time’s sole advice to me was not to hide in my bed with the covers over my head. He assumed my problem was depression- it wasn’t. I was so full of nameless, faceless, fear and extreme anxiety 24 hours a day, that I could barely function- although I did. Only my family really saw what it was doing to me. I put on a happy face at church and everywhere else. It was horrifying and all I wanted was death. It felt like what hell must be like. No amount of “biblical counseling” was ever going to help me. It only made it worse.

      • How awful! I’m glad you were able to get out of that situation.

        As a survivor of child sex abuse, I struggled many years with anger and pain. Then as an adult, I ignored my needs and took on far too much responsibility, thinking the success of my marriage hinged entirely on me being “a good, submissive Christian wife.” When my parents’ marriage fell apart a year ago, the stress was more than I could handle, and I experienced a breakdown. In all that time, I refused to see a biblical counselor, knowing he/she would probably just keep feeding me the same oppressive messages that were keeping me wounded, overworked and ashamed. Before I started this series, though, I had no idea that biblical counseling was an organized, systematic movement.

        Thankfully, through the grace of God, the support of my husband and the help of a licensed professional, I am finding true healing. Now I want to help others do the same.

        Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Pingback: The Biblical Counseling Movement: Bait and Switch | Revolutionary Faith

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  4. My former independent Bible-believing church here in Silicon Valley (California) also believes in Biblical counseling. I have never seen four more inept pastors/elders try to deal with serious problems and be unable to make headway because they were looking for trite solutions.

    Example: One woman at church caused countless fights, problems, malicious gossip, accusations and fights at church. The pastors/elders tried to broker peace between her and other people. It didn’t work because the woman is an alcoholic and she needs to be in treatment. The pastors/elders failed her, her adult children and the rest of the church by NOT dealing with her alcoholism.

    Another woman has caused countless fights as well that have caused much harm. Again the pastors/elders looked for superficial fixes. A secular counselor could have summarized this woman in under 5-minutes: “She had an abusive childhood, is very angry with her mother and hasn’t resolved it, lashes out her anger at other people, and constantly tears other people down because of her own insecurities.”
    The pastors/elders have wasted nearly 7-years of my life on meetings (and the lives/time of other members) about this woman when she should have been directed to professional therapy.

  5. Hello April–I am a graduate of a SBC seminary in counseling (1992) and I LOVE your blog…sadly, much of what passes for “Christian counseling” is simply a movement of the counselor away from his/her own heart, thereby refusing to walk around in the muck of the human condition with counselees–NOTHING is more like Jesus’ life on earth than walking with harassed sheep as they encounter their own fears, loneliness, reach for power, etc. One of my colleagues and I have written a bible study that is a companion to a book that addresses the human heart. Feel free to check it out if you’re so inclined. Either way, I enjoy your blog and will continue to go the bookmark often. Blessings!

    Voice of the Heart Bible Study

  6. Pingback: The Biblical Counseling Movement: Bad Theology | Revolutionary Faith

  7. I live near Evansville, about 10 miles to be exactly. You’re right, something is very fishy in Evansville. Sadly, there is a a good state school (University of Southern Indiana, I have a bachelors of sociology and a minor in psychology from there) and a very prestigious private university (University of Evansville) that he could of used to get some undergrad. I am a molestation survivor and the counseling picture here is bleak. You have to be very careful who you trust….