The Biblical Counseling Movement: Bad Theology

This is Part 5 in my series on Biblical Counseling. Go here for Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

**Content Note: Victim blaming and abusive theology**

Today, I want to highlight more of the theology and exegesis (biblical interpretation) of those leading the Biblical Counseling Movement. As you will see clearly in the next installment, these beliefs determine the method of counseling these leaders use, and it’s very often a damaging and unbiblical one.

Yes, I believe that much of the Biblical Counseling method is, in fact, unbiblical – and, as a result, emotionally and spiritually abusive as well. Let’s unpack. 

We Are All Depraved

Because Biblical Counseling is based on a Calvinistic (or Reformed) view of the Bible, it assumes the total depravity of man. The doctrine of total depravity states that, because of original sin, sin touches every part of a human being so that every action, thought and belief is tainted. In this condition, it is impossible for any person, on their own, to please God. That’s why salvation is necessary. To be clear, this doctrine of sin is described as extensive (inherent in man) rather than intensive (intentionally committed), and it is used to emphasize the great need for God’s help, grace and guidance.

The problem with Adams’ Biblical Counseling model is that it emphasizes total depravity while minimizing God’s grace. As pointed out by James Oakland in The American Scientific Affiliation, Adams, in his book Competent to Counsel, takes the opposite approach of modern psychologists and assumes that bad feelings result from one’s own bad behavior. The key then is to identify the bad behavior, instruct the counselee to correct it, and stimulate good feelings by having the counselee “put on” good behaviors. Biblical Counseling insists upon the responsibility of the counselee in everything he or she feels or experiences, whether or not they were the actual perpetrators of bad situations. Anyone seeking counseling is responsible in some way for their plight and must repent of their wrongdoing to feel better. (Biblical counselors claim that their insistence on individual responsibility in every situation provides the best hope for counselees because it empowers them to become agents of change.)

Of course, this approach has been criticized as a “works-based” model, because it is. Instead of resting and rejoicing in the grace God has provided to His followers, the counselee bears the full burden of responsibility for change. If he or she cannot rid themselves of the bad feelings, they are accused of being “dead in their sins” and “failing to trust God.”

At the same time, biblical counselors believe that even the repentant are never really free of sin because of total depravity. Dr. Greg Mazak, a biblical counselor at Bob Jones University, summed it up this way:

“Is there one thing that I do that is free from the corruption of sin that ultimately brings glory to Jesus Christ in a pure way? My theological perspective, my answer…the Scripture says that even the plowing of the wicked is sin. On my best day, at my best moment, when I am singing my best song to Jesus, it is still not perfect; it is still tainted by sin. Now, maybe what you’re asking is, ‘Are my mental problems a result of my individual sin?’ I don’t believe they are. Yet, sin is a part of who I am, and I am struggling with it 24/7 – all day. I am a firm believer of total depravity, and I don’t believe there is any type of complete sanctification in this life, theologically. […] [T]heologically, everything I do is tainted by sin.” (from the G.R.A.C.E. report, pg. 85, footnote 17.)

So if bad behavior or “sin” is the cause of bad feelings, but no one can ever be totally free of sin (even through salvation), what hope does this offer the counselee? None. They will always be stuck. And this doctrine of depravity extended even unto the saints directly defies the Word of God and nullifies Christ’s work on the cross:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. ~ Romans 8:1

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusationif you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. ~ Colossians 1:21-23

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. ~ John 8:34-36

Calling Things Sin That Aren’t Sin

If that weren’t disconcerting enough, biblical counselors have a really bad habit of calling things sin that aren’t sin. Are you angry? That’s a sin. Depressed, anxious or sorrowful? Sin. Decided to abandon the family reunion rather than confront your nagging, abusive aunt? Yep, that was a sin, too.

Biblical counselors believe that bad feelings result from one’s guilt over bad behavior. So if a counselee is feeling negative emotions, even in cases where they were victimized, it means they are responding to a situation in an ungodly way.

True, the Bible does outline ungodly responses to abusive situations: seeking revenge or repaying evil for evil (Romans 12:17,19), being unmerciful or unforgiving to the repentant (Matthew 18:21-35), resorting to slander, brawling and malice (Ephesians 4:31), and giving in to hate and murder (Matthew 5:43-44; Exodus 20:13). But if it is possible to be “angry and sin not” (Ephesians 4:26), then anger itself is not a sin. The Bible even acknowledges that being sinned against causes anger and does not condemn it (1 Kings 8:45-49). It only condemns being angry without cause (Matthew 5:22).

What about fear? Biblical counselors say that because the Bible admonishes us to “fear not,” then expressing fear or anxiety is a sin. But there is no verse that actually defines fear as a sin. In nearly every single instance the phrase “do not be afraid” appears in the Bible, it is given as an encouragement to an individual or group facing a potentially dangerous or uncertain situation. When I tell my own child, “Don’t be afraid,” I don’t mean it as a rule that must be obeyed into perpetuity, and I don’t punish him if he continues to tremble. But because biblical counselors view scripture and God as being completely authoritative, they don’t distinguish between a lawful command and a gentle encouragement. Again, they render an unbiblical version of God who is completely without mercy and grace toward suffering people.

So why all these “sins”? Well, when your counseling paradigm assumes that bad behavior is at the root of every counselee’s problem, it eventually becomes necessary to invent sins in order to uphold the doctrine of total depravity and justify the confrontational counseling approach. If they accepted that suffering could be imposed upon a person against their will, their belief system would fall apart and their entire approach would have to change.

A Reductionist View of Biblical Counseling

As I mentioned earlier in the series, Jay Adams based his counseling paradigm on the biblical Greek word noutheteo, meaning “to admonish.” But as the writer at Theo.Philogue points out, that’s not the only type of counseling addressed in scripture:

“Adams unfortunately reduces all methods for counseling down to nouthetics. Biblical Counseling = Nouthetic Counseling. In fact, he oversimplifies the nature of real-life counseling by reducing it down to “problem solving,” and then speaking of the “problem” only in terms of sin. However, to be faithful to the biblical sources, one must include a variety of problems as well as a variety of methods. We must “admonish [noutheteite] the unruly,” but we also must “encourage [parameutheisthe] the fainthearted” (1 Thess 5:14). Adams could have just as easily reduced all counseling down to paramouthetics and walked us through a thousand methods for paramouthetic engagement. With Adams’ reductionistic approach, it does not surprise the reader that he never mentions the biblically revealed methods of admonishing with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs sung in thankfulness to God (Col 3:16).”

This paragraph speaks for itself.

Erasure of the Mind

If you’ve ever read books, articles or blog posts by biblical counselors, you may have noticed a suspicious absence of the word “mind.” There is a reason for this. Jay Adams was partially influenced in his work by Dr. Thomas Szasz, a professor of psychiatry. Szasz was the one who postulated (in 1961) that since mental illness had (in his observation) no physiological symptoms and could not be objectively measured and diagnosed, then it didn’t really exist. Mental illness was simply a “metaphor” that described socially unacceptable behavior. The mind itself was merely an idea, and ideas don’t get sick.

It is easy to see why this view took such a strong hold in Adams’ paradigm. If you can erase the reality of the mind, then the question of mental illness becomes moot.

There’s just one problem: Szasz was never a Christian. And the Bible repeatedly affirms the mind’s existence:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind‘; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” ~ Luke 10:27

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. ~ Romans 12:2

The Bible, in fact, contains over 100 references to the human mind. You’d think that biblical counselors, who are supposedly so passionate about scripture, would spend more time discussing it. But they seem content to reduce humans to merely dichotomies of bodies and souls, or trichonomies of body, soul and spirit. No mind, no mental illness, no cognitive dissonance with which to contend. (Except, how does one prove the existence of a soul any easier than that of a mind?)

From my research, I have found that it is common for Biblical Counseling leaders to co-opt the theories and research of secular professionals that can be used to support their anti-psychiatry doctrine – whether or not those theories are biblical. And that’s a big problem for a movement that claims to reject all things not contained in or supported by scripture. These harsh secular theories have resulted in a counseling paradigm that diminishes the compassion and redemption Christ.

And anything that diminishes the work of Christ is a false gospel.

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6 responses to “The Biblical Counseling Movement: Bad Theology

  1. This post deserves to be in a book. I’m now going to read all your posts in this series. Well done. You have made me laugh by your style of wit at something that’s really not funny: the emotionally abuse approach of many “biblical” counselors. So many of the points you make in this post I’m not sure if I could put them any better. Thanks for speaking out. We should get a group together and write a multi-authored critique.

    • Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the post – and thanks for letting me borrow from your post! Dr. John Weaver was here a couple of weeks ago to give his support; he just published a book called The Failure of Evangelical Mental Healthcare. Maybe we can get him to pen the forward on our critique. 🙂

  2. My mother was a staunch Calvinist, and now I understand a bit better why she was such a bad counselor. Many of the things she said are reflected in this article. When I had trouble with insomnia as a young adult, she asked me what I had done to feel guilty about so that I didn’t sleep. After that, I used to lay awake and wonder what I had done. Very big help. Thank you for some insight as to why my mother drove me crazy.

    • I’m sorry to get a laugh out of your misfortune, but that story made me chuckle. It’s amazing how sometimes when people insist that they don’t want to just treat the problem, they want to get to the root of it, they actually end up exacerbating it. “You’re depressed? Let’s not make you feel better, let’s talk about why you might deserve it. You’re struggling with feelings about your abuse? Let’s not comfort you, let’s make you reconcile with your abuser. etc”. I hope you’re sleeping better now!

  3. Thanks…I suffered from that type of counciling …which has really screwed me up more than I was from the abuse I recieved from the world …now I am trying to recover from so called christian counciling.