Change: The Arena

January 12, 2009 — Leave a comment

Care For Souls

[This post is part of the Change series]

I know for the most part, this probably looked like another dead end blog idea. Something of the sort that picked up speed, clarified some issues, but then ultimately failed to connect it all back to anything of practical value. Indeed, it has been a while since I last wrote in here, but as best as can be done, I’d like to pick back up where the last entry trailed off. Here’s roughly how it ended with some added ideas as they apply to counseling:

….while man can do nothing to grow Christ within himself, he can be a hindrance to that growth by not properly yielding Himself to the Holy Spirit who works to grow Christ within him (Eph 5:18, Gal 5:16) By a creative act of God the Father, through the Holy Spirit, Christ has been planted as a living entity in the soil of the believer’s innermost being to grow into fullness (Arthur C. Custance, Man in Adam and in Christ vol. III, The Doorway Papers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975). 168, 73). In a metaphorical sense, the believer’s job could be looked at as tending to the garden of his soul by removing the weeds in order to allow more room for Christ to grow and displace the old. This mainly occurs by practicing the spiritual disciplines, which while they are not directly the cause of growth, they are a very important means of keeping the weeds out of the garden of the soul in order that God may grow His flowers there (for lack of a better metaphor). Indeed, as the heart is the wellspring from which all life flows (Prov. 4:23) one must tend to the fountain in order to remove the dirt and debris that could dirty the waters, but it is Christ who causes the living water to flow forth from within (Jn. 4:14).

Counseling comes in to address where this process has gotten off track, stalled, or simply dropped into to reverse. The counselor, is the redemptive agent of God who helps with the task of weeding the souls who come to him for care. Counseling is not just helping individuals to practice the spiritual disciplines more or better, but it may include that. It is fresh face to face ministry, now, that is centered on the person and work of Christ and the view of God and man presented to us in the Bible. The change process begins in the regenerating work of God but is brought to completion by Him as well, but in the interim, counseling is the means by which problems in this journey are addressed and dealt with.

This fairly well sets the stage for actually talking about counseling and how it might be carried out. Most of what follows will come from a paper I wrote for the counseling class here at DTS that contains my personal philosophy of counseling and change, which really is built on the shoulders of others, not necessarily something of my own wise invention (mainly because no such thing exists). Anyway, here is an intro into an idea of just what counseling is, or in others words a philosophy of counseling (or as the title addresses, counseling as the arena where change takes place). Even though blogs with footnotes are for nerds, you might find some of the notes helpful, but you should be able to read through the following paragraphs without referencing them and still get the gist of the ideas. The footnotes came into play mainly when you take objection to a point being made and want further clarification or want to see where I got the idea.

It is interesting that in a class about Christian counseling, no formal definition of what constitutes counseling was given.[1] Change was discussed, albeit in generalities, but no extended discussion was entered into in order to answer the question, “What is counseling?[2]” Either defining counseling was seen as irrelevant, which is not likely considering the class is foundational to a whole department based on training people in that field; or more likely, the definition was assumed to be self evident as not needing to be explicitly stated. The Christian counselor was defined,[3] which helps to somewhat articulate the goals of counseling, but it doesn’t do much to help define how counseling is to take place. This may seem to constitute belaboring a point, but unless we start with a Biblical definition of what counseling is, who does it, and where it takes place, we won’t come out on the other end with a properly Christian view of the nature and task of counseling. In fact, depending on how we define counseling itself, there may not even be a theological foundation possible on which to build.

Judging from the tenor of the program at Dallas Seminary for training Christians to counsel, the operating definition of counseling might be something along these lines: Counseling is “a professional helping activity in which an identifiably competent party intentionally offers aid to an identifiably distressed party in a formalized structure, such as weekly one-hour sessions on a fee-for-service basis.”[4] The task then becomes the properly Christian way to go about this task and then the definition of what the Christian counselor is helps to flesh out what a Christian counselor does within the above environment. But what if the environment is all wrong? What if by allowing the secularized field of psychology and professional psychotherapists to define the general mode of the task, we’ve already started out on the wrong foot? I am not for certain that the above definition is what counseling is in the mind of the faculty in the BC department, so please do not construe me as stating that as a fact. But judging from the general purpose of the program to facilitate individuals in being “ordained” by the state as competent professionals able to care for the souls of men, it would seem we are catering to the arena that is established by the mental health professionals in our culture at large. Maybe this is “what is,” but certainly from a historical, orthodox Christian perspective, it certainly is not “what ought to be.”

Whether or not the previous definition is what counseling is thought of generally, from a Christian perspective, it is wrongheaded to hold to such a definition. In attempting to develop a theological foundation for the philosophy, theory, and practice of counseling we must first define counseling Christianly. Counseling according to a Christian worldview is not primarily a profession, but rather it is the lifestyle we are called to embody as we walk worthy of our calling Christ.[5] Every word out of our mouth provides counsel in some way[6], counseling then is “serving up the message of life to the ignorant and wayward, to the afflicted and dying, to the redeemable, to ourselves.”[7] In short, it is the face to face ministry of the Word; it is the private ministry correlate to the public ministry of the pulpit and the stage. The theological foundation for viewing counseling this way is the presupposition that in doing so, the Bible immediately brims with over with insight and one finds that in that instance the Bible is about the same thing the counseling is really about. To start with the more secularized professional definition legitimately raises the question about how to counsel Christianly, but if the Bible is allowed to define the counseling task for us first, we see that counseling is really just an extension of the ministry of the Word within the context of the Body of Christ, for which God has given specific individuals for that express purpose.[8] What Paul wrote in his epistles was designed to change lives by counseling the word, Jesus taught his disciples with the intention of changing their motives, actions, words, attitudes, beliefs, and priorities.[9] The Bible then serves as the guide to orient us to the counseling task in light of our faith, not in light of secularly defined tasks or modes of operation. It is true that counseling can occur in a more formalized setting for sure, but this is not “the way,” much less the only way to pursue the care of souls, which if we really are to think Christianly about counseling is another way to refer to the task.

[1]This may or may not be completely accurate, but in reviewing the slides no definition is found, whether or not it may have been mentioned in passing.

[2] In going back over the lecture transcripts, the closest the discussion came was in Unit 2, video 1. However, most of the discussion was aimed at the misguided effort of creating a false dichotomy between counsel and advice, a dichotomy that is assuming a secularized definition of counseling and then distinguishing Biblical advice from the already determined secular definition of what counseling is. Interestingly enough, at least in Hebrew, the verb for counsel and advice is the same word. From a Biblical perspective, it is right to say that counseling is more than simply offering Biblical advice, but I would sharply disagree with the notion that giving solid Biblical advice is only a small fraction of what constitutes counseling. Again, to say this is to assume a secularly defined notion of counseling and then try to go back and Christianize it, as opposed to starting with a Biblically defined concept of counseling and then moving forward from there.

[3] “A deeply committed, Spirit-guided servant of Jesus Christ who applies his or her God-given abilities, skills, training, knowledge, and insight to the task of helping others move to personal wholeness, interpersonal competence, mental stability, and spiritual maturity,” Larry Crabb, probably from Understanding People (Zondervan, 1987) but bibliographic information was not included on the slide.

[4] David Powlison, “Questions at the Crossroads,” in Care for the Soul, ed. Mark R. McMinn and Timothy R. Phillips (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 34. This is also close to how Stanton Jones and Richard Butman define counseling and therefore skew their whole efforts at a truly Christian appraisal of the topic, see Stanton L. Jones and Richard E. Butman, Modern Psychotherapies: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1991), 12.

[5] Powlison, “Questions at the Crossroads,” 38.

[6] It only takes one to consider the idea that any occasion where one person shares their story with another person who then provides annotated comments is an occasion of counseling, whether done “professionally” or rather informally over the phone or out for coffee. Our words in those instances either orient the person to God or away from God and in this way can be thought of as providing some type of counsel (either of the wise of or the foolish). In this light, we are all potential counselors who will either walk worthy of our calling, or will simply drop the ball or worse, pass the buck to the secular professional, or even more insidious, the secularized Christian professional counselor.

[7] Powlison, “Questions at the Crossroads,” 38.

[8] See Ephesians 4:11-16. From this perspective, pastors are the ones called and equipped by God to counsel, not mental health professionals who from the perspective of the church are still just lay-people and not in any way specialized or called by God to the task of caring for the souls of men.

[9] David Powlison, “Does Biblical Counseling Really Work?,” in Totally Sufficient, ed. Ed Hindson and Howard Eyrich (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1997), 59.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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