What is Biblical Counseling and Why Is It Vital for the Church?

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What do we mean by “biblical counseling” and why should a church embrace and practice it? Let me first describe biblical counseling by unpacking both terms. Biblical Counseling Is Counseling

First, biblical counseling is counseling. It helps specific individuals, couples, or families in their specific situations to know Christ better and handle life in God-pleasing ways. It is conversational—interactive and person-specific in ways that go beyond public preaching/teaching or small group life. In this sense, it is simply personal ministry, the ministry by one person to another person. We might also call it personal discipleship or, more precisely, intensive, remedial, or problem-oriented discipleship. More broadly, it is nothing short of true biblical friendship that involves the kind of intentionally helpful conversations pictured in passages like these:

  • Proverbs 20:5, The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out.
  • Proverbs 27:5–6, Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.
  • Romans 15:14, I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another.
  • Galatians 6:1–2, Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. . . . Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
  • Ephesians 4:15, Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.[1]
  • Colossians 3:16, Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
  • James 5:19–20, My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

As a process of personal ministry, biblical counseling shares with secular counseling approaches basic concerns about personal care, respect, acceptance, empathy, attending dynamics, active listening, wise interviewing skills. We guard confidentiality, we work with medical or legal professionals, and we adhere to ethical standards, etc. But biblical counseling does not necessarily share the limitations of the modern world of psychotherapy: clinical detachment, avoidance of dual relationships, diagnostic coding, financial burdens, third-party insurance billing and, other professional trappings (even when biblical counseling is done by specially-trained professionals). As David Powlison observes,

What most people think of as “counseling” is controlled by the enculturated habits of the modern mental health system. A designated professional comes with credentials: an advanced degree and state licensure. This professional claims to offer expertise in supposedly objective, non-religious ideas and techniques, the substance of modern psychologies or psychiatries. A designated and diagnosed patient/client suffers from a syndrome with a medical-sounding label and seeks help. The two parties enter into a formal, consultative relationship. Together they explore the world of the patient: experiences, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, motives, relationships. In some fashion, the professional mediates interpretations and solutions that claim the authority of science and/or medicine. This fee-for-service exchange occurs in a time-out from real-life social relationships. There is a fundamental asymmetry between doctor and patient, expert and client, healthy and sick.[2]

The Bible’s vision for interpersonal ministry is far more flexible and far more robust. It brings the gospel and its multifaceted implications in a variety of person-to-person caring settings. As Powlison adds, “The Bible is about what counseling is about, from beginning to end.”[3] Moreover, while biblical counseling is certainly the task of pastors and church planters,[4] it is also the domain of all of God’s people—wise parents, spouses, roommates, neighbors, and brothers and sisters in your church.

Biblical Counseling Is Biblical

Second, biblical counseling is biblical. Its truth source is God’s inerrant, inspired Word, and its focus is on that Bible’s main thrust, namely, Jesus Christ and his life-changing, redeeming work for us and in us. In that sense, biblical counseling is Christ-centered or Christ-driven. In true biblical counseling, the Bible is more than a grid, filter, control, or standard (all passive images); the Bible actively drives both theory and practice. The concepts and methodology are not merely consistent with, controlled by, or “proof-texted” from the Bible; they emerge from the Bible itself as one interprets and applies it accurately.[5]

We build our counseling on a biblical view of such key matters as . . .

  • The triune God—Father, Son, and Spirit—and his character, ways, commands, and promises.
  • People and their problems, including their beliefs and motives as well as their behavior.
  • How people change and God’s provisions for such change in his Word.
  • The centrality of the church and of God’s equipped leaders and members in the change process.

At least four convictions underlie the practice of biblical counseling:

1) We present the Lord Jesus Christ as the crucified, risen Savior who, through his Word and his Spirit, can help us handle our personal and relational problems. Jesus alone provides the forgiving mercy (through his saving death and resurrection), the practical wisdom (in the Bible), and the enabling power (through his Spirit) we need to know and please God in our daily living. Biblical counseling is eminently Christ-centered and Christ-driven, exalting the Christ of the Bible.

2) We use the Bible as our God-given tool to diagnose, explain, and solve our problems. As God’s Word, the Bible alone provides true, thorough, authoritative, and sufficient wisdom and direction for every life situation we face, and it is richly superior to all human wisdom and the competing counsel of secular and Christian integrationist psychologies.

3) We reflect the love, concern, and compassion of Jesus our Shepherd and Counselor. Biblical counseling is a caring process of Christlike love for struggling sheep. Qualities like compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience mark our ministry of God’s Word, all embedded in the life of a caring church community.

4) We address both the inward and outward aspects of our problems to bring thorough and lasting godly change. Biblical counseling is not shallow, superficial, or simplistic. Scripture alone uncovers and solves our heart (beliefs and motives) and behavior (words and actions) struggles. 

In one sense, biblical counseling is simply the intentional, consistent, application of historic evangelical Christian truth—the gospel—to the realm of personal ministry and human problems.

Biblical Counseling and the Great Commission

Why should a church be committed to biblical counseling? Aside from the above vision of God’s people bringing God’s Word to each other, it’s part of Christ’s marching orders for every local church. In light of his victorious death and resurrection and the authority given to him by the Father, Jesus issues this ministry mandate to his apostles:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18–20)

Where does biblical counseling fit into the “Great Commission”? First, it is a means of evangelism. Biblical counselors seek to win to Christ those men and women who are struggling with life and experiencing various kinds of counseling problems and disorders. Biblical counseling is problem-occasioned evangelism.[6]

Second, once we baptize them, we begin to “teach them to obey” everything Jesus commanded. Presumably this would include not only Jesus’s actual words recorded in the Gospel accounts but also the writings of his inspired apostles and the Hebrew Scriptures as we interpret them Christologically.

What does this ministry entail? Do we merely teach people what the Bible commands and that people should obey them? In the example of marriage, do we merely teach (a) what Ephesians 5:25 says to husbands (“husbands, love your wives”) and (b) that they must do so? I hope not. As one Christian husband confided to me,

One of my biggest struggles in life is being the spiritual leader of my wife. I feel as if I lack the spiritual leadership that I should display in our relationship. I have read, heard, and understood many passages that are found in Scripture, but I desire to know how to apply these things to our marriage. My goal is to find tangible ways to effectively lead my wife closer to Jesus Christ, as a husband should.

Surely a mere exposition of Ephesians 5:25, even with an exhortation to obey it, falls far short of what Jesus intended for a Great Commission ministry.

Instead, Biblical counselors bring tangibility to the text. We help a husband know how to love his wife—the specific woman God gave him in the specific context of their marital relationship.

We help people do God’s Word in detailed practical ways in the context of their precise personal and interpersonal problems. While we certainly call people to heed Christ’s commands to not fear, get rid of anger, not be drunk, bring up their children in godly ways, love their enemies, put off and put on, etc., we also help them choose the best way to apply those various directives.

Who should do this ministry? To the extent that every believer is called to evangelize (“make disciples”) in the Great Commission, to that same extent—no less, no more—every believer is called to counsel, i.e., to help others to apply (“teaching them to obey”) Christ’s truth (“everything I have commanded you”) to their daily lives. Biblical counseling—Great Commission counseling—simply means helping individuals to follow Jesus and to understand and implement his commands, in practical ways, in their specific life situations. A Great Commission church is a Biblical Counseling church.

Exciting Days for Biblical Counseling

In our day, we are witnessing a growing literature of books, journals, and booklets that reflect the theory and practice of biblical counseling. More and more publishing houses are demonstrating a newfound commitment to Christ-centered biblical counseling. A useful starter volume is Psychology & Christianity: Five Views (IVP, 2010), in which David Powlison presents the Biblical Counseling position in contrast to competing views. Powlison also edits the Journal of Biblical Counseling (www.ccef.org) and has assembled two collections of his essays in Seeing With New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture and Speaking Truth in Love: Counsel in Community. On a popular level, books by Paul David Tripp, Ed Welch, Heath Lambert, Elyse Fitzpatrick, and others[7] show how the Bible speaks profoundly to the complexity of human problems.

Institutionally, we see an increasing number of churches of all sizes biblically counseling their members and reaching their communities this way. We can look at biblical counseling seminaries like Southern (www.sbts.edu) and Southeastern (www.sebts.edu), plus networking, training, and certifying organizations like the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC, www.biblicalcounseling.com), the Biblical Counseling Coalition (BCC, www.biblicalcounseling coalition.org), and the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF, www.ccef.org).

It is an exciting season for those committed to biblical counseling. As other evangelical Christians come to see the bankruptcy of integrating the pure wisdom of God’s life-changing Word with human notions of secular psychologies, we are finding a new openness among God’s people to the power of Scripture to speak richly and robustly to our human struggle.

I invite you, your leaders, and your church to join the biblical counseling movement today —a movement as one BC organization adeptly puts it—to restore Christ to counseling and counseling to the church.

[1] As in 1:13; 4:21; and 6:14 (cf. Gal 4:16), the “truth” here is the gospel. The apostle envisions all of God’s people—equipped by their pastors and teachers (4:11–12)—speaking the gospel to each other (counseling!) in our daily relationships, producing church maturity (“we will in all things grow up. . . .”).]

[2] David Powlison, Speaking Truth in Love: Counsel in Community (New Growth Press, 2005), 176.

[3] Powlison, ibid.

[4] See my Pillar Network article, “Biblical Counseling as Problem-Occasioned Evangelism,” June 17, 2015, http://thepillarnetwork.org/biblical-counseling-as-problem-occasioned-evangelism/.

[5] Unfortunately, some who might call their counseling “biblical” do not handle the Bible in exegetically-sound ways. Similarly, the adjective “Christian” does not guarantee that the counseling approach is truly Christian in its understanding of Christ’s person, work, and teaching.

[6] See my article footnoted above, “Biblical Counseling as Problem-Occasioned Evangelism.”

[7] I have sought to do the same in my Uprooting Anger: Biblical Help for a Common Problem and Pursuing Peace in All Your Relationships and my published booklets and articles. See the below ACBC, BCC, and CCEF websites for other recommended books, conferences, training, etc.

CounselingDr. Robert Jones