Maybe Christian counselors shouldn’t use the bible when they promote their counseling theory. Maybe they should just articulate their theory and leave the bible verses out.

Sound radical? An overreaction? Guilty as charged. But…consider with me that some of our most popular Christian models may be built on rather flimsy biblical data.

Some (simplistic) background thoughts

All Christian counselors recognize that the bible plays a unique role in counseling theory. Otherwise, they would just be “counselors.” But not all use the bible in the same way. Some view the bible as the primary (even sole) guide or resource for understanding human nature and recovery from every sort of relational and/or emotional struggle. These counselors would likely cite 2 Tim 3:15-16 as evidence that Scripture provides primary directives in our fight against sin and guide to suffering well. Others view the bible as a helpful foundation designed to remind us who God is, who we are, and a resource for comfort, encouragement, and rebuke. But, these counselors might also look to other resources as well—psychological research, physiology, medicine, communication theory, etc. They would not dismiss the value of the bible but would argue that God does not intend to make the bible the only answer guide for all the questions we might have. Thus, sources of human knowledge are important to the work of good Christian counseling. Now within this second camp, counselors vary widely as to how important either Scripture or human sources of knowledge function in their given practice. Some seem to emphasize (or neglect) one source more than the other.

The problem…

No matter where a counselor falls on the above continuum, it is far too easy to use the bible to baptize a particular viewpoint or theory. At one Christian counseling conference I heard a plenary speaker say something like this (not a quote but pretty near exact):

Men need respect. It is their airhose. Women need love. It is their airhose.

Along with this statement, the speaker bolstered points with personal stories and biblical passages indicating the women should be loved and men treated as having authority (submitted to). Here the speaker used bible passages to indicate that men are designed to operate optimally when respected and women designed to operate optimally when loved.

Is this true? It could be. I certainly think that this SEEMS to be true for most men and women. But, and this is the BIG BUT…does Scripture indeed teach this? Does Paul teach us that these are our basic needs in order to function well?

Close but way off

Love and respect cannot be our “airhose.” Habakkuk 3:16f would suggest that when everything has been taken away, it is possible to have joy in all things. Notice that Ephesians 5 is about what each are commanded to do…not about what each of us needs to receive. Christ is our “airhose” and nothing else. This speaker might be better served just teaching us about what actions tend to make for better marriages than to indicate that the Scriptures teach us we have these two needs.

So, the next time you pick up a cool book by a Christian counselor. Check out how they use the bible. As a support for a good theory (e.g., this verse teaches us…)? Or, as a source for understanding the problem of evil and the nature of our God who leads, guides, and saves us?

If you are interested in this topic, let me give you a couple of resources.

  • October 2011 print issue of Christianity Today covers the general misuse of the bible. It is not just counselors who do this. They list the example of a book with anti-aging techniques supposedly gleaned from the bible.
  • 2 chapters in Care for the Soul:Exploring the Intersection of Psychology & Theology (IVP, 2001). Chapters 12 and 13 both cover the issue of hermeneutics. Richard Schultz addresses how counselors misuse wisdom literature and chapter 13 (myself and my colleague Bryan Maier) give more general recommendations for good hermeneutic work.

[A version of this post was previously published at www.wisecounsel.wordpress.comin 2011.] Phil Monroe is Professor of Counseling and Psychologyand directs both the Masters of Arts in Counseling program and the newly formed Global Trauma Recovery Institute


0 # Henk Van Dooren 2013-01-23 15:58
I agree with Phil's reflection. I generally track those books that appeal to Christian counselees as they appear to be based on enduring Biblical tenets. Often the metaphors used by these authors are compelling, but is a misuse of Scriptures to lend more authority to these metaphors by invoking Bible verses.
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+1 # Philip Monroe 2013-01-23 20:40
Henk, thanks. I do agree that there are times when it seems the misuse is indeed only to lend more authority. Many times I think the misuse is merely a person who has a gut level sense of a biblical principle but does not know how to tie it to a particular passage. Similarly we've all heard great sermons that are Christ honoring but not at all connected to the text in the bulletin.
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+1 # Eric Barrett 2013-02-06 13:12
First let me say that I don't disagree with anything you've written here. Poor use of the Bible is harmful, whether in church or in counseling.

However, as a psychologist (non-clinical) and a Christian, I've had to wrestle with this issue. And I've decided that it comes down to a simple fact: Research is awesome, but no matter how awesome our research is, it's still based on broken people in a broken world. The Bible, while not intended as a "counselor's handbook," does give us a glimpse into how people and the world SHOULD work. It reflects God's "ideal."

To ignore that, even in favor of research, I think is a mistake. We need both, or we're just psychologists.

The Bible can be misused for sure - but let's face it, there are far too many counselors and psychologists who misuse / misunderstand research.
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0 # Michael Palmer 2014-04-14 11:29
Good article, but “bible” should always be spelled with a capital B. Not because it’s holy, but because "Bible" is a proper noun.
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