This is the fourth post in a series through the 95 Theses for an Authentically Christian Commitment to Counseling by Heath Lambert. Previous posts are indexed here (bottom of the post).
Repeatedly in Dr. Lambert’s 95 Theses, he appeals to “proof” or “evidence” – Theses 37, 40, 48, 56, and 58 – in the construction of his argument.
“Thesis 37 – One evidence for the authority and sufficiency of Scripture is that Christians in the modern West with access to secular therapy have been powerfully helped and transformed by biblical resources far more than by therapeutic ones.”
“Thesis 40 – No proof has ever been offered that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are anything less than fully authoritative and sufficient for counseling issues.”
This begs the question, “What evidence would be accepted to disprove his assertions?” For the record, I affirm his premise in Thesis 40 and have no idea how to quantify the number of people “powerfully helped” by biblical resources as compared to secular therapy.
My point is not to argue with Dr. Lambert’s conclusions, but to point out the logical fallacy of appealing to evidence or proof for something that is either unquantifiable or for which the author would not accept the nature of evidence that could be given.
Historically, traditional biblical counseling has been in opposition to trying to empirically verify its results based on the premise that the greater goal of counseling is to glorify God more than alleviate symptoms. The logic is that the interaction of counseling is more like hearing from a preacher (the private ministry parallel to the public ministry of the Word) than consulting with a physician (seeking relief from one or more life struggles).
If this is the position of traditional biblical counseling – that it will give no evidence and submit to no standard of effectiveness beyond faithfulness to Scripture – then it is odd to appeal to proof or demand evidence.
Further, Thesis 40 is written in the classic pattern of the logical fallacy known as “appeal to ignorance” – an assertion that something must be true because it has not been proven to be false. For a document of the nature of Dr. Lambert’s 95 Theses, this poor logical construction provides critics of biblical counseling – seemingly those he would be wanting to convince with his writing – convenient reason to dismiss our approach to counseling.
If, as a movement, we are not going to seek to provide evidence-based substantiations of our counseling effectiveness because we prefer expository faithfulness over empirical validity, then it is disingenuous for us to levy this type of argument against our critics.
Further, the only evidence other than exegetical accuracy that we seem to accept is anecdotal evidence (e.g., personal experience). Frequently, biblical counselors appeal to bad experiences with licensed therapists as reasons for their devotion to biblical counseling. However, we do not allow the inverse evidence to equally disqualify our approach – a bad experience with a biblical counselor does not carry the same weight in our eyes. “Their” weak counselors are a reason to dismiss their profession; “our” weak counselors are exceptions and do not represent the essence of our practice.
Dr. Lambert’s Theses 27 and 28 overtly acknowledge that sometimes biblical counselors will give bad counsel and will be ineffective when giving counsel based on Scripture. I have already said, in this series (post one), my own counseling has been evidence of both. While I do not think my shortcomings discredit biblical counseling theory and practice, I cannot think of any other kind of evidence that Dr. Lambert would accept. If my assessment is accurate, this makes his Theses appealing to evidence hard to take as anything more than a false appeal to more empirical validity than we have been willing to produce.
I do believe these weaknesses within the movement are correctable. With the increasing number of seminaries offering Ph.D. and D.Min. degrees in biblical counseling, we should begin to produce effectiveness studies.
I believe there are several advantages that biblical counseling has that would make it very reasonable to believe our effectiveness outcomes would be quite high.
- The majority of our counselees are Christians who have embraced their need for the gospel, submitted to the Lordship of Christ, and committed to the fellowship of a local church.
- The local church is a context that can combine acute care (counseling), meeting felt needs (deacon-style service), and ongoing relationship (community) like no other organization.
- Church members build trust and shared vocabulary with their pastor-counselor through their participation in a local church; both of these are significant factors in counseling effectiveness. By the time a church member reaches out to a church-based counseling ministry, they have a high sense of expectation that this care will be a good fit for their need and values. If not, they go elsewhere for counseling.
- A primary component of church membership is the acknowledgement that we do not have what life requires (that we are sinners in need of grace), which should be highly destigmatizing and open more vulnerable conversations to other life struggles.
- The rhythms of church life have natural “touch points” multiple times per week that are focused on ongoing personal growth, accountability, and education in the fundamental element of change – the gospel.
- In church-based care, when the counselee “graduates” from counseling, they do not have to begin living without connection to their context of primary care as they would if their care was provided through a peer-support group like AA or meeting with a professional counselor.
These factors are huge advantages that, if our theory and practice are as strong as I believe they can be, should mean that our effectiveness outcomes would be quite high compared to our therapeutic neighbors. But to date, we cannot make this argument because we have not done the hard work to provide the data to back it up.
However, I also believe there are aspects of our movement that would have to be refined in order to produce these studies or for these studies to have transferable validity across our movement.
- We would need to be more willing to define and identify levels of competency and training. In order to do empirical research we would have to operationally define what it meant to be a biblical counselor. Is a “biblical counselor” a mature lay person, someone with a biblical counseling certificate, or someone with a seminary degree? How much and what type of experience is required to be a “biblical counselor”?
- We would need to be more skilled in assessing the nature and severity of an individual’s or couple’s life struggle.
- The purpose of these first two points would be to define a refutable research hypothesis – for instance, “A biblical counselor with ‘x’ training and experience is ‘y’ percent more effective than non-treatment with individuals who experience ‘z’ struggle.”
- Additionally, we would have to be willing to more formally define who the counselee and counselor are. Biblical counseling’s preference has been to view counseling as an “intensive friendship, intentional discipleship, or doing life together” relationship. The influence of these informal relationships, while highly valuable, is harder to quantify for evidenced-bases studies and is not what most people mean when they say that want “counseling.”
- We would need to be able to screen for how effectiveness rates change when the advantage variables listed above are not present. How much of our effectiveness is due to the superiority of our theory and practice, and how much is due to the social advantages of a local church? God gets the credit for either or both, but to fruitfully engage the “proof” and “evidence” arguments Dr. Lambert sets out in his 95 Theses, we would need to be able to distinguish the impact of our theory from our context – both of which emerge from Scripture.
I am not opposed to biblical counseling becoming the kind of movement that could make the arguments that Dr. Lambert tries to appeal to in his 95 Theses. Actually, I am very much for it. But at the current time, I do not believe we are in a position to make these arguments and should display greater humility and polemical integrity until we are.