This is the sixth 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).
There are two words that Dr. Lambert uses frequently in his 95 Theses – sufficiency and authority. There is a third word that seems to be implied as the necessary implication of these two words, which I believe needs to be discussed in order for the 95 Theses to be applied well – competency.
The way I would frame the question would be, “Does the fact that the Bible is authoritative and sufficient mean that every well-meaning believer with a Bible is competent for counseling? If so, why do we offer counselor training? That would seem unnecessary. What does training add to an already-competent individual? If not, how do we account for the limitations of the human counselor when we advocate for the quality of the Bible as a counseling resource?”
Let’s take as examples these three theses.
“Thesis 11 – When the Bible claims to address all the issues concerning life and godliness, it declares itself to be a sufficient and an authoritative resource to address everything essential for counseling conversations (2 Pet 1:3-4).”
“Thesis 12 – Christians must not separate the authority of Scripture for counseling from the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling because, if Scripture is to be a relevant authority, then it must be sufficient for the struggles people face as they live life in a fallen world (2 Pet 1:3-21).”
“Thesis 13 – The authority and sufficiency of Scripture for counseling means that counselors must counsel out of the conviction that the theological content of Scripture defines and directs the conversational content of counseling.”
You may or may not be convinced that these theses prove the sufficiency of Scripture, or you may disagree with the implications Dr. Lambert draws about sufficiency. But that is not the point I am making here, and I want to ask you to set aside the sufficiency debate for the moment so we can have a different conversation in this post.
Notice that the entire argument is about the quality of the source (the Bible), not the quality of the agent (the counselor). You might say, “That’s because the Holy Spirit is the real and ultimate Counselor.” I don’t disagree. But I would ask again, “Why do we do counseling training then?” Yes, the Holy Spirit is the ultimate counselor, but Scripture calls us to be ambassadors of God’s work (2 Cor 5:20) and calls us to be skilled at it (2 Tim 2:15).
So that returns us to the question, “What limitation does the quality of the human counselor place upon the premier counseling resource – the Bible?” Stated another way, “What limitation does an unskilled person bring to the finest piano, violin, baseball glove, scalpel, chisel, paint brush, smart phone, etc.?”
This is one significant element I find missing in Dr. Lambert’s 95 Theses and much of biblical counseling’s development of the concept of sufficiency. We talk about the quality of the Bible for counseling more than the preparation of the counselor.
In my contribution to the Biblical Counseling Coalition book Scripture and Counseling: God’s Word for Living in a Broken World, I tried to make the case for a “layers of competency” approach within biblical counseling (excerpt here) and advocate for a five-tiered approach. That being said, I readily admit the number of layers is arbitrary.
For each level of training and experience I try to define the (1) advantages, (2) disadvantages, (3) opportunities, and (4) limitations that emerge. Every level of competence has all four. There is no perfect competency range. The church needs an increasing excellence at every level of competence.
My premise, then, is this – acknowledging the limitations of the craftsman is no insult to the tool. This is what I teach every one of my little league baseball players when they slam their bat after they swing-and-miss at strike three: “Don’t blame the tool. Let’s work on your swing.”
In Dr. Lambert’s 95 Theses, I could find acknowledgement that not all biblical counselors are skilled (Theses 27 and 28). What I could not find was the subsequent acknowledgement of the possibility that a non-biblical counselor who is more skilled with a lesser tool may be more effective for some individuals than an unskilled biblical counselor with a superior tool.
The tone of Dr. Lambert’s 95 Theses seems to be, in my assessment, that a biblical counselor is always superior to a non-biblical counselor because of the quality of resource from which we counsel. This is the point I struggle to affirm.
I will return to the choice Dr. Lambert made to call Diane Langberg, Mark Yarhouse, and Eric Johnson to publicly repent for their approach to counseling. If they called their work biblical counseling and did not adhere to the tenants of biblical counseling, then I would understand asking them to rightly identify the nature of their work.
To pick one of these individuals as an example for discussion, I remember the first time I heard Diane Langberg speak on the subject of sexual abuse at a CCEF conference. I was struck by how well she understood and articulated the experience of suffering: how she was strong-yet-safe as she spoke of God’s anger against abuse and compassion for the abused. She was an exemplary model of bringing rich practical theology to bear on intense human suffering.
I invite any of my readers to study her book On the Threshold of Hope and ask yourself, “Does she point people to Jesus? Does she utilize Scripture faithfully and beautifully? Does she call sinners to repent and serve as an agent of comfort to sufferers?”
Diane Langberg may not be a biblical counselor, but she is an excellent counselor who uses the Bible well (exegetically and therapeutically) and views her practice as an active part of God’s redemptive work in the lives of those she is privileged to serve in His name.
Now back to my point about how a more skilled non-biblical counselor may be more effective than a less skilled biblical counselor.
I recognize my limits – both by capacity and skill. I also recognize the weight of secondary traumatic stress that can emerge for survivors of sexual abuse who work closely with individuals processing the early stages of sexual abuse recovery. This is why I’m grateful for several counselors in the Raleigh-Durham area who are well-versed in Diane Langberg’s approach of counseling sexual abuse as trauma.
- Note: These counselors who serve or church and community are a significant reason why I chose to write this series. After hearing of Dr. Lambert’s remarks, they asked, “You’re a biblical counselor. I am not. Is this how you view me? Do you think the work I do is illegitimate or sinful?” I would imagine that many other biblical counselors had similar experiences with counselors from their communities with whom they had built quality working relationships.
There are frequently occasions (1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men experience sexual abuse at some point in their life) when I am grateful to recommend these counselors to members of our congregation. These members come back and tell me how their soul was restored and their faith strengthened under the skillful care of these counselors.
Does that mean we as a church have neglected the subject of sexual abuse? Not at all. We frequently, at least once per year, extensively teach on trauma in events promoted to our entire church. I would say we’ve addressed the subject of sexual abuse as intentionally and overtly as we know how.
What happens when we used the Bible (I Samuel 13; sermon link above), to speak to the subject of sexual abuse? Many, many people responded, wanting care. But many are hesitant to associate these traumatic memories with their local church. The triggering experiences would be too strong and disrupt their freedom to worship and fellowship. Having counselors in a formal setting that we trusted was an incredible asset to recommend.
As a biblical counselor, I have no problem saying that Diane Langberg is more competent in counseling sexual abuse than I am, even though she is not a biblical counselor. As a movement, I believe we should be less averse (a.k.a. more humble) to making these kinds of acknowledgements.
I could make similar arguments for Eric Johnson and Mark Yarhouse, but for the sake of brevity will forgo those comments.
As long as biblical counseling takes the position that because we’re right we’re good it; “right” about counseling (theologically sound in our theory), “good” at counseling (competent and skillful), it will be hard for those outside our movement to take us seriously. Again, to use a baseball illustration, knowing the fundamentals of pitching a baseball and having the skill to pitch a baseball are two distinct (and often unrelated) aptitudes; one is frequently had without the other.
I believe it is sufficient (meaning both adequate and necessary) for us to say, “We believe that the more a counselor relies upon Scripture – not as a rule book, but as the primary way God makes Himself and His redemptive work known – the more effective a counselor will be; not just at symptom relief (which is a good goal) but also at restoring the counselee’s soul to God (the ultimate goal). We believe this because of what we believe the Bible is – God’s Word for the people He longs to redeem. The more faithfully a counselor uses Scripture – recognizing none of us do so perfectly – the more eager we are to partner with that counselor. But we recognize that the role of competence in counseling effectiveness may lead us to supplement biblical counseling with care from others who are excellent in their areas of specialty when our competence is limited in an area.”