Biblical Counselors Aren’t a Replacement for Trained Psychologists

When I was growing up in the conservative Christian community, the idea of mental illness had such a heavy social stigma around it that it was rarely, if ever, discussed. As I’ve come out of that world, I’ve discovered the stark contrast between how “normal” people approach mental health issues and the way I grew up. Now, people talk about their therapists and their meds and their anxiety or depression — then, when a mom was dealing with postpartum depression, she was told by her pastor that she was dealing with the “sin of unbelief” and needed to just “trust God more.”

Pacific Standard just posted a longform piece by Kathryn Joyce on “the rise of biblical counseling” in the church. It’s pretty comprehensive and quite consistent with what I observed firsthand.

In contemporary evangelical Christianity, the concept of Biblical infallibility and inerrancy spills over into the idea that the Bible contains all teaching necessary for life and that all struggles in life are common to everyone and can be solved with enough and proper application of the Bible and biblical concepts. Psychology and science in general are suspect because they are mutable depending on scientific progress — the Bible is a fixed system and will not be changed over time; it’s therefore seen as more dependable for a source of truth than science.

Most mental illnesses in the DSM, then, are written off as irrelevant. All mental issues can be solved through Bible-centered talk therapy (biblical counseling), and it’s usually administered by pastors who have rudimentary training in talk therapy methods and little else. Many biblical counseling certification programs are short — six weeks to six months — and I’ve known people who did their training via correspondence (without even the benefit of an online class).

Joyce writes:

The most serious of these inconsistencies concern the role in biblical counseling of non-biblical knowledge, especially in the fields of medicine and science. Biblical counselors stress that they are not opposed to “descriptive” psychology, which makes observations about humanity, but only “prescriptive” therapy, which steps into an advisory role they view as the province of pastors. Most also claim to respect the role of science more broadly, something that [pastor Jay] Adams attempted to clarify over 40 years ago in Competent to Counsel, distinguishing between psychology, much of which he considered to be speculative and unproven, and proper hard science.

The church is being forced to come to terms with psychology in ways it didn’t when I was a kid, with the rising acceptance of LGBTQ individuals and relationships, the slow demise of anti-gay conversion therapy, and the issue of suicide being discussed more than ever before (through the death of Rick Warren‘s son, among others). Depression is less likely to be immediately written off as being rooted in doubting God’s goodness and is now taken a bit more seriously. Chemical intervention is less suspect (though it’s still seen as something to help you through a crisis and then to be weaned off of), and ADHD is less of a joke and given a bit more attention in discussions about social issues.

Joyce observes, and I agree, that biblical counseling doesn’t seem to help much:

In practice, according to [Baylor University professor of psychology and neuroscience Matthew] Stanford, when churches began once again to address mental illness, the mindset that came to prevail among biblical counselors was that the mentally ill were simply “insufficient believers.” This had calamitous effects on severely troubled patients. “I can honestly tell you, as someone who’s been doing this for 20 years, that I’ve never seen someone who has a serious mental illness that went to a biblical counselor and didn’t actually get worse and get hurt,” Stanford says. “I’ve never seen them get better.”

If you’re curious about why mental health is often not taken seriously by conservative Christian communities, the piece is a fantastic summary of the state of affairs to date. I hope to see the end of counseling a la Lou Priolo and others in my lifetime, but I suspect it’s unlikely.

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About Hännah Ettinger

Hännah Ettinger blogs, tweets, is the founding publisher of The Swan Children Magazine, and dishes feminist critique of YA novels over at The YA Wallpaper.