Christian Psychology v. Biblical Counseling: A. J. McConnell Reacts to Allchin and Throckmorton

Greek_uc_psi.svgI am in the middle of a series comparing and contrasting Christian psychology and Biblical counseling. Using a case of school refusal as a prompt, I have featured the conceptualizations of Biblical counselor Tim Allchin, and Christian psychologist A.J. McConnell as points of comparison to my description of how the case turned out. Today, A.J. McConnell sums up his views in this reaction to Allchin and me.  Next week, Dr. Allchin will provide a similar reaction to McConnell and me. After Allchin’s reaction, then I will wrap up the series.*

Overall, I have enjoyed reading the varying perspectives presented on this topic in both the responses by Dr. Tim Allchin and Dr. Warren Throckmorton as well as the comments provided by other readers in the comments section. Before I comment on Dr. Allchin’s and Dr. Throckmorton’s approaches, I wanted to briefly respond to a few of Dr. Throckmorton’s critiques on my conceptualization.

Dr. Throckmorton wrote:

“I have concerns about advocating techniques a client doesn’t ordinarily believe in or engage in as a technique….While there is research which links stress reduction with meditation, I believe Christian prayer should be a voluntary and spontaneous response to God rather than a prescribed technique of counseling.”

I agree with your statement and would never recommend or prescribe a technique that is contrary to a person’s belief system. If a Christian requests that I integrate Biblical principles with my knowledge of psychological interventions, I always first assess what spiritual disciplines they use in their daily life. This usually leads to a discussion on how they can use these disciplines as an adjunct with other interventions.

Dr. Throckmorton also stated:

“I must add that counseling is about much more than advice or guidance in moral decision making.”

I also agree with this statement. Not every issue brought into a counseling session is a moral issue. For example, I believe that an individual pursuing treatment for anxiety is looking for practical strategies they can use to stop having anxious thoughts and/or physical manifestations of anxiety. Similar to how a medical intervention can help anyone regardless of their religious beliefs, psychological science has provided several effective interventions that can help reduce anxiety or other mental health concerns.

My response to Dr. Allchin:

I enjoyed reading Tim Allchin’s conceptualization of the case example and respect his point of view. I found myself agreeing with many of Tim’s general interventions. Specifically, I agreed on the following points:

  1. I agree about medications not being the first option in this case. There are cognitive and behavioral interventions, for example, that can be used before even considering the need for medications. As Dr. Throckmorton discussed in his response about the role of PANDAS and separation anxiety, I would recommend the parents speak to the child’s pediatrician in order to rule out any underlying medical factors to this problem.
  1. I also agree that establishing a relationship with the child and family is vital for effective therapy. There are several research studies that indicate a strong therapeutic alliance is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, factor in effective outcomes in therapy. In other words, having a good relationship between a therapist and the child is just as important, and even more important, than the specific interventions used.
  1. I also agree with some of the examples of using a physical redirect as a replacement for anxious thoughts or behaviors. An example of a principle associated with behaviorism indicates that a behavior you are trying to extinguish needs to be replaced by an alternative behavior. Identifying alternative behaviors or physical redirects is a common strategy used by counselors.

In contrast, there are also areas in which I disagree with Allchin regarding this case. Here are a few examples:

Dr. Allchin wrote:

“What does the Bible say he needs to “put off” regarding fearful behaviors that lead to disobedience?”

Separation anxiety is a disorder and I do not believe that it comes from a spirit of disobedience towards God, the school, or the child’s parents. A child with this condition is experiencing a significant amount of fear that they do not know how to respond to appropriately.

Dr. Allchin also wrote:

“I would seek to help them identify emotions, behaviors, habits, beliefs, and heart motivations….. Biblical counselors seek to determine Action Steps that help a child function in a way that pleases God.”

Again, I perceive these quotes as indicating the problem is a “heart” issue rather than an issue of mental health. I did not get the sense in reading the case description that the child or family were exhibiting any oppositional, defiant, or other behaviors that would lead me to suspect any issues with their core belief system. Therefore, I would not focus on “heart motivations” or steps a child needs to do to “please God” in this situation.

On a side note:

I appreciate the role of Biblical counselors in our profession. They bring a unique perspective that is certainly applicable to many mental health concerns and they use the Bible as a strong resource to help others in need. However, Biblical counseling is not always appropriate for everyone. I would also make the same statement in regards to Christian Psychology and the western approach to Psychology in general. One reason why I chose psychology rather than becoming a pastor or a Biblical counselor is because I feel God called me to serve others as a psychologist. My role as a psychologist is not to convert people to Christianity. I’ll focus on that mission in my personal life. I work with many individuals that do not share my personal beliefs. My approach to everyone I work with, regardless of their religious views, is to respect them and not unnecessarily judge them for the choices and decisions they have made. I have worked with several individuals that have explicitly voiced their hatred towards the church, God/Jesus, and/or have expressed a belief in atheism. Their beliefs do not change how I approach them in counseling or treat them as a person when they are in my office. I feel that my professional role allows me to interact with a broader population. I enjoy the diversity and challenge when I meet people with other perspectives on life. It doesn’t compromise my faith or my relationship with Jesus. It helps me understand the world. I’m curious to how Biblical counselors would address these types of situations.

Response to Dr. Throckmorton’s conceptualization:

I am happy to hear that there was a successful resolution to this case example. The use of a paradoxical intervention was intriguing and one I may consider in the future if I encounter a similar situation. I have used paradoxical interventions in other situations involving working with families; however, this is not usually my first approach when addressing an issue of separation anxiety. My preference is a Cognitive-Behavioral approach given its strong research efficacy in treating this diagnosis. There is always a risk when using a paradoxical intervention that it will backfire and not have the intended outcomes that are desired by the therapist.

I appreciate Dr. Throckmorton’s willingness to review and consider new information in regards to this case example, as illustrated by the discussion of the role of PANDAS and its psychological impact on children. Personally, I have not researched any information on this topic but your post has reminded me of the importance of staying updated on scientific research findings in order to provide competent services to the individuals that we serve.

A quick note on other comments Throckmorton made about the 95 theses:

Similar to your opinion, I also disagree with Dr. Lambert’s theses statements #45 and #46 regarding the use of diagnostic labels in the DSM. These diagnoses are real conditions. Some are mentioned in the Bible. Other diagnoses are not. This does not make the DSM invalid. My specialty is in neurodevelopmental disabilities and I cannot recall symptoms of an autism spectrum disorder, for example, being discussed in the Bible.

I also take issue with Theses #72 and #73 regarding state licensure:

  1. The process of requiring a state license to counsel is not required by the Bible, is used by the state to enforce counseling practices founded on secular therapy, and is unnecessary for those wishing to grow in God’s wisdom to counsel.
  2. The only authentically Christian motivation for pursuing a state license to counsel is the missional desire of making Christ known to all people in all places, especially in those places where the authority of the state allows only licensed individuals to talk to troubled people.

These statements suggest that a professional counselor’s primary role is to convert others to the Christian faith. As Christians, we do not demand these expectations from Christians in other professions. We also do not expect other Christian professionals to not pursue a state license to practice medicine, nursing, law, accounting, teaching, etc. Most states require mental health professionals to obtain a license in order to practice. This provides a level of accountability and protects the public from harmful practices. Having a state license does not compromise a person’s faith. I find these statements to be judgmental and they place unnecessary guilt on an individual that has decided to pursue state licensure. If a Christian does not pursue a state license, it limits their ability to serve others. If this was the case, Christians would primarily only be able to provide counsel to others if they walked through a church door seeking help.

Thanks to Dr. McConnell for his participation in this series.

To read all posts in this series, click here.

*Even though I will wrap up this part of the series next week, I intend to start a new one featuring critique of Heath Lambert’s 95 theses.

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