illustration: Marion Bolognesi
By now, most church folk (and lots of others) have heard about the trouble facing CJ Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries in regard to allegations that child sex abuse in the network of churches was covered up by pastors who allegedly counseled family members to avoid reporting to the police and forgive the abusers.
And now, they are resisting the lawsuit and investigation by citing the First Amendment.
Rather than a journalistic dig into the history of SGM, CJ, or whatever, or an impassioned plea on the issues of abuse and cover-up (which Rachel Held Evans did beautifully last week), I simply want to comment on the style of counseling that may lead to this kind of situation. And to show that, like the much-heralded national fiscal cliff, conservative evangelicals are quickly heading towards a counseling cliff. In fact, SGM may be the first of many higher-profile cases of pastoral counseling gone terribly wrong.
This lawsuit is not the only thing that has surfaced regarding SGM church counseling. Lots of folks have cited spiritual and emotional abuse, as well. And when one sees the close relationship between CJ, SGM, and Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and academic leader of the evangelical neo-reformed movement, along with support from folks like John Piper, it becomes clear that there is a lot at stake here. In particular, the exploding movement of “gospel-centered counseling” among neo-reformed churches is at stake.*
I have personal experience with this style of counseling at a church I served in 7 years ago. It was one of the primary reasons my wife and I finally decided to move on. One of the mainstays of this style is an antagonism toward “secular” counseling or “modern” psychology, leading church movements like SGM and Mars Hill Church in Seattle, for instance, to require members to only receive counseling from their pastors. And, sometimes, to seek that counsel from elders even in place of alerting the police.
Another mainstay is the emphasis on sin as the root of all emotional/psychological pain/difficulty. Medication for depression, for instance, is routinely frowned upon if not forbidden; and issues of abuse are oversimplified as sinners being sinners. In CJ’s famous words, we are all doing “better than we deserve,” and God’s holiness is such that abusers and the abused alike are equally deserving of an eternity of suffering in hell. Thus, God’s grace given to such undeserving people demands that victims must “forgive” abusers and get over their pain by simply submitting to the gospel and repenting – and, in the case of this lawsuit, this may even lead to “reconciling” children with abusers in person without involving authorities at all.
All this is obviously dangerous at best – crazy at worst.
During my journey as a pastor/church planter, I have come to the conclusion that pastors should not do “counseling” at all.
Evangelical seminaries may offer counseling courses and degrees**, but there needs to be a strong distinction in the church between spiritual advisement/discipleship and professional, clinical counseling. And that distinction needs to be made abundantly clear by church leadership. The pastor’s and leader’s job is to provide spiritual guidance and discipleship for faith and life, as well as administration for community, worship, and mission – but NOT to diagnose and treat serious issues of emotional/psychological pain (not to mention become sex therapists or professional marriage fixers). Far from preventing people from seeking “secular” counseling and consulting “modern” psychology, pastors must ENCOURAGE this in all cases in which it is needed or desired by a church member. I firmly believe that the Bible alone is not intended to offer the kind of invasive, specific therapy and solutions for these kinds of issues, but rather to provide a broader spiritual framework for facing them with courage and moving towards wholeness with all the other means that God has provided in his grace (like professional counseling).
In other words, throw out pastoral counseling altogether and replace it with simply spiritual guidance or discipleship. Which is what the church is supposed to be doing anyway. Counseling services are really a contemporary development of the cumbersome church institution that may be successfully jettisoned by a more streamlined – and healthy – missional approach to church.
And in matters of abuse – why the hell do I even have to say this? - alerting the authorities and cooperating with legal processes is not a last resort or even a next-best option but THE FIRST RESPONSE.
If we take all this seriously, maybe, just maybe, churches can make a u-turn before flying off the counseling cliff.
What do you think? Am I on to something here? Overreacting?
*I want to stress that before trial, all the accusations against SGM are filed under “alleged.” Also, I know that there is a spectrum among those who subscribe to “gospel-centered counseling”, and I don’t want to broad stroke too much. Some gospel-centered folks are ok with professional counseling and clinical treatment. But some aren’t.
**I am all for professional counseling done from a Christian perspective – but only if it is legitimate professional counseling. For a beautiful example of people who are incorporating modern psychology into a Christian spiritual framework, and applying that to professional counseling, check out Dan Allender and The Seattle School.