Why Is Jim Berg Speaking at BJU’s Biblical Counseling Conference?

Why Is Jim Berg Speaking at BJU’s Biblical Counseling Conference? November 28, 2017

In December 2014, GRACE, a child-abuse prevention organization run by Billy Graham’s grandson Boz Tchividjian, released a 301-page report following a two-year investigation of Bob Jones University’s response to sexual abuse at that institution. GRACE was invited to conduct this investigation by Bob Jones University (BJU), in order to help the school move past allegations that it had mishandled sexual abuse disclosers and engaged in other troubling practices. And yet, BJU’s upcoming conference on biblical counseling keynotes several individuals the GRACE report soundly condemned.

After a Facebook post pointed me in this direction, I spent some time cross-referencing speakers at the upcoming conference with GRACE’s lengthy report on the response to sexual abuse at BJU. What I found was troubling. Jim Berg and Greg Mazak are being promoted as keynote speakers at BJU’s upcoming conference; both men engage in framing and narratives that can be profoundly damaging to victims of sexual abuse.

Jim Berg was dean of students at BJU for 30 years before leaving the school to found his own ministry. Greg Mazak is a professor at BJU and oversees the university’s biblical counseling program. I’m going to spend some time looking at what the GRACE report had to say about both of these men, but if you want a quick summary of the allegations against Berg, this article might suit.

One of the questions in the GRACE investigation focused on whether BJU reported rape and other sexual offenses to the authorities or handled them in-house. The answer, they found, was the latter. As a general rule, BJU treated sexual offenses as a moral matter rather than a criminal matter and dealt with perpetrators only by counseling or, in the worst cases, expulsion. Here is what one BJU graduate interviewed by GRACE said happened when she went to BJU about her sexual assault at the hands of a BJU student:

When GRACE asked the victim whether university officials ever encouraged her to contact the police, she stated,

No. It was actually quite the opposite. [Jim] Berg kept saying it was a university issue. He never mentioned contacting the police.

BJU asked the student who sexually assaulted her to take a year off and then allowed him to reenroll; he graduated and is now on the mission field. When she notified the perpetrator’s missions agency in 2012, they told her that they considered the matter closed because BJU had allowed him to reenroll and graduate.

When GRACE confronted Berg about this, here is what he had to say:

I will tell you, at this time, we were looking at this as a moral offense, not a criminal offense. Hopefully today we would see that. I know that never even crossed our mind as a criminal activity. It crossed our mind that there was a huge moral breach here and [the perpetrator] needed to go home…. What I am saying is, when I look at this today, I look at this as somebody who is taking sexual opportunities with a person who is not able to defend herself in any way or even resist. Well that is a criminal effect. That is a criminal thing. That would have never been a thought.

While this offense occurred in the 1990s, Berg repeated his statement here—that he was not then thinking about sexual assault as a crime—in reference to events that occurred in 2006 and 2007 as well. But the important thing, Berg wants you to know, is that his thinking has changed. Those things that happened in the past are over; things are different now.

The GRACE report reserves its most scathing criticism Walter Fremont, a former dean of Bob Jones University’s School of Education. Fremont dominated the school’s approach to rape and sexual abuse for decades. He also died in 2007. It would be very easy for figures like Berg to let the blame settle on the deceased while simultaneously reinventing themselves, which appears to be just what Berg is doing. He has changed, he says. He totally gets it! You can trust him now and let him keep his microphone.

Of course, there are reasons to believe Berg’s claims to having changed ring hollow. Yes, GRACE found that in a number of recent cases BJU did indeed report sexual offenses of a criminal nature to the authorities. But GRACE didn’t investigate that aspect only; GRACE also investigated BJU’s counseling practices. Let’s look at the experiences of two women Berg counseled in the 1990s and 2000s, and at Berg’s response to their testimony and description of his current practices:

A victim of sexual assault stated that she disclosed to Dr. Berg in the 1990s that a BJU student had sexually assaulted her off campus. At the suggestion of a family friend, the victim met with Dr. Berg about the sexual assault on one occasion. The victim stated that when she met with Dr. Berg, she felt like she “was on trial and Berg was the judge.” The victim also stated that Dr. Berg asked her numerous questions about her spiritual life and her church attendance.

In discussions regarding this incident, Dr. Berg stated, “Somehow in that conversation she did bring up that she was out of sorts with the Lord. If He is plowing that field, I am going to talk to her about what we can do then.” Explaining the effect this type of questioning had upon her, the victim said, “It seemed to me that he thought I deserved it by the way he questioned me. He did not show any kindness or compassion (from my perspective). It was a time of added humiliation, confusion and shame…. I felt sick and humiliated.”

The GRACE investigators gave Berg additional time and space to respond more fully to these charges. Here is what Berg had to say:

Dr. Berg further stated, “[I]t doesn’t cross my mind that a girl in this situation is at fault. I would have asked if she had a previous relationship with him. That is part of interviewing to find out who [the perpetrator] is. I just want to know that previously. All I can say is what she is saying … I won’t deny how she felt. I don’t think [the victim] is making up anything; she probably felt everything there. But that is not my attitude towards her; it wasn’t then and it isn’t now.”

The second woman describes what happened when she was counseled by Berg similarly:

Another victim explained that she had been in counseling with Dr. Berg and left the counseling session feeling blamed. She stated that before she came to BJU in the 2000s, she had been sexually assaulted at work. She disclosed her abuse to her Dorm Counselor who suggested that they meet with Dr. Berg. In the first counseling session, the victim remembers that Dr. Berg had asked her a series of “rapid fire questions” such as, “Were you drinking? Were you smoking marijuana? Were you morally impure? Were you sleeping with anyone?” The victim said she told Dr. Berg that she was 18 and at work during the incident and that before the assault she had only once held hands with a boy on a school bus. The victim reported that Dr. Berg said, “we needed to figure out what my sin was. He asked if I was sinning.” The victim reported that Dr. Berg said “there is a sin that happens behind every other sin.”

Dr. Berg explained that the purpose of these types of questions is to distinguish between the guilt or shame that God intends when a person sins versus shame or guilt that is not from God but which may come from another source. The victim, however, reported that she left the meeting feeling devastated and hopeless.

Berg added additional explanation here as well:

“In order to help them with shame and make the difference between, ‘What do we do with the shame that other people have created for us and what do we do with the shame that God intends for us in guilt’ are two entirely different things and if there is anything where she was, I don’t know, but I may have asked her those questions. I don’t recall but I don’t doubt because in my previous conversations with her she came in because she said that she was very rebellious her last year of high school, she got into drinking, profanity, and so forth…So if I recalled that, it would not be unusual for me to say, ‘Were you- you are not responsible for what happened to you here, but was there any part of this that you are- that you feel very guilty about that you need to get cleared out of this so we can deal with what is the other part of it is. I very well may have done that. I did do that with people, and I may have done that with her. But that wasn’t saying, ‘Your sin here caused that.’ There is logical cause and effect if you do something wrong and you end up in the wrong place, but that is not- I am never going to fault a girl for a rape on this thing. But she is going to bear guilt for what she did do wrong here and so that can be cleared that [sic] up and out of the way so that she can deal with [sic].”

Two things stick out to me. First, if these women state that Berg’s counseling made them feel this way, Berg’s most productive response would be to rethink how he counsels women in these situations. It’s true, Berg doesn’t claim these women are lying. That at least is positive. But neither does he engage in any self-examination. If his goal was to make women feel one thing and he made them feel something completely different, he was doing something wrong. He failed at counseling them—and badly. This ought to make him question his counseling methods, but he doesn’t appear to do so at all.

That Berg does not appear to have changed or introspected on his damaging approach to counseling sexual abuse victims should be especially concerning in light of BJU’s upcoming conference, where he will be speaking as an authority on biblical counseling, training and mentoring current counselors and professors of counseling. Berg stated that he has changed is that he now reports sexual crimes to the police instead of treating them as solely moral or university matters. That is not the same thing as changing his counseling methods.

Second and perhaps more importantly, Berg’s claims that he never meant to make any woman feel that being sexually assaulted was her fault ring hollow the longer he goes on. In the last paragraph above, it is very clear that Berg believes that women can be (and sometimes should be) blamed for their own rape, no matter how many times he claims he doesn’t believe that.

“There is a logical cause and effect if you do something wrong and you end up in the wrong place,” Berg says, before checking himself and stating “but that is not—I am never going to fault a girl for a rape on this thing.” But then Berg tacks back once again, adding that “she is going to bear guilt for what she did do wrong here.” The woman may rightly bear guilt, Berg seems to be arguing, but that doesn’t mean it was her fault she was raped.

And Berg is surprised that women listened to him say these things and came away feeling that they bore guilt for their own rapes—or that what happened to them was their fault. There is zero introspection about this.

There’s another problem with Berg’s counseling methods too: Berg has long argued that a victim of sexual abuse who harbors resentment or anger is engaging in sin. See here, for instance:

Though Dr. Berg and Dr. Mazak indicated that they do not view some trauma effects such as nightmares or PTSD as “sins” per se, BJU counselors do believe that victims have responsibility for their thought patterns. As Dr. Berg stated in his counseling training videos, “My will has to be involved in rebellion and in anger and all of these things for my soul to be touched by what happens to my body.” In applying this idea to the issue of nightmares, Dr. Berg noted,

The stronger the emotion, the stronger the memory, the more likely it is going to be a part of a nightmare. But the thing that keeps it alive is the emotion now that you have that keeps it going. The fear now, the hatred now, the anger now keeps it alive. You deal with those emotions, the nightmares disappear too.

As the GRACE report further notes:

The epitome of victim blaming is to tell rape victims that their severe symptoms of PTSD are their own fault. Their debilitating fear, their wildly unpredictable flashbacks, their frequent dissociative blackouts, and their terrifying nightmares would all disappear if only they would: stop dwelling on the past, forgive and forget, memorize more scripture, and be a better Christian.

Dr. Berg and Dr. Mazak acknowledged that PTSD is a “normal” response to traumatic events. The symptoms of PTSD such as flashbacks and nightmares are also “normal” and thus not inherently sinful. However, symptoms like flashbacks and nightmares are, in this view, “spiritual problems.” The approach taken by Dr. Mazak and Dr. Berg can be heard by an abuse victim as saying that suffering from PTSD is sinful. The stronger the symptoms and the longer they linger, the more evidence that the abuse victim is failing their “trial” or not making enough spiritual effort to know Jesus.

I’m going to delve into this further, but first I want to note the reference to Greg Mazak, another speaker at BJU’s upcoming biblical counseling conference who was also implicated in the GRACE report. What else does the report tell us about Greg Mazak?

See also Dr. Mazak’s recorded psychology lecture provided by BJU, wherein he stated, “When bad things happen to us, what do we do? We look at them God’s way. We become like Job, we get spiritually transformed. We realize that God has a purpose for things, and He has a way for us to deal with even the bad times. Spiritual transformation. That’s the biblical way of doing things. Realizing we are created in the image of God, realizing that God allows bad things to happen to us because it perfects the image of Christ in us. OK? Count it all joy when you encounter diverse trials. Count it all joy, knowing that the trying of your faith worketh patience, and more verses we can cite than that. OK? That’s the biblical way of dealing with things.”

This is not a helpful thing to tell victims of sexual abuse—that God let the abuse happen to them in order to perfect the image of Christ in them. The GRACE report says far less about Mazak than about Berg, but what it says is enough.

This idea that abuse is a trial designed to make us better, more Christ-like, isn’t isolated to this section. It is related to several analogies Berg uses, and defends in the GRACE report. In the first, Berg compares the body to a styrofoam cup and calls it “the throwaway part”:

Dr. Berg also acknowledged to GRACE that he has described the body to sexual abuse victims as “the throwaway part” and stated that he has analogized the body to a Styrofoam cup when counseling sexual abuse victims. He explained the analogy by stating, “So no matter what has happened in your past, working on becoming the most Godly person you can be…is like this Styrofoam cup. You go out to the athletic field and you buy some hot apple cider on a winter night here, and you drink the cider and you throw away the cup-and the concern is . . . and you throw away the cup because that is not the most important part-the most important part is what is on the inside. I say, ‘God is going to resurrect our bodies and our bodies are important; they are a part of our personhood. But the condition of our body, whether I lose a leg in an accident or whether you lose your virginity because of your choices or because of somebody else’s choices, the state of your body is not the determining part of your freedom, and your fruitfulness, your joy, your peace. What is going on in the inside is the important part of your soul. God is going to resurrect your body and make it all new at some point.’ I make it very clear, ‘I am not minimizing what happened to your body. That should have never happened to your body and other people can harm your body and that can have a deep impact on your soul, but God has given you in his sovereignty an ability to change what is in your soul through the Scripture.’ . . . . That was my take on it, but maybe that was more confusing…. It is intended to be hopeful, not to minimize it. The Styrofoam part is the throw-away part. That does not mean it is not important at all, but the part that can be changed right now is this part. That is the Styrofoam cup illustration.”

None of this is in the past tense. Berg is not abandoning this analogy, he is defending it. Berg tells sexual abuse victims that their bodies are “the throwaway part” and that what really matters is their souls. Let’s put this analogy in the context of Berg’s earlier statement from a counselor training video, quoted in the GRACE report above:

“My will has to be involved in rebellion and in anger and all of these things for my soul to be touched by what happens to my body.”

The body is “the throwaway part” and the soul is what is important, and, according to Berg, sexual abuse only touches the soul if the victim is “involved in rebellion and in anger.” In other words—if your soul is impacted, it’s your fault.

Berg also uses an analogy involving a tea bag:

One specific illustration of this concept that Dr. Berg discussed is the illustration of the tea bag. Dr. Berg explained, “The pressures around us (the unfavorable circumstances, the temptations, and the commands of God to love Him and our neighbor) merely draw out of our heart what is already in it. We cannot blame the hot water for the taste in the cup….” Dr. Berg explained that he has used this illustration in some counseling scenarios and when teaching all of his freshman orientation classes. He further noted that he uses it when he is talking about responses to trials, “…that God often uses our circumstances to draw out what is in our heart.” …

In a footnote associated with this paragraph, the GRACE investigators included Berg’s further discussion of the tea bag analogy, including this bit:

“Similarly, we cannot shift the blame for any bitterness, anger, despair, deception, cruelty, and so forth that we display when we are under pressure. The pressures merely expose how unlike Christ we really are.”

In other words, if you respond to being raped with bitterness, anger, or despair, you are showing “how unlike Christ” you are, how sinful. The trial (the rape) has only brought out what was in your heart—and it doesn’t look good.

We don’t have to imagine how this might come across to a sexual abuse victim in a counseling session. GRACE interviewed one survivor on just this point:

Another victim of childhood sexual trauma who said she heard the “tea bag illustration” while at BJU explained, “I couldn’t stop being angry. Being angry was a sin…. What was inside of me was rage, terror, nightmares that woke me up almost every night crying, blackouts, a yellow fog that muted everything or else I was hyper alert on edge always. I felt like the lid that was on me as a tea kettle was just a little nudge away from exploding. I thought I was going crazy. I was afraid I was going to be like my mom. I walked around seeing myself as a tea kettle with a rattling lid about to explode….I would hide out in the prayer room on the third floor in the dark and ask God to kill me because I was too chicken to step out in front of a car. I didn’t have any other way to die.”

The GRACE investigation found that Berg personally used the tea bag analogy while counseling sexual assault victims. And note, again, that when GRACE asked Berg to explain the tea bag analogy he did not back away from it. He stated that he uses it (present tense) “when he is talking about responses to trials.”

My attention was drawn to this upcoming conference by a Facebook post by Rebecca Davis, who blogs against abuse in the church at Here’s the Joy. In her post, Davis quoted an anonymous friend who had been harmed by BJU’s counseling practices, and who had participated in GRACE’s investigation.

Here is what Davis’ friend had to say about BJU’s continued promotion of Berg and Mazak as biblical counseling experts, as highlighted by this upcoming conference:

This is incredibly demeaning and repulsive, seemingly a mockery in the face of every individual who participated in the sexual abuse investigation completed by GRACE re: BJU’s response to sexual abuse and their “counseling.”

For those who are unaware, GRACE completed a two year investigation of BJU. That investigation was seemingly just dismissed and the victims ignored, shamed and shunned. There is a segment of people within the community that have been deeply wounded by BJU as documented in the GRACE report. Please don’t simply turn away.

I am truly horrified. I am horrified that they continue to teach in an area where they desperately need repentance, training and a lot of attempts at righting the wrongs of the past. I am also horrified by how little they seem to value the many, many victims who they have already hurt so deeply and continue to hurt when they do things like this.

Please – to those of you who claim Christianity, PLEASE speak up against this. Please read the GRACE re: regarding what revealed during the investigation and plead with the school to change direction.

Here is the copy of the investigation: link

Please read. Please hear. The people in the pages of the investigation are all real people. Some of them are your neighbors and friends. Please appeal to the school to address the wrongs of the past and be open to learning healthier views prior to putting on a conference about this topic.

Bob Jones University, it seems, learned little from the GRACE report—a report they themselves sponsored and asked for. The least we can do is spread this information, to make sure that BJU won’t be able to get away with claims they have reformed and fixed their problems. By sharing this post, or Davis’ public Facebook post, or simply the link to the GRACE report and the conference page, you can help get the word out there. It’s time we held them accountable. No more shadows.

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