When people had personal problems, only 28 per cent went to professional counselors or clinics; 29 per cent consulted their family physician, and 42 per cent sought help from a clergyman. These were some of the findings of a survey made in the late fifties by the Joint Commission on Mental Illness and Health. Although the figures are now out of date, it still is accurate to conclude that pastors are called upon to do much of the counseling that is done in this country. A second conclusion follows from this: the theological seminary has the duty of equipping pastors for this important part of their ministry.

In one sense, pastoral counseling has been with us for centuries. The Old Testament is filled with accounts of godly men and women who were used by the Holy Spirit to encourage, guide, support, confront, advise, and in other ways help those in need. Jesus was described as a “Wonderful Counselor,” and his followers were appointed not only to preach but to deal with the people’s spiritual and psychological needs (Matt. 10:7, 8). Later, the New Testament epistles gave great insight into the counseling techniques of their inspired writers. Throughout the Christian era church leaders have engaged in what have been called the four pastoral functions: healing, sustaining, guiding, and reconciling.

What we now know as the pastoral counseling movement, however, was begun by some pastors and physicians about fifty years ago. Perhaps the best known of the founding fathers was Anton T. Boisen, a minister and writer who during the first sixty years of his long life experienced a number of psychotic breakdowns, three of which led to confinement in mental institutions. Boisen became convinced of the need to train seminary students for work with the mentally ill. Beginning with only a few students, he began a loosely organized training program for seminarians at Worcester State Hospital in Massachusetts.

From this simple beginning, “Clinical Pastoral Education” (CPE) has developed into a highly organized movement. Much of its work has been admirable: providing standards for the training of pastoral counselors; convincing hospital personnel of the importance of involving pastors in treatment of the physically and mentally ill; investigating ways in which theology and the psychological sciences can be related; showing the importance of training in counseling for seminarians; demonstrating that the personal and spiritual development of the seminarian is at least as important as his intellectual training for the ministry.

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In the thirties and forties, when many seminaries were adding clinical pastoral training to their curricula, theologically conservative schools were skeptical. CPE appeared to be a theologically liberal movement, and this, coupled with a general distrust of psychology, undoubtedly caused evangelicals to stay apart.

While in no way endorsing CPE theology, Christian psychologists Clyde Narramore and Henry Brandt showed that a biblical approach to counseling was possible, and some evangelicals began to see the relevance of psychology to theological education. Now most conservative seminaries and Bible schools have courses in pastoral counseling, and some even have highly developed departments of pastoral psychology and counseling. Evangelical contact with the CPE movement remains minimal, however, and evangelicals have no clearly delineated or widely accepted biblical approaches to the counseling process.

Pastoral psychology and counseling can be divided into five overlapping categories that might be labeled the mainstream, the evangelical pastoral counselors, the Christian professionals, the theoretician-researchers, and the popularizers.

1. The mainstream. Most of the current training takes place within the guidelines of the CPE movement. Numerous hospitals have CPE training programs with carefully planned curricula and certified instructors. Many seminaries make one quarter of CPE training a requirement for graduation. People in the field follow with interest CPE-oriented publications, such as the Journal of Pastoral Care. Supervised counselor training and exposure to hospital settings can be a valuable experience, which CPE clearly provides, but the training raises several problems for theologically conservative people. First, following the leadership of Princeton’s Seward Hiltner, CPE tends to consider personal experience rather than Scripture the foundation of training. Thomas Oden describes the method this way:

The overwhelming weight of authority for theological knowledge is given to experience, and in this sense the American pastoral care movement belongs essentially to the tradition of a liberalizing, pragmatizing pietism. One first does certain things and experiences certain relationships, like shepherding the flock, and only then draws valid theological conclusions [Contemporary Theology and Psychotherapy, Westminster, 1967, p. 89],

Oden, who makes no claim to be an evangelical, makes this perceptive comment:

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Although we hardly wish to challenge the validity of interview analysis in pastoral care, we seriously question whether this alone is adequate as a vantage point for drawing theological conclusions without the theological equilibrium that comes from the sustained study of Scripture and tradition and the struggle for rational and systematic self-consistency [p. 90].

A second problem is that the CPE movement tends to borrow uncritically from humanistic secular psychology. In a book on the clinical training of ministers Hiltner says:

In terms of basic attitude, approach, and method pastoral counseling does not differ from effective counseling by other types of counselors. It differs in terms of the setting in which counseling is done, the religious resources which are drawn upon, and the dimension at which the pastor must view all human growth and human problems [The Counselor in Counseling, Abingdon, 1950, p. 11].

The “religious resources” and “dimension” about which Hiltner speaks are not very well defined, but one gets the impression in another of his books, Pastoral Counseling, that prayer, Bible reading, and references to Christian doctrine are merely a part of the pastoral counselor’s collection of techniques.

Third, people in the CPE movement appear to have little tolerance for conservative theological positions. Certainly in the past and perhaps in the present, evangelicals have tended to be directive, authoritarian counselors, insensitive to the needs and feelings of counselees. CPE leaders have resisted this approach and have been quick to notice the rigidities and insecurities that are often found among conservative Christians. Evangelicals also present a biblically based theology that to many critics appears to be narrow-minded and inflexible. As a result of these observations and the failure of evangelicals to show that a theologically conservative approach to counseling is more effective than the work done by CPE-trained counselors, theologically liberal counselors have tended to develop an inflexibility of their own in which they fail to take conservatives seriously.

Of course, pastoral counselors, like theologians, cover a broad theological spectrum. Some of the most familiar persons in the mainstream movement—William Hulme, Wayne Oates, John Drakeford, Carroll Wise, and John Sutherland Bonnell, for example—while probably not evangelicals, nevertheless take a more sympathetic view of conservative theology than would others like Seward Hiltner, Ernest Bruder, Edward Thornton, Russell Dicks, and, perhaps, Howard Clinebell.

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2. Evangelical pastoral counselors. Currently the most outspoken and lucid opponent of the CPE mainstream is Jay E. Adams, professor of practical theology at Westminster Seminary. In several controversial but widely influential volumes, Adams ruthlessly criticizes counseling that is not based on Scripture and proposes a directive approach that he calls “nouthetic counseling.”

Adams is clearly familiar with the contemporary psychological literature. Many of his criticisms of the mainstream are well founded, and more than anyone else he has attempted to develop an approach to counseling that is consistent with the truths of Scripture. Regrettably, however, Adams’s lack of formal training in psychology leads him to oversimplify and reject too quickly the arguments of his opposition. His confrontational approach to counseling is clearly based on Scripture, but he appears to overlook other Bible passages that show the equal importance of supportive, referral, and insight counseling. Adams also has a tendency to attack psychological writers—Christian and non-Christian alike—in an unkind, name-calling manner. This undermines some of his arguments; what he says might be taken more seriously if it were presented more graciously.

Less influential than Adams are several other evangelical pastors-turned-counselors. William E. Crane, Maurice Wagner, and Paul D. Morris, for example, have written books on pastoral counseling from an evangelical perspective. In addition to pastoral training each of these men has had formal training in psychology. Their writing does not have the abrasive character of Adams’s writing, but as yet none has published an approach as well developed as nouthetic counseling.

3. The Christian professionals. As might be expected, evangelicals who have formal training in psychology, psychiatry, and related areas have done most of the biblically oriented writing in pastoral psychology and counseling. Some of these professionals, like Donald Tweedie, James Dobson, Bruce Narramore, Quentin Hyder, James Mallory, and Anthony Florio, have directed their writings primarily to lay readers, but others, such as Clyde Narramore and I, have in addition written books and papers that deal with counseling from a pastoral perspective.

The quality and theological sophistication of these various works varies, of course. Most of the writers in the area risk ostracism from their professional colleagues for even daring to take religion seriously. It is not surprising that they proceed somewhat cautiously in their criticisms of psychology and in their attempts to combine psychology and theology. More than the others, however, these people understand the professional literature and the intricacies of the counseling process. It is from them, and others like them, that the most creative work in this field must come.

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Observations at professional meetings suggest that many unknown evangelicals are working in counseling. Most of them do not write and hence are not widely known, but in their day-to-day work they are attempting to integrate biblical teachings with counseling techniques and concepts. The recently founded Journal of Psychology and Theology has given many of these counselors a forum for expressing their ideas.

4. The theoretician-researchers. One involved in a pastoral counseling ministry might easily conclude that research and theory are of minor importance. On the contrary, these areas are crucial. First, they add professional and intellectual support to the conclusions of Christian counselors, and second, they provide an apologetic for facing the anti-Christian challenges constantly being raised in university psychology classes.

Many years ago Freud dismissed religion as an illusion, a “universal obsessional neurosis” that by serving as a narcotic helps potentially troubled people maintain their stability. B. F. Skinner’s behaviorism, Ellis’s rational-emotive therapy, Rogers’s humanistic approach to counseling, Maslow’s third-force psychology—all attack the very basis of Christianity and present the Church with what may be one of its greatest current intellectual challenges.

Evangelicals for the most part have avoided this battleground, and psychology has cut the theological moorings of numerous students and psychologists in training. Vernon Grounds wrote a series of articles in this area published in His in 1963, and Bruce Narramore outlined some of the problems in an article in the Journal of Psychology and Theology (January, 1973). Among the writers who have attempted to discuss psychology and religion from a biblical perspective are Paul Tournier, R. O. Ferm, P.F. Barkman, H. W. Darling, and, in a joint work, Bruce Narramore and B. Counts. Perhaps the two most widely consulted volumes are What, Then, Is Man? by Meehl and his Lutheran colleagues and my own Search For Reality. Regrettably, the first is very difficult to read and the second is probably too elementary.

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5. The evangelical popularizers. This survey would be incomplete without some reference to the popular speakers who criss-cross the country dispensing practical advice on daily living. The best known of these is Bill Gothard with his “Institute of Basic Youth Conflicts.” Others are Keith Miller, Bruce Larson, Tim LaHaye, Howard Hendricks, Norman Wright, and the men who work for Family Life Seminars. Some, like Bill Gothard, are best known as speakers; others, like Paul Tournier, Keith Miller, Charlie Shedd, and Marabel Morgan, are best known through their books; and Tim LaHaye and others are known as both lecturers and writers.

Professional psychologists and social observers view these people with amazement. They seem to have come on the scene suddenly, they attract large followings, and in most cases they have little or no training in psychology. They appear to have several characteristics in common. All deal with down-to-earth subjects, give simple explanations for problems, provide workable formulas for success and problem-solving, communicate effectively without psychological jargon, have attractive personalities, are at least somewhat biblically oriented, and say something that is in some way unique. In an age of economic and political instability, declining morals, and increasing crime, these popularizers proclaim a measure of hope, stability, and the promise of success. People follow them like sheep looking for a shepherd.

Professional counselors complain that the popularizers are overly simplistic and might do harm by their “self-help” formulas for psychological stability and principles for spiritual growth. Yet without doubt many people are helped by these popular Christian psychologies. Perhaps this shows again the truth of Paul’s words in First Corinthians 1:27–29: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”

Compared with the less conservative segments of the Church, evangelicals have been slow to enter pastoral psychology and counseling. There are still pockets of mistrust of psychology and acceptance of the naïve view that commitment to Christ automatically eliminates all problems.

But progress is evident, Christian graduate schools of psychology at Fuller, Rosemead, and Georgia State; advanced degree programs in pastoral psychology and counseling at Trinity, Conservative Baptist, and Fuller; commendable undergraduate psychology programs at colleges like Gordon and Bethel; the emergence of Christian counseling centers in Atlanta, Grand Rapids, southern California, and other places; the sudden expansion of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies (6850 Division Avenue South, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49508); the appearance of the evangelically oriented Journal of Psychology and Theology (1409 North Walnut Grove Avenue, Rosemead, California 91770); the influence of the popularizers; the willingness of evangelical mission boards to have psychologists help them select and counsel missionaries; the psychological research on religious experience conducted by William Wilson and his evangelical colleagues at Duke University—developments like these signify an explosion of interest. There is no one geographical or academic center for this activity, and as yet there are few established leaders, though several are emerging.

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As we move into the last quarter of this century it seems to me that our efforts should focus on five major areas:

1. Christian counseling. Is it simply a Rogerian, Freudian, or behavioristic approach with occasional prayer and references to the Bible, or is counseling based on biblical assumptions in some way unique? Counseling techniques depend largely on the personality of the counselor and the nature of the counselee’s problems. We are unlikely to arrive at one biblical approach to counseling, any more than we have discovered one biblical approach to missions, evangelism, or preaching. Still, we should try to uncover the various techniques and approaches that arise out of or are clearly consistent with the teachings of Scripture. Then we should try out these techniques, testing their effectiveness not by subjective feelings about whether or not we are “really helping people” but by carefully controlled assessment techniques.

2. Training and education. How do we train people to be effective counselors? This problem has concerned secular psychologists and mainstream pastoral counselors for several years. Only now are researchers learning how to select sensitive people and mold them into perceptive counselors. Much of this work can be applied to training Christian counselors, but in addition we must be alert to the spiritual qualifications for counselors that are mentioned in Galatians 6:1 and elsewhere.

The training of Christian counselors must take place on three fronts. The first is the training of professionals. This usually occurs in graduate schools of psychology and in counseling centers where students get practical experience. Second, evangelicals must give special attention to training pastors and other church leaders to counsel. This is the major responsibility of the seminaries; their task is not only to train students but to give continuing education to missionaries, ministers, and other Christian workers.

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A third area of training is sure to be of increasing importance in the coming decade: the training of laymen for “peer counseling.” Nobody knows how many people turn to relatives, neighbors, friends, or fellow church members when they are in psychological and spiritual need, but it may be that this is where most counseling takes place. Some creative work in this area is being done at the Link-Care Foundation in Fresno, California. Other training centers must join in considering such questions as how we select and train lay counselors, how they should be supervised, what kinds of problems they can handle best, how they can be trained to make referrals and to whom, and even whether such people should be doing counseling at all. It is possible that a little counseling knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but no knowledge might be worse.

3. Preventive psychology. The well-known proverb that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure has only recently been applied to the field of counseling. In the secular world, Caplan’s Principles of Preventive Psychiatry, published in 1964, did much to alert counselors to the importance of helping people avoid problems or stop existing ones from getting worse. Two books by Clinebell and one by Glenn Whitlock have pointed to the need for preventive pastoral psychology, but these books take no real biblical stance. Premarital counseling is a form of prevention that has been widely used by Christians and non-Christians alike, and the books and speeches by the popularizers help many people to avoid problems; but apart from these two areas very little has been done in preventive psychology. It is a wide open field for those who believe that being committed to Christ can influence how one copes with life’s problems.

4. Theory and psychological apologetics. This area presents two overlapping concerns for evangelicals. First, we must help Christian students and psychologists see that despite the analyses of Freud, Skinner, and others, Christianity and psychology need not be antithetical. Christians in psychology are in a unique position to study matters like the meaning of life, the effect of belief on psychological functioning, and the ways in which psychological science and Christian faith can be integrated to bring a fuller understanding of human behavior. They must not abandon the field of personality theory, philosophy of science, or the psychology of religion. In these fields evangelicals can make a special contribution, and young Christians in psychology must be helped to see this. They must also be helped to see that psychological analyses of faith healing, conversion, Christian behavior, persuasion techniques, beliefs, attitudes, and religious experience need not undercut the Christian’s belief system. There are good answers and counter-arguments to the challenges that come to Christianity from psychology.

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Closely related to this should be a clear, concise outreach to non-believers within the psychological disciplines and to laymen who are sophisticated psychologically. The non-Christian may, while criticizing and rejecting the concept of religious presuppositions, uncritically and religiously accept a whole group of philosophical assumptions as a basis for his own psychological conclusions. This inconsistency should be pointed out. In addition, the relevance and intellectual bases of Christianity need to be presented to people who are discovering that psychology, while powerful, does not have all the answers to human problems. Like the young student, the professional who offers anti-Christian psychological analyses needs to be shown his errors and faulty conclusions.

This theoretical and apologetical emphasis is one of the most difficult. Psychologists are remarkably resistant to anything philosophical or theological, and their students are easily swayed by psychological analyses. To do work in this area one must be thoroughly familiar with both theology and psychology, skilled in communicating, and astute in observing the changing psychological scene.

5. Research. Good research is hard, sometimes frustrating, costly in time and often in money. Christian professors are often too busy with course work to engage in extensive research. The universities do not encourage research into religious experience, and money for such projects is difficult to raise. Furthermore, variables such as Christian maturity, faith in God, or counseling effectiveness are very hard to investigate empirically. Perhaps these obstacles have dissuaded many from entering the psychological research, but this work must be done if we are to counsel, train, prevent, and theorize efficiently.

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Psychology and counseling present the evangelical with an exciting and potentially rewarding challenge. It is a relatively new field and needs creative thinkers who are willing to be pioneers. But creativity and interest are not enough; the pioneers must be products of solid psychological and theological training, and they must be deeply committed to the authority of Scripture, to the importance of natural revelation, and to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

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