Competent to Counsel?

Within the evangelical, Bible-believing, American church in the last four decades, an awful lot of things have happened which I fervently hope my grandchildren will have a hard time believing.  But among a truly embarrassing heap of incongruous strangenesses, there are a few that really stand out, and I’d like to talk about one of those.

Starting in the late sixties, our counselors — those specialists in explaining to us how people in disagreement can sit down and have a peaceable discussion like grown-ups — divided into two camps that were, for the most part, utterly incapable of peaceable dialogue.

Let me say that again: Our conflict resolution specialists could barely speak to one another, let alone resolve their intramural conflicts.

And these are the people who are supposed to help us get along with our in-laws.  “Tell it not in Gath…”

David Powlison unfolds half of the sad tale in Competent to Counsel? The History of a Conservative Protestant Biblical Counseling Movement.  As the title indicates, Powlison is writing a history of the biblical counseling movement, not a history of the debate between it and the evangelical psychotherapists. As far as the debate goes, this is hardly the whole story.  But thus far, it is the only serious, scholarly attempt to chronicle the biblical counseling movement — which is valuable in itself, and addresses the conflict from one side in any case.

Why does it matter?

Because if we want to avoid similar decades-long battles in other areas — like, say, over the exact content that one must believe to be saved — then it is helpful to see what our brothers have done wrong (and what they have done right) in past conflicts.

Just one example:  When Jay Adams began writing and speaking about counseling, he almost completely bypassed the evangelical psychotherapists and went straight for their constituents.  His message was “The Bible has the answers for problems in living; seek the answers there.  Don’t listen to these guys; they’re not basing their responses on the Bible, and in any case they are an illegitimate secular pastorate and their function needs to be returned to the church.”  (My paraphrase, but he was at least that blunt.)

Now, the response was predictable as sunrise: the psychotherapists fought back tooth and nail, or ignored him.

Adams had to know that was going to happen.  He seems to have made a decision that he was unlikely to win them over in any case, so he would take his argument to the broader church as fast as possible, using deliberately inflammatory rhetoric to make friends quickly where people agreed with him — at the cost of making enemies quickly among the psychotherapists.

Now, I think Adams had an important message, and the wider church needed to be brought into the discussion.  But the biblical standard for engaging fellow believers is “Consider one another in order to stir up love and good deeds….”  Instead, Adams chose a course of action practically guaranteed to maximize animosity and bad deeds among the evangelical psychotherapists, with predictable results that largely persist today.  While there are pockets of biblical counseling here and there, the evangelical world as a whole has weighed it and found it wanting.  The reasons for that state of affairs would fill a book, but it surely hasn’t helped that while bringing much biblical content to bear on problems in living, the movement simultaneously behaved unbiblically toward one group of fellow believers.

For those of you conversant with the present gospel spat, this ought to sound familiar.  Think we can learn anything from history?


6 Responses to Competent to Counsel?

  1. Amanda says:

    You’re right, this does sound VERY familiar. Unfortunately.

    Another thing that makes me sad, and I think you hit the nail on the head with the tag title “Bare Minimum Gospel Foolishness”, is how adamantly and ferociously so many people on both sides either are or have “debated” [fought] over the issue. Yes, it is an important issue, but so many of the debaters act like it’s the biggest crisis of the Body that could ever occur. To me, THAT fact is an even bigger crisis. It’s creating so much discord among brothers and sisters, and it’s in many ways HINDERING the Gospel that they’re arguing over!!

    “Because if we want to avoid similar decades-long battles in other areas — like, say, over the exact content that one must believe to be saved — then it is helpful to see what our brothers have done wrong (and what they have done right) in past conflicts.”

    Another good point, and something I’ve wondered about and didn’t really know where to go or what to research. Then again, there are probably many conflicts like this littered through the history of the Christian church, both past and present. It’s funny sometimes to read about issues that have seemed so tragic in the past, that we don’t even think twice about now. When reading through a collection of letters written by C.S. Lewis, my stepmom found a missive where he lamented to a friend regarding the way certain churches and schools were reacting to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the 1950’s. Apparantly, many of these institutions were banning/speaking negatively about it because they thought Aslan was too scary, and the White Witch too violent! Good thing those people had no preemptive knowledge of the books that Christians would attempt to ban in another 50 years.

  2. Tim Nichols says:


    I’ve found it helpful to study the controversies surrounding the doctrine of the Trinity and the Council of Nicea in connection with this. It has the advantage of being a success story — but one of the key differences between that time and this one is the presumption of unity. Back then, they really believed that there was only one church, so they had to work it out.
    Now — at least in Protestantism — we tend to just form a new sect and keep on going. It’s an incredibly rotten testimony.


  3. Gary says:

    Interesting commentary. Titled to address Counseling, but opens the door to discuss, at minimum, Unity, Inter-Family Relations and Communications, and the Gospel “Spat”.

    I’m going to address the latter issue and leave it to you to post where you determine to be most appropriate since I see you have another area of your site for the Gospel discussions. For reasons of personal preference, I’ll refer to this “spat” as a debate.

    I have watched this debate from afar. When it intensified awhile back, I too wrote an open letter to the parties, but I did not send it. It seemed the debate and separations were determined to be necessary.

    Some time prior to the intensification, I attended a Pastor’s conference where a paper was presented by one of the debaters, and based upon the questions from the audience it was quite obvious that there was a level of discomfort regarding the paper that had just been presented. Although I understood the reasoning, I was disheartened that the decision was made to leave the topic and continue with the other scheduled presentations. With all the minds in attendance, it seemed an excellent time to continue the discussion on the Gospel, or at least to provide the opportunity for any interested parties to meet afterward and continue the discussion and debate as necessary.

    Another thing I noticed from the questions was that each questioner had what seemed to be a favorite aspect of the Gospel that they were concerned had been negated or had become secondary.

    You make a good point about the fact that in earlier times there was a presumption of unity and that things got worked out. Sadly your point about our ability to take a position today and then just separate and move on is also quite true. And this point has come back upon itself in that there are so many different opinions today and such extensive immediately available communications of them, that even the most important and basic doctrines of the Bible, including the Gospel, are so varied and confused that unity in understanding is nothing more than something Christ Himself will need to return to establish. We can be thankful that we are not the Sovereign Executive of Evangelism, nor the Sovereign Executive of anything, or we would accomplish nothing as a Body.

    The Gospel debate should continue. Maybe the fact that is has heated up has to do with all the confused and varied forms of it being presented today. Maybe it heated up because it needs to be brought into focus and straightened out like the other historical controversies you mention. If we listen, there are way too many versions of the Gospel being expressed quite loudly and boldly. No surprise but not good.

    For me, I’m not so concerned with men acting like children as we all do at times. I’m more concerned with how we let a major point of our Faith be put aside while we carry on with our scheduled agendas, and how we carry on thinking we know the truth but that other guy who I used to go to, to help me understand an area of Scripture I was struggling with, now has no merit as an exegete, at least on this topic.

    The more I watch us as a Body, and the more I attempt to recognize my own sin ridden capacities and motivations, the more I’m reminded of an old TV commercial that stopped the argument by saying, “Stop! You’re both right”. I don’t think any of us have the whole equation. And I don’t think the whole equation has been worked out as yet. And I find it difficult to understand, why we should not just step into a war–room and debate this to its conclusion, assuming our Lord thinks it time in history that this be done. It seems He may have spotlighted the issue.

  4. Tim Nichols says:


    There has been some difficulty getting the key players into the war room to have that discussion, although at least one such attempt has been made. The problem is that there are prior issues that have to be hashed out — how do we conduct these conflicts in the first place, and what does Christian unity mean in practice when arguing about the gospel? Starting with the Protestant Reformation, and most recently (in our circles) with the Lordship Salvation wars, God has given us a series of opportunities to settle those prior concerns so we can deal with the doctrinal issues in a God-honoring way.

    To put it bluntly, we’ve not succeeded; instead, we’ve just grown ever more schismatic. Until that tide turns, I don’t see any resolution on the gospel spat.


  5. interested spectator says:

    Hey Tim,

    This is off-topic for the thread, but how about going to bat for the Free Grace position in the new series over at It would be nice to read some constructive dialogue.

  6. Tim Nichols says:

    Hey, everybody, listen up! This is the kind of thing you want to avoid.

    Someone, posting under a pseudonym, invited me to a debate in the comment above. Thing is, the guy I’d be debating, Jon Speed, has never heard of me (nor had I heard of him), and most importantly, he’s not the one issuing the invitation. In fact, he says right out front on his blog that he’s not interested in debating.

    So I emailed Jon Speed and asked him if he knew “Interested Spectator” or recognized the email address.

    Big surprise — he doesn’t, and like me, he’s not interested in being duped into a fight on the internet by some anonymous third party.

    Meanwhile I emailed “Interested Specter”…er, I meant “Spectator,” and asked, “Who are you?”

    A couple of days have elapsed since I asked that question, and in the second big surprise of the weekend, I’ve gotten no answer — in fact, no answer to that email at all.

    But I have a guess. The suggestion came from…

    …yet another e-arsonist intent on starting a flame war. As to exactly who it is — Pimply teenager? Bible school freshman with too much time on his hands? Opponent of John Speed (or me) who wants someone else to do his homework for him? Modern Diotrephes trying to interest his opponents in someone other than him? — I have no idea.

    It is, of course, possible that this person is just exhibiting spectacularly bad judgment, and not ill intent. The practical result, of course, would be the same.

    But in any case, I’m not going to play. More important things to do than dance to some sockpuppet’s tune, no matter why he plays it.

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