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?