A Critical Evaluation of the Anti-Biblical Counseling Movement
by Michael R. Burgos
At nearly fifty years old, the biblical counseling movement (BCM) has given most of its attention to both internal developments via continual reformation to the biblical text and its ongoing turf war with secular psychology and the integrationist movement. However, there exists another interlocutor, namely the anti-biblical counseling movement (A-BCM) as it exists among conservative Protestants who simultaneously reject psychology and the resultant psychotherapies. This movement, beginning in the late 1980s, has received little attention from within the BCM, likely due to its small size and somewhat incendiary approach. Despite any attention the A-BCM received in the early 1990s, it is virtually now ignored by the BCM.
The leaders and most vocal advocates of the A-BCM are Martin and Deidre Bobgan. Martin Bobgan has a doctoral degree in educational psychology, and he and his wife have produced a substantial number of books and articles which seek to refute the existence of the BCM on biblical and theological grounds. The Bobgans were initially supportive of the BCM, even collaborating with Adams on several projects. That support was withdrawn and the Bobgans began to attack the BCM continually. Despite the A-BCM’s attempts, the BCM has enjoyed considerable success within many churches and institutions. However, the A-BCM has made some inroads into several notable churches and ministries. For instance, Martin Bobgan spoke against biblical counseling at C. H. Spurgeon’s own, Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. Additionally, the Berean Call, the ministry started by the late Dave Hunt, has continued to promote the Bobgans A-BCM materials.
While the Bobgan’s book entitled Against Biblical Counseling: FOR the Bible is one of many texts which voice opposition to the BCM, this text articulates all of the major arguments of the A-BCM in a single volume. This chapter will interact with those arguments presented in Against the Biblical Counseling, demonstrating that the A-BCM’s major objections are unfounded and predicated upon faulty logic and, in some cases, legalism.
An Evaluation of A-BCM Objections
The A-BCM has raised a series of objections that strike at the very heart of the BCM. Below I have provided a summarization of each main objection followed by my critical evaluation.
Summary of Objection I: Biblical Counseling is Integrationism
Biblical counselors teach a novel form of “psychoheresy” (i.e., psychology) “by using the unproved and unscientific psychological opinions of men.” Namely, biblical counselors engage in the same self-focused method of secular psychologies. Biblical counselors focus on problems and not sanctification. “Biblical counselors too often attempt to solve problems at the surface level, or they attempt to discover something about the inner man through various methods of exploration.” The counselor-counselee paradigm is unbiblical and derived from the secular therapeutic culture, and sets the counselor up as an expert. One to one counseling is unbiblical and also a takeover from secular therapy. Charging for counseling is unbiblical and illegitimate.
A Response to Objection I
The BCM originated as a theologically conservative and Calvinistic project which sought to recover the ecclesiastical and institutional ground taken by an influx of secular therapeutic practitioners within conservative evangelicalism. The BCM waged a “jurisdictional conflict” with psychology and psychiatry, as these disciplines encroached upon territory formally occupied by those who recognized the Bible to be the sufficient means of instruction for Christian soul care. This was a movement that sought to recover the heart and soul of the inerrantist church through theological polemics and the recovery of a positive model of counseling derived from Scripture.
While conservative Protestantism had focused its efforts upon defeating the threats of modernity, it had failed to adequately answer the psychological revolution of the post-civil war era. This period brought with it a terrific need for biblical soul care. Instead of meeting the needs of the public with a robust practical theology, the church effectively handed over the responsibility of its soul care to the new “science” of psychology. In the aftermath of the great wars of the twentieth century, psychology had solidified its place within the church. The BCM, taking its cues from its Reformation heritage, sought to reform the church’s understanding of counseling back to the teaching of Scripture; effectively dislodging psychology from its place within evangelicalism.
Biblical counseling is the practical and timely application of the Bible’s teaching to the life of someone who has problems, questions, or some kind of trouble. Biblical counseling is not the proclamation of the facts of the Christian faith in the abstract, but the particular application of biblical truth to specific events, persons, and things. Therefore, biblical counseling has existed long before what we know today as the BCM. What Adams began in the 1970s was merely a return to the cure of souls that had been a fixture within the church for millennia. That the BCM wasn’t innovating may be seen in its dependence upon the soul care of English-speaking puritanism, the reformers, and even the patristic writers. Hence, any claim that the BCM is merely a twentieth-century novelty, or that it is contrary to the church’s tradition of soul care is misguided and dependent upon a mischaracterization of the BCM from the outset.
The theological and methodological vision laid by Adams in the 1970s has been built upon, refined, and even corrected by the BCM itself. Although much development and reformation continues in the third generation of the BCM, the presuppositions and general principles of the movement have remained unchanged. At its root, the fundamental presupposition of the BCM is a theocentric worldview expressed in the historic Reformed faith and its commitment to a high view of the Triune God. Unlike liberal Protestantism, with its subjugation of biblical revelation to the acids of modernity, or the modern therapeutic culture, which founds its presuppositions on the transient ground of moral individualism, Reformed Protestantism has received the canon of Scripture as the only sufficient and infallible rule of Christian faith and practice. As a product of Reformed thought, the BCM has always been predicated upon the reformation principle of Sola Scriptura. Thus, from its inception, the BCM has sought to make the contents of its counseling biblical.
Given this presupposition, biblical counselors seek to address the issues of their counselees using a theological lexicon and a biblical worldview. The content of biblical counseling is Scripture and its shape imperatival. While there is a time for listening and the gathering of information regarding a situation, biblical counseling is directive, giving concrete applications of biblical truth to a person’s life. Thus, the notion that biblical counseling is “self-focused” is an inexcusable mischaracterization. Not only can one survey the literature published by biblical counselors in the last fifty years and see that this assertion is untrue, but even the most cursory examination of the BCM refutes such a claim.
The Bobgans claim that the biblical counselors focus on “problems and not sanctification,” and that biblical counselors have baptized the problem-centered approach of psychotherapy. This objection is curious since there are numerous apostolic examples of problem-focused counsel. The apostle Paul spent the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians writing about his reader’s problems, but he was simultaneously focusing upon sanctification. Hence, it is a false dichotomy to suppose that focusing on peoples’ problems is contrary to sanctification. Moreover, even if one were to ignore the biblical examples, it would be a genetic fallacy to suppose that since psychotherapy utilizes a problem-centered model, it is therefore wrong. Addressing someone’s pornography addiction through the specific application of the Bible’s teaching on lust and idolatry is not “surface level” problem-solving. Applying the Psalms to the heart of the depressed such that they find solace in communion with God is not superficial problem-solving. Rather, biblical counseling is always imperatival and has sanctification as its goal.
Because of the existence of the counselor-counselee paradigm, the Bobgans have accused the BCM of integrationism. To these charges, it must first be observed that the Bobgans have gone beyond what is written in Scripture to make these arguments (1 Cor. 4:6). There is no text prohibiting the use of “counselor” language. Rather, the language of “counselor” and “counselee” reflects a biblical category of function among God’s people. Scripture depicts those who give wise counsel as a great asset (Prov. 11:14; 20:18; 24:6) and the apostle Paul engaged in one on one counseling among the believers in Ephesus (Acts 20:20, v. 31; cf. Rom. 15:14; Col. 1:28).
Second, the notion that biblical counselors are assumed to be experts by all who seek their counsel is misguided. Rather, one seeks the aid of a counselor because he believes that the counselor has wisdom sufficient for the task. A Christian who struggles with doubt wouldn’t likely seek the counsel of a new believer, but one who is mature and who has weathered the affliction of this life and is yet faithful. While upholding the importance of ordained churchmen as especially responsible for counseling, the BCM has always asserted the need for every believer to become a biblical counselor.
The rationale one would use in order to sell a book on the subject of counseling to Christians is the same rationale one would use in charging a fee for counseling. The Scripture warns of those who peddle God’s truth for a profit (2 Cor. 2:17) but it does not prohibit either Christian writers, ministers, teachers, or those whose vocation is counseling from charging a fee for their labor.
The apostle Paul gave a specific justification of earning a living from the ministry in 1 Corinthians 9:1-18. In this pericope, Paul sought to exemplify the doctrine of Christian liberty. In their earlier correspondence, the Corinthian church had questioned Paul regarding eating meat offered to pagan idols. Within the relevant era in Corinth, most butcheries incorporated a token pagan ritual and therefore a diet of meat generally connoted an assent to paganism. Recent converts, having been introduced into an entirely exclusive theology wherein the Triune God is the only suitable object of devotion and worship, would have naturally struggled with parsing through whether eating meat was tantamount to a return to their old way of life. Paul addresses this issue by recognizing that “idols are nothing in the world” (8:4), and that believers are free to eat meat, but must temper their liberty when around those whose consciences are weak. It is on the heels of this discussion that Paul gives an illustration of this principle. In 1 Corinthians 9:4-5, Paul noted that in the same way one has the freedom to eat or drink or to take a wife, those in the ministry have a “right” (Gk. exousia) to earn their living from the ministry. In the case of the church in Corinth, Paul chose not to exercise this right for strategic reasons (vv. 12-13). It is certain, however, that Paul did receive payment from other churches (Phil. 4:16-18; cf. Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:8). Thus, we may discern from Paul’s example that charging for work in the ministry is up to the liberty of the individual believer and his conscience. It is legalism to assert, as the Bobgans do, that it is unlawful or unbiblical to charge for biblical counseling.
Summary of Objection II: Specialized Education in Biblical Counseling Unnecessary & Unbiblical
The BCM movement is guilty of making pastors feel intimidated because of a lack of specialized training in biblical counseling. The Bobgans reject the notion that any specialized education should be offered for those who are seeking to become equipped to engage in counseling. If pastors 100-300 years ago could “preach the Gospel and teach the Word concerning the on-going walk of the believer in sanctification,” and they didn’t have specialized education, no one needs such training today. Biblical counseling training serves to intimidate pastors, making them feel inadequate for ministry.
A Response to Objection II
As previously noted, the BCM is a resurgent movement that has sought to recapture the ecclesiastical and institutional ground taken by psychology and psychiatry practitioners. An examination of conservative Bible colleges and seminaries demonstrates that most do not teach the sufficiency of Scripture for soul care, but the necessity of secular theories and the accompanying methodologies. Hence, there is a great need for a return to the all-sufficient resources of Scripture for soul care, and that is precisely what the BCM has sought over the length of its existence.
It is only within the context of a dearth of true practical theology that one can describe biblical counseling training as “specialized.” Most seminary training focuses its curriculum upon the public ministry of the Word through teaching and preaching, but very little on the private ministry of the Word (i.e., counseling) (Eph. 4:11-16). “The typical seminary curriculum has just one counseling class in 100-credit-hour master of divinity degree.” It is a mischaracterization to assert that the BCM is attempting to add some new form of training otherwise unknown to seminarians. Rather, biblical counseling training a return to biblical theology for Christian soul care. Furthermore, it is more likely that any pastoral intimidation is due to a lack of fluency with psychological diagnoses given the culture’s slavish devotion to the psychotherapeutic establishment. Biblical counseling effectively demystifies the psychological lexicon, viewing human problems through a biblical framework. Even if one were to grant that biblical counseling training is some sort of specialty, there is no biblical text which prohibits one from gaining extraordinary knowledge in the care of souls.
Summary of Objection III: Parachurch Counseling Centers and Counseling Ministries Within Churches Are Unbiblical
Any “biblical counseling ministries that operate outside the church, those that function as separate entities inside churches, and all organizations that train biblical counselors for ministries that are visibly separated from the biblically ordained ministries of the Church” are unnecessary and unbiblical. “A step forward for those in the biblical counseling movement would be to discontinue all biblical counseling centers that operate outside of a church.”
A Response to Objection III
From its inception to the present day, the BCM has stressed the need for the local church to be the means of meeting the counseling needs of believers. The BCM has never been a movement that has emphasized any form of ministry outside of the local church. Adam’s initial model of biblical counseling affirmed the need for every believer to counsel but emphasized the ordained minister as the quintessential counselor of God’s people. Of Romans 15:14, Adams wrote, “Paul recognized that any Christian may engage in nouthetic counseling, so long as he possesses the qualities of goodness and knowledge.” The BCM has always recognized that “The authority for counseling is granted through Christ’s Church.” One can see the BCM’s commitment to the supremacy of the local church in its correlation of biblical counseling and church discipline.
The presupposition underlying the Bobgan’s rejection of any parachurch counseling organization is a rigid definition of the church that is itself unbiblical. When the Bobgans say “discontinue all biblical counseling centers that operate outside of a church,” they are implying that “church” means what Christians do in a building on Sunday and other worship times. This definition, however, is too narrow to be biblical. While the Scriptures do use the term “church” to speak of a local fellowship (Rom. 16:5), the Bible also speaks of the church in provincial terms (Acts 9:31), and even the church catholic (1 Cor. 15:9). Powlison and Lambert note that “The diverse use of the term church in the Bible provides a strong biblical justification within which Christians may organize themselves to serve in activities we call parachurch.”
The local church is clearly the focus of the redemptive efforts of the Triune God on earth, and therefore, parachurch ministries should serve at the pleasure and for the good of the local church. Parachurch ministries that either compete with the church or are completely outside local church authority are indeed unbiblical. However, if a parachurch organization exists to serve and complement the local church and its mission, its ministry is legitimate:
The centrality of the local church congregation is actually an argument for principled parachurch ministry—so long as such ministries direct their energies toward the church’s thriving. That is so for seminaries, prison ministries, and international missions societies. It is so for counseling ministries and every other form of faithful and useful parachurch organization.
The BCM has made use of parachurch ministries which recognize the supremacy of the local church. Biblical counseling parachurch ministries do not, as the Bobgan’s have asserted, replace the local church. Ironically, the Bobgans run a parachurch organization (i.e., “PsychoHeresy Awareness Ministries”), and even implicitly support the role of other parachurch organizations such as seminaries. It would stand to reason, therefore, if parachurch counseling ministries are unbiblical, then so are parachurch anti-counseling ministries. Additionally, there is no biblical imperative, whether explicit or implicit, that precludes the existence of parachurch counseling ministries. Hence, the Bobgan’s objection to parachurch counseling is, like their objection to making a living from the ministry and the existence of biblical counseling training, predicated upon an extrabiblical prohibition.
It has been shown above that the three main objections raised by the anti-biblical counseling movement depend upon mischaracterizations of the BCM. So too, the A-BCM’s objections to earning a living from counseling ministry, biblical counseling education, and the existence of parachurch counseling ministries go beyond what is written in Scripture, landing in bald legalism. Particularly in the case of earning a living from the ministry, there is a clear didactic text which has specifically precluded the Bobgan’s objections.
The BCM is founded upon the bulwark of biblical sufficiency and has ably sought to expand the vision first articulated by Adams to local churches throughout North America and beyond. It is a movement that, while undergoing continual reformation, remains committed to fidelity to the biblical text and the local church.
__________________  David Powlison, The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2010), 217-8.  E.g., Martin & Deidre Bobgan eds., Prophets of Psychoheresy I (Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Pub., 1989).  E.g., Martin & Deidre Bobgan, Competent to Minister: The Biblical Care of Souls (Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Pub., 1996); Against Biblical Counseling: FOR the Bible (Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Pub., 1994); Stop Counseling! Start Ministering! (Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Pub., 2011); Counseling the Hard Cases: A Critical Review (Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Pub., 2016).  Martin & Deidre Bobgan, A Church’s Unholy Alliance with the Four Temperaments (Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Pub., 1992), 2. Cf. Johnson who wrote, “They [i.e., the Bobgans] appear to relatively little influence outside of a small group of like-minded extremists.” Eric L. Johnson, Foundations of Christian Soul Care (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 111.  E.g., Martin & Deidra Bobgan, 06/01/2004, “Christ-Centered Ministry Vs. Problem Centered Counseling,” The Berean Call, https://www.thebereancall.org/content/june-2014-extra-bobgan.  By “legalism” I am not here referring to soteriological legalism but the adoption of prohibitions that are not found in Scripture. These extra-biblical prohibitions violate the principle of 1 Cor. 4:6 wherein Paul instructed the Corinthians “learn by us not to go beyond what is written.” Bobgan, Against Biblical Counseling, 100.  Ibid., 19.  Ibid., 20.  Ibid., 19, 75, 82, 91.  Ibid., 88-9.  Powlison, The Biblical Counseling Movement, 40-1, 51.  Ibid., 1-2, 15.  The initial polemic work was Jay E. Adams, Competent to Counsel: Introduction to Nouthetic Counseling (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970), and continues with recent efforts such as Powlison’s work in Eric L. Johnson ed., Psychology and Christianity: Five Views, 2nd Ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010).  Heath Lambert, The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 34-5.  There exists significant reason to doubt the credibility of psychology as a legitimate science given its inability to follow standard scientific procedures. See pp. 64-75.  Heath Lambert, A Theology of Biblical Counseling: The Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 13.  Some critics of the BCM have wrongly characterized it in reductionistic terms, claiming that biblical counseling is about merely identifying sin and giving the counselee a few Bible lessons. E.g., Darlene Parsons, 12/15/2017, “Biblical Counseling Training: Inadequate Education, Problematic Resources and Questionably Educated Leaders,” The Wartburg Watch, http://thewartburgwatch.com/2017/12/15/biblical-counseling-training-inadequate-education-problematic-resources-and-questionably-educated-leaders/. Cf. Kathryn Joyce, 06/14/2017, “The Rise of Biblical Counseling,” Pacific Standard, https://psmag.com/social-justice/evangelical-prayer-bible-religion-born-again-christianity-rise-biblical-counseling-89464.  Mark A. Deckard, Helpful Truth in Past Places: The Puritan Practice of Biblical Counseling (Fearn, UK: Mentor, 2010); Fraser, Developments in Biblical Counseling, 91-107; T. Dale Johnson, “A Case for Religious Liberty in Soul Care From a Historical Perspective,” The Journal for Biblical Soul Care, 1.1, 34-55; Timothy J. Keller, 1988, “Puritan Resources for Biblical Counseling,” Journal of Pastoral Practice, 9.3, 11-44; Jeremy Lelek, Biblical Counseling Basics: Roots, Beliefs, Future (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2018), 9-11; John F. MacArthur et al., Introduction to Biblical Counseling (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1994), 21-43; David Powlison, 2008, “Looking at the Past and Present of Counseling,” 9Marks Journal, 5.6, 18-21; Cf. John Weaver, The Failure of Evangelical Mental Health Care: Treatments That Harm Women, LGBT Persons, and the Mentally Ill (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2015), 20.  Lambert, The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams, 87-138 and J. Cameron Fraser, Developments in Biblical Counseling (Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 59-90.  For a concise articulation of the sufficiency of Scripture as it relates to counseling see Wayne A. Mack, 1998, “The Sufficiency of Scripture in Counseling,” TMSJ, 9.1, 63-84.  For a concise explanation of the genetic fallacy see Richard A. Holland Jr., Benjamin K. Forrest, Good Arguments: Making Your Case in Writing and Public Speaking (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017), 43.  Adams wrote, “Biblical change is the goal of counseling.” Jay E. Adams, A Theology of Christian Counseling: More Than Redemption (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979), 234. See also Lambert, A Theology of Biblical Counseling, 292; Robert W. Kellemen, Gospel-Centered Counseling: How Christ Changes Lives (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 260; and Stuart Scott’s work in Stephen P. Greggo, Timothy A. Sisemore eds., Counseling and Christianity: Five Approaches (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 167-70.  Jay E. Adams, The Christian Counselor’s Manual (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1973), 9.  1 Cor. 8:1. The abruptness of the introduction peri de tōn eidōlothutōn (“Now concerning meat sacrificed to idols”) implies that this topic was one that was featured in the Corinthian correspondence to Paul (cf. 1 Cor. 7:1).  Alex T. Cheung, Idol Food in Corinth: Jewish Background and Pauline Legacy (Sheffield, UK: Sheffiled Academic Press, 1999), 35-8. See also Khiok-khng Yeo, Rhetorical Interaction in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 (Leiden, NL: Brill, 1995), 95-101.  This view is also reflected in the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors Standards of Conduct § III.C. See 10/04/2016, “Standards of Conduct,” Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, https://biblicalcounseling.com/certification/standards-of-conduct/.  Bobgan, Against Biblical Counseling, 11.  Bob Kellemen, Kevin Carson eds., Biblical Counseling and the Church: God’s Care Through God’s People (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 34.  Welch, referring to the Christian gospel and the Scriptures, has suggested that intimidated pastors “Already know the most helpful truths” See Edward T. Welch, 12/17/2018, “Five Encouragements for Pastors Intimidated by Biblical Counseling,” 9Marks, https://www.9marks.org/article/intimidated/.  An excellent example of this is Michael R. Emlet, Descriptions and Prescriptions: A Biblical Perspective on Psychiatric Diagnoses & Medications (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2017).  Bobgan, Against Biblical Counseling, 58.  Ibid., 90; cf. 71, 94.  Kellemen et al., Biblical Counseling and the Church, 184-5. David Powlison, 2014, “The Local Church is THE Place for Biblical Counseling,” CCEF Now, 2-3.  Adams, Competent to Counsel, 41-2.  Ibid., 65-7;  Ibid., 60. Adams, A Theology of Christian Counseling, 279. See also MacArthur et al., Introduction to Biblical Counseling, 301-10; Paul David Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2002), esp. 18ff;  E.g., Adams, A Theology of Christian Counseling, 278-80.  David Powlison, Heath Lambert, 2019, “Biblical Counseling in Local Churches and Parachurch Ministries,” Journal of Biblical Counseling, 33.2, 14-15.  Ibid., 15.  Bobgan, Against Biblical Counseling, 9, 187.