Friday, January 23, 2009

Biblical Counseling - Is It Biblical?

A paper for my “Introduction to Pastoral Counseling”

Pastoral Counseling - The Fine Line

My views on pastoral counseling are evolving ones, so my thoughts on the matter may change from even this writing. That being said, I have come across some issues that bother me and will be hashed out at a later date in my studies. These bothersome issues come from the heart of an apologist, so I may be out of my element, but nonetheless I will opine to those that will listen. My reservations come from the emergent church movement [1] that is in some aspects deteriorating the church from within. In the marrying of psychology and Christianity, while healthy and biblical in some sense and use -- the potential for misuse and unbiblical practices are possible, as well as expected. While my personal life has been positively impacted by certain authors in this new integrative understanding of Christianity and psychology with counseling, I also would warn a person as they read these recommended books to be wary of the author’s entire work. In other words, have your biblical worldview glasses on.[2]

Now understand, when I say “heart of an apologist,” I am saying that my mind works much like an auditor. While the CPA [said auditor] is investigating certain aspects of a corporation’s books and comes across an anomaly (i.e., a “red flag”), he or she will investigate further; likewise, where red flags pop up in the Christian’s reading, a deeper theological investigation is often times warranted. In the case I wish to highlight here, it was a hypothetical example of a pastor’s encounter with a newer parishioner. It makes no difference that the pastor would have been male or female in the grand scheme of what the author expected the reader to get out of the example. However, when I read this, my flag went up, so-to-speak:

Kevin first spoke to the pastor following a Sunday service and identified himself as new in the city and a visitor to the church Rev. Fernando told him she was pleased he had come and encouraged him to call any time if there was anything she or the church could do to help him. Two days later Kevin did just that, telling Rev. Fernando that he wanted to get together to talk if she had time to see him.[3]

This is a “red-flag” for the theologian because it means there is a more liberal interpretation of the Scriptures at work here, which means there is most likely a more liberal importing of psychological theories into the Christian-theistic worldview. Upon further investigation, the author’s close ties to pantheists in projects and recommended reading is telling.

A book and author that influenced me positively via recommended reading through my church is that of Dr. Henry Cloud, entitled, Changes that Heal.[4] Changes that Heal is a book that I would recommend to anyone wholeheartedly. However, I would do so with one reservation to those who would prosper from such a caveat,[5] and that is this: that the author is closely tied with many from the emergent church movement and has worked on projects which are tied to the still questionable practice of contemplative prayer practice (CPP).

Likewise, Dr. David G. Benner and even more so his co-author on many projects, Dr. Larry Crabb, have close acquaintances to Buddhists in their “contemplative prayer” projects. Benner and Crabb have both mentioned their sympathies for pantheistic/new age teachers.

The logical question then would be, “why would a Buddhist or New Ager connect with this type of prayer?” I will let Mike Perschon of Youth Specialties and a contemplative prayer advocate, answer this:

Deep Breathing: Every book on CPP I've ever read talks about deep breathing. Interestingly, while this is the most physical aspect of CPP spiritually, it's the most suspect. Truthfully, we all perform deep breathing when we're stressed out; only we call it a sigh and don't do it long enough. Deep breathing is generally the first step of any CPP.[6, 7]

Max Lucado, Dallas Willard, Henry Cloud, and others support this meditation process where one uses breathing techniques and meditation to grow closer to God.[8] There may in fact be a Christian concept of this type of meditation; I am not informed enough on the history -- if there is any -- to make a “for sure” response to it.[9] However, the closeness of Buddhist and new age authors to these endeavors I believe to be telling. Likewise, the closeness to emergent church acolytes to the above stated persons is equally telling. In a recent three part series on Yoga, Hank Hanegraff, of the Christian Research Institute and radio host of The Bible Answer Man Show, said the following:

“In sum, while an alarming number of Western Christians suppose they can achieve physical and spiritual well-being through a form of yoga divorced from its Eastern worldview, the reality is that attempts to Christianize Hinduism only Hinduize Christianity.”[10]

I fear this same event might be taking place in the acceptance of these liberally varied ideas of self and their application to the Christians life. The lack of discernment in the church today is astounding; in fact, in a recent conversation with one of the pastors at our church he included liberation theology in the panoplies of orthodoxy... without even a bat of an eye. How could such discernment be applied towards Christian counseling? Ed Hindson and Ergun Caner pose some questions to help the counselor in his endeavor to stay biblical:

  1. Are there valid psychological insights that are essential to addressing human behavior outside of the truths of Scrip­ture, especially in regard to addictions, depression, and serious and bizarre behaviors?
  2. Does the Bible speak to all psychological issues, or only to spiritual issues?
  3. Should biblical statements regarding basic issues such as marriage, family, divorce, and remarriage take precedence over psychological statements?
  4. What level of theological training is necessary for Christian counselors to make sound judgments on the use or effectiveness of psychology?
  5. How can counselors evaluate psycho­logical theories and methods without a proper theological basis?
  6. How does a counselor reconcile his own theology with competing theologies of his counselees and remain consistent in his or her counseling?
  7. If counselors neglect the study of psy­chology altogether, are they not rejecting some valid understandings of human behavior that have been scientifically verified?
  8. Regardless of what counselors believe about psychology and faith, should they be more concerned about what pleases the Lord than about what works in counseling? [11]

The authors go on to quote Van Til when he said “psychology cannot interpret theology but it can inform theology.”[12] Using these guidelines I will quote a site that may, in my mind’s eye, go a bit too far in its statements about those people involved in the new movement to counsel more effectively, however, they do make some points that I wish to replicate here:

This "ancient practice" is the same ancient practice that Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating teach - contemplative prayer. A year before the Christianity Today article came out, Crabb wrote the foreword for David Benner's book, Sacred Companions: "The spiritual climate is ripe. Jesus seekers across the world are being prepared to abandon the old way of the written code for the new way of the spirit." Benner's book is clear about what that "new way" is when he talks about a "Transformational Journey" needed in the Christian's life, which includes the teachings of Meister Eckhart, Thomas Merton, Martin Buber, Richard Foster, Henri Nouwen, Basil Pennington and several others, all of whom promote a panentheistic, New Age view of God. For Crabb to write the foreword of Benner's book, it leaves no speculation of his affinity towards this same spirituality. His book, The Papa Prayer, is no exception; and he comes right out and says so! The Papa Prayer[13] is nothing more than a union of mysticism and psychology, and the insights of this "revolutionary" prayer spring from Crabb's contemplative experiences.[14]

The question then becomes this, what “type of” Christianity are Benner and Crabb (as well as others) trying to marry with what “type of” psychological theories. Obviously, this study requires more than I can do here in this brief paper, however, I wish to laud my professor, Dr. James D. Gibson, who was right to point out, in lecture number nine, that many of these people specialize in a very small area, or narrow bandwidth. It is up the pastor who is counseling to take the whole of the works and apply it biblically to the situation.

Dr. Benner himself points out positively that “Ministers are the only counseling professionals who routinely have training in systematic theology, biblical studies, ethics, and church history...,” which should assist the pastor in delineating between truth and err.[16] Which is where the pastor can apply his theological training, hopefully a training that is biblical enough for the pastor to delineate between what can inform theology verses psychology interpreting theology.[17]


Deep breathing, relaxation and prayer can be combined in a prayer-based relaxation procedure. Begin by having the client do some deep breathing exercises and then lead the person into a time of prayer-based relaxation. The following exercise is based on the time-honored Jesus prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

Mark: As you continue with slow, deep breaths from the diaphragm, now say these words—just to yourself, not out loud—Lord, have mercy ... Lord, have mercy . . . Each time you breathe in, "Lord" ... Each time you exhale, "have mercy" . . . Lord, have mercy ... Lord, have mercy ... Just let yourself be calm in the presence of God ... Lord, have mercy.

With practice, this calming prayer-based rhythm can become a regular part of daily life. When the apostle Paul instructed believers in Thessalonica to "pray continually" (I Thess 5:17), he probably had something like this in mind—that we should find a way to be continually aware of our relation­ship with God. The Jesus prayer is a way of living, a way of breathing, which continually reminds us that we belong to God and are always in need of God's mercy.

For more about the Jesus prayer, see the classic book by an anonymous author, The Way of a Pilgrim. This is a stirring book about a Russian peas­ant's desire to pray continually. Over time the Jesus prayer became as natu­ral to him as breathing.

For more on using prayer-based relaxation in therapy, Mark demon­strates this in his DVD on Christian counseling, published by the American Psychological Association (McMinn, 2006).[18]


[1] Matt Slick of Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM) says that the “Emerging Church movement is controversial and CARM does not approve or disapprove of it as a whole. There is so much diversity within it that it cannot be labeled as all good or all bad,” found at: (last accessed 1-18-09); David A. Noebel of Summit Ministries says “the jury of orthodoxy is still in deliberations” in regards to the movement, Understanding the Times: The Collision of Today’s Competing Worldviews, rev. 2nd ed. (Manitou Springs, CO: Summit Press, 2006), 83; I can add that within the movement there are very postmodern (postconservative) acolytes that should be considered heretical.

I would also ask anyone who read my writings to have his or her “glasses” on, I am a fallible, fallen individual as well... no pretense about it.

David G. Benner, Strategic Pastoral Counseling: A Short Term Structured Model, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), 61 (emphasis mine).

Changes that Heal: How to Understand Your Past to Ensure a Healthier Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990).

Depending on the persons knowledge in such matters.

From an online article archived in Youth Specialists ( site at: (last accessed on 1-15-09).

See appendix for another example.

See for instance the DVD, Be Still, by Lon Allison, Mark Brewer - Director: Amy Reinhold, David Kirkpatrick (Fox Home Entertainment). Dr. Henry Cloud’s statements can be taken out of context from the project, for a decent look at the negative aspects of the DVD Be Still, See: “Be Still Book Confirms True Nature of Contemplative Prayer,” found at: (last accessed 1-17-09); and, “Does Psalm 46:10 Teach Contemplative/Centering Prayer?” found at: (last accessed 1-17-09).

I can recommend an article entitled, “Contemplative Prayer: Seducing Spirits and a Doctrine of Devils,” at: (last accessed 1-16-09).

Found on the Pilgrims Progress Blog ( at: (last accessed on 1-15-09)

The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics: Surveying the Evidence for the Truth of Christianity
(Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2008), 408.

Ibid, 409.

"Other forms of relating to God that have unique value in connecting us to Him include contemplative prayer and centering prayer,” Larry Crabb, Papa Prayer: The Prayer You’ve Never Prayed (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 22 (emphasis mine).

From the website, Lighthouse Trail Research Project (, the article used is found at:
(last accessed 1-16-09).

Benner, 31-32.

An example of error:

In working with their stress-afflicted clients, pastoral counselors can help them considerably by teaching them to develop self-awareness of the specific ways in which they manifest the stress response (i. e., by what signs or symptoms) and also to identify their personal stressors. Only when they recognize the sources of their stress can clients take successful steps to avoid them, or to prepare themselves to encounter them in a less stressful way.

Knowledge of such techniques as dietary modification, neuromuscu­lar relaxation, assertiveness training, meditation, time management, social skills training, and conscious avoidance of stressors that are not amenable to modification are recommended to counselors of clients suffering from stress. Also, biofeedback, physical exercise, voluntarily controlled respi­ration, self-hypnosis, systematic desensitization, and a number of other techniques are employed by specialists treating their clients for stress, and these, too, can be learned and applied by pastoral counselors or provided by people to whom they might prefer to refer their clients for additional therapy.

Robert J. Wicks, Richard D. Parsons, and Donald Capps, Clinical Handbook of Pastoral Counseling, vol. 1 (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1984), 462.

Hindson and Caner, 408.

(The whole appendix is a complete quote) Mark R. McMinn and Clark D. Campbell, Integrative Psychotherapy: Toward a Comprehensive Christian Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 233.