Monday, December 29, 2008

Nouthetic Counseling and the Sufficiency of Scripture

This is Part II in a series I am writing on secular psychology vs. biblical counseling. I should make it clear that the angle I am particularly concerned with is the differences in how each side treats addictions and other deviant behavior. In my next entry, I will discuss the field of "Christian" counseling and the so-called "integrationist" approach. As always, comments and critique are welcome.

The field of nouthetic counseling, or biblical counseling as it is more commonly known, was developed by a pastor named Jay Adams. As a shepherd of the flock, Adams was dismayed by the ineffectual treatment of mental and social disorders by his contemporaries in the psych fields. In the 1960’s, when Adams wrote “Competent to Counsel”, pastors were encouraged to “defer and refer” their parishioners to psychologists for treatment rather than try to counsel them themselves. Nouthetic counseling presupposes that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God, and that as such, it contains all the wisdom and counsel individuals need to solve their problems (many times caused by their own sin or possession of a sin nature), relate to others, and learn to live abundantly. A thesis of nouthetic counseling might be 2 Peter 1:3, “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” (emphasis mine).

The term “nouthetic” comes from the Greek noun nouthesis and the corresponding verb noutheteo. The term in Greek encompasses more than our modern word “counseling”, which carries a certain set of connotations and expectations largely based on stereotypes from secular therapy. Unlike the Rogerian therapist, who is to function as a non-judgmental, emotionless “mirror” for the client, a nouthetic counselor fulfills the role of actively pointing her counselee to the specific guidelines for behavior laid out in Scripture. “Nouthetic” carries with it an expectation of confronting sin biblically (Romans 15:14), correcting, encouraging, exhorting, rebuking, training and equipping for good works. Every one of these activities is a biblical command to Christians. Far from being autonomous individuals, it was assumed and taught by Paul and other early evangelists that members of the Church would be teaching one another the truths they had learned from the Apostles, confronting sin, encouraging one another, and “spurring one another on to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Paul continually confronted and encouraged individuals with the Word of God during his ministry, as is apparent from the many personal names and details in his letters. Part of the role of a pastor is to be able to open the Scriptures in a deep and personally applicable way to individual members, but the counseling role is not limited just to pastors or full-time ministry staff, as are preaching and teaching. All Christians are called to spiritual maturity (1 Corinthinans 14:20; Ephesians 4:14), and part of that maturation process is to learn and apply God’s Word and exhort others to do the same.

A typical session with a nouthetic counselor might begin with the counselor asking the client extensive questions about her background, upbringing, faith, and relationships in order to form a frame of reference and see the counselee’s “whole picture”. This is not the same as psychoanalysis, which seeks underlying causes for deviant behavior in the “subconscious” and thus places blame outside of the individual; rather, the counselor wants to gather as much solid information on her client as possible and to avoid a tendency to jump to conclusions or make hasty decisions.

Nouthetic counseling stands on the premise that the Bible holds all we need to know about God; ourselves; the nature of sin and how inclined we all are to it; how our interpersonal relationships are affected by sin; how sin affects our relationship with God; and God’s solution for sin – found only in Jesus Christ. Because it presupposes the sufficiency and inerrancy of Scripture, nouthetic counseling is only appropriate or effective if the client has been born again. If not, the starting point for the counselor is to present the Gospel and explain to the client the seriousness of sin. It is necessary (as in any evangelism encounter) for the problem of sin to be accepted as a personal, concrete dilemma separating the individual from God – not simply as an abstract concept common to all. Only when a sinner sees and comprehends the full horror of her sin can she grasp the extent of lavish grace that is extended to her through the Cross. What the Bible calls “repentance unto salvation” is the prerequisite for any deep, enduring, abiding change within the spirit – anything else is just behavior modification. Once the heart which has been previously hostile toward God has been reconciled to Him through faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification can begin.

Facing one’s own sin squarely and seeking God’s solution through His own Word is the business of nouthetic counseling. Very often, even as Christians, we seek to minimize our sin or even rationalize it. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we know we have done wrong and are ashamed; so we sew “fig leaves” to cover up our shame. For the addict, some of these “fig leaves” might be unrealistic body ideals presented by the media; perfectionist parents; a painful childhood; or intense pressure to succeed at school or in athletics. While each of these circumstances causes pain and can influence a girl or woman’s thinking, the responsibility for the sinful behavior ultimately rests on her own shoulders.

The role of a nouthetic counselor is to gently strip off the “fig leaves” and help the woman to face her own sin, which has caused her current bondage. This is what the Bible calls “rebuking”, and exposing sin must be done with an attitude of love and compassion. The motive is to correct and thus heal; never to wound or punish. The counselor knows very well she is a sinner in the same boat as the addict, but she has been taught herself the principles of “putting off” old thought patterns and behaviors and “putting on” the new self. She is now in a position to help impart that wisdom to another sister. In a counseling relationship, the counselor carries spiritual authority to which the counselee has submitted. This includes completing written homework assignments and doing independent Scripture reading, which the counselor will direct, but by no means has the counselor put herself up in a position of judgment over her charge.

Helping someone face her own sin, the very root of her current agony, is actually the most loving thing a sister in Christ can do. The longer we keep making excuses for ourselves, the longer we stay in the grips of the particular, besetting sin, and the longer we stay in pain. While change can be painful, staying in the pit is ever so much more painful. Shrinking or running from what we must see in order to change will keep us in bondage.

Exposing sin in a firm but loving way is exactly the model Jesus gave us from His own ministry. One of the first recipients of grace (and consequently one of the first missionaries of the Gospel) was the Samaritan woman at the well, who we meet in John chapter 4. Jesus did not give her a scathing, angry lecture; but rather pointedly stated the fact that she had had five husbands and was currently shacking up. He put His finger right on the “spiritual disease” – her immorality. He had already offered the solution – He was, and is, the Living Water. He did not excuse her lifestyle, conceding that since she had felt unloved as a child and had unmet needs, it was okay; but neither were His words morally neutral. They were loaded with significance.

Likewise, in chapter 8 of John’s Gospel, after forgiving the woman caught in adultery Jesus tells her “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:11). He does not minimize the sin or make excuses for her then or us now. He forgives, He redeems, and He has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him (2 Peter 1:3). He expects us to accept it, let Him change our hearts, and our behavior will change as a result.

Trying to change behavior without dealing with the root (sin) is doomed to failure. Outward behavior modification does not acknowledge the Lordship of Christ – a deep heart change is not necessary. True change requires us to hate our sin passionately; not just seek to avoid the consequences of it. This approach is, in essence, still trying to be our own god – thinking that we can change ourselves apart from the Holy Spirit.

Because nouthetic counseling is based entirely on biblical principles, it is not a set of subjective theories and experimental therapies as are employed in mainstream secular psychological counseling. Nouthetic counselors are required to study the Word as well as counseling methodology, and must pass a theological exam before being certified.

Hermeneutics, the study of Bible interpretation, is a field that has a practical application in nouthetic counselors. People who are doctrinally ill-equipped may take a verse or passage out of context, and use it to justify anything. Similarly, in our humanity we possess what is called the “nouetic effect of sin”, which means we are predisposed to read our own agenda into what Scripture says. In order to resist this tendency, solid theological training is necessary in order to counsel other believers. (That is not to say a seminary degree is required to help others find biblical solutions to their problems – not at all! However, doctrinal soundness is mandatory in order to guide anyone into truth, and that is a heavy responsibility.) The counselor herself must be a woman of prayer, consistently studying the Word herself; in a church where Scripture is exegeted and the Gospel is preached without compromise; and attending the requisite training for this ministry.


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4simpsons said...

Excellent post, Marie. I read a little about this in the Christian Research Journal a while ago. The world, and even the church, spends too much time rationalizing or avoiding the topic of sin, whereas this process seems to tackle it head on.

Anonymous said...

If you can find a copy, you should read the January 2007 (Volume 124, issue 2) article in The Christian Century by David Winfrey called "Biblical Therapy." It discusses a lot of the pros and cons of nouthetic counseling.

Marie said...

Thanks! I'll try and dig it up online, or request a hard copy from the publication's archives. It sounds like a good read.

Julius Mickel said...

thanks for this,
I had just used this in a blog because it fit exactly what I was thinking,
God bless

Marie said...

Hi Julius,

Glad you found it helpful. Jay Adams and Donn Arms have many helpful articles over at the site for Institute for Nouthetic Studies (INS) as well as their own blog:

Thanks for stopping by!