Climbing Out of the Box: An Invitation to a Discussion about the Future of Christian Counseling

By: Timothy A. Sisemore, Ph.D. • Director of Research and Professor • Richmont Graduate University

            Since I was in graduate school over 35 years ago, there have been basically two paths for a Christian to take if he or she felt called by God to counsel.  The biblical counselors hung near the church and seminaries and promoted counseling wholly based on the Bible.  They spurned secular professional models of mental health care, choosing a path that almost completely denied the possibility that psychological science had anything at all to offer.  Yet, they did so with complete freedom to follow the Word of God, unencumbered by secular agencies and state boards.  Sure, they lost out on insurance reimbursement, but the problems they treated were defined as spiritual and not medical in any way.

            The road most taken was to go to a program that integrated Christian faith into psychology or counseling.  From the pioneers of Fuller Seminary, Rosemead, and the Psychological Studies Institute (now Richmont Graduate University), these programs multiplied across America, moving from doctoral psychology programs primarily to many masters level counseling programs.  In these counseling/psychotherapy is a profession, and is to be done under the auspices of the state and as monitored by accrediting agencies.  For example, my alma mater, Fuller Theological Seminary, was the first to receive the blessing of the American Psychological Association while maintaining a clear basis in Christian faith and doctrine.

            In this model, Christian worldview and theology could be integrated with secular models of psychotherapy, yielding explicitly Christian approaches that included insights and techniques from secular psychology. Good research, after all, is viewed as a way of discerning the general revelation of God.  The led to the emergence of Christian psychologists and counselors who worked under licenses for the most part, but were free to make their faith a part of the process when counseling other Christians.  Here was the best of both worlds: third party reimbursement with the freedom to be true to one’s faith.  Life was good, even if the biblical counselors kept hounding the integrators with questions about how a Christian worldview was not somehow compromised in this bargain.

            If one goes further back, the biblical counselors are closer to the history of Christian soul care.  “Counseling” more commonly occurred within the church by spiritual leaders rather than by outside professionals.  Counsel was sought from those that the community deemed wise, rather than those who the state certified as competent in some sense.

            Yet, the arrangement with the state has largely worked for many years.  Churches have slowly come to trust the mental health professions, or at least certain Christian therapists whose doctrinal position was known.  As for the professionals, the church/state mix worked pretty well also.  Sacred to the ethics of the counseling professions was that the individual provider could be true to his or her ownvalues and would not counsel contrary to one’s values, but would refer clients whose interests conflicted to a provider where they would find more common ground.

            Well, the times they are a’changin.  Specifically, the new code of ethics for the American Counseling Association makes clear that – at least for trainees – the values of the counseling profession supersede the personal values of the individual counselor.  Suddenly the Christian may not be able to be true to one’s worldview when counseling.  But this also may uncover a slower process that had been ongoing: the erosion of Christian counseling as a worldview and a comprehensive model to a selective use of spiritual techniques used only in conjunction with the spiritual values of the counselee – all while accepting a secular conceptualization of what counseling is.

            Responses to these changes have been almost uniform:  Christian schools, desperate to stay in business, have struggled to find ways to still say they are Christian yet kowtow to these regulations for fear graduates will not be able to get licenses if they do not.  If a program does not lead to licensure, then it may not draw students and thus cannot survive financially.  Even as these changes occur, more and more Christian schools – even traditionally conservative and evangelical ones – are marching to get CACREP accreditation as CACREP lobbies hard to require licensees to be from their programs.  One cannot imagine that APA, AAMFT, or other groups will be far behind. It seems likely that the future will hold that “Christian counseling” may no longer occur under the auspices of state licenses and be a violation of cultural values and even a crossing of the line between church and state as it is being defined these days.

            So, the time is at hand to step out of the box of licensure, and being thinking of how Christian therapists can be wholly true to their faith, counseling within the Christian worldview and drawing from psychological theory and research that is deeply vetted to be consistent with faith.  What might that look like? Is there some middle ground between licensed counselors and biblical counselors?  Are there alternative ways to deliver quality Christian counseling without compromise, remaining free from state and secular interference? 

            It is to this end I want to start a discussion. Several of us around the country are already brainstorming and praying about this, and we would welcome voices that might contribute to a healthy dialogue conducted in Christian love.  What is counseling that is truly Christian and a form of soul care? Does it have to be medicalized into a “treatment” for “mental illness”?  How can we respond to secularization of Christian values and ways the gospel may be compromised if we simply roll with the edicts of secular agencies?  What would such counseling look like? What training would it require? Would there be a way to advocate so that it couldbe done under the limits of a secular license, or do we need to consider freeing ourselves from state and secular control so that Christian counseling is subject only to Christ?  These are difficult questions, but it is vital that we begin discussing them so we provide paths for the future that protect the integrity of the work of Christian counseling and the welfare of believers who come to us assuming what we offer is consistent with traditional Christianity.

            Pray for this process. Offer some thoughts in an entry to be posted here.  Let’s converse about his, seeking God’s guidance together.  There will be various viewpoints, but we pray they are all consistent with the love of Christ.