the dangers of biblical counseling, part three


[This is part three of a series. Here are parts one and two.]

I graduated from my fundamentalist college, and because of my circumstances really had no other option but to move back in with my parents. They had moved halfway across the country, so coming back to my parents, in some ways, wasn’t really coming “home.” As a military brat, though, I’d learned to adapt quickly so it wasn’t a big deal to me. They had found a new church– this time, there was nothing fundamentalist about it, although still conservative Baptist. During the summers, the church holds a variety of “classes” on Wednesday night, and the summer after my graduation they began a class that was an introduction to NANC– the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (Nouthetic being just another word for biblical). NANC is one of the largest associations of biblical counselors, but they are primarily a certification program for pastors and laymen– one that they claim is “attainable for even the busiest pastor.”

However, NANC makes it supremely clear that in order to be certified, it is important for you to confirm that “your personal theological views and those of your church align with NANC’s views.” It became clear to me very quickly why this was so important to them– while NANC is not as bad as many of the other associations as far as their relationship with psychology is concerned, the certification program is really more of a theology course than anything else. And one of the elements about theology they emphasize is how vital it is to have a “correct” theology.

And that is where NANC and I part ways. Because I don’t believe that there is any such thing as a “correct” theology among men. There are a plethora of systematic theologies that have been developed by individuals or by denominations– and every single last one of them disagrees with another. I believe that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and while it is a Christian’s duty to “rightly handle the word of truth,” I don’t think that forming a “correct” systematic theology is possible. There is orthodoxy, and I think that’s as close as we can possibly get. When it comes to theology, especially, the ancient motto of “in essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty, in all things, charity” should be our north star.

Yesterday, when I was trying to explain to my husband why fundamentalists despise psychology so much, I realized that there are two underlying reasons:

1) Fundamentalists believe, to their core, that they have the “right” theology. This is even evidenced by their name.
2) Fundamentalists distrust and despise “humanism” and “secularism,” which they define as false, man-made religions. I was taught that even humanists think that their belief is a religion– they use the opening paragraph of the Humanist Manifesto I to prove their point.

Like most faith systems, fundamentalism is a vast network of ideas that are linked and interwoven. It’s difficult to try to pick it apart, so if I miss something, please feel free to point it out in a comment.

Fundamentalism is essentially reactionary and fear-based, and one of the biggest things they fear is science. They’ll deny that until they’re blue in the face, claiming that it’s not science they don’t like, it’s metaphysical naturalism, but they also argue that modern science is inherently naturalistic, so . . . Basically, it goes like this: fundamentalists argue that modern science is based on neo-Darwinian evolution,  and they also argue that neo-Darwinian evolution is false to the highest degree. Evolution teaches that mankind is not created in the image of God, we’re just one step above the animals. This leads science to ignoring one basic, “fundamental” truth about human beings: that we are born with a sin nature.

Therefore, anything that springs from this naturalist view of the world must be wholly wrong. This include ideas like empowerment, personal fulfillment, self-actualization, and even happiness. They believe that everything in modern psychiatry and psychology is based on Freud, who they refer to as a “perverted drug-addict.” They put blinders on and refuse to acknowledge that most (with extremely rare exceptions, but I’m not a psych student, so I can’t be absolute) modern psychologists parted ways from Freud decades ago. Modern psychology ignores the need for “repentance,” they say. They teach and believe that nearly anyone who isn’t a fundamentalist is actively destroying our nation’s “Christian principles”– like marriage:

How many marriages have been weakened or “put asunder” in the name of helping achieve empowerment or personal fulfillment? Where is their absolute stand for the foreverness of marriage and family as required by God’s holy Word? Where do such christian psychologist’s get the authority to justify encouraging divorce on the basis of abuse allegations or spousal misconduct? Why do they ignore the covenant aspect of the marriage institution? Have they forgotten that these sacred institutions of marriage and family are not secular but were ordained by God and are not to be put asunder? [emphasis added]

Many people, including those involved with A Cry For Justice, talk about how many Christians over-emphasize the importance of marriage, even in the face of abuse. Leading fundamentalist leaders, like the Perls, advocate that a woman “submit” to her husband in nearly any situation, although they don’t outright encourage staying in an abusive marriage (which, in reality, is a moot point, but I’m trying to be fair). This idea has even trickled down into mainstream contemporary Christian fiction. But fundamentalists don’t just imply this– they are overtly explicit on this point: there is never a good reason for a divorce. You can “separate” from an abusive spouse, but you are not allowed to legally divorce that person, no matter what danger that might pose to you or or your children. Because of this belief, every single fundamentalist I know will tell you to seek biblical counseling– because “secular” and “humanist” psychologists will not prioritize your marriage over your health and safety.

However, the fundamentalist approach to psychology also completely dismisses things like “repressed memories.” Now, there is still debate regarding the validity of repressed memories, even in non-Christian circles, but fundamentalists in their fervor extend this dismissal to completely valid psychological events, like dissociation  in PTSD, or the incredibly common and well-documented feeling of sexual abuse survivors, especially children, feeling “outside their body,” as if the abuse was “happening to someone else.”

Many in the church today have accepted a psychologized gospel in place of the biblical gospel. It has gotten so bad that preachers in some churches are even hiding out the adult daughters that have falsely accused their Christian parents of abuse, some of whom are preachers themselves and active in their faith. Brethren, this should not be!

How does it lift the cause of our Lord to support questionable abuse victims who testimony is based on delayed recall and without the necessary two witnesses, slandering parents in ways which defy the biblical principle decreeing honor for both our father and mother? Parents who have been given authority over us by the Lord cannot be rebelled against simply because they fail in their duties. All authority is really God’s authority and because it is, dire personal consequences attach to those who show that authority such rebellion and disrespect. [emphasis added]

I should take a moment here to make something blindingly clear: this is not a rare teaching. This horrifying idea is deeply entrenched in fundamentalist teachings about psychology. Because they dismiss “repressed memories” and “delayed recall,” this leads them to dismiss the claims of adult abuse victims who have never had the opportunity to speak out against their abuser. They tell children that they simply cannot be abused by their parents, and if they think they’re being abused, they should just be grateful for their parents “disciplining them.”

The “sufficiency of Scripture” comes into play, and to many fundamentalists, this extends to the notion that “if it’s not in the Bible, it doesn’t exist” (my inner Star Wars geek is hearing the Temple librarian, Jocasta Nu, tell Obi-Wan that “if it is not in our records, it does not exist.” And, yes… I knew all of that off the top of my head).

Search the scriptures and compare your psychology to the life of Christ. Did Jesus Christ practise any psychology when he drove out demons and healed the sick? Did he use psychology to explain sin? Not likely and the bible does say whom we are suppose to follow as Christians. Jesus said come and follow me. He warned his followers and his followers warned others of false teachings to be aware of them. See if you can find any thing in scripture that pertains to psychology. You won’t find any thing that speaks for it because if you study the scriptures the word of God maintains that we are to “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all shall be added unto us”. That means that God will give us the Spiritual Gifts that we need to reach out to others.

Just . . . so much . . . ugh. Again, solo scriptura takes over freedom and liberty, and confines fundamentalist to a narrow understanding of reality. The teaching that the “sufficiency of Scripture” extends to every single area of our life — and that we are forbidden from going “outside of Scripture” for answers. There is nothing we need that cannot be found in the Bible– going out “into the world” for help is sinful.

Another area of fundamentalist teaching I’ve talked about before. It’s the concept of dualism– the view that the physical realm is evil, but the spiritual realm is good. This leads to a disconnect between our minds and our bodies to a fundamentalist– the idea that our mind can affect our bodies, but our bodies cannot affect our mind. We can get ulcers from being stressed, but getting ulcers doesn’t cause stress. Our mental “strongholds” can give us bi-polor disorder, which can in turn be reflected in chemical imbalances, but chemical imbalances are not the cause of bi-polar disorder. It’s not a two-way street, to a fundamentalist.

Which is just crazy.

All of this is bat-shit insane, in fact. And absolutely terrifying. Teachings like this come to fruition in places like Sovereign Grace Ministries, or Mars Hill, or Calvary Chapel, or Bill Gothard’s ATI, or Bob Jones University.

If there is anything else that you’ve experienced in fundamentalist– or even just plain evangelicalism– please share. I can in no way be exhaustive, but this is an important area of teaching that the church needs an immense amount of healing.

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  • Gail

    Hello, I am new here, grateful to the blogs that are opening my eyes to understand that possibly I was spiritually abused. For my comfort level at this point I am able to name it as spiritual malpractice. I left the church I attended 10 years ago, crushed. Long story. I came to Christ, or should I say He came to me when i was 28yrs old. I was sitting on a history of abuse. I was taught that the sufficiency of the scriptures and prayer would heal my wounded heart. I poured my heart into my church after about 8 years of trying to be a biblical women, I was a mess. My Dr. put me on anti-depressants, a few sermons later, our pastor went on a rant on how so many Christians were taking anti-depressants and that undermined the authority of the scriptures. That sent me into a tail spin, but I didn’t leave the church for another 7 years. I wont go on & on, just want to say thank-you for being articulate & clear. I so want to find my way out of the confusion.

    • I have heard stories like yours so many times– it’s amazing to me that so many pastors think that this behavior is just “naming sin” instead of the harmful, damaging, narcissistic tactic that it is.

      I will be praying for you; this process can be long and grueling, but so very worth it.

  • Carrie

    So much of this is beyond horrifying, but I’ll focus on one aspect for now: the Divorce issue.

    While I was living in Ghana, I attended a Catholic church and became very good friends with a German boy who was an astute Catholic. We had many enjoyable, long conversations about the differences between Catholicism and the Presbyterianism I was raised in. One day, this conversation was about divorce. I had always been taught that we should fight to save marriage, but that divorce was not necessarily a sin, especially if there was infidelity involved, as Jesus mentioned (matthew 19:9). He shook his head and vehemently disagreed. “Divorce is never acceptable. If a woman divorces and then remarries, she is an adulteress”. We argued back and forth for a few minutes, but then my blood began to rise, and with tears in my eyes I said, “My sister was in an abusive relationship for 6 years. Her husband cheated on her, and abused her in every way. She finally gained the courage to escape her abuser and get a divorce and save herself. She is now 29. And you’re saying that she should never be allowed to remarry? Never have a family? Never children? That she should be further punished for her husband’s sins?”

    He was clearly startled by my outburst, and immediately pulled me into a hug. “Oh, Carrie,” he said, “You know I wouldn’t mean it like that.” He had never before been confronted by the fact that when you set strict, inflexible, black and white rules and blindly apply them universally, it affects and hurts real life people. These questions are not just hypothetical. And the world is just not a black and white place.

    Even in a more mainstream protestant church, I know this particular friend (she was close as a sister) went through immense pain because of the pressure her church placed on her to stay in the marriage, and all the while the abuse continued. When she left the marriage, she also left that church, and who would blame her?

    • Carrie, I also used to believe that crap. I believed it because my desire for the Bible to not be wrong was greater than my desire to see people in abuse split up.

    • I’m glad that was his reaction– so much of the time, it isn’t.

  • I agree with you on most points. Particularly on the bizarre notion that mental health is somehow *completely different* from other health. Thus, antibiotics are okay, but anti-depressants are not. I know many friends and acquaintances that have been hurt deeply by fundamentalism’s position on this and the shaming that results.

    The one area I have a problem with is that of repressed memories. Southern California, where I live, is ground zero for the infamous “molestation ring” cases of the 1980s where wild accusations of satanism mixed with claims of vast conspiracies and multiple victims, and so forth. (Google our former DA, Ed Jagels and molestation cases for information.) I am thus a bit cautions about accepting evidence that is only recalled during therapy. The human psyche is vulnerable to suggestion, and things can appear that were not there before. You rightly noted that this particular issue is debated outside of Christian circles. I would note that a number of wrongful convictions have been reversed, because current belief and practice largely discredit both resurrected memories, and testimony by children given under the former highly suggestive methods.

    I find it interesting that the gnostic dualism seems to be making a comeback. And, I agree with you totally on the issue of divorce. If statistics are any indication, the church, particularly the fundamentalist church, is doing a horrible job of marriage counseling.

    • I have heard about that situation– I think Why Christians Can’t Trust Psychology mentions it, actually. There are very good reasons to approach “repressed memories” with a healthy dose of skepticism. It just worries me that because fundamentalists see “repressed memories” as a method “those wicked psychologists” use to manipulate people– they extend that belief to a thought that all psychologists want to do is manipulate people.

      This frequently results in treating anyone who seeks counseling and is then able to talk about abuse in a way they’ve never been able to before– because they finally have the vocabulary to talk about it, in a lot of cases, including mine– with suspicion and dismissal. That’s the end result of an idea that starts in an acceptable skepticism– in fundamentalist circles.

  • Angela Weil

    I was raised conservative Mormon but left the church as an adult. When we were newlyweds my husband and I moved to Utah to be closer to my family. I don’t make new friends easily and I was working nights which wrecked havoc on my sleep and the combination was making me really depressed. Even though I sought out a secular counselor (I got a referral from my insurance) he happened to be Mormon and this was how the session went.
    Me: We just moved here from out of state and I miss all of our old friends. Outside of work I don’t really know anyone yet. Our neighbors seem nice enough but most of them are either elderly or they have several kids and don’t really have time for the things we would enjoy.
    Counselor: Well, since you just moved here you may not be aware that the Mormon church has several activities for women. You don’t need to be a member to attend. Just ask one of your Mormon neighbors and they’ll gladly give you the information.
    Me: Thanks, but I’m not religious and don’t have any interest in attending church activities. I think what’s making me even more miserable is my job. I’m an ICU nurse which pretty much always requires night shifts. No matter what I try I can’t sleep well during the day. I think I need to change jobs.
    Counselor: You already have a perfectly good nursing degree. There’s really no need for you to invest so much time into changing careers. Once you become a mother your focus will change anyway. You’re married. Have you thought about having a baby? It might be the answer you’re looking for.
    Me: We’re not ready for a baby right now. Plus I really don’t think a baby’s likely to help with sleep deprivation or depression which is why I’m here.
    Counselor: Well, it would change your perspective on life and might open up new social opportunities too. All of your other neighbors have kids so it would give you something in common with them. Through play dates you would get to know other moms so I wouldn’t rule it out yet if I were you.

    Now, in fairness just because a therapist is Mormon (or any religion really) doesn’t mean they will push their religion onto you. I know for a fact that there are many competent Mormon therapists. But this guy was over the top dangerous. Fortunately I didn’t listen to his advice. I got a new job and waited to have a baby until I was ready but I shudder how many other’s he has counseled in his career.

    • Oh. My. Word.


      Sadly, there are a lot of these types out there.

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  • Bethany

    First, I have to thank you for your interview with Karen Prior. That’s what led me here, to your blog, and I’m just….relieved. Reading so much of what you said here and in several other posts reassures me (yet again) that a) I’m not alone and/or crazy, and b) God might actually not be anything like what I was told all my life. I have had a very different and yet so similar experience with Christianity and Church that has fragmented my sense of myself. I spent years feeling guilty and conflicted at every turn for not being satisfied with the explanations and teachings of the church I grew up in, or from my parents. Though I knew some very sincere people who genuinely demonstrated love to me, I have come to a point of feeling so isolated from the church and Christian organizations. I’ve been so put off by the things I’ve seen, and I can barely bring myself to go to church.

    I was divorced a little over a year ago. Fortunately for me, the church and Christian community I was part of at the time had largely accepted infidelity as “biblical grounds for divorce.” I am indebted to a Christian counselor who, against all my expectations, I believe led me to a place where I had the strength to leave an emotionally abusive, habitually unfaithful husband. I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for that counselor but I also believe that it was God’s grace to me to stumble on a good one. Due to my divorce, I have had several other women open up to me about their deeply troubled, abusive marriages and how their pastors, mentors, and Christian counselors have handled these things. I’ve realized again and again that I had it easy; at least everyone knew my husband was a cheater and very few people told me I should stay. I was told a handful of times that I should “never be the one to leave,” but I could let him go if he would. Which is fun when you’re married to a narcissist who both despises and desperately needs you. I stayed for far to long, but eventually I found the strength to end it.

    So, after all of that rambling…I’m just so glad to hear the things you’ve said. I may not be a heretic, after all. 🙂 It gives me hope that maybe there’s a place for me with God. Thank you so much for sharing; these are very personal stories and they’re doing a lot of good.

    • It never ceases to be amazing to be that a common reaction to my story is “I’m not crazy!”

      I’m so happy you were in a safe place where your community supported you– unfortunately, that can be hard to find. It must be so hard to leave that part of your life “behind” you, even if it was an unhealthy part.

      And it does me good to hear that my stories are helping– it’s why I’m writing them.

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  • JR

    Well… glad to realize that your definition of fundamentalism isn’t mine. I see Christian fundamentalism as equating to evangelicalism, since that is what the term originally meant. (see ) But I understand in recent years (especially since being applied to Muslims), fundamentalism has come to mean the most extreme and controlling conservative version of a belief system. In Canada the whole “Christian right” thing hasn’t materialized in the same way it has in the U.S.

    Interestingly, when I was taking a “pastoral counseling” course at college, we studied the approaches of Fritz Perls (Gestalt therapy), Alfred Adler, Carl Rogers and others and in fact watched a movie of them all treating the same patient – very interesting and enlightening. We were taught that “all truth is God’s truth” meaning that we didn’t have to be afraid of anything discovered in science—but we might interpret it in a different way from a naturalist. So we studied the truths and limitations of psychiatry and psychotherapy, and learned to take what is good and discard what isn’t — which is exactly what un-Christian counselors do, by they way—they take their training and as they go along develop their own style in accordance with their experience and belief systems.

    In pastoral counseling today I would operate closer to a Rogers model than the others, but I often thought Perls approach was similar to Nouthetic counselling in that he often argued with his patient when he thought they had wrong beliefs about themselves (of course, in his case he was arguing it was wrong to feel guilt, which Jay Adams would not agree with). So in some ways, Jay Adams isn’t that far from a non-Christian who follows Gestalt therapy as a model.

    Regarding rejecting divorce in the case of an abuser, while I stick with Biblical teaching, I always look to 1 Cor. 7:13 that says a woman shouldn’t divorce an unbelieving husband who is _willing_ to live with her. To me it is clear that an abuser is not really _willing_ to live with his/her spouse — they are only “willing” if they are in control which is not, I think, any sort of a true definition of “willing” (it is also clear that if you are an abuser and claim to follow Christ you are a liar (1 John 2:4)). I think it’s pretty clear that if a woman was being assaulted, Paul would not call that husband “willing to live with her.”

  • Reblogged this on StarkravingInsanity and commented:
    The more I think about it, the more I realise that some of my untrue beliefs came from the church. These attitudes filtered down to our church and I absorbed them. God became a shadow of the abusive relationship I ended up in.

  • Pebbs

    I went to a Christian high school. One day in Bible class our teacher wrote “Psychology: For or Against?” on the whiteboard. Fortunately most of the class said, “What? Dude. No.”

  • Pebbs

    I think you summed up this concept well. I’ve seen less-severe versions of this…and I had no idea just how bad and widespread it was.

  • Lisa Kramer

    I, for one, love science. It fascinates me. The only branch of science I don’t really like is physics, not because I hate it, but because it involves math, which I hate. Physics itself I find fascinating. I’m still IFB, but I’ve noticed things as well. With the stuff you mentioned, my mom says the church has a tendency to “shoot their wounded.” That’s not lumping in EVERY IFB church I’ve been in, but it’s true.