What is Christian Counseling?

What is Christian Counseling?

James Poling, November 22, 2003

[Note to Reader: I presented this lecture in Seoul, Korea to 250 Christian counselors gathered at Yonsei University School of Theology. I am trying to bridge the gap between Christian counseling and pastoral counseling, the divide of liberal and evangelical theologies. Many of the ideas also apply to the United States counseling communities.]

I greet you in the name of God who is the head of my life, in the name of Jesus Christ who is my Lord and Savior, and through the Holy Spirit that empowers us each day to be faithful and loving in our Christian life. I am honored to be with you today. Thank you for tolerating my English and my limited knowledge of the Korean situation. I hope that sharing across cultures will help all of us to be more Christian as we try to join in God’s healing of the brokenness and sinfulness of the world. I thank Dr. Jueng Suk Hwan who invited me to be here today, Dr. You Yong Kwan who has welcomed me, Dr. Kwon Soo-Young for translating today, and Dr. Choi Jae Rak (Seoul Theological University) for responding to my lecture.

What is Christian counseling?

INTRODUCTION: Consider the following persons who call themselves pastoral counselors:

Counselor # 1 believes that Jesus came to save sinners from eternal punishment. Therefore he believes that Christian counseling is primarily an opportunity to invite persons to confess the name of Jesus and become active in the work of the church. He is particularly interested in pastoral counseling with non-Christians so they will come to know the gospel. His favorite Bible verse is: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Acts 16:31

Counselor # 2 believes that Jesus came to reconcile persons who live in broken relationships. Therefore she believes that Christian counseling is primarily a work of communication and mediation in interpersonal and family relationships. She is particularly interested in helping Korean American families who have returned to live and work in Korea. Her favorite Bible verse is: “God gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” 2 Corinthians 5:18

Could these two counselors be active in the same Christian professional organization? They have two different theologies and two different approaches to clinical work. They might have some conflict. What would the theology and identity of that organization be?

Counselor # 3 believes that Jesus came to liberate those who were oppressed by violence and poverty. Therefore she believes that Christian counseling is primarily empowering victims to seek justice. She is particularly interested in helping women who are victims of domestic violence and sometimes calls herself a feminist. Her favorite Bible verse is: “There is no male and female, for we are all one in Christ.” Galatians 3:28

It would be even harder to find a single Christian organization that would be open and fair to all three positions.

There is a fourth counselor, a Buddhist monk, who graduated from one of the best pastoral counseling programs in Korea and wrote a comparative religious dissertation on the Christian concept of trusting in the Holy Spirit and the Buddhist concept of the empty mind. He practices cognitive-narrative therapy and helps individuals find their true vocation in the world. His favorite Bible verse is: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth Comes, he will guide you into all truth.” John 16:12-13

Now we have a huge dilemma. Even the name of our organization is in jeopardy if we invite all four of these counselors to be in the organization. Yet, all four practice competent, recognized forms of pastoral counseling; all four are religious persons who know and use the Bible to support their viewpoint; all have skills for helping people examine their lives and find healing. Yet, they have different clinical approaches and different faith assumptions. Is it possible to organize a professional organization of pastoral counselors for different varieties of Christians and other counselors in Korea? Let me share some of our experience in the United States and make a proposal.

In the United States, there are two organizations of pastoral counselors who have taken different approaches to this question. The American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC) gives a broad, inclusive definition of pastoral counseling but has a rigorous system of examination with strict standards for membership. The American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC) takes a more narrow theological position but encourages everyone to join if they have a general agreement with the statement of faith. The first organization is small with only a few thousand members; until recently it limited membership to ordained ministers with many years of clinical training. The second organization is large with 50,000 members, open to persons from medicine, social work, psychology, nursing, pastoral counseling and even laypersons without any clinical training.

Unfortunately these two groups do not communicate with one another, and most members belong to only one organization. For example, most members of the AAPC (pastoral counselors) would not agree to the statement of faith of AACC (Christian Counselors). And many members of the AACC (Christian Counselors) would not pass the clinical requirements of AAPC (pastoral counselors). Christian counselors in the United States are badly divided and mistrust one another. It even affects national politics. Many people voted for George Bush because he was a born-again Christian; but they refused to vote for Al Gore even though he had been an active Christians all his life and even went to seminary for one year. I hope that Korean Christian counselors can find a better way.

Here is an example of the theology of the AAPC (pastoral counselors).

“As an organization we are committed to:

“Respecting the theological, psychological and faith traditions, and spiritual practices of our members and their clients;

“Participating in an authentic journey toward community which supports a variety of perspectives, values, needs, and beliefs, and which honors and practices openness, diversity, integrity, and appropriate boundaries;

“Working actively toward the wholeness of individuals, relationships, families, institutions, and communities;”1

Notice the openness of these statements: respecting diversity of theologies, working toward wholeness, and encouraging authentic journey. There are two reasons why the theology is so broad and inclusive: First, it tries to include a Christians who have a wide range of theologies. Second, there is no explicitly Christian language is because AAPC (pastoral counselors) is an inter-religious organization including Christians, Jews, and Buddhists. They have worked hard to develop a set of core values that can transcend various theologies and religions, although they have a history as a Christian organization that is progressive and liberal. AAPC (pastoral counselors) compensates for its emphasis on inclusivity by rigorous membership requirements. It took me three years to move from student member to full clinical member and five more years to move to the fellow level of membership – eight years of clinical and theological training! I had to submit two case studies with audio tapes and full transcripts, twenty pages of analysis, and then be examined by a committee for two hours on my theology and clinical competence. One time I failed and had to come back after another two years. It was a set of rigorous examinations that I will never forget.

In contrast, AACC (Christian Counselors) has a more detailed statement of faith.

Here are some sample phrases:

“There exists only one God, creator and sustainer of all things, infinitely perfect and eternally co-existing in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

“The Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, are the inspired, inerrant and trustworthy Word of God, the complete revelation of His will for the salvation of human beings, and the final authority for all matters about which it speaks.

“The substitutionary death of Jesus Christ and his bodily resurrection provide the only ground for justification, forgiveness, and salvation for all who believe. Only those who trust in Him alone are born of the Holy Spirit and are true members of the Church; only they will spend eternity with Christ.

“Ministry to persons acknowledges the complexity of humans as physical, psychological, social, and spiritual beings. The ultimate goal of Christian counseling is to help others move to personal wholeness, interpersonal competence, mental stability, and spiritual maturity.”2

This is an unapologetically conservative theological statement, using male language for the trinity, advocating an inerrant view of Scripture, and advocating the substitutionary theology of atonement that makes Christianity the only means of salvation and superior to all other theologies and religions. It defines what it means to be Christian from a particular theological perspective, and thus excludes many counselors who are Christians and would be impossible for counselors who believe in another faith to become members. Only the last statement that emphasizes “wholeness, interpersonal competence, mental stability, and spiritual maturity” would be acceptable to most members of AAPC (pastoral counselors). My guess is that over 90 % of AAPC (pastoral counselors) members would not want to join the AACC (Christian counselors) because of this statement of faith. On the other hand, AACC (Christian counselors) is quite inclusive in its admission standards – anyone can join, including laypersons with no theological or clinical training. According to their webpage there is no requirement in the membership application that one agree with the statement of faith.

So we have two models of organizations for Christian Counselors – one with an inclusive theology but strict clinical and theological standards for membership, and one with an exclusive theology but little or no standards for membership. Is there any way to bridge the gap between these approaches and answer the question: “What is Christian about Christian Counseling?” One implication of the approach of AAPC (pastoral counselors) is that we should not use the term “Christian” in the title of our professional organization. I know that would be a radical step for your organization. If that is not possible, I wonder whether there is a way of defining “Christian counseling” that is open to the contributions from a broad range of Christians and even counselors from other religions. For example, we could use the term “pastoral counseling” in the title, and then define Christian counseling as one category within pastoral counseling. That would provide a broad umbrella for competent counselors from several religions, and at the same time provide a place where Christian counselors could formulate their own identity as Christians.

But I don’t want to argue just about the name. In a postmodern world, there are several ways to be Christian, and there are several ways to do competent counseling. In a postmodern world, we cannot establish a single norm for Christian counseling. Rather pastoral counselors fit along a continuum that has several types, all of which are biblical, fervent believers. It is possible to be an evangelical, liberal, or feminist Christian just as it is possible to be a psychoanalyst, family therapist, or cognitive-narrative therapist. Can we define Christian counseling so that it gives integrity without making it so broad that it means nothing or so narrow it divides the community of pastoral counselors?

A Proposed Definition of Christian Counseling

A Christian counselor practices ministry with a commitment to the biblical faith of Jesus Christ and an attempt to make such faith active and effective in the modern world. This definition is unapologetic about one’s commitment to Jesus Christ but does not prescribe which of several theologies such a person might have. Now I want to break this definition down into four areas that I think are essential to Christian theology.

Christian theology asserts the following minimal beliefs:

Creation: God created all human beings in God’s image.

Fall: All human beings have fallen short of the glory of God – all persons and communities need healing.

Redemption: Jesus’ life, death and resurrection reveals God’s love and justice for all persons and communities.

The Church: God calls the church to be a community of healing and peace-making presence in the world.

I know that some will not be happy with this definition of Christian. For evangelicals, it sounds much too liberal and inclusive. There are no words about the plan of salvation, the authority of Scripture, and life of discipleship. On the other hand, for progressive Christians, it uses traditional Trinitarian language and would be challenging for some good people who call themselves Christians.

I would like to share with you what this confession of faith would mean to me as a Christian pastoral counselor. Other pastoral counselors would give a different interpretation.

CREATION IN THE IMAGE OF GOD.

I believe that all persons are made in the image of God and thus I should be open a wide range of persons who need care. This means that I should not favor men over women, parents over children, rich over poor, my ethnic group over other ethnic groups, my religion over other religions. This means a commitment to gender, racial, class equality. If a woman from a poor family comes to seek care from me, I must be aware of my training as a middle-class educated man. I have been socialized by my privileged position to feel that the society is a beneficial place for those who work hard and have a positive attitude. But for this client, the world is probably a hostile place, and even when she works hard and thinks in positive ways, things do not work out for her family. Yet we both have been made in the image of God. Will I be able to understand her experience and take her side in the struggle with injustice, or will I impose my perspective on her life? My Christian faith requires that I become her advocate, not her judge, and help empower her to express the gifts God has given her.

HUMANS ARE FALLEN.

I believe that I am a sinner before a loving God of justice, just the same as the persons who seek care from me. It means that I am humble about my own abilities because of my sinful nature. It is God who heals not my skills and wisdom. I pray before and during every session that God will use me for healing. I am in need of healing as much as anyone who comes to see me. This means that sometimes the persons I work with contribute to my healing just as I sometimes contribute to their healing. This also means that all counselors should be in supervision and accountability groups where trusted colleagues can challenge the way they practice their counseling. All pastoral counselors, regardless of how senior are capable of sin and doing more harm than good with their counseling and teaching. However it is not always helpful to focus on the sin of the clients because they not always responsible for what happens to them. Calling them to repentance is not always the best response. Sometimes they live in anguish or han because of abuse of power and oppression from others. Therefore, I need to be their advocates for justice, and help them to overcome their hesitation to seek justice. As forgiven children of God, they can seek justice before God without apology.

JESUS REDEMPTION MEANS HEALING.

I believe that healing is available to anyone who is open to the healing power of God. As a Christian I receive my revelation about the love of God from Jesus Christ. But I believe that God also reveals God’s love by other means, and that persons who have a different theology or religion from me may know God’s love and may be able to teach me something I do not understand. Therefore I am open to inter-religious dialogue with Confucians, Buddhists, Moslems and persons of other faiths. In dialogue with counselors from other religions, I am not hesitant about sharing my faith and experience, but I am also willing to listen and receive knowledge from others.

THE CHURCH AND ITS MINISTRY.

I believe that the church is judged not by its words but by its actions for love, peace, justice, and nonviolence. Throughout history, the church has frequently been corrupted by false theology and collusion with political tyrants. My words must be matched by actions that embody God’s love by the respect and love I show to people. Calling on the name of Jesus does not guarantee my faithfulness. Not everyone who says Lord, Lord will inherit the Kin-dom but those who do the will of God.

CONCLUSION:

To conclude, let’s return to the pastoral counselors in my introduction. How would each of them feel about my proposal? The evangelical counselor would probably feel that my definition of Christian was too weak, but I hope he would be able to find a place in communion with other Christians. The family therapist would be happy with the emphasis on family healing but would be challenged to do more analysis of the social pressures on families. The feminist advocate for survivors of violence would probably feel that the social analysis was too weak and would be troubled by the emphasis on sin, fearing that it would be used against women as it has in the past. The Buddhist monk would be tolerant but wary lest the group become too Christian and exclude him because of his religious faith. He would wait for a signal that he is welcome.

In this lecture I have tried to address a difficult problem in the pastoral counseling movement in the international context. Some pastoral counselors define Christian in open, inclusive terms that encourage cooperation with persons of diverse theologies and even counselors from other non-Christian religions. Some pastoral counselors define Christian in a strong, exclusive way that gives great fervor and energy to believers in their work of evangelism and healing. Often these two groups, and many who are in-between, have trouble working together. In response to this problem, I have tried to define the term Christian in a way that could help to bridge these conflicts. Peacemakers are often not appreciated because they are not militant enough for any group of true believers. But I believe that the mission of the church is more important than the temporary conflicts Christians have with one another. I believe it is possible to define Christian in terms of the formula: Human beings are created in the image of God, but they have fallen into sin and need the redemption from God revealed in Jesus Christ. The church is called to carry out this mission of healing and peace for all the world. I hope you will consider these ideas seriously and engage in your own debates about how we can be unified and faithful in our witness to Jesus Christ. Amen

APPENDIX

AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF PASTORAL COUNSELING: CORE VALUES, (WWW.AAPC.ORG) ACCESSED ON OCTOBER 27, 2003

“Respecting the theological, psychological and faith traditions, and spiritual practices of our members and their clients;

“Grounding our work in the psychological, social, ethical, and spiritual dimensions of all human endeavors;

“Inviting and respecting the dignity, quality, and contributions of all persons; embodying cultural awareness and sensitivity in our professional practices and our Association structures; and embracing and engaging diversity as a way of discerning the rich expression of spirit and faith in the world;

“Participating in an authentic journey toward community which supports a variety of perspectives, values, needs, and beliefs, and which honors and practices openness, diversity, integrity, and appropriate boundaries;

“Working actively toward the wholeness of individuals, relationships, families, institutions, and communities;

“Engaging in lifelong formative processes of personal, professional, and spiritual growth;

“Maintaining high standards of accountability and ethical conduct;

“Practicing responsible stewardship in the use of our resources;

“Contributing to religious institutions and faith communities through our services.

AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF CHRISTIAN COUNSELORS, STATEMENT OF FAITH, (WWW.AACC.NET) ACCESSED ON OCTOBER 27, 2003

“There exists only one God, creator and sustainer of all things, infinitely perfect and eternally co-existing in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

“The Scriptures, both Old and New testaments, are the inspired, inerrant and trustworthy Word of God, the complete revelation of His will for the salvation of human beings, and the final authority for all matters about which it speaks.

“Human nature derives from two historical personas, male and female, created in God’s image. They were created perfect, but they sinned, plunging themselves and all human beings into sin, guilt, suffering, and death.

“The substitutionary death of Jesus Christ and his bodily resurrection provide the only ground for justification, forgiveness, and salvation for all who believe. Only those who trust in Him alone are born of the Holy Spirit and are true members of the Church; only they will spend eternity with Christ.

“The Holy Spirit is the agent of regeneration and renewal for believers in Jesus Christ. He makes the presence of Jesus Christ real in believers, and he comforts, guides, convicts, and enables believers to live in ways that honor Christ.

“Ministry to persons acknowledges the complexity of humans as physical, psychological, social, and spiritual beings. The ultimate goal of Christian counseling is to help others move to personal wholeness, interpersonal competence, mental stability, and spiritual maturity.”

1 American Association of Pastoral Counselors (www.aapc.org)

2 American Association of Christian Counselors (www.aacc.net)

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