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 pastoral counseling communities.]
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.
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