The lack of a proper reverence for God’s name and irreverent worship are not the only things that should concern us as we take a realistic look at the portrait of the visible church of our time. We should be equally concerned about the lack of respect for God’s Word.
God’s Word is not being given the honor of serving as the final authority among many professing Christians in our day. Many liberal theologians, pastors, teachers, and counselors give only lip service honor to the Bible, rarely if ever bringing its timeless principles to bear in the lives of those they serve. Others misquote, misapply, and twist passages to make Scripture appear as a mouthpiece of the flesh or the world (which is under the sway of Satan) than the mouthpiece by which God speaks to His chosen people. Satan’s jackhammer of liberalism being manifested through the agency of liberal professors continues to chip away at the apostolic foundation of the faith “which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). It is, therefore, important that we spend a little time discussing this topic in order that we might be used of the Lord to counsel effectively and break free those souls which have been taken captive within this spiritually dark prison.
A Definition of Liberalism
Whenever a discussion ensues around the term liberalism, it is important that it is disentangled from all the nuances of meaning in our time. For “liberalism” can apply to any number of philosophical bents, systems of thought, or sets of ideas held by political parties or other groups. When we speak about liberalism in the context of the visible church we are best served to qualify the term by using the adjective theological along with it. There are a number of good resources available today to help one grasp a deeper understanding of the meaning of theological liberalism. One is an article by Dr. R. C. Sproul entitled “The Liberal Agenda,”1 which you are encouraged to read because it provides a historical perspective on the term. We will use for our definition a statement made by Wayne Grudem2 in one of his works because it succinctly sets forth the essence of theological liberalism. Grudem defines theological liberalism as “a system of thinking that denies the complete truthfulness of the Bible as the Word of God and denies the unique and absolute authority of the Bible in our lives.”3
It is obvious that when liberalism creeps into the church, all kinds of problems begin to appear. Professing (liberal) Christians deny not only the complete truthfulness and the authority of Scripture but also fundamental pillars of the Christian faith such as the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ as well as belief in a literal hell. Add to that the acceptance and propagation of things like Darwinism and homosexuality and you have nothing less than an extremely dangerous and destructive system of thought. What disasters liberal professors have caused in the sphere of Christianity! The fact that they and their teachings have been tolerated in Christian churches and institutions in America throughout the years is a disaster in itself. Our hearts should lament as we think of the countless thousands of covenant youths’ souls that have and continue to be injured by liberals in Christian learning institutions. Reader, please don’t skip over this terrible tragedy of our time. Let the reality of the injuring of tomorrow’s soldiers of the church militant sink into your heart: Thousands of our precious covenant youth are being led to the edge of rocky spiritual cliffs by liberal professors. Many of them are falling off the edge to incur great damage to their souls while those who are sound in their theology stand by silently and watch. Please pause and offer prayer for covenant youth who are in Christian education institutions where savage wolves are being allowed to prey upon their souls. Also pray that the people in the landscape of those schools (i.e., parents, society and board members, administrators, congregations, and denominations) will be given the wisdom and courage necessary to confront and remove these false professors from their respective institutions. Finally, pray that God will give all of His people the wherewithal to fight against the cancer of liberalism that is rapidly spreading through an increasingly large segment of the visible church.
Liberal doctrine is not only being spread within liberal churches and schools. It is also being introduced and even propagated, although many times unknowingly, in theologically conservative circles. Really? How? By Christian counselors employed for those in families and churches who are wrestling with different types of counseling-related issues. Many worldly philosophies are being introduced and embraced in our conservative circles via counselors functioning under the umbrella of “Christian counseling.” It is important that readers understand there is a fundamental difference in what normally occurs in the practices of those who counsel under the heading of Christian counseling versus biblical counseling. Dr. David Powlison expresses well the primary difference in the following statement: “Most Christian psychologists view the Bible as an inspirational resource, but their basic system of counseling, both theory and methods, is transferred unaltered from secular psychology. Most are frankly and self-consciously eclectic, picking and choosing theories and techniques according to personal preference. In contrast, biblical counselors follow the Bible’s view of itself as the source of a comprehensive and detailed approach to understanding and counseling people (2 Tim. 3:15–17; 2 Pet. 1:4).”4
Human Philosophies Are Placed Above Scripture5
As you have likely concluded by considering Powlison’s explanation, the potential for liberalism being imported into the church is much greater in the field of Christian counseling than in biblical counseling. In many cases the “unique and absolute authority” of Scripture is usurped as numerous “Christian counselors” indiscriminately import to their counselees (as well as whole congregations via lectures and courses) systems of thought from humanistic theorists. The fathers of modern psychology either redefine human personality or introduce concepts and principles for tending to the soul which contradict Scripture. Examples of the fathers of contemporary psychology include Sigmund Freud, Abraham Maslow, and Carl Rogers.
Sigmund Freud is considered the father of psychoanalysis. Freud’s system of thought completely reconstructs human personality (Id, Ego, and Superego). He viewed man as an instinct-ruled beast dominated primarily by the drives of sex and aggression. Psychoanalysis focuses on the human unconscious by practices such as dream analysis, transference, and free association. The psychoanalytical objective is to make the unconscious, conscious because Freud theorized that human behaviors were driven by unconscious motives.
Abraham Maslow’s five-stage model is divided into basic needs (physiological, safety, love, and esteem) and growth needs (self-actualization). These basic needs motivate people when they are unmet. One must satisfy lower-level basic needs before progressing on to meet higher-level growth needs. The ultimate goal is for people to reach their full potential; at which point they are self-actualized.
Carl Rogers’s system of thought and accompanying “oerson-centered therapy” (PCT) teaches that human nature is inherently good. It also teaches that self-actualization for individuals will generally yield goodness. PCT is based on the presupposition that (subjective) experience determines a counselee’s concept of truth. Rogers theorized that when individuals grow psychologically it is due to their therapist and/or environment granting them unconditional positive regard (acceptance), empathy, and genuineness. One of several objectives of PCT is for individuals to develop a state of congruence between their self-image and their ideal-self.
You can see that the systems of thought set forth by Freud, Maslow, and Rogers clearly contradict the teachings of Scripture. Whenever counselees embrace these corrupted systems of thought, untold damage is done. For one thing, their confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture to address adequately the needs of their souls is compromised as they are led to look to man instead of God for answers. The process of sanctification is also inhibited as the instrument of the Word. which the Spirit uses to conform the elect to the image of Jesus Christ. is replaced with one or more systems of thought that aim to conform counselees to the self-focused pattern of this world (Rom. 12:2). The greatest tragedy is God is robbed of the glory that is due His name as souls are taken into bondage by these antithetical systems.
It is of utmost importance that elders and families fully understand what theories6 and methods are employed by counselors to whom their loved ones are entrusted when outside “Christian counseling” resources are employed. You may wish to consider utilizing the following clusters of questions when interviewing a potential counselor.
• Are you a Christian? It is important to ask this question even if you are interviewing a counselor who works in a Christian counseling center, hospital, organization or church. I recently was involved with a case involving a psychiatrist from a Christian hospital who said he was an atheist when I asked about his world and life view. What is your definition of a Christian? This question is important because there are many conceptions about what it means to be a Christian today.
• Do you believe in the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture? Do you utilize the Bible and prayer in your practice of counseling? How often? (All sessions, most sessions, or rarely.) If Scripture is used, try to determine if the counselor uses eisegesis (reads meaning into Scripture) or exegesis (gets meaning from Scripture). You may wish to ask, What method(s) of interpretation do you use to interpret the Bible?
• Do you believe in a historic Adam and Eve and their fall into sin? How does your view of the Fall factor into your practice of counseling?
• Do you believe there is a difference between sin and sickness? If yes, how do you discern the difference between sin and sickness (neurological or biological system dysfunctions, etc.)?
• How do you typically address sin-based problems in your counseling practice? What measures are taken if a counselee persists in sin?
• How do you (and the members of your team) typically deal with issues that are rooted in sickness? Would you say that most of your treatment plans tend toward addressing problems with therapies or medication? Is the psychiatrist utilized in making prescriptions for a professing Christian? Do you know if the psychiatrist makes a distinction between sin and sickness when making determinations about the use of medication to treat a problem?
• Provide several examples of common therapies you utilize in treating those who suffer from depression or anxiety. Provide for me a basic explanation of how these therapies function to cure the counselee.
• Would you consider yourself an eclectic counselor (one who selects what appears to be the best system of thought, theory, or philosophy from secular psychologists and sociologist)? If the counselor answers in the affirmative ask, How do you reconcile the utilization of such in your practice with a passage such as Luke 6:43–44, which says, “For there is no good tree which produces bad fruit, nor, on the other hand, a bad tree which produces good fruit. For each tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they pick grapes from a briar bush”?
• What is your position on divorce? What types of issues or scenarios would you consider to be legitimate grounds for recommending a divorce? When recommending the possibility of divorce to Christian counselees, do you inform the overseeing church body and/or inform the counselee of his or her responsibility to proceed forward with the recommendation only in consultation with the overseeing church body? If not, why not?
Asking questions such as these will often expose theological liberalism. Christian counselors or therapists who cannot provide substantially sound answers to these types of questions should not be employed as counselors by individuals or congregations.
As you informally counsel and consider those with advanced training to whom you will make referrals it is important to affirm within your heart that the Bible is sufficient to address the spiritual needs of God’s people. You may wish to adopt for yourself the two following statements7 which IRBC uses to express its belief in the sufficiency of Scripture:
• Holy Scripture is entirely sufficient to meaningfully and relevantly address all of man’s spiritual needs in every situation in every period of time.
• Holy Scripture is the only sufficient means whereby a comprehensive system of counseling principles and practices that can affect genuine change in the human heart can be derived.
Science Is Placed Above Scripture
Liberalism is also spreading in the visible church via the wardrobe of counseling, which sports the fashion of science via the various branches of psychology. The truth of the matter is a lot of what passes for science in these branches is unsubstantiated theory. The late G. G. Simpson of Harvard once said, “It is inherent in any definition of science that statements that cannot be checked by observation are not really about anything . . . or at the very least, they are not science.”8 A lot of the theories circulated in the mainstream of psychology “are not really about anything” because they fail to undergo the scrutiny of scientific observation. Even if the principles and systems propagated within the field of psychology could be sustained by such scrutiny, knowledgeable and responsible Christians would still subject them to the authority of Scripture and interpret them in its light. Because liberals deny the complete truthfulness of the Bible and the unique and absolute authority it is to have in the lives of God’s children, they place science above the Scripture in their practice of counseling. Because their practices are not built upon solid truth from the realm of either special or general revelation, they often fail to provide the fruit of sound guidance to those they counsel.
A couple of qualifying points need to be made before we conclude our discussion on liberalism. First, not everyone who serves under the rubric of Christian counselor is a liberal. I have a conservative Reformed friend who serves as a licensed psychologist in a Christian psychiatric hospital. This man has a solid grasp of Scripture and the Reformed faith as well as the applicable aspects of true science surrounding his counseling practice. By God’s grace he is a credit to his profession and a great blessing to the broader Reformed community and the counselees he serves.
There are also fairly orthodox Christians who labor as Christian counselors who have never deconstructed and evaluated in the light of Scripture the theories they utilize in their practices. They learned these theories from instructors, possibly even in a theologically conservative Christian college, and reasoned “this stuff has to be sound if it is being taught here.” Because most Christian counseling programs consist primarily of theory and applied psychology courses which are taught by professors who have a minimum academic background in biblical studies, graduates are often not equipped to evaluate the theories they have been taught. Even though a core of lower-division Bible courses is often required in such programs, the training necessary to properly evaluate systems of thought as well as properly interpret, divide, and apply scriptural truth to those who struggle with spiritually based problems is often inadequate.
Second, there is a place for true science in counseling. God’s truth discovered in the realm of general revelation can be beneficial for God’s people in the world of counseling. For example, some of the work done by neuroscientists (via brain scan technology) has provided helpful insights into brain structure and function. When their discoveries of truth are correctly interpreted (through the lens of Scripture) and wisely applied to the lives of counselees who struggle with neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s or disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorders, counselees and their families can be greatly blessed both physically and spiritually. The physical blessings often come in the form of relief. Spiritual help may come by the enablement of affected counselees’ brains functioning more effectively and efficiently. When the “neuro-abilities” of the brain are restored, their souls9 can more fully utilize them to interact meaningfully with the means of grace. This, in turn, greatly increases their potential for bearing fruit for the glory of God (via works) and enjoying communion with God and the saints.
We can also gain a great deal of insight from secular psychology when sound scientific methodology is utilized in observing human behavior. For example, there is benefit to our interacting with the work of people like Jean Piaget (1936), who was the first psychologist to make a systematic study of cognitive development. His detailed observational studies of cognition10 in children and accompanying series of tests designed to reveal different cognitive levels and abilities can be helpful in understanding how much a child can understand at different stages of cognitive development. When his studies and conclusions are evaluated through the lens of Scripture and placed in a proper theological framework, God’s truth can be profitably extricated and used for His glory and the good of His people. Such truth can, indeed, be useful in helping us understand the cognitive limitations of children at different developmental stages, thereby assisting us in setting realistic expectations for them at home, church, and school. It also can be helpful in assisting us to challenge mature adults who are not exercising good stewardship over the gift of their intellects.
In the reading of profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. . . . If the Lord has been pleased to assist us by the work and ministry of the ungodly in physics, dialectics, mathematics, and other similar sciences, let us avail ourselves of it.11
1. This article can be accessed online at http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/liberal-agenda/.
2. Wayne Grudem’s works are helpful. The author cautions readers to exercise discernment when reading about his conception of the New Testament prophet and his associated conclusion regarding the nature of New Testament prophecy.
3. Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 15.
4. John, F. MacArthur Jr. and Wayne A. Mack, Introduction to Biblical Counseling: Basic Guide to the Principles and Practice of Counseling (Dallas, TX: Word, 1994), 362 (emphasis added).
5. The author expresses thanks to Dr. Maria Hansen, associate director of tSw (Holland) for fortifying this section. Dr. Hansen possessed a PhD in clinical psychology from the United States International University. She serves as a counselor at the Hope Biblical Counseling & Training Center, Ft. Myers, FL.
6. It is important to make a distinction between a system of thought (or a theory) and a particular point that may be contained within it, as there may be some (scripturally discerned) points that can be extracted from a secular theory and used profitably.
7. These and other statements IRBC uses to reflect its belief in the sufficiency of Scripture are reflective of those held by the Biblical Counseling Coalition.
8. Robert T. Pennock and Michael Ruse, But Is It Science: The Philosophical Question in the Creation Evolution Controversy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009), 232. The author does not endorse this book.
9. The brain mediates between the human soul and body.
10. Cognition is defined as conscious mental activities: the activities of thinking, understanding, learning, and remembering (Merriam Webster’s Dictionary).
11. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.2.15–16, Beveridge edition.
Dr. Jeff L. Doll is director at The Institute for Reformed Biblical Counseling, director at The Shepherd’s Way Biblical Counseling Center in Holland, MI, and pastor of biblical counseling at Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI.