March 26, 2015

The Biblical Counseling Movement

by Jesse Johnson

Historically, churches have not had what we call today “counseling pastors” (or for that matter, youth pastors, assimilation pastors, etc.). But today many larger churches have pastors that specialize in counseling. Why? What historical trends brought about the ecclesiological necessity for pastors specifically trained in counseling?

David Powlison’s 2010 book, The Biblical Counseling Movement—History and Context answers that question. In what was actually his PhD dissertation from the University of Pennsylvania in 1996, and New Growth Press has updated it to include more modern developments, as well as to make it readable for a broader audience.  

For the most part this is a survey of Jay Adams. It follows him from his time as a student at John’s Hopkins, through his dissatisfaction with psychological methods, and traces how he launched the biblical counseling revolution. What started as a one-day-a-week operation in a New Jersey Church office quickly grew into a nation-wide network of trained pastors trying to return the soul-care of Christians to the local church.

Powlison’s work is fascinating because it sets Adams in his historical context. He does this not only through interacting with Adams’ own work, but also by extensive interviews/commentary from Adams’ friends and critics alike. Easily the most helpful part of the book is the extensive quotes from other books Adams was reading while nouthetic counseling was being born.  Powlison shows his readers what Adams was reading, and how it impacted him.

But The Biblical Counseling Movement is not simply about Adams. A very helpful section in the first chapter reviews other key works that help lay out the nature of psychology as a specialty in the 1960’s-70’s. Powlison interacts with Andrew Abbott’s Systems of Professions, which shows that psychology was prone to fuzzy boundaries not just as it interacted with the church, but also with other medical professionals. Social workers and doctors were weary of psychiatry stepping on their turf, just as pastors were beginning to resent its intrusion into the life of the church. The push back psychology was getting from the church matched what was happening in the areas of social work and the “hard medicines—psychotropic medication, electroconvulsive therapy, lobotomy, physical care of chronically disabled” and other fields that are more scientific/medicinal than psychology (p. 5).

Moreover, Powlison points out that even inside of psychology its status as a “science” seems convoluted. Relying on a work by Charles Rosenberg, “The Crisis in Psychiatric Legitimacy,” Powlison points out that the most “scientific” branches of psychiatry (those dealing with schizophrenia, dementia, and chronic organic syndromes) receive the least amount of respect within the field. On the other hand, the psychologists who are at the other end of the scientific spectrum, dealing with obscure theories with little data or research backing, those are the guys who were making names for themselves. In other words, the mainstream of psychology was actually far afield from its scientific boundaries.

Image result for David Powlison vs Jay Adams

This is the historical context that produced Adams—and it provoked Adams to most certainly view himself as a revolutionary. He saw the evangelical (or at least the Presbyterian) church in slumber, content with farming out the spiritual care of her congregants to an unscientific field that was incapable of actually helping anyway. For example, when Adam’s publisher (HarperCollins) told him if he wanted to increase sales he needed to tone down his books, he ratcheted them up. He understood that being dogmatic and clear provoked people to see error more than compromise and middle ground.

That one point alone is essential in seeing how nouthetic counseling came to be (nouthetic means “confrontation”). Who allows their counseling movement to be named after confrontation? Adams did, and Powlison explains why.

If you are curious about where the Biblical Counseling Movement came from, I encourage you to read this book. It is helpful, extensively researched, and really brings Adams to life. Powlison treats Adams as an ally, so this book is not overly critical in a direct sense. But he is faithful to the history of the movement, and this helps explain why nouthetic counseling can be seen as overly confrontational—it was supposed to be that way!

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Randall Kirkland

    Thanks Jesse. This is a very helpful post. I came to Christ in 1971 and shortly thereafter read Adams’ book Competent to Counsel. It was truly a revolutionary influence in my life that the Lord used to send me to Seminary (given that God’s word is sufficient, what better course of action if one is inclined to learn to counsel than getting a grip on the Scriptures, right?). Well, those were pretty confusing times in Christian circles…the Narramore crowd doing Neo-Freudian stuff at Rosemead, Gary Collins doing integrationist stuff at Trinity and Adams leading the charge at Westminster. I clearly opted for the nouthetic approach although most churches and even my seminary prof at Dallas Sem were in the integrationist camp (under the rubric of “all truth is God’s truth”‘ so why not use secular perspectives to round out the biblical revelation?). Bottom line is that the integrationist crowd seems to have swayed most minds in evangelicalism (sadly even in erstwhile conservative seminaries…though NOT Master’s Seminary, praise God!). I am truly thankful for Adams and his spiritual legacy. He has honored the word of God in his work and has been a light shining in the darkness of much counseling confusion.

    • Matt

      Very well said Randall!!

  • elainebitt

    “[…] the most “scientific” branches of psychology (those dealing with
    schizophrenia, dementia, and chronic organic syndromes) receive the
    least amount of respect within the field. On the other hand, the
    psychologists who are at the other end of the scientific spectrum,
    dealing with obscure theories with little data or research backing,
    those are the guys who were making names for themselves.”

    That’s interesting. Any idea why that happened?

  • Juan Moncayo

    Helpful post brother. I recommend to also read Lambert’s book on the same topic to get some of the developments after Adams. That is volume 2.

  • David

    Thanks Jesse. Fascinating topic.
    One very minor typo: Johns Hopkins has no apostrophe.

  • GinaRD

    Three questions:

    1. On what basis did Adams decide that psychology was incapable of helping people?

    2. Is Powlison saying that controversial and dangerous practices like electroshock therapy and lobotomy are superior to psychology simply because they’re supposedly part of the “hard sciences”?

    3. If the biblical counseling movement is against psyschology because it’s not rooted and grounded in the Bible, why should they care about its scientific credentials?

    • Great questions Gina. Let me say that #3 gets to the heart of what I think is the most valid (and ironic) critique of the biblical counseling movement. It started on the presupposition that godly men/women are competent to counsel, but what it has grown into is a network of classes, training, certifications, and often times its own psuedo-scientific terms. Some times I secretly wonder if they didn’t simply one extra-biblical structure with other.

      1. Powlison points out that when Adams was training as a psychologist he felt frustrated that a tenant of his training was affirmation…he felt he had to affirm what the patient was doing. There is a particular event Powlison describes where a patient Adams was seeing was practically asking to be confronted about her sin, but Adams felt unable to do so because his training demanded he build up a report/trust with the patient, based on a non-judgmental setting. There was a lot going on, but that even is one Powlison draws attention to where Adams decided that there has to be a better way to help people.

      2. Powlison was pointing out that inside of psychiatry, the lowest paid segment of the career field is that with the most scientific research behind it. What they (in the 70’s) called the “hard science” part of psychiatry. Meanwhile in the way more nebulous/unresearched side of the field you had the more famous Bob Newhart side of things. Those guys were higher paid, and the knowledge was not in the science, but in the psychologist himself. Clients get attached to the individual who is their psychologist, not to the scientific facts behind him/her. BTW, it was for this reason that Adams made a big deal about not having the same counselor meet with the same person over and over again, but to often change the counselor out. That demonstrated that the help was in the Bible, not in the personality/perception of the counselor. That’s a contrast to psychology in the 60’s/70’s where the help was often seen in the counselor, not the science of the thing. Does that help?

      Next week I might blog on the differences Powlison saw in contrasting Adams with the psychology of his day. I think it is a helpful contrast. Thanks Gina.

      • elainebitt


        “Some times I secretly wonder if they didn’t simply one extra-biblical structure with other.” Is this sentence missing a word? “replace”?

        What is the difference between Adam and Powlison’s models?

        You’re saying the biblical movement (Adam’s) grew to the point that’s too complex? How does that impact the biblical counseling provided? How do you approach biblical counseling in your own church?

        • Fixed the missing word. THanks Elaine.

          Adams and Powlison have similar models, although Powlison’s might be more user friendly. Here is a helpful post on this question:

          • elainebitt

            Thanks for the link Jesse. I was wondering if you’d mind answering my other questions?

            I really like how Heath puts Nouthetic and Biblical counselings as the two sides of the same coin. I found this paragraph interesting:

            “First, there are dispositional differences with regard to doing and believing. In their counseling theory and practice, nouthetic counselors pay particular attention to behavioral change. Biblical counselors focus on the patterns of belief or unbelief that motivate behavior. True change is not merely behavioral but generates from deep within the heart.”

            It seems that Heath is saying Nouthetic counseling is heavy on the behavioral changes in the life of the counselee. From my viewpoint (as counselee), I experienced nothing like that, but exactly what he stated is the focus of Biblical counselors. My counselor was very strong in emphasizing the authority of Scripture and the work of sanctification by the Holy Spirit through the Word.

            It might sound strange to most people, I don’t know, but I particularly appreciate the fact that the counselor is not trying to “friend” me so they can gain my trust and be more open to counseling. If you’re not my “friend” (in the sense of being somewhat close) but you know how to handle the Word of God, I will trust you. After all, isn’t it because we trust you (as in the contributors of this blog) that I am richly blessed by the articles posted here? 😉

      • GinaRD

        Thank you for dealing so thoroughly with my questions, Jesse.

        I will be completely honest, though, and state that I’m not a believer in the kind of “confrontational” counseling referred to here. Do counselors need to be able to critique behavior and attitudes? Yes, absolutely! But that critique can come from a place of trust and rapport, and, in fact, I would argue (from my own experience) that it’s infinitely more effective — and even more godly — when it does.

        To take one well-known example from recent years: As I understand it, pastoral counselors at Sovereign Grace Ministries were “confrontational” with young victims of sexual abuse and their families. That did not turn out terribly well. (Understatement of the century.) How much better it would have been for all concerned if, instead of taking the “You’re just as big a sinner as your abuser so just forgive him and move on” line that the families have now spoken publicly about, they had shown compassion for those suffering young people and worked with them to help them recover from the trauma.

        Thanks for letting me share this.

        • elainebitt

          Gina, I don’t think “confront” in this context means what you think it means.

          One thing to keep in mind though, although Nouthetic counselors have been trained to do this type of counseling, they are still humans. I am not excusing mistakes and errors, just stating a fact.

          I also would like to point out something else you say:
          “You’re just as big a sinner as your abuser so just forgive him and move on”. This does not reflect Nouthetic’s approach on forgiveness. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t reflect biblical forgiveness doctrine at all.

          I have been the subject of [Nouthetic] counseling, so I kind of know how it works. It is very biblical, and I knew that before I started. I had been looking for a Nouthetic counselor in my area for a few years until I found one. I know that the word “confront” can, and does, sound very negative, but it is nothing like that in practice. I’d suggest you understand this type of counseling a little more before you come to more conclusions about it.