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.
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!