Biblical Counseling and
Christian Psychology -
The Forms of
Christian Marriage Counseling

In Part One of this article we discussed what Christian marriage counseling is, and provided some background on the education of pastors and what they see as their goals. Now, we will look at the two forms of counseling that they practice, biblical counseling and Christian psychology. There is not a hard division between the two. Instead, they are like opposite ends of a scale which blends them in varying degrees.

Secular counseling makes a distinction between individual and couples counseling, saying that the skills needed by the counselor differ for the two types. Christian counseling does not appear to distinguish between individual and couples counseling as much, at least at the biblical counseling end of the scale. The goals are more similar – getting an individual or getting a couple as both individuals and as a couple to glorify God by being more Christlike.

Biblical Marriage Counseling

As described by Dr. Robert Kellemen, in biblical marriage counseling “the counselor helps the couple to identify and repent of spiritual heart issues that are leading them to selfishly manipulate (‘You will meet my need!’) and retaliate (‘If you hurt me, then I will hurt you!’). Problems in the home begin with problems in the heart. Once selfishness is faced, then biblical marriage counseling seeks to help the couple to work together toward the common goal of exalting God by enjoying and empowering one another to reflect Christ.”[1]

Some pastors who do counseling don’t want to have anything to do with psychology. They say that today’s psychology is based on science, which declares that only those things that can be empirically proven really exist. There is no room for the supernatural.[2] The basic assumptions of psychology, then, are formulated on “[theories] of human nature that don’t fit with biblical revelation.”[3]

Biblical counselors say that God created us in His likeness; and so when we ponder our nature and purpose, consider how we should behave, determine what it is we desire, and make our choices, the natural thing to do is look to God for guidance. But science and secular psychology don’t acknowledge God, and lead its followers to false answers.

Biblical counselors find answers to life’s problems in both the old and new Testaments. For instance, from the area of family counseling, parents sometimes show favoritism that leads to sibling rivalry. The favoritism-rivalry pattern can be repeated in successive generations until one person has the courage to forgive and reconcile with his brothers. This is the story of Abraham with Isaac and Ishmael, Isaac with Jacob and Esau, and Jacob with Joseph and his brothers. Joseph finally breaks the cycle by forgiving his brothers. When biblical counselors are faced with sibling rivalry or parental favoritism, the scripture can become part of their intervention to solve the problem.

One criticism of biblical counseling, which is true of all forms of counseling, is that its focus is too narrow. While we can learn much about God and ourselves through the special revelation of God’s Word, we can also learn much through His general revelation found in nature and in human activity. For instance, the Bible does not say anything about neurons; we learn about the physiological workings of the brain from neuroscience. Just because science and secular psychology do not acknowledge God doesn’t mean that all of the tools they have developed are useless, or that all their findings are wrong.

Biblical counseling has also been criticized as being moralistic, focused on exhorting people to simply conform their behavior to certain ways, ostensibly submitting to the will of God. However, since the 1980s many biblical counselors have made theirs a more persuasive form of counseling by addressing through faith formation the motivations of the heart . God is the ultimate motivation, and placing faith in anything else, making anything else the fundamental issue, is simply a mistake.

However, as Pastor Timothy Keller points out, biblical counseling is not a quick cure-all. “It is one thing to believe the gospel; it is another thing to be affected in the deepest parts of our heart by the gospel. It takes years for the gospel to sink in and govern our thinking.”[4]

Christian Psychology

Some of those who do use psychology insist that its scientific findings be consistent with biblical truth. The Bible is given the most authority because “by it one can determine the parameters of an accurate worldview and the means to a right relationship with God. Theology can affirm what ought to be; whereas, science can only state what is.”[5] Secular psychology can tell us what is normal, but not what is right. Some say it can’t even tell us what a healthy state is. And so some use Christian psychology, which is psychology rebuilt from the ground up with theology as its foundation. Several models have been developed.

One of these models is called hope-focused marriage counseling, a form of intentionally brief therapy developed by Dr. Everett L. Worthington, Jr. It is consistent with biblical teachings on marriage, promoting love, faith, work, harmony, commitment and covenant. At the same time, it tends toward the practical. Interventions are designed to make changes that can be sensed, noticed, and real. The purposes of the interventions are made known in advance, something not always done in secular psychology, in order to promote hope and encouragement in the couple. Hope-focused marriage counseling has two overarching goals – to solve problems (not that all of your problems will be solved in counseling, but you will leave counseling knowing how to deal with them) and to help couples grow.

A basic assumption of both biblical and Christian psychology counseling is that a biblical worldview “encourages healthier self-functioning.” Reflecting on sin encourages self-improvement in a way that “can occur without defensiveness because truthful discovery of transgressions will be covered by God's grace.”[6] Remember, God loves you and is always willing and happy to forgive.

Where secular psychology models are used, the interventions may be religiously oriented. For example, Scripture might be used in order to make a point or to get a client to think differently about a situation. The most common religious techniques employed are:

  • Forgiveness
  • Biblical concepts
  • Scripture
  • Confrontation of sin
  • Religious imagery[7]

Before moving on to discussing whether secular or Christian marriage counseling is better for you, let’s take a brief look at both lay and professional Christian counselors.

Professional
Christian Marriage Counselors

So we see that pastors can embrace various forms of Christian counseling. Professional Christian counselors are the same, except that they are even more willing to use secular as well as Christian psychology. They are certainly more willing to dismiss the more ungodly assumptions of science and make use of psychology’s findings in their work. And this indicates a subtle difference in their approaches. Whereas the pastoral counselor wants, in part, “to expose the counselee to the healing and encouraging truths of God’s Word”,[8] presumably as his denomination sees it, the professional Christian counselor begins with these and other truths as the client sees and believes in them, and the effects they have had on him/her. For marriage counseling, this would also include effects on the relationship and/or the family.

Professional Christian couples counselors are most often found in clinics, agencies, and private practice, and are about twice as likely to have an advanced degree in counseling as pastors.[9] Their levels of education and experience are comparable to secular counselors.

They are highly committed to their religions, much more so than secular counselors, and “are likely to evaluate their world and make decisions based on their religious values.”[10]

They are also more likely to use research-supported secular techniques, whereas pastors are more likely to use those arising from Christian theories (which have been less researched).

Lay Christian Marriage Counselors

In between the pastoral counselors and the professional counselors are the lay Christian counselors. They offer their services as part of a church ministry, usually on a part time basis. Their level of education in counseling is less than either pastors or professionals, but they have received training to provide a sub-professional level of service to clients. Like pastors, they are more influenced by Christian psychology theories than secular theories.

The divorce rate among lay Christian counselors is 47%, slightly above the U.S. national average, and higher than that of professional Christian counselors at 25% and pastors at 18%.[11] (These percentages may not represent Catholic lay and professional counselors, as the survey participants were members of a mostly Protestant counseling organization.)

Interestingly, their counseling results appear to be better than the professionals. Although they counsel fewer couples than professionals or pastors, on a percentage basis fewer of their couples breakup – 11% versus 17% for professionals and 14% for pastors.[12] It could be that their cases are not as difficult. The more distressed cases would gravitate to or be referred to those with more education and expertise.

Let’s move on now to a short discussion of whether you should choose secular or Christian marriage counseling.


Part 3: Christian Marriage Counseling and Choices

Return from Biblical Counseling & Christian Psychology to Marriage Guardian Home Page





[1] ^ Robert Kellemen, Ph.D., LCPC, Biblical Counseling FAQs, Retrieved from bcsfn.aacc.net on June 12, 2012. Note: Emphases in original.
[2] ^ Timothy Clinton and George Ohlschlager, Competent Christian Counseling, Volume One: Foundations and Practice of Compassionate Soul Care, WaterBrook Press. 2002. P. 55.
[3] ^ Timothy Keller, Ed.D., Four Models of Counseling in Pastoral Ministry, Retrieved on June 7, 2012 from hercomebetterdays.org, 2004, 2010.
[4] ^ Keller.
[5] ^ Craig Younce, The Significance of Developing Core Counseling Competencies in Pastoral Care Ministry. 2011. Retrieved from digitalcommons.liberty.edu on April 26, 2012. P. 77.
[6] ^ Robert Roberts & P.J. Watson, “A Christian Psychology View,” Ch. 4 in Eric L. Johnson, ed., Psychology & Christianity: Five Views (Spectrum), 2nd ed., InterVarsity Press, 2010. P. 167.
[7] ^ Joshua Hook, The Effectiveness of Religiously Tailored Couple Counseling. 2009. Retrieved from vcu.edu. on April 26, 2012. P. 65.
[8] ^ Craig Younce, The Significance of Developing Core Counseling Competencies in Pastoral Care Ministry. 2011. Retrieved from digitalcommons.liberty.edu on April 26, 2012. P. 21.
[9] ^ Joshua Hook, The Effectiveness of Religiously Tailored Couple Counseling. 2009. Retrieved from vcu.edu. on April 26, 2012. P. 51.
[10] ^ Hook. P. 54.
[11] ^ Hook. P. 50.
[12] ^ Hook. P. 53.
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