It’s Just Semantics; It Really Is!

Defining Biblical Counseling

Yesterday we were at a soccer scrimmage when my wife started talking to a little girl. My wife used to be a K-4 teacher, so she’s pretty much a child whisperer. Laura asked her, “What grade are you in this year? Is it K-4? Or K-5? Or do you call it kindergarten?” The girl thought a little and said, “I’m in Pretty K.” It was an adorable response. She was a cute little girl and probably belongs in “Pretty K.” Children sometimes mess up words in the most descriptive, heartwarming way possible.

The right words are important. The right definitions are important.

In one of the courses I teach we begin the first lecture by discussing a definition of biblical counseling. I ask the students to give me elements of a thorough definition, and then we look at actual definitions that I’ve collected over the years. It normally leads to a good discussion on what elements are present and absent in each definition.

Let’s look at a few and notice what they emphasize and what they might overlook. Of course I’m not critiquing these authors for anything missing in their definitions. Often a definition is designed to highlight a particular emphasis of biblical counseling and not to cover every element of importance. But comparing and contrasting them helps us think critically.

Jay Adams’ definition of nouthetic counseling is “bringing God’s Word to bear upon people’s lives in order to expose sinful patterns, to correct what is wrong, and to establish new ways of life of which God approves.”[1]Jay Adams, Competent to Counsel (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1970), 51-52.

One weakness that we see more clearly today is that Jay doesn’t mention suffering. He, of course, understood that our problems are caused by sin and suffering, but his clarion call was to encourage the sinning counselee to repent. However, notice that his dependence upon the sufficient Word of God shows up right at the beginning of his definition.

Heath Lambert gives a general definition of counseling that covers secular and biblical, formal and informal counseling when he says, “Counseling is a conversation where one party with questions, problems, and trouble seeks assistance from someone they believe has answers, solutions, and help.”[2]Heath Lambert, A Theology of Biblical Counseling: The Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 13.

This definition demands that the counselor have answers. Listening to someone vent or commiserating with their distress is not enough. If you are just the listening ear for someone, then they will probably appreciate you, but you won’t really help them. They need to be pointed to truth. If you don’t eventually do that, you are not doing biblical counseling.

John Piper says, “Biblical counseling is God-centered, Bible-saturated, emotionally-in-touch use of language to help people become God-besotted, Christ-exalting, joyfully self-forgetting lovers of people.”[3]John Piper in James MacDonald, Bob Kellemen, & Steve Viars, Eds., Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling: Changing Lives with God’s Timeless Truth (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2013), 24.

Piper holds the record for the most hyphenated definition. 😉 What most students pull out of this one is his emphasis on “emotionally-in-touch use of language.” They understand Piper as saying that our words should be sensitive and compassionate to the counselee. I agree.

I like what this one by Ernie Baker and Johnathan Holmes emphasizes, “One of the ways of defining biblical counseling is ‘broken people helping other broken people find healing through the power of the gospel and in the power of the Spirit as they apply the living principles of Scripture (Hebrews 4:12) to life.’”[4]Ernie Baker and Johnathan Holmes in James MacDonald, Bob Kellemen, & Steve Viars, Eds., Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling: Changing Lives with God’s Timeless Truth (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, … Continue reading

Holmes and Baker remind us that we are also broken. We are not a professional class that can give condescending advice to hurting people. That’s a contrast to secular counselors who are very professionalized. Jay Adams taught early biblical counselors that Romans 15:14 indicated that all believers could be “competent to counsel.” We are more like our counselees than different. That’s a fundamental understanding of biblical counseling. Their sins may have more dramatic expressions or more extreme consequences, but the roots will look very similar in our own hearts. Biblical counseling is not a place for the self-righteous.

David Powlison was a leader in the second generation of biblical counselors. His definition was, “Wise counseling is essentially a way of loving another person well. It is a way of speaking what is true and constructive into this person’s life right now.”[5]David Powlison, Speaking Truth in Love: Counsel in Community (Winston-Salem, NC: Punch Press, 2005), 5.

Powlison’s emphasis throughout his life was always speaking the truth in love (Eph 4:15), and you can see that in his definition. We should not mistake either harsh truth-telling or sentimental listening as biblical counseling. We have truth that is sometimes hard to hear, but we must compassionately share it.

A definition from Bob Kellemen is the most thorough. “Christ-centered, church-based, comprehensive, compassionate, and culturally informed biblical counseling depends upon the Holy Spirit to relate God’s Word to suffering and sin by speaking and living God’s truth in love to equip people to love God and one another (Matt. 22:35-40). It cultivates conformity to Christ (the whole person becoming whole in Christ—our inner life increasingly reflecting the inner life of Christ) and communion with Christ and the body of Christ leading to a community of one-another disciple-makers (Matt. 28:18-20).”[6]Robert W. Kellemen, Gospel-Centered Counseling: How Christ Changes Lives. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 46.

Bob Kellemen thinks and writes like I wish I could. Everything is in this definition. He mentions Jesus, the church—you’re not doing biblical counseling if you don’t push people back to the church, compassion, the Holy Spirit, suffering AND sin, sanctification, and discipleship. It’s a complete definition. I can’t find a weakness—except maybe it’s too long. 😉

What do you think is missing in these definitions? What might you add?


1 Jay Adams, Competent to Counsel (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1970), 51-52.
2 Heath Lambert, A Theology of Biblical Counseling: The Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 13.
3 John Piper in James MacDonald, Bob Kellemen, & Steve Viars, Eds., Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling: Changing Lives with God’s Timeless Truth (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2013), 24.
4 Ernie Baker and Johnathan Holmes in James MacDonald, Bob Kellemen, & Steve Viars, Eds., Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling: Changing Lives with God’s Timeless Truth (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2013), 41.
5 David Powlison, Speaking Truth in Love: Counsel in Community (Winston-Salem, NC: Punch Press, 2005), 5.
6 Robert W. Kellemen, Gospel-Centered Counseling: How Christ Changes Lives. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 46.

Words that Stab: Defining Verbal Abuse

Proverbs 12:18 (ESV) There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

Once as a teenager I was rooting through our basement, and I came across a picture from the ‘50s of a girl I didn’t recognize. I asked my parents about it and discovered it was my Dad’s former girlfriend. He threw the picture out then—he didn’t even remember that he had it. As a kid, it was a surprise to me that my Dad had ever dated anyone besides my Mom. I was teasing my parents about it, and I said something dumb and cruel in an attempt to be funny. That was 40 years ago and I still remember where I was when I said that. I still remember the look on my Mom’s face as I said it. Thankfully I also remember her forgiveness later.

That was not the last regrettable thing I’ve said, and it wasn’t the last hurtful thing I’ve said. God has grown me, but I certainly have my share of unkind speech littering my history.

The majority of my counseling has been marriage counseling. Other counselors have seen more teenagers, or depression, or anxiety, but most of mine has been helping married couples grow in Christlikeness. And my specific focus has been verbal abuse; it’s what I worked on for my D.Min. degree in pastoral counseling.

What prompted that interest was my own struggle with my tongue and a series of counseling situations where one spouse, normally the husband, was going beyond the normal sins of talk into what I would call verbal abuse. Of course that statement assumes that some sins of talk are greater than others such that they can rightly be called abusive. I’m against an expansive definition of the word, abuse. It seems if you want to gain sympathy, describe almost any situation as abusive and you will get just that. But I also know that some sins rise to the level where calling them abuse is accurate and appropriate.

We know this is true for physical abuse and sexual abuse. There might be a little more question about calling talk sins verbal abuse; however, it is a fact that many women have said that verbal abuse is more devastating to them than physical abuse. One wife told me, “I wish he would just hit me so others would know what I’m experiencing.” Jennifer Michelle Greenberg after describing a specific incident of physical abuse by her father says, “That’s abuse. And yet, looking back, even worse than his violence were his hurtful words and sexual ‘compliments.’ I came to learn that bruises heal quickly, but a crushed spirit does not.” [1]Jennifer Michelle Greenberg, Not Forsaken: A Story of Life After Abuse (The Good Book Company, 2019), 49-50.

And often verbal abuse is a precursor to other forms of abuse. Most verbal abusers never physically abuse their wives, but every physically abusive husband has started with verbal abuse.

As a counselor I needed a way to define sins of the tongue that went beyond the normal communication sins that every Christian couple commits, so I developed this definition. Now this definition is not found in Scripture, so hopefully you understand that it’s intended to be helpful, not doctrinaire. Oh, and normally, but not exclusively, it’s the husband that is the perpetrator, so my comments below will assume that.

So how do you know if a counselee is experiencing verbal abuse?

Verbal abuse is the habitual use of words to assault, demean, and belittle or to manipulate, pressure, and control a person. It’s different than other communication sins in its severity and repetition, and in that the offender is characteristically blind and lacks true repentance.

That definition is a lot, and every part of it is significant. Let’s break down this definition so we know why each phrase is important.

  •  “Verbal abuse….” Men tend to believe that only physical abuse is really abuse. “How can talking be abuse?” they think. “After all, I didn’t hit her.” But it’s the nature of sinners to minimize their sin (Mt 7:3-5). Wives feel the pain of their husbands’ words like they feel the pain of physical abuse. The perpetrator abuses using words, not fists, but the pain to the victim is similar.
  • “Is the habitual use of words….” This is the customary way that this husband responds to stress, disappointment, frustration, and anger. It’s second nature for him to hurt his wife with his words. It’s his regular approach to get her to do what he wants, to force her to submit to his authority, and to get her under his control.
  •  “To assault, demean, and belittle….” These are the overt characteristics of verbal abuse. These include yelling, swearing, mocking, cruel sarcasm, and severe criticism. It’s very intimidating to face a husband that is so angry. This part of the definition points out that abusers hurt others with their words. They cause pain. They will often downplay the severity of their words and the hurt they cause, but the victim will always talk about the pain she experiences.
  •  “Or to manipulate, pressure, and control a person.” An abuser normally wants to control his wife. He causes and uses pressure. An abuser’s desire for control will even lead him to tell his wife what she thinks and likes, and he will argue with her if she disagrees. Wives complain of feeling pressure and stress. Husbands want what they want, and they abuse to get it. Often the wife’s personality is one that tries to please her husband, which one would think would help ameliorate the abuse. However, giving in leads to greater demands. He likes being the king.

Sometimes this pressure is applied through yelling and screaming, but often it’s much more subtle. A husband may talk in an even, controlled tone, but he uses guilt to manipulate her. He doesn’t have to yell. He doesn’t have to explode. Because he doesn’t, he thinks his words are fine. However, he’s not ministering grace to his wife (Eph 4:29). He’s still trying to control her.

Combined these two phrases tell us that abusers use pain and pressure.

  • “It’s different than other communication sins in its severity and repetition….” Both secular counselors and Christian counselors point out this difference between “normal” communication sins and verbal abuse. Abusive language is much more severe and happens more frequently. Any couple can have a one-off incident of yelling or manipulation, and no one incident defines a husband as a verbal abuser. All couples sin in their communication, but not all husbands are verbally abusive. Verbal abusers are more severe in what they say, and they have an ongoing problem with it. Severity and repetition are key markers for a biblical counselor to look for when assessing whether verbal abuse is present in a relationship.
  • “And in that the offender is characteristically blind and lacks true repentance.” He may come to counseling for weeks, but he tends not to gain much insight into his own behavior. He will hint that his wife’s sin needs to be addressed if their marriage is going to be what God wants it to be. While that might be true, the problem is that he hasn’t taken responsibility for his own sin. In fact, he might be the spouse that suggests counseling, but he does so because he believes his wife needs to change. The manipulation, pressure, and control are the most difficult for him to see. It is as if the perpetrator has a blind spot that prevents him from agreeing that he has a problem. He might even deny that the yelling is abusive. He will downplay it by claiming that many husbands do the same or that his wife yells right back at him. He does not own his sin very well, and it’s impossible for him to grow when he won’t own it.

Does this definition help explain some dynamics in a couple you’re counseling? Is it possible that a husband you’re counseling is more than just angry, he’s verbally abusive?


1 Jennifer Michelle Greenberg, Not Forsaken: A Story of Life After Abuse (The Good Book Company, 2019), 49-50.

Personal Weaknesses & Patience

One of my sons was very forgetful as a young child; he was absentminded. He would forget his trombone on days he needed it for band. He would forget his lunch. He forgot his soccer cleats for games.

So we worked on it. We would have him place his trombone right in front of the front door along with his lunch. Problem solved, right? One would think so. Only he would step over his lunch and trombone on the way to the car and still forget them. How? I don’t know. I’m not wired that way.

When he was really young, he was reflecting on some consequences he had faced for being forgetful, maybe he didn’t have lunch that day, I don’t remember. But he was in bed and I was saying good night and he was practically crying. He said, “Dad, I don’t want to be this way.” Well, I didn’t want him to be that way either. We prayed.

And that didn’t change him either. He forgot more important things in high school. He would finish his assignments and bring them to class on the day they were due. However, our school had a rule that the assignment must be turned in at the start of class. He would forget and turn it in at the end of class. Points would be deducted for a late assignment. Other kids were turning in assignments, and it wouldn’t trigger his memory that he needed to turn in his.

One day they had an exam and he didn’t know there was an exam. And my wife said, “Didn’t the teacher go over a study sheet in the class before?” and my son said, “Well, now that’s making sense to me.”

So my wife would sit down with him every night and go through his calendar. It helped a lot. But he needed that because he was forgetful, distracted.

Is forgetfulness a moral issue? I wanted it to be at that time. I wanted to find some way that his forgetfulness was sin. But it’s not.

What Is Man? [1]The idea for this is based on a lecture by Edward Welch, Westminster D.Min, 8/14/2007

Every philosophy of life has an anthropology. It has a theology of what people are like. An anthropology includes why you do what you do –your motivation. It includes a belief in strengths and weaknesses or what can a person do and what can’t they do. What are they responsible for and why aren’t they responsible for other things.

Of course the only true anthropology is found in God’s Word. We’re described as sinners, worshippers, and seekers—but not after God.

Most of evangelicalism—those that believe the Gospel—believe that man is made up of two parts: body and soul. The body is material, but the spirit and soul are immaterial. You cannot see them with your eyes. You cannot see them under a microscope. You can’t cut them out of the body. They are immaterial. They exist together but can be split apart—that’s what happens at death.

We could say that you are made up of both inner and outer elements. The body is your outer person and the spirit, soul, heart, etc. are the inner person.

So you have two types of problems: body issues and soul issues. Maybe this seems too simplistic to you. After all, how can you tell where body issues end and soul issues begin? That is the dilemma sometimes. They are often interrelated.

You’re one person with two interrelated parts. Your body is an instrument for either glorifying God or sinning. It carries out the desires of your heart.

How do the body and the soul, the material and the immaterial interact? Have you ever thought about that? How do they influence each other? Maybe I should ask it this way, what happens to your sanctification when you get tired? Or hungry? Or sick? Do those body issues influence your heart?

You are body and soul… and each influences the other. Any particular problem can have its source in both your body and your heart. For example, your worry (spiritual issue) can cause real physical problems, and your lack of sleep (body issue) can influence how you respond to your life (spiritual issue), can’t it? So how do we make sense of that? Is the body able to make you sin?

2 Corinthians 5:10 (ESV) For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

The body mediates our moral (good or bad) deeds; it doesn’t initiate them.

Ezekiel 18:20 (ESV) The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

My environment may have been bad, but I’m still responsible for my sin.

1 Corinthians 10:13 (ESV) No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

For the believer, we are never tempted beyond our ability. Our body cannot make us sin; God says he won’t allow it.

All things spiritual are the inner person. Violations of God’s commands are always a heart issue.

2 Corinthians 4:16 (ESV) So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.

The Apostle Paul said that we have an outward man and an inward man. While our body is wasting away our spirit can be thriving.

How this Helps

So what? That might be what you’re thinking.

The outward person—the material part of you is not characterized by sin or obedience, but by strengths or weaknesses. What are you good at? What talents do you have? Those come from the outer man. The body is the mediator of moral action, not the initiator of it.

The body can never make us sin. It’s an outside influence on our heart like the world, friends, and the devil. We might add our past or experiences. They all influence, but cannot make us sin. This means that each of us will face greater or lesser temptations because of the peculiarities of our bodies and our history.

What are you good at? What talents do you have? Those come from the outer man.

  • Some can hear better
  • Some are stronger
  • Some are more athletic
  • Some can see better; don’t need corrective lenses.

One way we can identify body strengths and weaknesses is by asking ourselves whether what we’re considering is a moral issue or not. So are the following moral issues?

  • Figuring out directions?
  • Not seeing cultural cues? (Asperger’s Syndrome, nerdishness, close talkers). Some people are more skilled relationally. Others don’t get the nuances of interpersonal relationships.
  • Memory in general? “I told you to get milk on the way home. Why didn’t you?”
  • Being a detail person?
  • Punctuality? Ability to judge time and distance? Those of us that are punctual really struggle with the idea that this might not be a moral issue.
  • Ability to smell your own body odor? I’ve met some people lacking that ability. 😉
  • Or how about these?: “the physical experience of panic, hallucinations, disrupted sleep, physical agitation, a mind that races from one thing to another, or an inability to make useful and practical plans.” [2]Ed Welch, “Spiritual Growth in the Face of Psychiatric Disorders,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 29:3 (2015), 46. This is an excellent article that explains how understanding body weaknesses … Continue reading

Now is it possible for a non-moral weakness to become a moral issue? And if so, how? I think these weaknesses can be sin if I’m unwilling to work on them. Why? Because they are all ways that I can love my neighbor. Getting better at them means I love my neighbor better.

When you recognize that these issues are body weaknesses or strengths, not sin, you can be patient with them. This is the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). So if your friend is forgetful, you can be patient. Their forgetfulness is not sin, and you are wrong if you try to make it a sin so you can justify your irritation.

My wife and I have different body strengths and weaknesses. Mostly we complement each other. It was easy early in our marriage for me to think that my wife needed to become more Kraig-like, not Christlike. But she doesn’t need to become more like me in areas that are not moral. Both of us need to become like Christ.

We need to be patient with our families. Understanding that some of our irritations with each other are body weaknesses can help us.


1 The idea for this is based on a lecture by Edward Welch, Westminster D.Min, 8/14/2007
2 Ed Welch, “Spiritual Growth in the Face of Psychiatric Disorders,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 29:3 (2015), 46. This is an excellent article that explains how understanding body weaknesses changes how we view people with certain psychiatric diagnoses like, ADD, Depression, and panic attacks, and it gives practical help for counseling them.
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