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?

References

References
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.

7 Replies to “It’s Just Semantics; It Really Is!”

  1. Thank you for this article! I appreciate all the definitions listed and agree that Kellemen’s definition is the most thorough. I would add something along the lines of “Biblical counseling is an extension of the one-another passages in helping the brethren think and live biblically, in a manner that exalts Christ and brings God glory.” (Ecc 12: 13-14; WSC Q.1). I also have a question about Kellemen’s definition. What does he mean by “culturally informed?” Can you provide some examples?

    1. I don’t know if I can provide examples that Kellemen would agree with since it’s his definition; however, I think he means that you are aware of differences of culture that could influence how and what you say to a counselee. This would be more important when counseling immigrants or a missionary counseling in a foreign country.

  2. Good stuff, Kraig. Keep writing and sharing your thoughts. You have a gift for analysis and then giving application from the insights your analysis unveils. That is a valuable contribution that extends beyond your most important classroom ministry.

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