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Is Psychology Needed in the Church?
Article by Ed Bulkley
There is growing confusion in today’s Christian community about the best way to help people overcome their personal problems of living. Some believe that Christians should submit only to biblical counseling, while others passionately support psychological counseling so long as it is integrated with the Scriptures.
Integrating Psychology into Christian Counseling
Fully persuaded that psychological training is necessary to counsel effectively, most pastors today refer their parishioners to psychologists and psychiatrists for treatment of serious emotional and behavioral disorders. Christian publishing houses pour out an endless stream of books written by psychologists to help believers solve their problems of living. These experts appear on Christian radio and television and produce film series to communicate their belief that pastors and churches can help parishioners with minor problems, but serious disorders must be entrusted to “professional counselors.”
Denver Seminary, Talbot Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Liberty University, Moody Bible Institute, Fuller Theological Seminary, and a host of other Christian schools are convinced that psychology and the Bible must be integrated in counseling if the church is to remain relevant to our contemporary culture. Dallas Seminary employs one of the nation’s best-known Christian psychiatrists on its teaching faculty. Colorado Christian University offers a counseling degree built on the theories of a prominent Christian psychologist.
The president of one Bible college believes that “there are many helpful insights to be gleaned from this field [of secular counseling].”1 He states the common integrationist position:
We live in a season when life is increasingly complex and the fragility of precious souls is demonstrated by growing brokenness and complicated conflicts. We dare not waste their sorrows on the battlefield of careless counsel that violates biblical parameters or with simplistic, unqualified solutions that plunge them ultimately into deeper despair.2
As much as I respect this man of God and believe that he is fully committed to the Lord and to the Scriptures, I am convinced that he has not adequately researched the issue. In trying to strike a balance between psychology and biblical counseling, he insists that secular counseling has much to offer the church and he implies that biblical counseling produces “simplistic, unqualified solutions.”3 It appears that he is in agreement with the prevailing view that is sweeping the evangelical church—that without the insights of secular psychology, pastors and churches are simply inadequate to deal with the deepest hurts of modern man.
Is Psychology Needed Today?
How did the apostle Paul counsel people in his day? Paul himself answers that in Colossians 1:28: “We proclaim him, admonishing [noutheteo] and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.” He then warns us in Colossians 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.”
Am I misreading Paul? Is he in error to suggest that we can find all wisdom in Christ? Do we in fact need the insights of psychology to provide for the deepest needs of Christians? Is modern life truly more complex than it was in the days of Paul? Those who believe we desperately need the insights of psychology seem to think so.
A professor of counseling psychology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is committed to the concept of integrating secular psychology with biblical counseling. He argues that psychological truths fall under the category of general revelation and that new insights can be accepted if they are true and do not contradict the Bible. He offers this example:
I think all Christians would agree that when you bury negative feelings, you bury them alive, and that can cause ulcers, even heart attacks. This process is undeniably true, but you can’t find it specifically in the Bible. If it’s true, then we embrace it and use it; if it isn’t true, then we don’t.4
One could argue with the professor whether “this process is undeniably true” and what it means to “bury negative feelings.” But a greater problem is how one determines whether a psychological discovery is true. He implies that the Bible is as silent about the human condition as it is about modern technologies:
It isn’t a textbook on how to tune up our automobiles, or on physics, chemistry, or psychology. It does contain statements that relate to geology, anthropology, and psychology that must be integrated into those disciplines, but the Bible’s primary purpose is to tell us how to be right with God, not what to do when someone has a nervous breakdown.5
Are we to assume that there is no connection between one’s standing with God and a nervous breakdown? Is the Bible really silent on the issues of psychological health? Are mental/emotional problems the same as tuning one’s car or mixing chemicals? Integrationists see a categorical difference between psychological and spiritual problems and how to solve those problems. They say that the medical doctor should treat the body, the psychologist or psychiatrist should treat the mind, and the pastor should deal with the spirit.
Those who insist that we must use psychology along with biblical counseling argue that “even though the Bible is all true, it does not follow that all truth is in the Bible.”6 They give examples: “In mathematics, medicine, physics, geography, marine biology and a host of other areas, there is much truth that is not mentioned in the Bible. God in his wisdom has allowed human beings to discover truths about the universe that are not discussed in Scripture.”7
While it is true that the Bible does not list mathematical formulae, modern medical procedure, every physical law, every geographic location, or every species of marine life, one must remember that none of those areas deal with essential spiritual truths.
In reply, integrationists say:
Some critics of psychology seem to argue…that God has not allowed human beings to discover any truths about interpersonal relations, mental health, counseling techniques, mental disorders, personal decision making or any other issues related to stress management and daily living. Such a view maintains that God has allowed human beings to discover truth in almost every field of human study except psychology.8
The problem is that many integrationists seem unable to discern the significant difference between the physical sciences and the so-called “social sciences.” We will deal with that subject at length later on.
The question remains: Is psychology necessary today? Integrationists seem to think so because “some human problems are not mentioned in the Scriptures.”9 They believe that “the Bible was not written as a self-help, question-and-answer book covering every possible human problem. It does not claim to be a textbook of counseling techniques or personal problem solving.”10
No, the Bible claims to be far more—the very Word of God that “is useful for teaching, rebukin g, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16, 17).
Of course, the Bible does not tell a student which specific college to choose, nor does it name the precise person a Christian is to marry. God does not remove from the individual the privilege and responsibility to use his mind, experience, and common sense, as well as the advice of godly counselors, to make important decisions. But those kinds of decisions involve specific applications of biblical truths, not universal principles. Contrary to integrationist reasoning, the Bible does present the principles which, if followed, will provide the answers for every human problem.
The Bible provides the principles necessary to deal with eating disorders, nonbiogenic depressions, scholastic failure, child abuse, bitter memories, anxiety, and a host of other modern problems. Thus integrationists are grossly mistaken when they say that “many, perhaps most, of the problems people bring to modern counselors are never discussed in the Bible.”11
Though they admit that “often principles of behavior can be inferred from the Bible and applied to modern problems,”12 integrationists believe that psychological training is necessary to help Christians with deep problems:
Surely there are times, many times, when a sensitive, psychologically trained, committed Christian counselor can help people through psychological techniques and with psychological insights that God has allowed us to discover, but that he has not chosen to reveal in the Bible.…The Word of God never claims to have all the answers to all of life’s problems.13
Why do integrationists insist that the problems we face today are so different from those which humans have suffered in centuries past? Depression is not a recent discovery of psychology. People have had to cope with disease, disappointments, frustrations, unhappy marriages, confusion, lethargy, and bizarre behavior since the fall of man into sin.
Psychological studies have not shown that mankind is mentally healthier since the introduction of psychological theories and therapies. To the contrary, there is evidence that society has become more psychotic rather than better-adjusted. The increase of “mental illness” may someday be found to be in direct proportion to the number of psychologists and psychiatrists who set up practice.
Has psychology really added to our essential knowledge about human behavior, needs, and solutions? Is the Bible lacking the information needed to understand why man acts as he does and how he can be changed? If so, we must pity all the saints of God who struggled with problems of living from the times of Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Daniel, Jesus, and Paul. How fortunate we are to not be living in the days of the early church, when the only therapeutic resources were the writings of the prophets and apostles, along with the ministry of fellow saints and the Holy Spirit. How miserable believers must have been from the first century until the latter part of the nineteenth century, when psychology was finally “discovered.”
I do not dispute the fact that biblical counselors can glean from psychology some helpful ideas, observations, illustrations, and generic methods with which to communicate God’s solutions for man’s problems. But these are not the same as accepting psychological “findings” as essential truths about man’s nature, problems, needs, and solutions.
Integrationists often refer to the “psychological truths about human behavior” not mentioned in the Scriptures. However, we will see in the chapters ahead that the Bible addresses every “dysfunction” and presents the essential truths required to bring humans to full maturity.
Secular Criticisms of Psychology
Generally speaking, Christians have great confidence in psychology. With so many respected Christian leaders expressing the view that the church needs the insights of secular counseling systems, it is no wonder that Christian laity hold psychology in such high esteem. Most Christians, however, are unaware that while the church’s confidence in psychological counseling is growing, secular critics of psychology are increasing in number, and research is raising additional doubts about psychological claims, therapies, scientific status, and success rates.
Gary Collins begins his first chapter of Can You Trust Psychology? with this statement:
Bernie Zilbergeld doesn’t trust psychology. Despite his Ph.D. from Berkeley, his twelve years’ experience as a practicing therapist, and his acclaim as a psychological researcher and author, Dr. Zilbergeld has written a whole book to criticize his own profession. Many psychological conclusions are really myths, he writes. Professional therapy is “overpromoted, overused, and overvalued.” These criticisms could be dismissed had they come from a journalist or theologian writing as an outsider. But they come instead from a member of the psychological guild who has gone through all the prescribed training in clinical psychology, has been in therapy himself, has taken the time to interview 140 former patients, and has met for lengthy discussions with a cross-range of fourteen professional colleagues.14
What About Bible-Based Psychology?
One might justify trusting a psychologist if his theory and practice were based on biblical principles rather than theories of human behavior originated by men. And to the casual observer, there seem to be many Christian psychologists who meet that test. But as one prominent Christian therapist confesses:
When I received my Ph.D. in clinical psychology, I assumed that I knew how to counsel people with problems.…As I restudied what I had learned in graduate school, it became clearly and frighteningly apparent that most of what I was believing and doing as a professional psychologist was built upon the swaying foundation of humanism, a fervent belief in the self-sufficiency of man. As a Christian committed to a biblical view of man, I could not make the psychological thinking in which I had been trained dovetail with basic biblical beliefs.…The truths of Christianity seemed to have little bearing on the activities in my counseling office and were at many points flatly contradicted by my professionally orthodox behavior.15
I applaud him for further stating that “every concept of biblical counseling must build upon the fundamental premise that there really is an infinite and personal God who has revealed Himself propositionally in the written word, the Bible, and in the living word, Jesus Christ.”16
Why then do I believe that a Christian should seriously question the counseling systems of such men? I do not question their sincerity or personal integrity. I do, however, disagree with many of their counseling theories, which, I believe, are still deeply influenced by unproven psychological precepts of man. By their own admission, they are intent upon integrating psychology and Christianity in order to form a better counseling system. One Christian psychologist calls this approach “spoiling the Egyptians.”17 He compares this adaptation of secular concepts to the Israelites’ taking of Egyptian goods as they made their exodus.
The problem with this comparison is that the Israelites were taking gold, silver, and other material objects, while integration is appropriati ng concepts, philosophies, and worldviews that are hostile to God’s plan for man. It is more akin to the adoption of Canaanite practices than spoiling the Egyptians. I appreciate this psychologist for admitting:
The job of careful screening is no easy matter. In spite of the best intentions to remain biblical, it is frighteningly easy to admit concepts into our thinking which compromise biblical content. Because psychologists have spent up to nine years studying psychology in school and are pressed to spend much of their reading time in their field in order to stay current, it is inevitable that we develop a certain “mind-set.” The all-too-common but disastrous result is that we tend to look at Scripture through the eyeglasses of psychology when the critical need is to look at psychology through the glasses of Scripture.18
It is inevitable that psychologists will think psychologically, he says. Christians might well suspect that Christian psychologists have admitted concepts into their thinking which compromise biblical content. Anyone familiar with psychological theories should recognize that secular concepts underlie much of their systems, especially in the area of unconscious drives and the need to return to the past to achieve healing in the present.
William Glasser writes that “conventional psychiatry holds that an essential part of treatment is probing into the patient’s past life—searching for the psychological roots of his problem.”19 Psychiatry holds that a patient must understand his unconscious drives if he is going to change his way of thinking and acting.
This emphasis on the unconscious is an essential premise of psychological counseling. The prevailing psychological doctrine is that “to really understand your daughter’s anorexia or your own lack of self-confidence, you must go outside the Church, or at least to a pastor with psychological training.”20
I readily admit that some of what integrationists write is helpful and biblically solid. The danger is found in the integrationist foundation, which rests upon the psychological concepts of man rather than on the scriptural precepts of God. Prevailing psychological theory says that if you want to be changed from the inside out, you must “explore the imperfections of key relationships until you experience deep disappointment.”21 Counselors who follow this doctrine believe that “keenly felt disappointment in the present supplies the energy for passionate hope for the future.”22
Most Christians will agree that for genuine change to occur, the Holy Spirit must act on a person’s heart as He makes him a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). But many integrationists believe that all human relationships lead inevitably to disappointment and pain, and that most problems stem from “hidden internal causes.” Sin itself is defined in terms of disappointment: “Most habits that we seem powerless to control grow out of our attempts to relieve the unbearable tension that results from our failure to deal with the disappointment of our deepest longings for relationship,”23 a Christian psychologist writes.
Integrationists theorize that the most devastating sin is the “sin of self-protection,”24 and that we need to embrace our hurts.25 “The more deeply we enter our disappointment, the more thoroughly we can face our sin,”26 one psychologist states authoritatively as though it is a biblical truth.
But one should ask, Why must we embrace our hurts and enter our disappointment all over again? Where in the Bible do integrationists find this concept of reliving the painful past in order to be healed in the present?
My purpose here is not to critique integrationist counseling systems point by point. It is important, however, to understand that as committed to Christ as many integrationists are, their theories of counseling appear to be strongly influenced by unproven psychological concepts.
1 Joseph M. Stowell, “A Multitude of Counselors,” in Moody, May 1991, p. 4.
4 Lynn Garrett, “Is Christian Psychology Possible?” in Wellspring, Fall 1991, p. 7.
6 Gary R. Collins, Can You Trust Psychology? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), p. 94.
9 Ibid., p. 95.
11 Ibid., p. 96.
13 Ibid., pp. 96–97.
14 Ibid., p. 17.
15 Lawrence J. Crabb, Jr., Basic Principles of Biblical Counseling (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), pp. 11–12.
16 Ibid., p. 17.
17 Lawrence J. Crabb, Jr., Effective Biblical Counseling (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1977), p. 47.
18 Ibid., p. 48.
19 William Glasser, Reality Therapy (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1965), pp. 42–43.
20 Crabb states that the opinion is “largely justified. Churches have a woefully simplistic understanding of the problems people experience. A fair number seem to glory in their ignorance by insisting there is no need for an inside look” (Dr. Larry Crabb, Inside Out [Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1988], p. 51). I do not know of any biblical counselor who believes there is no need to look inside one’s heart. True biblical counselors simply believe that one should look at the heart through the lens of Scripture without the distorting filter of psychology.
21 Crabb, Inside Out, p. 107.
22 Ibid., p. 108.
23 Ibid., p. 96.
25 Ibid., p. 103.
26 Ibid., p. 186.
Ed Bulkley "Why Christians Can’t Trust Psychology. Harvest House Publishers (July 1, 1993).
© 2010, Matt. All rights reserved.
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