Last November, 2,300 Christian mental-health professionals gathered in Atlanta the largest meeting yet of a vocation that barely existed 25 years ago. While psycho-therapists tend to be a restrained and colorless lot, a touch of euphoria tinged the conference. Meeting rooms were jammed. Editors from evangelical publishers cruised the halls in search of the next Minirth and Meyer. The line up of speakers was dazzling James Dobson, Chuck Swindoll, Charles Stanley, Larry Crab to name only the brightest luminaries. Atlanta ‘92 gathered a movement that is transforming the church.
Without any central institution nor any single leader, and aims; without anyone paying attention, Christian psychology has moved to the center of evangelicalism. Psychologists write best-selling Christian books. Psychologists are prominent on Christian television and radio shows: they are the ones we look to for guidance on family problems and personal growth. Today, if you want to become a successful conference speaker, the surest route is psychology graduate school not seminary. A 1991 Christianity Today render survey suggests that evangelicals are far more likely to take problems to a counselor than to a pastor. Thirty three percent sought professional help, versus ten percent who looked to a pastor. Paul Meyer of the Minirth-Meyer clinics says, “When we started psychiatry 16 years ago, people came in the back door, because Christians weren’t supposed to need help. Now they come early so they can chat with all their friends.”
Pastors, too, have joined the search, realizing that their congregations care more for homilies on “Healing the Hearts of the Inner Child” than on “The Missionary Mind of the Apostle Paul.” Words like addiction, self-esteem, and dysfunctional sprinkle many Sunday morning sermons. Evangelical seminaries find their counseling departments growing fast. Wheaton College, a bastion of evangelical orthodoxy, is launching its first doctoral program, not in theology or biblical studies, but in psychology.
Not everyone is happy about these developments. Even at Atlanta ‘92, one heard expressions of concern. James Dobson said, “If I had to boil everything I have to say to you into one thing, it would be to be followers of Jesus Christ first, and mental-health professionals second. And keep it in that order.” Chuck Swindoll warned,” There’s a lot of schlocky stuff being passed off as Christian counseling by a lot of schlocky people.”
Psychologist Gary Collins, Atlanta 92’s national coordinator, warned of two dangers in his keynote speech: “Number one, that we will abandon the church. And the second danger is that our field will take over the church. Nobody suggested any danger that Christian psychology would simply wither away, a passing fad. That seems impossible for a movement with a wide range of training schools at institutions like Fuller, Biola, and Wheaton, and its own psychiatric hospital units run by entrepreneurial Christian companies like Minirth-Meier, Rapha and New Life. Thousand s of professionals have staked their careers on Christian counseling, and thousands more are pointed that direction. Already psychology has transformed the church and it will continue to do so.
The question is whether the ultimate end will be good.
David Powlison, Professor of practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, and a critic of Christian psychotherapy identifies three stages in its growth. The first stage during the fifties and sixties launched a modest evangelical interest. A small professional fellowship the Christian Association for Psychological Studies CAPS was formed in 1952. Clyde Narramore a southern Californian school psychologist hosted a radio program. Paul Tournier’s writings spurred interest. Fuller Theological Seminary started its graduate school of Psychology in 1965. Some energetic young Christians—James Dobson, Larry Grace, Frank Minirth and Paul Meier among them—entered the field despite warnings that it would prove hostile to their faith.
The second stage began in 1970 Powlison thinks, with the publication of Jay Adam’s Competent to Counsel. Adams a Westminster Theological Seminary professor, was sharply critical of psycho-therapy, insisting that all counseling ought to be based on the Bible rather than godless psychological theories. Christian psychologists resisted Adams’s critique but took his point. Their rallying cry became integration. Psychological theories would be tested by Scripture; theology and psychotherapy would stimulate each other to new insights. Adams’s critique, seems ironically, to have spurred on the growth of Christian psychotherapy, making it more self-consciously evangelical. During this period a number of training schools were founded, and prominent evangelical seminaries like Trinity (In Deerfield, Ill.) and Dallas added psychologists and psychiatrists to their faculty. Minirth and Meier (See “The accidental revolutionaries” beginning on page 30) founded a Christian psychiatric clinic in Dallas and were swamped with patients.
Powlisons third stage begins in the mid-eighties, when, he writes in an essay in Power Religion,” The psychological river went to flood stage.” What had been a rising stream of influence broke out of its banks, “entering evangelical religion in almost every setting.”
Comments Paul Meier, “We’ve been fighting a battle getting Christians to get help. It’s not a battle anymore.”
With that success has come a resurgence of concern. A set of adamant critics—Dave Hunt, John MacArthur, and Martin and Deidre Bobgan—has attacked psychotherapy wholesale. Subtler criticisms come from men like Powlison, Os, Guinnes, and Paul Vitz, a professor of psychology at New York University. They see some value in psychotherapy, but worry that, masquerading as “Christian”, it will seduce the church.
Yet some of psychology’s most thoughtful Christian leaders express very similar concerns. “We agree with Christian critics of psychology such as Jay Adams,” write Wheaton College psychology professors Stanton Jones and Richard Butman,”who say that the counseling processes are of such a nature that they must be thoroughly reconceptualized from a biblical foundation to lay claim to the adjective ‘Christian’.”
Fuller school of psychology dean Archibald Hart adds, “A lot of Christian psychology is theologically bankrupt. We haven’t struggled with the great themes of the Christian gospel. We’ve been pragmatic. We try to help people with their emotions, but we don’t have a theology of emotion.”
Seven Questions For Psychotherapy
1.) Who are these guys ( the authority question)
Martin and Deidre Bobgan are relentless critics of psychotherapy. They have published a series of fearless and detailed broadsides—fearless because their attacks on such best-selling authors as James Dobson, larry Crab, Frank Minirth and Paul Meier have led Christian publishers to stop publishing the Bobgans’ books. Yet they go on self-publishing such titles as Psychoheresy and 12 steps to Destruction.
There attacks are indiscriminate—like a person set upon by a swarm of bees, the hit at anything—but underneath rages a very fair question. Who are these guys? they seem to ask. Why should we listen when they tell us how to raise our children, how to grow as persons, how to understand ourselves?Why invite them to the seats of honor at Bible conferences, on Christian radio stations, in evangelical bookstores? What is their authority?
It is a question not often asked in this psychological age, but it deserves an answer. Some psychologists claim the authority of science. They think of psychology as offering neutral facts about the mind, and true scientific facts can not contradict scripture. That is a somewhat outdated view of science, however. Ever since the work of science historian T.S. Kuhn, science is not thought to be so objective—particularly in a field like psychology.
Beyond that, psychology as a whole is not at issue: psychotherapy s, and its theories run far beyond science. According the Wheaton professors Jones and Butman, writing in Modern Psychotherapies, “On the whole, scientific studies show that participation in psychotherbapy is better than no psychotherapy at all for most individuals with a wide variety of problems, and that the general effect is ‘significant’. The research to date has failed the show the superiority of one therapeutic approach over another.” Further,| “The few studies on specifically Christian approaches of counseling tend to be poorly designed and executed from a methodological perspective, so optimistic statements about their effectiveness should be taken with a ‘grain of salt’.”
“I think the critics need to ask, ‘Why are people so interested in psychology?’ The thought is that we ought to go back to the old way. But the old way wasn’t working.”
By psychology’s own reckoning therapy is effective, but not earth-shatteringly so. “When I train practitioners,” says Jones, “I try to concentrate in areas where there are specific, well-indicated results—that is, for autistic children. It seems to me that you are reaching well beyond that when you set yourself up as an expert in human growth and welfare. There’s no evidence that psychologists and psychiatrists are that.”
There is another kind of authority, however: that of what Jones calls “a reasonably wise person.” Psychologists, Christians or not, have spent a great deal of time attending carefully to real people. Remembering his early days as a therapist, Larry Crab says that, “psychology gave me a slice of what life is really like.” Sitting for thousands of hours with hurting individuals and families, therapists have observed a lot of how people think, what moves them, how they avoid facing their problems, how they relate as families and so on. This is far from the absolute authority that would make you turn to psychologists and say, “Here ,take over the church.” It does, however, make them worth listening to—especially if you sense that the church has not been doing well with hurting people. Bruce Narramore, a professor at Bioia’s Rosemead Graduate School of Psychology, points out that Proverbs’ emphasis on practical wisdom. “ The book says it’s not all in the book. You need wise counselors.”
2. Doesn’t Scripture tell us all we need to know for salvation?
John MacArthur has become the most visible critic of psychology since the publication of his book Our Sufficiency in Christ. In a radio debate with psychiatrist Paul Meier,he asked, “Are we saying today in effect, that, yeah, we believe all our sufficiency is in Christ, but that work can’t start until we go to psychology? We can’t really believe that. . .If a person spiritually comes to the resources in Christ, walks in the Spirit, is filled with the Spirit and [is] obeying the Word of God, that’s going to take care of everything.”
To which Meier answered, “I don’t think you have a right to limit Christ’s sufficiency.” Christ can work through all kinds of means, Meier believes, including psychology.”
That is the heart of the issue: Does the Bible tell us all we need to know about how to help people?
Steve Arterburn, head of the New Life Treatment Centers and a well-known writer and speaker in the Christian recovery movement, answers that “the Bible is sufficient for what it does. Nowhere does it say in the Bible that if you vary your tone of voice, use illustrations, and use simple, vivid words, you’ll be a more effective pastor. There are communication skills and they are just as true for preachers as for anyone else. Those techniques have helped thousands come to Christ.”
Yet psychology offers more than techniques. Most theories seek to explain why people do what they do, and how they can become whole. There is a broad overlap with Scripture. Scripture does not describe every aspect of human behavior; it does not tell us about anorexia for example, nor does it catalog strategies of denial, by which human being avoid facing their problems.
“There are two dangers: Number one that we will abandon the church. And the second danger is that our field will take over the church.”
The question is whether psychology is truly helpful in what it adds to Scripture, and whether psychological explanations include the kind of information Scripture gives about human motives and behavior. Psychology doesn’t usually mention rebellion against God for example, as a mainspring of human motivation. How then can it give a true picture of humanity?
3. If the unconscious is so important, why doesn’t the Bible tell us about it?
The Bobgans criticize Larry Crab, among others, for accepting a Freudian view of the unconscious. “The idea of the unconscious as a hidden region of the mind with powerful needs and motivational energy is not supported by the Bible or science,” they write. “The focus of the Bible in relationship to sanctification is not on so-called psychological needs, but on knowing and obeying the will of God... God does not promise to expose and reveal all the tangled motives of anyone’s heart.”
This is a major dividing line between psychology and many of its hard-line Christian critics, Christian psychotherapists say that while the bible does not describe the unconscious per se, particularly in a strict Freudian sense, it has plenty to say about people who are deluded. It tells of a deceitful heart and of secret sins. People can be quite unaware, psychotherapists say, of what is driving their lives. You have to get under the surface, to the shadowy region of half-hidden motives and unhealed wounds.
Henry Cloud, a psychologist at Minirth-Meier West, says, “You are talking about two different views of sanctification. [The critics] have a basic stance against the interior against looking inside. They say, don’t look at yourself, look at the Lord. Yet Scripture shows that everyone who meets the Lord falls on his face and sees himself.”
4. How can a Christian accept psychology’s emphasis on the self? Didn’t Jesus tell us to deny ourselves?
“I believe that the Bible is the only textbook of psychology.”
There are two problems here: one of terminology and one of theology. Where Jesus spoke of self-denial, he was talking about sacrificing your own interests. Psychotherapists mean something different: they talk about self as the person each of us “sees” when we think of ourselves. You cannot “deny” that. As Archibald Hart writes, “To insist that a person must not have feelings toward the self...is to describe a person who doesn’t exist. For good or ill, humans possess a self and need help in dealing with that self.”
Don Matzat writes, “Many Christian parents have read to their children the story of The Little Engine that Could. When our children took their first steps or attempted to ride their first bicycle did we not bolster their self-confidence? ‘C’mon Johnny, you can do it!’ parents shout at little league baseball games. It has never been considered inappropriate for Christians, any more than for non-Christians, to encourage their children or boost their self-esteem in this way.”
The deeper question is whether psychotherapy encourages an idolatry of the self. Henry Cloud warns of therapists who encourage people to wallow indefinitely in their ‘entitled narcissism”
“A lot of Christian psychology is theologically bankrupt. We haven’t struggled with the great themes of the Christian gospel.”
Larry Crabb senses a tendency in Christian therapists to say, “God’s number one commitment is to help us to get over our problems.” While trying to help hurting people, Christian counselors “can reinforce a fallen mindset which consists of ‘I’ve got to find some way the help me feel the way I want to feel.”
It is hard to deny that people really do have needs. Still, the question remains: If you build your system on filling human needs, where does God fit? Is he the Lord of all, so that our first and only absolute need is to worship and obey him? Does psychology encourage us to think of him mainly as a source of inspiration and encouragement, a benign and accommodating figure who lives for our benefit?
5. The recovery movement treats sins as “addiction” and “disease.” Whatever happened to sin?
The “recovery movement” has history and beliefs quite distinct from the rest of psychology, and many psychotherapists are critical of it. It is a popular—some would say faddish—movement, which grew out of Alcoholics Anonymous. Recovery’s most basic component is regular supportive groups of people talking honestly about their problems. Lately this lay-led movement has been embraced by professionals. Recovery has been a powerful engine in the rise of Christian psychotherapy, for Recovery’s free use of Christian concepts has provided a bridge between traditional psychotherapy and Christian people. The only trouble is, those concepts have been stretched to fit a variety of religious and irreligious contexts. Recovery means a lot of different things to different people.
AA’s “disease model” of alcoholism is a primary point of criticism, along with te much wider use of “addiction” in the recovery movement. Stanton Peele writes, “Disease notions. . .legitimize, reinforce and excuse the behavior in question—convincing people, contrary to all evidence, that their behavior is not their own.”
It does not necessarily work that way, however. AA, for example, does not normally make alcoholics irresponsible; rather, it helps them to act responsibly. That is because while the “disease model” is an inaccurate medical diagnosis, it is an accurate analogy for sin. As sinners, we are caught in a web of sin, from which we cannot escape by making moral resolutions. We need to call for help, both from God and from fellow sinners. We will do that only when we have realized our own helplessness. Just as a sick person must give up on his or her own self-cure and go to a doctor, so we sinners must abandon our attempts to fix up ourselves. That is precisely what AA’s 12 Steps encourage us to do.
The recovery movement brings some powerful reforming forces to the church, chief among which is down-to-earth insistence that everyone needs help. As Henry Cloud writes, “In the church, it is culturally unacceptable to have problems; that is called being sinful. In the AA group, it is culturally unacceptable to be perfect; that is called denial.”
Which stance is more biblical? He asks.
On the other hand, “God as we understand him”—the 12 Steps’ designation of he Higher Power—is a profoundly ambivalent phrase. It can mean “God insofar as I, in my limitations, know him thus far.” It can also mean “God as I choose to define him.” That latter meaning creates a human-centered religion, which is just what some accuse psychotherapy of being.
6. If psychologist really base their therapy on the Bible, why charge? Shouldn’t God’s Word be delivered free?
Christian psychotherapy is vividly commercial. Atlanta’92 included one standing-room-only seminar on “How to get referrals from the clergy.” A woman from `Kansas raised her hand and said that, at pastors’ luncheons, she was inevitably asked about her fees. “The pastors look shocked when I tell them,” she said, asking how to handle the reaction. Other seminars offered “how to determine a fair price for selling or buying a psychotherapy practice,” business and marketing principle to help with the “bottem line”, and the selling of Christian-oriented services to the insurance community.”
A workshop on publishing attracted much interest from eager would-be authors.
Psychologists sell a product, they do not take offerings or live on grants. Energetic businesses like Minrth –Meier and Rapha market their wares synergistically using clincs, seminars, books, videos, radio shows, and 800 telephone numbers. That is not wrong, but it does raise questions about profit become more important that principle.
“The alternative [to charging fees] ,”psychologist Henry Cloud says, “would be the church collecting funds, opening a counseling center, and treating people for free. I think that in a majority of cases in suburban America, people can pay for it themselves. There is no such thing as free treatment. Somebody has to pay for it. I came to think that it would be better for the individual who can pay to pay for his own care, because then he is responsible, and his treatment doesn’t take way from the whole church. The question then becomes, what do those who are gifted and trained do for those who can’t pay? I know how I’ve worked that out. I treat them. I treat them because I have an income.
“There is a tendency among Christian therapists to say, ‘God’s number one commitment is to help us get over our problems.’ “
Not every therapist is so altruistic, however. The question of how to deal with people who cannot afford treatment bedevils the entire medical establishment, but it is particularly crucial for a movement that claims to be Christian.
In purely cynical terms, Christian psychotherapy can be seen as a marketing ploy, gilding psychology with just enough Christianity to make conservative clients feel comfortable. One hears persistent rumors that some clinics are doing just that: selling themselves as Christian when, from an evangelical point of view, they are not. It is a disturbing eddy—and probably and inevitable part of an operation that is so successful and attracts a lot of money.
7. Does psychology’s fascination with the interior life sap commitment from mission?
In We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse, journalist Michael Ventura assails psychotherapy’s tacit assumption that all life’s problems should be processed internally and individually.
“There’s a lot of schlocky stuff being passed of as Christian counseling by a lot of schlocky people. “
“A therapist told me that my grief at seeing a homeless man my age was really a feeling of sorrow for myself,” he writes. By implication, the therapist was telling him to reflect on himself rather than to work for the homeless.
Turn that thought toward the church and you have to wonder whether a psycologized church will ever get on to mission. Psychotherapy’s promise is that psychologically healthy people will be more productive, but there is also a possibility that a church that is healthier according to psychological criteria could be simply a more introspective, self-satisfied church. How much of Christ’s work has been done by psychologically whole people?
Psychology’s good works
You can ask a lot of penetrating questions of psychotherapy. You should not, however, miss something equally important: the urgent questions psychotherapy brings to the church. “I think the critics need to ask, ‘Why are people so interested in psychology?’” says psychologist Bruce Narramore. “The thought is that we ought to go back to the old way. But the old way wasn’t working. The church wasn’t stemming the tide. What was missing in the church was a practical application of our biblical knowledge to life.”
David Powlison remembers reading through a massive theological classic on sin and realizing that the multivolume work contained not a single case study showing how sin works in ordinary life. The theological exposition was brilliant, but there was no detail. “Psychology is persuasive existentially because it is case-wise, empirically detailed, and practiced in talking about and facilitating change processes.” He argues that the church has been relegated to the “superficial and external” (calling people to moral uprightness and to assent to a few doctrinal essentials) and to the “mystical and intangible.” “Psychology has staked out everything in the middle. . . the intricacies of motivation, defensiveness, interpersonal conflict, communication, problem solving, anger, anxiety, depression, guilty, the grieving process, parenting, sexuality, addictions.”
The need for help with such issues is inescapable. We have larger, less personal churches; dislocated communities and families; and social problems at flood tide. The people with the worst problems are frequently those whose families and friends cannot help. Personal problems are not simple anymore (if they ever were); there is a confusing brew of family, societal, drug-related, and religious issues to sort through. Christians psychotherapists promise to offer help, and they have won at least tentative approval from church people. Now the people who have been helped – many of them pastors – are bringing psychology’s insights into the church.
The universality of problems. The psychologists’ most fundamental perspective is that people have problems – even good, Bible-believing, Spirit-filled people have problems. That insight has changed the culture of many churches. Where once problems were a badge of shame, they are now almost a badge of honor. In a LEADERSHIP journal interview, pastor Bill Hybles says, “If someone says, ‘Actually, my family was just about perfect. There were no problems. . .’ we know there’s cause for concern.”
Helplessness. “There is an implication in all of [our critics’] writings that people are able to choose what is right,” says Henry Cloud. “There is a total denial of the fact we are sold into slavery.” Psychotherapists consistently indict the evangelical church for failing to grasp people’s helplessness. They suggest evangelicals – especially those from a fundamentalist background – have deified willpower, as though a sinking person can pull himself up by his own bootstraps. The church has often offered condemnation and pep talks, when the desperate person needs acceptance and patient understanding if she’s ever going to improve.
Heart changes. Larry Crabb says that Christian psychotherapy is a “response to a shallow sort of spirituality that developed out of fundamentalism in its controversy with the modernists.” Fundamentalists properly emphasized moral and revelational absolutes, he says, but “sanctification came to be seen as no more than chosen obedience.” Christian psychotherapists emphasize change that works from the inside out. They note that Christ’s command is to love God and our neighbor from the heart. Somehow, love has to reach the deepest level of our emotions and desires; telling people to try harder or pray more doesn’t accomplish that. It was the Pharisees, therapists point out, who lived an outwardly flawless life but were rotten inside.
The body of Christ Therapists emphasize intimate relationships with other believers. Historically, the evangelical church for the most part has told people to work out their problems with God alone, to pray and obey. Therapists believe that that often merely sanctifies denial; God becomes a supreme way to avoid facing your problems. Therapists say people need encounters with other Christians who will “speak the truth in love”; the entire church can be therapeutic, particularly through small groups that are completely accepting and encourage honest relationships. “The quality of my relationships is a real measure of the quality of sanctification going on in my life.” says Larry Crabb.