Biblical Counseling, Christian Counseling, Nouthetic Counseling, Heath Lambert, Albert Mohler, Dr. Eric Johnson, SBTS
There has been an ugly conflict in social media these last few days regarding the apparent firing of Dr. Eric Johnson from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). This petition – Petition Against the Wrongful Firing of Dr. Eric Johnson – has been circulating and thus far has collected 636 signatures.
The introductory paragraph from the petition reads:
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, under the leadership of Dr. Albert Mohler, has decided to fire Dr. Eric Johnson after 17 years of ministry in Christian scholarship and soul-care. His termination was not due to differing Christian beliefs or failed morality but rather due to pressure from an outside organization, the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC), and its leader, Heath Lambert.
This seems to be a line-in-the-sand moment as SBTS cracks down on what they believe to be the proper way to counsel: using the Bible only.
Here are a few notable comments from signatories:
Kirk Wakefield PhD – United States, Waco – Always amazing that when it comes to physical health such as diabetes, we are all for seeing a doctor, taking medicine, seeking counsel and praying for recovery. But when it comes to mental health, which include congrenital chemical and physiological disorders, we skip straight to words and prayer, but somehow think heaven forbids medicine. May those behind this decision seek an open heart to learn what their closed minds have hidden from them.
Sokho Kim United States, Montgomery Village Dr. Lambert was bashing Dr. Johnson publicly since I was an SBTS student in 2009. Always misquoting Dr. Johnson and making him out to be this DANGEROUS anti-christian professor. (MDiv SBTS ’11)
Amber Weiand United States, Louisville, B.S. Church Ministry: Children’s Ministry from Boyce College My father took his life while I was a student at Boyce. I didn’t feel supported in my grieving process even when reaching out specifically for help to Dr.Lambert. It took my pastor at the church I was attending who was so concerned with the physical evidence of depression setting up counseling with an outside biblical counseling program that I began to find healing.
I can speak from the personal experience the dangers of Scripture Only counseling, it was a contributing factor to my father’s death.
Meg Eldridge United States, Washington Absolutely disheartening from a school that my husband and I invested a lot into. In fact up until last week my husband was considering a starting a PHD at the school. We will no longer give this school which we love another penny. We have seen hearts changed towards Christ, marriages saved, and sinners repent as a result of this counseling methodology. These same people were denied counseling from the ACBC. It is a shame to not train our future pastors to truly walk with those that are suffering as Jesus did. This does not represent a step towards Christ but a step towards fundamentalism.
Here are a few tweets expressing disappointment regarding the firing of Johnson and critique of the counseling at SBTS.
Layne Hancock posted 30 tweets about the “unjust firing.” I have compiled the tweets and other related tweets here:
I saw Dr. Aaron New discussing this situation on Twitter. Dr. New is currently the Chair of Behavioral Sciences Department and Professor of Psychology and Counseling at Central Baptist College in Conway, Arkansas.
He received his MA Marriage and Family Counseling, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS), MA in Christian Education at SWBTS, and PhD in Psychology and Counseling, also at SWBTS.
In one of his tweets, he referred to a letter he had written in 2010 (posted at Wade Burleson’s blog here) to Southern Baptists Convention members about their counseling programs. He shared that at one time, there were two counseling programs offered at his alma mater, SWBTS:
- Biblical counseling: only the Bible is used to counsel. This is also sometimes called Nouthetic Counseling.
- Christian counseling: the Bible and other resources are used in counseling. This was the only program which offered students the pathway for students to obtain counseling licenses.
But now (keep in mind, this was back in 2010), the Christian counseling option – the one which helped students achieve licenses – was being threatened. Read as Dr. New describes the situation in his 2010 letter:
For years, SWBTS has maintained courses and programs representing both camps. They have often been at odds with each other, but they have coexisted. [Paige] Patterson [President of SWBTS] has always been sympathetic to the Biblical Counseling perspective, but he seemed to make room for the Christian Counseling perspective and program. Until recently.
Patterson has decided now is the time to eliminate the counseling program at Southwestern that equips students for licensure. As a SWBTS alum, I cannot express my disappointment in this decision enough. Licensure is a critical part of ministering to people outside of a church setting and is of growing importance within a church setting. Removing a program that equips students for licensure is a retreat from the seminary’s mission, not an advancement. Christian counselors will be less prepared, not better.
In his press release dated January 20, 2010, Patterson offered “financial realities” as a rationale for eliminating the support for two approaches to counseling. You might be interested to know, however, that the Biblical Counseling approach is supported by two professors and about a dozen students. The Christian Counseling approach is supported by five professors and over two hundred students. If the decision were solely a financial one, it would seem prudent to eliminate a program that is not thriving rather than one that is highly successful and drawing students from all over the world.
SWBTS did indeed eliminate the Christian counseling option, leaving Biblical Counseling as the only option for students.
I reached out to Dr. New and asked if he would be willing to share his thoughts and concerns about this ongoing battle between Bible-only counseling and Christian counseling.
I think it is unfortunate that Biblical Counselors have appropriated the word “Biblical” for their approach. It automatically implies that if one works from any other model than their own, they are being un-biblical. That strikes me as arrogant and uncharitable – two qualities that should never be used to describe believers, especially towards each other.
This battle has been waging for a very long time. I’m not sure I have much that would contribute to its resolution. It just grieves me that we can’t treat each other better.
Yes, indeed. In reading comments at various blog posts and articles, many people spoke about how Dr. Johnson was treated because he used the Christian Counseling approach, instead of the Bible-only approach. This sounds like “my way or the highway” to me. Yet Dr. New also offered gracious comments about the Biblical-only adherents:
I have learned from the Biblical Counseling proponents. I have learned ways to harness the truth found in Scripture and communicate it to people who are hurting and struggling. Their profound love and respect for Scripture (when presented correctly) can be inspiring, contagious.
But he offered this concern:
I do worry that they are at risk for making an idol out of Scripture, if that makes any sense. And idolatry always distorts.
I don’t approach the “sufficiency of Scripture” issue the same way they do. But that’s not because I don’t love/respect Scripture enough (as they might accuse me). It is actually *because* of my love/respect of Scripture that I don’t want to make it do something it wasn’t intended to do.
This makes a lot of sense to me. In my personal counseling experience (25 years ago) when I had PTSD, the “Biblical Counseling” method used focused on my sin as the root cause of my PTSD symptoms. But my PTSD surfaced after experiencing a 7.9 earthquake in the Philippines. (I wrote my story here: My Personal Mental Health Story: When Christians Say Potentially Harmful Words to Someone in a Mental Health Crisis).
As it turns out, the PTSD manifested itself after this earthquake, but was actually a result of the physical abuse I incurred by my father from the age of 3 years old until 19 years old. In both of those situations, the earthquake and physical abuse, my sin was not the cause of the PTSD. Those were events/harm that happened to me. So, it seems the very core of Biblical-based counseling is flawed if it assumes that everyone who seeks counseling has sinned and caused their own problems. Was I responsible for the earthquake or physical abuse? No, I was a victim of those circumstances.
I asked Dr. New if he knew of people who had been harmed by Bible-only counseling (and also shared a bit of my personal story). He responded:
I don’t know many personally. But I have read dozens of stories that sound just like yours. It is sad. Tragic. We do have to be willing to acknowledge that there can be really *bad* practitioners in every camp – and that the camp shouldn’t be judged by those bad practitioners. So we have to judge based on either logic/reasoning/coherence or by data on effectiveness.
But this raises another problem: Biblical Counselors seem to define “effective” different than other clinicians. In practice (if not in policy), Biblical Counselors are more likely to say in effect, “Well, I told them the truth. So that’s a success. It’s up to them what they do with it now.” Whereas, other clinicians would never take this approach.
It will be interesting to see how this situation resolves, or if it resolves. Heath Lambert issued a statement, Clarifying and Confessing. I did not find it very clarifying, unfortunately. A better title might be Confusing and Convoluted.
The sad part about this ongoing conflict is that if a student wants to pursue counseling at either SWBTS or SBTS, they have one option: Biblical Counseling. This means that students will not be able to obtain licenses using their degrees. This will greatly limit their employment opportunities, plus they will not have learned that it’s not as cut and dry for challenging mental health cases where there are no clear answers in the Bible.
Another very disturbing issue is that with these well-known Baptist institutions, it is setting the precedence among Baptists that Biblical-only counseling is the only correct counseling. This could lead to more harm done if someone needs care beyond a Bible-only-counselor’s abilities. I have heard a number of stories from people who have been admonished for seeking help outside of Biblical-only counseling. That is tragic.
- THE RISE OF BIBLICAL COUNSELING
- The Response of Aaron New, Ph.D., to the Proposed Removal of the Counseling Licensure Program at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
- Biblical Counseling v. Christian Psychology at SBTS (UPDATED with Apology from Heath Lambert)
- GUEST POST: THE GOSPEL AND MENTAL ILLNESS
- *New : Eric Johnson Lambasted by Heath Lambert and Fired by Al Mohler