Heath Lambert, Albert Mohler, and SBTS Draw Line in Sand on Christian Counseling and Dr. Eric Johnson

Biblical Counseling, Christian Counseling, Nouthetic Counseling, Heath Lambert, Albert Mohler, Dr. Eric Johnson, SBTS


spiritual abuse, clergy abuse, Psalm 23

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:

 

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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:

  1. Biblical counseling: only the Bible is used to counsel. This is also sometimes called Nouthetic Counseling.
  2. 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.

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22 comments on “Heath Lambert, Albert Mohler, and SBTS Draw Line in Sand on Christian Counseling and Dr. Eric Johnson

  1. In my experience, “biblical” counselling is little more than treating the bible like a book of spells. Say the “right” words, and hey presto, the magic makes all the “bad” simply disappear. The trouble is that if that doesn’t work for you, it’s not the magic that has failed. You are the problem because you obviously haven’t believed hard enough. IMO, this stuff is not just unhealthy, it’s downright toxic!

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  2. Great article, and very pertinent to me in my circles, since I know many abuse survivors who were counseled the Bible-only way in the Bob Jones University realm of fundamentalism. Trouble is, though, this kind of counseling seems to focus on only certain parts of the Bible–the parts that look for sin in the counselee, as you described regarding your earthquake experience. Here’s an example: http://bjugrace.com/2015/05/05/an-abuse-survivors-words-to-steve-pettitabout-the-bju-counseling-system/

    I’m so sorry to hear that the alternative Christian counseling will no longer be allowed at the seminaries; I see that as a tragedy, since for every trauma survivor I’ve known who has been helped long-term by Christian counseling, it has never been by Bible-only counseling but always by those who learned important truth outside the Bible. As much as I love the Bible and know it to be completely sufficient for faith and practice, I find it ridiculous that trauma isn’t supposed to be acknowledged and dealt with as such.

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  3. The implications are clear:

    If a student feels called to counseling and truly has a heart for helping people, using the best religious and scientific knowledge, he/she needs to leave these seminaries. They are a waste of money and give students substandard educations.
    Rather than being a institute of higher education, these seminaries are nothing more than “faith healer” training centers that equip young budding con-men (and -women) to take Christians’ money and leave them worse than before.

    Lawsuits have been filed against these types of nouthetic counselors.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This means that students will not be able to obtain licenses using their degrees. This will greatly limit their employment opportunities

    Exactly! I do not fundamentally understand why you would seek a degree (with all the expense that entails) that limits your employment prospects. (the same goes for going to schools that are not accredited although that’s a little different).

    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.

    I think this is a great point by Dr. New.

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  5. The Bible truly is the greatest book ever written. As a Christian, I believe it was dictated by God Himself. But do we insist on throwing away cookbooks and carpentry manuals since the Bible should be all we need to cook souffles or build wood sheds?

    Even Bill Gothard was not that flaky (on this point.) He spoke highly of William Glassner’s choice theory/reality therapy for example. I have found cognitive behavioral therapy to be of great benefit, personally.

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  6. Anonymous2 said:

    these seminaries are nothing more than “faith healer” training centers

    That’s my take on it as well. And remember, Paige Patterson is the one who was “very happy” when a woman showed up at church with two black eyes, because the husband, who beat her up, showed up to church to repent. Do you think Patterson really cares about anyone’s mental health?

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  7. So sad. Truth is truth no matter the source. It is clear that the Pharisees whose focus in on rules and image rather than substance remain a powerful force within the contemporary church. These fools elevate the false shepherd while neglecting the sheep.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. And remember, Paige Patterson is the one who was “very happy” when a woman showed up at church with two black eyes, because the husband, who beat her up, showed up to church to repent. Do you think Patterson really cares about anyone’s mental health?

    Well, not women’s health of any kind anyways.

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  9. I know of another Biblical Counseling professor who is under fire from the Pharisaical factions. It seems that, like it or not, attaching ‘Biblical’ to something makes it far game for all of the legalists to start throwing darts at it.

    I think BC, at its root, is coming up with the specific do’s and don’ts in the Bible that apply to a given person’s situation and then shoving their faces into it. As the professors get older and wiser and more empathetic, their growth in compassion and mercy makes them superior counselors, but puts them on a collision course with the more fanatical factions.

    In the case I’m more familiar with, a BC prof started teaching that emotional and sexual abuse were grounds for divorce, and that puts him at odds with factions that are saying that only adultery and abandonment are grounds for divorce.

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  10. On Heath’s blog (link in the tweet above) I found the following: “The importance of these issues leads to another problem with the way I spoke about Dr. Johnson that night. I believe the centrality of Christ is really on the line with whether or not we believe God has given us sufficient resources to help troubled people. But my sin took the focus off of Christ, and placed it on me where it should never be. I am so ashamed of that.”

    I think the word “sufficient” is troubling. We say the Bible is sufficient, meaning that a person who understands the Bible should understand how God expects us to live, but on the other hand, the Bible doesn’t teach us about Software Engineering or Nuclear Physics, or even Medicine. So, what Heath is claiming is that somehow, the Bible is an exhaustive reference guide for everything someone needs to know about counseling. That is interesting, because he has written books on counseling. So now we are in a catch-22. Either the Bible is “sufficient” or we need the Bible + Heath’s unique theological perspective. Seems like money dictates we need more, but beating down his opponents says the Bible is sufficient.

    Liked by 4 people

  11. At the root of “biblical” counseling is the theology of one’s sin being the cause of mental health problems – and most likely the depravity of every human view of original sin. When I went through depression and marital issues, I had one counselor like that, who seemed to think that all one had to do was identify the sin issue, have the client confess and repent of it, and presto, the problems will be resolved. I never found a solution until I went to something between “Christian” and secular counseling. “Biblical” counseling is dangerous because it is based on idolatry of the Bible, that it always solves every problem, and that we suffer because we are depraved sinners. When mental health issues are not rooted in one’s wrong behavior, as they often are (e.g. rooted in childhood neglect, abuse, bad theology, etc.), “biblical” counseling makes things worse not better. And, if the measuring rod for success is merely “telling them the truth of the word”, then it absolves the “biblical” counselor of all responsibility when they are adding to the problems. It’s a form of spiritual abuse.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. This is very sad, and I fear will result in people being hurt. Both biblical and secular counseling approaches have helped my friends and church members so greatly, along with the magnificent pharmacological treatments available today. Imagine going to a physician who only recommends surgery for all cancers–no chemo, no radiation, and no research into whether those approaches have a good success rate, and what the standards of care are for cancer care.
    I simply will never refer a member to a counselor who doesn’t utilize every effective, proven, ethically vetted approach to client care.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Pastors and Christian folks failed me miserably when I was in my abusive marriage. Now, as an abuse survivor and a self-taught “expert” on abusers and their tactics, I have had the privilege of helping countless abuse victims – mostly Christians – to understand the abuse dynamic and discover the biblical truths that have the power to set them free, usually after their Christian counselors have come up far short. I guess that’s not allowed?

    Someone should cough up evidence that the prophets and apostles had fancy, framed degrees on their walls.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Through all the years I had anxiety, depression, and suicidal feelings, I was not helped by Christian teaching, the Christian faith (and all that includes – Bible reading, prayer, etc), but I also wasn’t helped by secular treatments (including medication), either.

    If I was helped by secular teaching at all, it was in a round about way (which I’ll get to in a moment):
    I saw different psychiatrists (some Christian, some not) over a 20 year period, and none of them diagnosed me properly.

    I had to figure out on my own (by researching material online and ordering a few books by psychiatrists) what my problem was to be free from most of it.
    So, in a way, I was sort of helped by secular psychology, but I had to figure it out myself, because the shrinks and handful of psychologists I saw never did get to the root of my problem.

    But, all the years of “faith alone” and relying on Bible reading and so on didn’t help me at all.

    I bet you anything that Lambert has never, ever suffered from anything like long term, clinical depression, or from debilitating anxiety.

    If he had, he would know better than to yell and scream on blogs, at meetings, conferences and in books that Jesus or the Bible is sufficient to heal one of mental health maladies. I been there, done that, and it didn’t do squat for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I would love to see manly leadership in this area. The Bible mentions circumcision. So men need to wait a while and have their’s done outwardly in the temple with no modern medications. In fact, who needs a doctor? Just have an elder do it! What about vasectomies? The Bible makes no room for pain meds, you may have to search deeper into the scriptures to find some verses to cobble together to learn the Biblical way. Whoops!! I recall something about Onan’s sin and God’s love of a quiver full!

    Erectile dysfunction can have several emotional and mental causes. Who needs a certified counselor? During the service, have the elders lay their hands on the stubborn appendage and pray! Nouthetic counselors can give you verses on pride and lust to help you understand that sex is only to procreate and recommend meditating on Jesus as foreplay and that will solve everything. The little blue pill has possibilies, but that would be too secular. Just trust God will have that sucker ready and waiting.

    I suffer from depression, but have been tricked by Satan by taking psychiatric meds that help me become a more effective wife and mother. I would love for the men of the church serve as examples of trusting only the sufficiency of scripture to deal with their masculine problems in a transparent and Godly way. Until then, I‘m sticking with my pills! Thanks guys!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. From the main post up top:
    “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).”

    Theirs is an ugly religion and built on cruelty.
    Why should what comes out of it be any different?

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Droves of people have already left churches. Do these folks think that battling over Biblical Counseling is going to help bring anyone back in? From stories that I have heard of people who went through Biblical Counseling, I don’t know how they can expect to keep people sitting in pews. People leaving churches mean that churches will not be able to donate precious resources to SBTS. Then what will happen to their Biblical Counseling program?

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  18. That’s one way of helping them to leave Neo-Calvinists! But we need to find a good balance point – leave NC, but still maintain faith in God.

    PS – I’m aware that Biblical Counseling is also practiced outside of Neo-Calvinism circles, but the guys involved in this article are Neo-Calvinists.

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  19. I watched an episode of Leah Remini’s series on Scientology last night and while the “theology” was different, the conclusion was the same. The Bible/Dianetics is sufficient for all psychological problems; the root problem is in the person, not a consequence of living in a fallen world with broken people who abuse. Secular psychology or counseling is to be avoided at all costs. Evangelicalism has become cultish in many ways and it is frightening.

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