Biblical Counseling, Nouthetic Counseling, “Jane” #DoYouSeeUs, John MacArthur, The Master’s University
Rebecca Davis, who writes at Here’s the Joy blog, has graciously allowed me to post her new article here. She has been a long-time friend of SSB. I really appreciate this article because in it, Rebecca describes the nouthetic, aka “Biblical counseling,” process that was likely used with Jane. Note: It is my understanding that Biblical counseling is the accepted counseling by John MacArthur.
In Rebecca’s article, take special note how nouthetic counseling works with abuse victims, and contemplate how it might fail to work. It’s one thing to use nouthetic counseling in a normal relationship situation where there is sin on both sides; however, in Jane’s story, she is the victim of rape. A victim is not in sin when they are raped. In nouthetic counseling, part of the counselor’s job is to discover the counselee’s sin and repent of it. So, Jane, a rape victim, would need to discover her sin!
No victim chooses to be raped. If a woman were to walk down the street naked, it still does not give a man the right to rape her. In order to have sex with someone, there must be consent, or else it is rape. There is no consent when date rape drugs are used, period (in Jane’s story, the date rape drug was used).
Before getting started with Rebecca’s article, I want to share a quote that Jane texted me about the “counseling” she received from Leslie Davis, her resident director. Keep this in mind as you read the article:
“Leslie confronted me on multiple occasions over numerous days attempting to find fault, blame, and dissect my account of my rape. She focused on my “heart issues” and constantly accused me of lying to cover up what she thought was consensual, and initiated by hidden sins of lust.” ~”Jane”
If “Jane” from TMU were to seek
As Providence would have it, when “Jane’s” account of rape in the environment of The Master’s University went viral last week (link), I was barely aware, because I was cleaning bathrooms and listening to lectures on abuse. One of them was “Helping Women with Child Sexual Abuse in Their Past,” by Zondra Scott, whose husband Stuart was coincidentally on the faculty of the Masters College and Seminary in the area of “Biblical counseling.” Her lecture can be heard here (link).
As I then read the original post about Jane with its many comments and then read a number of follow-up posts about Jane, I thought about Jane’s situation in light of the lectures I’d just been listening to.
Zondra Scott’s lecture is purportedly about childhood sexual abuse, but the only time the “childhood” aspect of it is mentioned is when she explains that if a child is currently in danger, then abuse of a child must be reported. It seemed that except for that, the counseling being taught here, which is called “Biblical counseling,” would apply to Jane’s situation.
The term “Biblical counseling,” which has been appropriated by a certain set of counselors, implies that theirs is the only way to counsel Biblically. But since there are indeed other ways to counsel Biblically, and what is now called Biblical counseling used to be called nouthetic counseling, that’s what I’ll call it here.
I’ll give a brief outline of this very typical nouthetic counseling approach, but you can listen to the whole thing here (link) to get it in its totality.
Nouthetic counseling for the abused: the first steps
The speaker tells her fellow nouthetic counselors to start with compassion, to weep with the one who was abused, but then to move on to hope. “You don’t want to belabor her pain and suffering. That won’t help her; in fact, it can be cruel. Psychology says her answers lie in getting in touch with her pain, but this is not true.”
The second step is “gathering data” [a common term in nouthetic counseling which sounds cold and clinical and even extra-biblical]. Don’t belabor how severe the abuse was, just get basic facts.
Next is to help her reconcile what has happened, through a Biblical worldview of God’s master plan: the Fall, sin, and suffering, and God’s heart to respond through the gospel.
“The goal of the first few sessions is for her to emerge with a high, perfect, and benevolent view of God. She must come to that. She’ll be doing her homework in that, and there are a ton of verses about it. The power is in the verses. She needs to see this, and she can.”
She must repent of any wrong views of God, embracing that the suffering is no indication of God’s unfaithfulness or indifference. Rather it indicates His desire and purpose to love her more, to be God to her, to be good to her, bringing glory to Himself. [I found this part difficult to understand.]
She needs to understand her identity in Christ, that it’s about God, not about us. This will bring true joy and Christ-like change.
She must have a focus on God and others.
She is both able and responsible to change in Christ. She doesn’t need to be defined by it or enslaved to her patterns she has developed.
Nouthetic counseling for the abused: how to change in Christ
As initially impacting as this hurtful and wicked sin is, the long-lasting effects come from the heart. Proverbs 19:3 says, “A person’s own folly begins their ruin, yet their heart rages against the Lord.” Effects come from what goes on in her own mind and heart (her beliefs and conclusions about God), how she complicates things with her own sin, and her own fallen nature, fallen condition, and brokenness from the Fall.
The gospel in her daily thinking has got to make a difference to her practically, with all its promises and obligations.
Change is dependent on the Word of God. Besides the Bible, the key players in her change are God, her, and the church.
The “put on put off” principle: She needs to exercise herself to godliness.
She needs to learn to live for God’s glory and needs to depend on the grace of God.
Nouthetic counseling for the abused: dealing with the past
Help her differentiate between guilt and shame. Talk about the innocent difficult past (she was sinned against and is not responsible) and the guilty response past. These may be understandable but are still sin and destructive, such as false refuges, idols, adulterous acts, busy-ness, overworking, novels, cutting, misuse of food or sleep, an idolatrous lust such as a deep soul-satisfying relationship, bitterness, anger, distrust of God, self-pity, victim mentality, comparing, lack of focusing on God and others, self preservation, fears, purging, wrong priorities, deceit, lack of love, fearing man rather than God, etc [these are only a few of the many “sinful” responses listed]. Address these sins; don’t shy away from them. Also address the guilty past not directly related to a response to the abuse. And the God-glorifying past.
Help her put her past in its place, through confession, thankfulness, repentance, etc. Help her outline troubling or sinful thoughts and memories, including flashbacks. She needs to gain control over fearful, inaccurate thoughts about God and herself.
Nouthetic counseling for the abused: renewing the mind
Help her develop new thinking with specific Scriptures and her own specific prayers. She should be changing her habits to righteous alternatives. She should be changing her victim mentality. She needs to be alert to the spiritual battle and her armor becasue Satan has had strongholds in her life, probably for a long time.
She needs to learn how to develop healthy relationships. She needs to confront and forgive the abuser (without bitterness or vengeance). This is not forgiveness for her, it’s for God’s glory and for the other’s good. She may need to report to law enforcement if children are in danger. “Most abusers do not abuse just one child.” [These are the only two times the abuser is mentioned in the lecture.]
If Jane were to go for nouthetic counseling
I had no trouble believing that Jane could have been invited into a room and seated next to “the stranger” who raped her in order to immediately forgive him, not only because I’ve heard so many similar accounts before, some from people I know very well, but also because this is taught by the nouthetic counselors themselves.
If even now Jane, having been raped ten or so years ago by “the stranger” associated with The Master’s Seminary students, were to come to a nouthetic counselor such as this, she would find that the focus is off the wickedness that was perpetrated on her and the concommitant trauma and betrayal, and is instead on to her own sin. That is, no matter what had happened, no matter how bad it was, if Jane had been used in pornography and sex trafficking, still the focus would be on Jane’s sin.
What didn’t the speaker say . . . about abuse?
Notice that with all the focus on the person’s own sin, there was no mention of trauma and its definition, I assume because the Bible never uses the word (though some, such as Chris Haugee, here, have discussed the trauma-informed care of Jesus Himself). There is no place in this counseling to work through the deceit and betrayal of sexual assault. In fact, the terminology of abuse (perpetrator, predator, molestation, assault, rape, pornography, sex trafficking, etc) is even avoided.
Shame and confusion both get only a tiny mention in the lecture, but in abuse survivors like Jane, the shame and confusion can be overwhelming, so overwhelming that at least at first the counselee often can’t even listen to the Bible verses at all.
The speaker barely mentions flashbacks and fails to mention dissociation at all, even though in abused children the dissociation is sometimes so severe as to develop separate identities. (Counselors will have to figure out how to deal with this on their own, I guess, because it isn’t mentioned in the Bible.)
What didn’t the speaker say . . . about Christian growth?
The speaker failed to mention several important things (such as the conflict between intellectual assent and heart belief, the impossibility of pleasing God unless we live by faith, the larger aspects of spiritual warfare, and others). But the omission that astonished me the most—and never fails to astonish me from nouthetic counselors, though it is so common—is that in all her two hours the speaker never once mentioned the Holy Spirit. She talked about God, Christ, you, and especially the Word of God. She talked about how “the power is in the verses,” even though that is incorrect. (The devils also believe and tremble; Satan quoted verses to Jesus.) Instead, the power to live the Christian life comes through faith in Jesus Christ, in a life lived in the Holy Spirit.
Ignoring the Holy Spirit in Christian counseling—which is so very unbiblical—is a problem I first became aware of in 2008. I wrote about it extensively at the time and later published it here (link).
If I were to “Biblically counsel”
Since and one of the tenets of “Biblical counseling” is that any mature believer who knows the Scriptures is qualified to counsel, and I’ve been getting to know the Scriptures for 40 years, I’ll present an alternative view of “Biblical counseling.”
First, if I were to “Biblically counsel” a young woman like Jane who’d been raped or abused, I’d see it as part of my calling to grieve this tragedy and trauma with her. As she even tries to wrap her mind around the enormity of the evil, I would see part of my responsibility as simply being a good listener, being a “receiver” of her story to grieve with her (rather than a data gatherer in order to find out where she’s sinning). This is Biblical, as we can see that Job, for example, needed others who would grieve with him over his great and tragic loss.
Often what needs to be grieved is a tremendous betrayal. Sometimes, as in the account Jane gave (and accounts of many others I know), the betrayal extends beyond the original perpetrator to others, such as church or school authorities, who should have cared for her but instead shamed and blamed her and punished her. I’ll remind her that Jesus Himself was betrayed by someone who had decided to join with evil, so He knows this pain personally.
She may well speak of wanting justice or wanting to protect others from this wicked person or letting others know that the church or school is unsafe. Instead of telling her to forgive or to leave it in God’s hands, my Biblical counseling will tell her that God is a God of justice who tells His people to take up the defense of the poor and needy. I’ll use Scriptures such as Proverbs 31:9; 29:7; Psalm 82:2-4; Leviticus 19:15; Isaiah 58:6-7; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 5:26-27; Jeremiah 22:3, and many others. Then I’ll tell her that when she’s ready I’ll support her in her efforts, reminding her that this action isn’t to be expected to accomplish healing, because ultimately healing comes through Jesus Christ.
At some point we’ll talk about how forgiveness is necessary, but I’ll make crystal clear what forgiveness means and doesn’t mean: It doesn’t mean reconciliation. It doesn’t mean pretending the heinous crime never happened. It doesn’t mean never talking to anyone about the crime. It simply means opening the hands to release the debt that the offender has against the one who has been harmed. This is the Biblical meaning of the word forgiveness.
I agree that she needs to understand her identity in Christ. I’d want to spend a lot of time on that, because there’s so much beauty there and many excellent Scriptures that tell us who we are in Christ. Who Christ is in us is also very important. I’d be praying for her often that the Holy Spirit would fully reveal to her these Scriptural truths and how they apply in her life.
But even beyond that, for those who have been abused, sometimes the violation has been so severe that their very personhood has been threatened. I want to assure her that she is valuable just as a person, simply by virtue of existing. I’ll assure her that those unborn babies that Christians want to protect are not more valuable than she is. I’ll explain that when her basic human and civil rights were violated, this was an invasion of her personhood that angers God, who will take up her cause. This is very Biblical.
When she’s ready for help with her Biblical worldview I’ll want to help her grasp a more vivid picture of the cosmic battle that is playing out across the ages, good against evil, God and His people against the forces of wickedness. I’d show Scriptural examples of that cosmic battle, and I’d show Biblical evidence that God’s side wins.
But in the meantime, because there is evil—and evil has no significant definition unless it is executed against the eternal souls of human beings—people will be harmed by wickedness. It is a horrible fact, a tragic fact, but a fact nonetheless. And one way that happens is that wolves put on sheep’s clothing and go into the churches and the seminaries and the Christian schools. Yes, this change of paradigm can be like a fault line in an earthquake. But it is true, and very Biblical.
I wouldn’t hesitate to say, “That person committed wickedness. That was evil. You were the victim of a heinous act. It was not your fault.” And I might repeat that many times over. This would be Biblical.
I would confess to the woman sitting across from me that I too have cried out to God “How long, O Lord? How long will the wicked triumph?” And I’ll show that long ago David asked the same question. This would be Biblical.
But a Biblical worldview—the Biblical worldview I’ll present in my imaginary Biblical counseling room—is one that doesn’t really try to fully reconcile what cannot be reconciled by reasoning, but only by the Spirit of God. God is good but He allows evil. How do we reconcile this except by divine revelation? So I would tell her that I’m praying God will help bring her a deep sense of His goodness and His presence in spite of the evil that has been perpetrated on her, because we are in a cosmic battle.
I’ll remind her that she’s in this cosmic battle whether she wants to be or not. She is called, if she is a believer, to participate in the battle, by faith and prayer and truth. If she is unable because of weakness or confusion or other reason, then other believers are called upon to undertake this battle on her behalf.
I would not tell her to “repent of wrong views of God.” This would be driving the sheep, when the sheep need to be led. Instead of pushing her, I want to remind her that ultimately God’s power of love is greater, not just in eternity, not just in history, but even in her very soul. As she learns to trust Him—sometimes trust Him again—she’ll find a deeper level of knowing and loving Him than she’s known before. I’ll emphasize Ephesians 3:14-21 in this regard, telling her I’m praying as Paul prayed that by the power of the Holy Spirit she’ll know Jesus Christ in her experience in a way that is beyond knowing in the intellect.
We’ll talk about any confusion she may be experiencing, and I’ll remind her that Satan is the author of confusion. If necessary, I’ll help her untwist Scriptures that have been used in false teachings to try to keep her in bondage.
I’ll refer to the change God wants to bring about in her life after this trauma as “healing” because “healing” is a Biblical term too. I’ll encourage her that as she learns to listen to the Holy Spirit, when He makes her aware of sin in her life (through the Scriptures or through other means such as internal conviction), to confess the sin, thank Him for revealing it, by faith turn to Him and away from the sin. This is the “coming to her senses” that is true repentance. But I won’t start labeling as sin all her responses to abuse, only those specifically mentioned in the Bible.
Her Christian growth will come by faith in the living Son of God who has accomplished all her sanctification for her, who invites her to stop striving to fulfill her own holiness and come to Him for rest, through time spent with Him in prayer and in the Word, and simply learning to enjoy Him, as David did. I’ll tell her that just as the battle is a cosmic one, on a battlefield that is not to be seen with this eye of flesh, so this transformation that is to take place in her life will not be by her fleshly efforts, but by faith. This is Biblical.
And I will offer hope, the Biblical kind, over and over. This anticipation and expectation will be that she’ll come through this dark valley of the shadow of death to a large place, a place of joy, because the Good Shepherd cares for her soul. As she trusts Him in this dark place, she’ll come out on the other side stronger, wiser, with greater capacity, and far more prepared for battle. This too is Biblical.
The “counseling” I suggest looks quite different from what was presented at the seminar. But this is also based in the Scriptures, and so it can also be called “Biblical counseling.” I’d like to emphasize that those who claim the term do not have a monopoly on the definition.
Tomorrow I’ll be posting a sexual abuse survivor’s analysis of and response to the nouthetic counseling (also called “Biblical counseling”) she received in another school environment.
*Update 9-30-17 That post has now been published, and you can read it here.