Suppose a young man—let’s call him Sam—came to you because his life had disintegrated. He described a series of sad events that had left him desperate. His wife Aisha had left him, taking Jerome, their baby boy, with her. He had lost his job. He felt all alone in the world and passed his time playing video games and drinking too much. You know he needs help, but who can help? Are his problems relational? Is his drinking an addiction with a physical basis? Why can’t he hold down a job? Of course, it’s possible that he should see a medical doctor, maybe a lawyer, or even someone to help him find another job, but where should he start?
Start with the Church
God’s Word tells us to start with his church. We need to reclaim the church as God’s agent to care for the souls of his people—people like Sam and Aisha. The Scripture paints a picture of the world as full of consistently desperate and broken people, who are in constant need of and dependent upon God’s care. The New Testament traces for us how the early church cared for those whose lives were overcome with grief, lust, anger, selfish ambition, and a host of other problems. Some troubles were caused by personal sin, and others by suffering in a world cursed by sin. Nevertheless, the apostle Paul consistently reminded believers of the benefits of God’s Word, the fellowship of the saints, and the power and presence of the Holy Spirit as means of comfort and correction to the weary, wounded, or wayward soul (2 Corinthians 1:3-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:18).
From its inception, the church has been a constant, although never perfect, haven for the downcast and hurting. For centuries, the church was the first place that people would turn for help with their inner anguish. Gregory the Great’s The Book of Pastoral Rule encouraged a focus on shepherding and tender care for church leaders in the sixth century. A book compiled by Theodore Tappert, Luther’s Letters of Spiritual Counsel, catalogs several of the constant inquiries Martin Luther received for spiritual counsel and his attempts at biblical soul care. Luther’s student Martin Bucer wrote the well-known work Concerning the True Care of Souls, in which Bucer used Ezekiel 34 as a model of pastoral care. He assumed that the responsibility of care was the burden of the church carried primarily by pastors. The Puritans certainly added to the notion that the church, particularly her leaders, were responsible to shepherd the flock of God through their soulish vexations. This is how pastors became known as physicians of the soul.
But today the church is not usually the first place, or even the second place, people turn to for help with their troubles. Sometimes the church is viewed so negatively that it’s not even the last resort. As Jerry Bridges remarked, “There is a crisis of caring in the Church of Jesus Christ today.”1 There are a variety of reasons for this, including broader cultural shifts and the fact that the church has not always been a good steward of its responsibility to provide soul care. Often we in the church have ostracized sinners and added to the burdens of sufferers. And yet, God has called the church and equipped her with sufficient resources to care for the sinner and sufferer alike. For these failures, both past and present, we must repent of our blindness and our neglect toward caring for others the way God intended—as his hands and feet.
We also must consider how entrenched modern culture’s assumption is that secular, professionalized counseling provides the template by which all counseling approaches should be measured. The modern secular paradigm has become so dominant that it has often clouded the minds of believers to the vitality of the Scripture and the design of God’s church for the ministry of soul care. Many modern Christians view the paradigm of counseling and soul care from a secular perspective, and dismiss the Bible because it does not seem to have an equivalent structure, methods, or techniques that fit the mold of secular counseling models. So, some Christians have neglected the Scriptures altogether for soul care—giving that essential church function to secular professionals. Other Christians, who don’t want to throw the Scripture away entirely, have worked to incorporate the Bible within established secular systems of care. This school of thought, which we will call “integrationism,” often has good intentions, but does not see the primacy of the Bible for soul care. An unintended consequence is the continued professionalism of soul care, the neglect of the Scripture, and the marginalization of the church’s role to care for souls.
A Definition of Biblical Counseling and Purpose
Unlike secular counseling, biblical counseling doesn’t stand alone. The very name “biblical counseling” points to the truth that, at its core, biblical counseling has no grounding without the Scripture and no authority outside of the church of Jesus Christ. God has given his church the responsibility and calling to minister the Scripture so the broken can be healed and the lost saved. To do the personal ministry work of biblical counseling is to do the mission and ministry of the church.
How do we faithfully respond to God’s call and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, renew the church as a culture of care?
Let’s begin by defining biblical counseling. Biblical counseling, as a modern movement, began more than fifty years ago with the publication of Jay Adams’s seminal work, Competent to Counsel.2 Since then, the biblical counseling movement has continued to grow and is now in its third generation.3 With the growth of any movement, it is always helpful to revisit key tenets. Dr. Samuel Stephens, my colleague at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and I co-wrote the following definition to offer a starting point for understanding biblical counseling’s foundations, parameters, and goals:
The Church Is Responsible for the Care of Souls
Who is responsible for the care of souls? There are a wide variety of approaches to answering this question. We might try to identify who we believe does soul care best. We may answer based on our experiences, and then decide who should be responsible from the data we gather. While this approach may yield valuable insights, it should not be how we, as Christians, engage such a question.
As Christians, our priorities demand that we consider the question from the position of Scripture first. Has God granted one of his ordained institutions the authority and responsibility to provide soul care? As John MacArthur said, “A truly Christian worldview . . . is one in which the Word of God, rightly understood, is firmly established as both the foundation and the final authority for everything we hold true.”4 Those who do not believe the Bible is God’s revelation will certainly have a different approach to answering this question. Understandably, they begin with a variety of presuppositions that help them create meaning from observable data in the world. For Christians, however, the Scriptures must be the lens through which we see the world. The Bible is not the only place where Christians should seek information, but it must be the first place we go to understand the data we observe and the last place we go to make sense of it in God’s world. Otherwise, the data we observe will be ordered in earthly terms and constructs which will cloud our understanding of people and their problems in God’s world and ultimately send us in the wrong direction to find solutions.
1. Jerry Bridges, The Crisis of Caring: Recovering the Meaning of True Fellowship (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992), 9.
2. David Powlison, The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2010), 1.
3. Heath Lambert. The Biblical Counseling Movement after Adams (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001).
4. John MacArthur, Thinking Biblically!: Recovering a Christian Worldview (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 21.
Excerpt adapted from The Church as a Culture of Care ©2021 by T. Dale Johnson, Jr, published by New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission.
The Church as a Culture of Care
We all know people in our world are struggling—eating disorders, addictions, depression, sexual issues, marital problems—the list goes on and on. Can the church help or is that an outdated concept that no longer fits modern problems? In The Church as a Culture of Care, biblical counselor Dale Johnson explains that the church is still the primary place where those who struggle can receive lasting hope and healing.