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From the last article, we were pretending the prodigal son was sitting in your counseling office. Because you have read the story (Luke 15:11-17), you know the Lord will not grant the gift of repentance to him until verse seventeen. He has come to you, though he plans to leave home to live independently from his family. His departure time is verse twelve of Luke’s gospel. During your time with him, you learn many things wrong with his thinking, not to mention his whacked theological perspective.
Your hope is for him to change, but you know you are working within a traditional biblical counseling window of opportunity. You also know it’s not going to happen because it was a long time before coming to his senses, which you learn in verse seventeen. Though you can only speculate, it may be another two years before he comes to an end of himself.
If you knew he would not change while with you, you would know a current biblical counseling time frame would not outlast his determination to rebel. It would not be feasible, practical, logical, or wise to string out the counseling sessions with him when he has no intention of changing. This situation is where we need another system—a better system—for working with people. It must be a system that can work in the flow of a person’s progressive sanctification. Or, if God has not saved the person, that system must be able to plod along while being patient as you build the relational bridges to bring the person to Christ.
Traditional biblical counseling, which is person-to-person meetings in an office for a season to bring change, is not that system. I have been counseling for a long time and can tell you that most counseling does not work in five-and-done or ten-and-done counseling sessions. The unchanging prodigal wants to sow his wild oats, while the biblical counselor intends to drive him toward righteous repentance. That’s an impasse in the counseling office.
That kind of expectation and plan from the biblical counselor will press any counselee between a rock and a hard place. The counselor pushes him to repent, and God is not granting him the gift of repentance (2 Timothy 2:24-25). Have you ever counseled someone, and within the first or second session, they repented and made significant changes in their life?
If so, you caught them at verse seventeen of Luke’s gospel (Luke 15:17). They received the gift of repentance from the Lord, and you just happened to be sitting in front of them when He granted it. That does not happen often, but when it does, it makes counseling a pleasant experience for everyone.
Years ago, an adulterous lady told me that I was an excellent counselor. She came to me for counseling, and through the process of counseling, she changed. Eventually. She repented of her sin and jumped on the road to Christian maturity. I did not tell her what I was thinking. The truth is, I am not that great of a counselor. I just happened to be the one in front of her when God broke into her stubborn, cold heart.
After the Lord granted repentance, she humbled herself, received His grace, repented of her sin, and began to change her life. Let’s give credit where credit is due. It was because the good Lord brought her to her senses. He chose to grant the adulterous counselee repentance. From that point forward, it was like painting-by-numbers. Any counselor will be an excellent counselor when the counselee decides to change.
Biblical counselors can put too much pressure on themselves to fix people if (1) the counselor’s understanding of the Lord’s role in counseling is not adequate or (2) they do not include the local church in the process of the person’s salvation or progressive sanctification. If the counselor does not have a vital discipleship church context, the counseling will have built-in liabilities, which will be a set-up for unnecessary frustration.
People ask if I do biblical counseling at my church. That is a trick question. I do biblical counseling at my church because I am a Christian, not because I am a person who does biblical counseling for a living. Every church member is a biblical counselor, whether they know it or do it like me, because the Bible assumes that every church member is a Christian.
The issue in view here is not whether I like or am for biblical counseling. I do, and I am! I love biblical counseling. And I’m trained to do biblical counseling. I pursued my ACBC Fellowship because of my affection for biblical counseling. I started this ministry to spread my passion for biblical counseling to the Christian community.
My love for biblical counseling is strong, but I have a greater appreciation for the New Testament local church doing the work of soul care. Because of my affection for the local church, I want to go the extra mile in not creating or implying a two-headed model for discipleship within the local church.
All biblical counselors believe that every Christian should be participating in the counseling process at some level of their hearts. Jay Adams has served us well in communicating this truth since his groundbreaking work in 1970. His book, Competent to Counsel, set a new trajectory for the local church’s total involvement in the counseling process (Romans 15:14).
He repackaged and re-launched the idea of counseling in a compelling way that has served multiplied thousands of churches. Though God has used Jay to do this fantastic work, I have observed too many local churches lacking total engagement in a comprehensive view of counseling practice (what the Bible calls discipleship), the very thing Jay said we should be doing.
Though everyone can and should counsel, most of the heavy lifting of counseling is given to a few people rather than all the people. Part of the reason for this is that biblical counseling has taken on a life all its own within the local church over the past few decades. In some ways, it has mutated into an extension of the church or para-help that comes alongside the church to assist because the church is deficient in the sanctification process, or even worse, they don’t know how to do soul care.
Part of the reason for this is the reclassification of the counseling process. Biblical counseling has become the new appellation that we map over the more appropriate and biblical term discipleship. Many people see the two terms as two different needs for the Christian. Biblical counseling has unintentionally weakened the function of discipleship in the local church.
It would be better to rename, restate, or reclassify biblical counseling according to its biblical roots. Biblical counseling, by definition, is too narrow of a term to encompass what it is supposed to do. The term connotes a specialist or trained individual who is a professional. The word can also lead a person to believe the average Christian is not qualified to bring counsel to someone else.
Though we need some specificity, precision, and training in the counseling process for certain counseling situations, we are shooting ourselves in the foot if we do not broaden the term. We must envision the entire church. Everyone should be participating at some level, according to the person’s God-given gift in the counseling process.
Instead of calling what we do counseling, let’s call it discipleship. Discipleship is more nuanced and gets into the nooks and crannies of the local church’s sanctification model. Not only does biblical counseling reduce the number of people who are doing discipleship, but it can also lead to setting up artificial contexts (counseling sessions) that can manipulate or attempt to press righteousness on a person prematurely.
This self-imposed pressure for righteousness creates non-God ordained timelines for change. My earlier reframing of the story about the prodigal illustrates the liability of attempting to press for righteousness in an artificial context. I long for the day when discipleship reclaims its biblical heritage by taking over biblical counseling through the engagement of the entire local church in a fully orbed, powerful, one-another body ministry.
There is a substantial philosophical and methodological difference between counseling the prodigal son in a counseling context versus spending time with him at different points along his journey. It’s called doing life in the milieu: meeting him in the social environments in which he is living. Practicing discipleship has many more advantages than biblical counseling.
One of those advantages is it does not press the issue of repentance on a person but is pneumatic (Spirit-led), which builds, plods, speaks, comforts, convicts, and changes. Discipleship and counseling are as different as the tortoise and the hare. The tortoise is poised, strategic, deliberate, well-paced, and systematic. The hare has a job to do, and it is about getting it done as fast as possible.
The hare may also be strategic and methodical, but therein lies the problem: his strategy is to accomplish the task now because counseling is not an open-ended arrangement or expectation, which can put counseling at odds with God’s plan of repentance for the person. But if you are practicing discipleship rather than counseling, you know it is easier to keep a person in a church building rather than trying to get him to come back to an artificial context for change like a counseling office.
Loving a person is easier while doing life with him rather than trying to love him during a counseling session where you are calling him to repentance every time you meet. You can only do this for so long before it strains the relationship—to the point of breaking it off. There are more advantages to discipleship in the local church when the entire church body is engaged in the process.
That’s a shortlist. No biblical counselor can provide this many things for any person or his family. Suppose you can keep a person in the church building long enough. In that case, the likelihood of him repenting in God’s good and kind providence is more likely than five-and-done counseling sessions while sending them away with no regular connectivity to the body of Christ.
“Keeping him in the building” is not a static responsibility. It is spontaneous and structured. It consistently provides love and care for those who need to change, grow, and mature in Christ. The counseling office has a singular focus: “I need for you to change soon.” Discipleship in the context of the local church is a more relaxed environment.
It permits people to live in the good of the gospel while coming alongside each other, helping them to follow their examples (Ephesians 5:1; 1 Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 4:9). Discipleship is hard work. It is not for the lazy person. All hands are on deck, and everyone is busy thinking about how to live in the good of the gospel while inviting others into their faith walk with Christ.
Counseling has a counselor sitting in a chair, instructing another person on how to live for Christ. Discipleship is about doing real life with another human being while speaking into his life along the way, which is how Christ did it. The challenge for the counselor is to build a robust relational bridge to tell the hard truth of God’s Word in love (Ephesians 4:15). The counseling context is almost like picking someone out of a crowd, sitting them down, and bringing complex correction to them.
Most counseling happens between close friends. Most counselors are in the unenviable position of correcting someone they hardly know. Here is my tongue-in-cheek, five-step approach to biblical counseling between two people who do not have a prior relationship with each other:
Though my five-step approach is hyperbole, you can sense the liabilities that are intrinsic to the counseling process. To add to this and to heighten the degree of difficulty, you have approximately sixty minutes to demonstrate your love for the counselee while bringing correction to them. (That is one reason I counsel for two hours.) You have sixty minutes to get to know them, love them, give them hope, call them to repentance, and hope to create a desire in them to come back next week.
Good luck with that weak model for progressive sanctification if it is outside a sanctification center, which is the local church. The local church discipleship process has a different setup. It can include specific, one-to-one discipleship opportunities, but it can do so much more. It has been my experience that if the whole church engages in living a gospel-centered life, there would not be much need for all the formalized counseling.