What is “counseling”? Counseling is just “intentionally helpful conversations,” as David Powlison puts it. This explains why all of us are involved in counseling in our daily lives. We have friends who share their burdens with us. When we need help ourselves, we might seek out friends, or even strangers whom we think can help. Those strangers might be called “therapists” or “mental health experts” or they might be whoever wrote that article in a magazine or produced a self-help video.
Regardless of how it happens, counseling is happening all the time in our world. We live in a time in history with an increased awareness of mental health crises, partly due to the fallout of the isolation and disruption of life patterns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We see how technology and media have created a platform for increased problems with body image and contentment and anger with people who are different from us. We are all in need of “intentionally helpful conversations.”
Not everything that claims to be helpful is actually helpful, though. Does the church of Christ, its pastors, and the individual church member, have any insight into the conversations going on all around us? Yes, we do. God has not left us without hope in His world. He has given us His wisdom in the Holy Bible. Unlike some Christians who start with the world’s “psychological wisdom” and methods and then try to “integrate” or add the Bible verses to this alleged wisdom, the Biblical counselor will start with the all-sufficient Bible and let God’s Word shape his or her “intentionally helpful conversations” with our fellow humans. Thus, we can say that Biblical counseling is a “targeted form of discipleship, intensely focused and personal one-another ministry that aims at the serious development of serious disciples.” (Paul Tautges)
Since Biblical counseling is really just disciple-making on a one-on-one basis, who does God say has the duty to be disciple-makers? The first, and most obvious, answer is the church’s pastors. Ephesians 4:11-16 explains that Christ Jesus has given to His Church pastors and teachers to equip the saints. The Bible repeatedly tells pastors the sort of curriculum to use when they are preaching and counseling the congregation members. For example, Titus 2 explains that there are certain needs that older members have, and other needs that younger members have. That passage also says there are certain needs that men have and there are certain needs that women have.
Biblical counseling is hard work. Many pastors prefer to be quietly in their studies preparing sermons and lessons and then teach the whole group in worship or a Bible Study. This is very important work, no doubt. However, the pastoral ministry includes more. The pastor may not abrogate his duty by leaving it to “the professional mental health experts” when he is to feed the sheep within his care as they seek to be better disciples of Jesus. He may end up in some cases cooperating with other Biblical counselors or medical personnel in providing a wholistic care for a church member facing some need. No matter what, though, the pastor always has a duty to counsel. Why else would he be told to “be ready in season and out of season”? (2 Timothy 4:2) The pastor has the duty to “convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” from both the pulpit AND the counseling room. This also means that the church member has the duty to receive this pastoral counseling whenever he or she is in need of convincing, rebuking, or exhorting with any of life’s challenging problems. In fact, the church must insist that her pastor be involved in counseling, and that the seminaries train pastors to be able to disciple church members on an individual basis, so that they can glorify God in the midst of whatever sin or suffering they may be facing.
While our culture does not agree with the Bible that pastors have the duty to counsel, the Bible also teaches (at least) one more provocative truth about the duty to counsel. The church member also has been given the duty to counsel. Their duty is not to the same degree as the pastor or church elder, of course. Yet they do have the spiritual gifting and ability to grow in that gifting to be godly friends on the frontlines of the counseling problems people face, whether it be anxiety, depression, anger, sexual addiction, parenting issues, and so on.
The passage mentioned above from Ephesians 4 authorizes pastors to equip members. It goes on to say that the members are being equipped for their own work of ministry. This is just another way of saying that each Christian is called to be a disciple, growing in the eternal truths of God and growing in unity with other believers in that body of Christ, each of us contributing what we can so that the whole body can be blessed and mature.
If a pastor feels inadequate for counseling (which is often true), how much more would the average church member feel inadequate to fulfill his or her duty? This is where we should remember the Bible’s explanation of what counseling is and what it looks like—being a disciple who helps make fellow disciples. The primary qualification you have to meet is one you already meet if you are a member in good standing, living in repentance and faith. That qualification is described this way in Galatians 6:1–2, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
The Bible is full of instruction and expectation that church members will fulfill their duty to counsel one another. Each believer has a unique background and life story that they can use to help others. At the same time, each believer has the same common faith and commitment to our Lord which will drive these targeted conversations. Simply going to worship with an expectation that your presence matters to others is an act of counseling others. Hebrews 10:24-25 states that rather than forsaking that public assembly, you are considering others and stirring them up to love and good works. Worship is not a spectator sport, but an opportunity to fulfill your duty to be used by God to shape others (and for God to use others to shape you).
We will look at more aspects of Biblical counseling in future articles. For now, whether you are a pastor or a church member, remember that God says you can fulfill this duty. “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Now I myself am confident concerning you, my brethren, that you also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another.” (Romans 15:13-14)