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Introduction by Gordon

I want to take this opportunity to introduce the co-author of this article (the longer and most important part) and to say a few things about the subject myself.  Gary and his wife, Gail, have recently moved from Connecticut to Phoenix to assume the roles of evangelist and women’s ministry leader for one of our four Regions.  Prior to moving, Gary had been taking graduate courses at the highly regarded Gordon-Conwell Seminary in the Boston area, and has already been accepted as a student at the Phoenix branch of Fuller Theological Seminary.  While a student at Gordon-Conwell, Gary wrote a research paper regarding the ultimate impossibility of integrating Psychology with biblical teaching.  The following article by him is essentially the same paper, with a different title and a few edits to make it more understandable for the average reader.

I concur with Gary that Christian Counseling has a valid place in Christianity, but has often been assigned a role that places more emphasis on the validity of psychology than on the Bible.  Of course, among believers, this reality is so subtle that it is not generally perceived.  That fact makes it all the more likely to yield some damaging effects.  Through the years, I have had a number of friends in the church who were counselors, with various types and levels of training.  In helping individuals work through deeper problems, they have often been very helpful.  But I do believe that disciples need a better understanding of the limitations of professional or even Christian counseling, and some of the inherent dangers involved when viewing it the wrong way.  Thus, I invite you to read Gary’s material, after which I will have a few observations in a related area that I believe tie into what he says in an important way.  Enjoy the read!

The Integration of Christianity and Psychology

by Gary Sciascia

In recent generations the influence of modern psychology has successfully worked its way into virtually all significant areas of western civilization. From sports, to education, to business, to romance, to music, and even to the church, its ever-increasing sway extends. Much more than a fad or passing fancy, psychology has become ensconced as a permanent cultural fixture. In the words of Johnson and Jones, “It should come as no surprise then to learn that Christian thinkers have also thought deeply about “psychology,” psychology understood as the rigorous attempt to understand human character and behavior, one grounded in philosophical reflection and examination of the “data” of human experience.”[1] The focus of this article is to analyze the issues in the amalgamation of psychology and theology in what has come to be known in some circles as integration.

What is integration? As mentioned above, the popularity and acceptance of psychology has proliferated in our culture, and many now even in Christian circles turn to psychology for answers to many of life’s emotional and mental woes. This can create a tension between the values traditionally held by the Church taken from the Bible, and principles held by those in the field of psychology. Integration, then, is the attempt to blend or mesh these two approaches to life together. As one former American Psychological Association president espoused:

We simply take for granted the truth of revelation found in scripture… [We] also take for granted the essential correctness of what is held, on experimental or clinical grounds, by students of physiology, psychology, and psychiatry. If these two belief systems are both true, we ask what possibilities are conceptually available for accommodating them to one another.[2]

A Brief Biblical Overview

A good question is: what does the Bible have to say about psychology? The answer to that is largely dependent upon one’s point of view. One perspective may point to the fact that the Bible does not refer directly to the field of psychology at all, while another may see the Bible as being replete with passages on mankind’s psychological wellbeing. Passages such as Proverbs 20:5  “The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out,” talk about the need for people to dig deep within themselves to gain a greater self-awareness. Both perspectives can live in harmony so long as the Bible is not twisted or subverted in some way.

The science of psychology need not be discarded simply because it is not specifically referred to in scripture. Indeed, seeing oneself more clearly and getting in touch with deeper motives and understanding one’s own past better can yield tremendous benefits in the area of emotional well-being. But in God’s Kingdom, the use of psychology must be brought under total submission and subservience to God’s Word before this can be accomplished. Far too often, however, psychology, psychologists, and even “Christian” psychologists do not submit so readily. And so the concept of the integration of psychology and Christianity can be fraught with difficulties. Several of these are discussed below.

Ever-Changing Views

Like other sciences, psychology is continually changing. What was very much in vogue just twenty-five years ago on the psychological scene may now be seen as archaic. But are these changes really bringing about quantifiable improvements in the human condition? Few would argue with the results that enhancements in medical science have produced over the last 150 years. Yet based on the current emotional state of our society, it would be difficult to say that modern psychology as a science is producing greater results today than at any other point in time in the modern era. Henry Fairlie put it well: “If we do not acknowledge that the inclination to sin is part of our natures, then why has all our tinkering with ourselves over the centuries, all our sociologies and psychologies and psychoanalyses, reforms and experiments and therapies, not made our lives more virtuous and more happy than they are?”[3] Fairlie continues, “…neither will we pretend that our evil is the result of some maladjustment in our psychologies or our societies, only to find that when the next adjustment has been made we remain as evil as before.”[4] If psychology has fallen far short of being a panacea for man’s emotional maladies, can it cure spiritual ones?

In the psychological world, the schools of thought are many. The founding fathers of modern psychology (e.g., Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, B.F. Skinner, and Carl Rogers) all held varying perspectives on man’s psychological ailments, and they proffered equally varying treatments. A therapist will diagnose and treat a particular dysfunction based on the model under which he or she was trained. And since psychology is far from being unified, there are no universally accepted standards of treatment. Further, psychology in general tends to resist the notion of absolutes stemming from a moral standard. The Bible, on the other hand, abounds with moral absolutes. B.F. Skinner asserts:

“We say that there is something ‘morally wrong’ about a totalitarian state, a gambling enterprise, uncontrolled piecework wages, the sale of harmful drugs or undue personal influence, not because of any absolute set of values, but because all these things have aversive consequences”[5]

So something is morally right to Skinner if it has pleasant consequences, and something is morally wrong that has negative consequences. Morality is not determined by any given moral code or standard.

Such varied, ever-shifting views stand in antithesis to scripture, which never changes. It must be conceded that although the Bible itself does not change, individual’s views about the Bible can and frequently do. Nevertheless, we attempt to adhere to the principle of sola scriptura (the Bible only) and aspire to mold our views to fit try to fit the biblical standard. A corresponding attempt cannot be made in the realm of psychology because of the lack of a set of standard principles and absolute authority.

The Question of Authority

Another issue of essential importance in the question of integration is the issue of authority. Jesus said in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” No version of integration can work so long as any authority (or master) other than God’s Word is vying for preeminence. Only one can truly serve as the standard. An open-arms acceptance of psychology threatens the premise of sola scriptura in the church. This issue of authority has two faces. One, as mentioned above is the question of what will serve as the church’s confessional guide.

A related issue becomes the question of human authority. Traditionally, and scripturally, human authority in the church resides with elders, deacons, evangelists and the like. It is a problem when a Christian confers too much reliance or authority to any man (or woman), even a church leader (over and above scripture). And it is not the goal of any decent counselor to garner power for, or dependence upon him/herself. Nevertheless, our culture has been guilty of vesting a frightening amount of authority to the therapist.  Richard Ganz couches the problem in these terms:

Unfortunately, too many people don’t understand that counseling derives from a worldview. Instead, they think of counseling as the tool that one person (the expert) applies to another person who has psychological problems. … The psychotherapist, or counselor, is seen as a kind of “super-mechanic” who locates psychological shorts and disconnections, using his technical expertise to correct the malfunctions. He is the one who, by progressive feats of wizardry, demonstrates a technical mastery of the mind.[6] 

In the blending of Christianity and psychology, it is not difficult to see that there can be challenges inherent in dealing with the shepherding of people’s troubled souls when divergent approaches are being employed. Increasingly, these questions and many more like them are not being dealt with thoroughly in the church, or worse yet, are being altogether avoided in places where psychology is being embraced.

Secular psychologists and therapists cannot be expected to hold to the authority of the Bible because they do not accept its truth. But it is possible for even spiritually-minded psychologists to be torn between the teaching of scripture and how they have been trained. If the Christian psychologist is at all confused about what the ultimate authority is, it can result in very dangerous outcomes in the church. Ganz again weighs in: “Many Christian psychologists believe that the therapies based on a secular mind-set are not only valuable, but indispensable. In truth, what has taken place is not integration but substitution, the substitution of secular psychology for the Word of God.”[7] David Fitch has also noted this tendency: “… many evangelicals give enormous authority to modern therapeutic practice in their lives. We see it as science and good medicine.”[8] Whenever and wherever scripture is being replaced with psychology or any other discipline, the church will be in crisis.

Inevitably, there are bound to be similar truths found in dissimilar disciplines. There is nothing wrong with the discovery and practice of common truth. If psychologists make use of the front door to enter a house, it does not mean that Christians must climb in through the window. Wherever truth is uncovered and correctly applied by psychology, it can (and frequently does) coexist happily in the church if it does not undermine the Bible as the authority. Nevertheless, having the occasional truth in common is not the same as having a common standard. And for Christians dabbling in psychology, the issue of which standard will reign supreme runs a high risk of becoming clouded.

Accountability and Responsibility

Another area that is highly problematic in the consideration of integration falls under the arena of personal accountability and responsibility. Sound biblical theology understands the concept and impact of sin. According to the Bible, sin lies at the heart and soul of virtually all of mankind’s problems. In true Christianity, the better one can understand his own sin, his need for repentance, and the saving grace of an all-powerful God, the better he is able to grow and mature spiritually. This is not the case in a large percentage of psychological models. In the Freudian model – the basis for much of modern psychology – taking personal responsibility has often been a foreign concept. Ganz elaborates: “It [the Freudian approach to psychology] affirms a concept that sinful human beings universally hold dear – they are not responsible for their actions. Someone else is to blame.”[9] 

In our society, such subjects as sin, guilt, and shame are not politically correct topics of discussion. They are, in fact, to be avoided at all costs. While they certainly can be undesirable primary motivators in life, they do have their place and can be very appropriate responses to moral failure. But dealing with sin is never easy, and there are no simple shortcuts. Looking for psychological solutions can often be more palatable than looking for spiritual ones. And seeing oneself as a victim can be much more agreeable than taking ownership. Again, Ganz is accurate: “Applying psychology is much easier because the sinful nature of man is far more ready to be coddled than confronted.”[10]

Human Nature

Much of psychology teaches that we are either basically good or tabula rasa – a blank slate – neither good nor bad. The pathway to a better life is not found by looking out but looking within. If we will but take an introspective journey back to our pasts we can make sense of our lives and affect the necessary repairs. In the psychological world, this is usually done without God.

Once again, this flies in the face of biblically sound doctrine. First, the Bible is clear that sin renders us incapable of doing or being good or righteous in and of ourselves. In Romans 7:18, the apostle Paul teaches: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” Apart from God, humans are hopelessly incapable of good. In the Old Testament, Jeremiah 17:9 says that, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” According to Jeremiah, a person could spend an entire lifetime psychoanalyzing their own heart yet never fully comprehend it.

So, according to scripture, the solutions to life’s fundamental problems are not found from looking within but searching without. The truth lies outside of self and must be sought after. In John 14: 6, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Truth does not exist within the individual; the individual must go to Jesus to find it. A Christian, then, is never “discovered” but “created” by God and set free from sin as he “holds to the teaching of Jesus” – John 8:31-32.

Conclusion

Such a large percentage of the world’s population experiences difficulties like anxiety, addiction, broken families, depression, etc., that it is understandable why people turn to psychology for remedy. But in a society where the Christian fabric is being slowly eaten away and fewer turn to God for solutions, these maladies are only likely to increase. But psychology will never fill the God-shaped hole that each person has in his soul. As St. Augustine once said, “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until we find their rest in thee.”[11] 

Of course, not all of the goals and methods of psychology are anti-Christian. Understanding oneself better and getting in touch with emotional truths and understanding how issues and events from the past can affect the present are all worthwhile endeavors. As appropriate, they can even be encouraged in the church. But that is very different from integrating psychology into the church in such a way that the two lines of thought compete with one another. Nothing, not even the traditions of the church, should be in competition with scripture. The meshing of these two very different belief systems on a macro scale will never work because one is dynamic (ever-changing), while the other is static (never-changing). One has no established authority, while the other is completely ruled by an embraced authority. One resists the thought of taking personal responsibility for sin, while the other insists on it. One asserts that introspection will yield truth, while the other sees truth as coming from a source external to the individual.  While individual professional counselors may not exemplify all of these strong tendencies, it must be repeated that to one degree or another, all of us are conditioned by our training and experiences.  Thus, these potential tendencies must be kept in mind, and one’s approach to counseling must remain in a state of being evaluated by self and by other mature biblically grounded persons to ensure that biblical truths reign supreme.

2 Corinthians 6:14-15 teaches that Christians are not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers because light cannot have fellowship with darkness. This of course applies to any sort of binding relationship (e.g., romantic, business, etc.) between the believer and the unbeliever. The dilemma of integration is similar. It seeks to yoke two very dissimilar interests, and the paths these interests take to achieve their goal. Again, Ganz weighs in: “Often well-intended “Christian psychologists” have welcomed into their counseling rooms methodologies and perspectives that have at their root a denial of God.”[12] 

Thus the integration of psychology and Christianity is fraught with pitfalls. Instead of a blending, what often takes place is a giving away on one side and a plundering on the other. On the giving side is the theology of Christ’s church and on the stealing side is psychology. Taking theological concepts and dressing them up in psychological terminology does not mean that integration has been successful.

When Christian counselors try to integrate biblical principles with modern psychology, they run into trouble. Many end up redefining biblical terms to bring them into harmony with psychology. For instance, Gary Sweeten redefines the theological term sanctification to mean “mortifying the flesh and developing our new self or our personal self.” Sanctification (theological) becomes the “development of our personal selves” (psychological).[13]  Once unchristian terminology is accepted, unchristian theology is the next logical step. When theology is compromised and replaced with the teachings of psychology, then the bride (the church) is something significantly less than what God designed her to be for the groom (Christ).

Final Words of Caution

This article is in no way meant to discourage individual disciples of Jesus struggling with emotional and/or psychological problems from seeking professional help as appropriate. So long as a disciple does not confuse or otherwise diminish the place of God’s word, counseling can be extremely beneficial. But I would suggest that seeing a secular psychologist must be done with a degree of caution – it can become a very slippery slope for reasons enumerated in this article. It is good for believers to understand some of the potential pitfalls before seeking help. Having said that, many have benefited from counseling where spiritual convictions are not compromised. And there are excellent Psychologists that are disciples of Jesus. Getting advice before seeing a professional from several mature Christians who understand your situation will always be a wise thing to do.

Psychology, Psychologists and the Church

by Gordon Ferguson 

In spite of the limitations and potential downsides of viewing psychology wrongly, good counseling can be a highly valuable addition to Christian service.  But several cautions are important in helping us view psychology and Psychologists correctly − and in helping them view themselves correctly. One of the most needed cautions is that counseling individual disciples and leading groups of disciples are two quite different things.  Applying principles used in counseling individuals to working with groups is fraught with very serious challenges and can be downright dangerous.  The goal of good counseling is to help people mature.  Another way of saying that is that they are being helped to become self-starters, learning to make good choices and to accept full responsibility for those choices.  That is also the goal of good parenting.  However, seeing our children mature into making good choices and accepting full responsibility for those choices is a pretty long and tedious process.  Demanding that they do it at any juncture before their training is reasonably completed will inevitably lead to some dire consequences.

Christian Psychologists must have the patience on an individual basis to help people grow into this type of maturity.  However, some appear at times to believe that ministry decisions for an entire group should be based on all of the members essentially being self-starters already − which does not square with reality.  Such an approach does not recognize the need many members have for very specific directive leadership while they are being trained into more mature states.  This training process (as with our own offspring) should include structure, expectations and accountability.  We usually have no trouble understanding the need for this type training for our own children, but some counselors tend strongly toward an impractical idealism in working with God’s children as a group − as a spiritual family.  Any counselor who shies away from the exercise of definitive authority in the church, and from the elements of structure, expectations and accountability (all done biblically, of course), is moving in a wrong direction.

We have two considerations when evaluating what the Psychologist/counselor brings to the table in terms of their views of how ministry groups should be led: how do they view themselves in what they are actually qualified to offer, and how do the rest of us view their opinions?  I realize that the problem is most often in how we view a professional’s abilities in realms outside the scope of their training.  We tend to attach more relevance to their views in areas outside their expertise than most of them do themselves (thankfully).  Any person in a profession that is highly regarded may be in a position to promote invalid assumptions regarding other fields.  We often see recognized experts in one field being used to promote a product or service in a totally different field, simply because they are admired and trusted for their expertise in their own field. I’m old enough to remember doctors in white coats advertising certain brands of cigarettes on TV.  (Let’s hope that practice dates back to the days of black and white TV’s!)

However, even though the problem is often in how we view the professional, I must say that I have encountered professionally trained counselors who did not have a sober estimate of themselves with regard to their limitations in the understanding of church leadership principles.  To be perfectly clear, they extrapolated valid principles of counseling individuals into applications that are invalid in working with groups, and did so with a certainty that overly influenced other disciples in a negative manner.  This situation calls for a better understanding of the limitations that professional counselors may have in the realm of group leadership.  One, their training and/or experience is much greater in the counseling field than in the field of church leadership − unless they are actually trained and experienced in both fields, as is the case in a few instances of which I am aware.  Frankly, I have often found the input of business and educational professionals more on target regarding leading groups than the input of counselors, because the former types are trained and experienced in group leadership whereas those in the latter group are trained and experienced primarily in working with individuals.

Two, their counseling of disciples with emotional problems can give them an unbalanced view of what is going on in the church or with the leadership practices of a given leader.  They can be overly influenced to improperly assume that the feelings or experiences of a few provide an accurate barometer to the feelings or experiences of the majority.  I used to meet regularly with a counselor friend (whose practice was made up mostly of disciples) just for the purpose of answering questions and clarifying issues in order to help him gain and maintain a balanced picture of what was and was not true regarding the church overall.  He needed that decompression and clarification help, as do all counselors whose practice includes members of his church.  Otherwise, unwarranted assumptions are certain to be made.  If any of us hear mainly one side of any story, we are going to find it difficult to maintain a balanced view of that story without some help.  That is the human tendency, and we must all be aware of that tendency if we are in the people business in any capacity.  If we have learned anything from the upheavals in our movement of churches in the past four years, it is that those who reacted most strongly to ministry mistakes usually have other life issues that caused them to overreact to those mistakes.  This is not said to minimize the mistakes, for some were serious and seriously sinful, but focusing only on mistakes made without also looking at the good done is a very unbiblical approach.

Another challenge for the professional counselor in gaining and maintaining an accurate view of how church leadership should function is in realizing the differences of how he must approach helping individuals and how group leadership should be approached.  The counselor usually only hears from the one being counseled and usually can only exert influence on that person.  This means that the counseling is pretty much confined to helping the counselee deal with his or her situation according to their perspective of the situation, regardless of how accurate that perspective is or whether their outside life circumstances have any hope of being changed.  This reality ties in to what I mentioned earlier about the counselor’s goal of helping the counselee become a self-starter, with all that this term implies.  If nothing of their circumstances can be changed, they still have to learn to cope successfully in the midst of those circumstances.

On the other hand, church leadership may well have the opportunity to deal directly with other persons involved in the counselee’s life and with any particular situation promoting the problems that led to the need for counseling in the first place.  What should be obvious is the limitation the counselor normally has in helping people, which limitation the church leader probably does not have.  Therefore, if the counselor assumes that groups should be dealt with in the same way that he is limited to dealing with individuals, he is going to espouse some opinions that sound far more valid than they are.

Personally, I think input from many types of sources can be helpful.  But if input from a professional in one field is weighed too strongly in application to another field, poor results will undoubted ensue.  And given all that Gary has noted in his excellent and insightful article, we simply must recognize our tendency to overvalue the opinions of those in esteemed professions in fields outside their own.  To sum it up, expertise in the arena of psychology does not directly translate to expertise in the field of ministry leadership.  While their input can be helpful in ministry issues, any tendency to think they know more about group leadership than those trained and experienced in it is a huge mistake with potentially huge negative consequences.  And any tendency they have to exert their influence in the direction of being critical of church leadership, whether in subtle or blatant ways, is potentially divisive.  May God help us all to recognize our limitations and to remain humble when offering input in any area outside our own area of training, experience and expertise!

In writing my part of this article, I realize the potential of offending some counselors.  Since I have a number of counselor friends whom I esteem highly and whose work I appreciate greatly, that is obviously not my intention.  But as the old saying goes, if the shoe fits anyone, they need to wear it.  Through the years, I have written many things in a straightforward manner about what disciples should be and should not be, and what church leaders should be and should not be.  None of it was intended to be critical, but rather to point out potential problems and dangers.  However, in spite of intentions, some disciples have been offended, as have some leaders.  The question always is why some have been offended.  Is it due to what has been said or the manner in which it has been said?  If stated in the wrong way, I am always anxious to repent.  But if people are offended by the truth, I just say “Bingo.”  A nerve has been hit that needed to be hit, in order to get things out into the light and dealt with biblically.

It is past time that the issue of psychology and the influence of Psychologists and counselors needs to be addressed.  I appreciate Gary’s highly insightful article, and I appreciate the opportunity to add my own perspective.  My prayer is that we will all give more thought and discussion to this area.  Professional counseling and professional counselors have much to offer that we need in the church, but as with all good things, if they are viewed and used improperly, they also have the potential for producing negative effects.  With God’s help, let’s make sure the positive is fully utilized and the negative fully eliminated.

—Gary Sciascia and Gordon Ferguson (December 2007)


[1] Eric L. Johnson and Stanton L. Jones, Psychology & Christianity, ed. Eric L. Johnson and Stanton L. Jones (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 11.

[2] Paul Meehl, 1958, 6, quoted in Gary Collins, Psychology & Christianity, ed. Eric L. Johnson and Stanton L. Jones (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 103.

[3] Henry Fairlie, The Seven Deadly Sins Today (Notre Dame: Univ of Notre Dame Press, 1979), 14.

[4] Ibid., 15.

[5] B. F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), 166.

[6] Richard Ganz, PsychoBabble: The Failure of Modern Psychology and the Biblical Alternative (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1993), 44-45

[7] Ibid., 64.

[8] David Fitch, The Great Giveaway (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 183.

[9] Ganz, PsychoBabble, 32.

[10] Ibid., 69.

[11] Augustine, Confessions Book 1, Chapter 1.

[12] Ganz, PsychoBabble, 49.

[13] Ibid., 62-63.

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