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First Thoughts

Six Crucial Confusions of The New Integrationists


Movements and Misunderstandings

Steve sat in my office spewing accusations like sparks from a flame. He was furious as he charged that his wife, Lisa, didn’t love him, was unhappy in their marriage, and was in love with another man. As she listened to the barrage of accusations, Lisa broke down in tears. Through sobs, she was adamant that none of it was true, she loved her husband, her home, their kids, and their life together. She could not grasp why she was so misunderstood by the man she loved and to whom she was devoting her entire life. It was clear that a poisonous environment of misunderstanding existed in their marriage. There was no hope for improvement in the marriage without an appreciation of the other person’s point of view.

Counselors can struggle with this problem every bit as much as those they counsel. When counseling practitioners debate other counseling approaches, it is easy to get entrenched in your own perspective and mischaracterize the positions of others with whom you disagree. I noticed this problem in a published conversation among the counseling faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.[1] The professors discussed their counseling philosophy and compared it to other schools of counseling thought in order to “Provide the reader with an opportunity to gain an understanding of the unique flavor of SEBTS’s counseling programs.”[2] Such conversations are crucial in revealing the convictions of a particular institution and how it compares with the counseling approaches of other institutions.

But such conversations are only helpful when they further mutual understanding. The problem with the published conversation from Southeastern’s faculty is that it dramatically misrepresented the positions of their colleagues teaching biblical counseling at seminaries all across the country. The fundamental convictions and concerns of biblical counseling scholars were mischaracterized and crucial texture in their position was recklessly flattened out. The language of the Southeastern faculty portrays the biblical counseling approach in ways unrecognizable to those who hold that view. This is the Steve-and-Lisa problem. I assume the counseling professors at Southeastern have good intentions, but their conversation can only lead to hurt, frustration, and conflict when they fail to demonstrate they understand the position they oppose.

I want to try and advance the current conversation by identifying some of the key misunderstandings about the biblical counseling movement given voice by the Southeastern faculty. I will begin by holding myself to the same standard I’m requesting from them. It is crucial to state as clearly and charitably as I can the position of the Southeastern faculty as stated in their article. This is important because if I am wrong in my understanding of their position, I will be unable to evaluate their view. I desire to describe the counseling approach of Southeastern Seminary, as stated in their published article, in terms their faculty would embrace.

The counseling faculty at Southeastern Seminary name their approach redemptive counseling. The faculty love the language of biblical counseling but are reluctant to use the label because many biblical counselors practice an approach to counseling that falls far short of their own biblical model. Redemptive counseling is committed to an embrace of Scripture as the resource out of which all counseling emerges. In addition to Scripture, the faculty uses resources outside of Scripture to inform counseling care. The integration of resources outside Scripture is grounded in God’s common grace which allows other approaches to stumble onto truth even when they are ultimately reductionistic. This use of other resources should not be considered objectionable since everyone, including the staunchest biblical counselors, engage in some kind of integration and since it is impossible to do counseling or even live life without interacting with extrabiblical information. Redemptive counselors are, therefore, being candid and intentional about something everyone does, even if inadvertently. It is this commitment to learn skills from other approaches without accepting whole systems that distinguishes redemptive counseling from classic integration on the one hand and the objectionable forms of biblical counseling on the other.

If I have understood the faculty, then at least two realities commend their approach of redemptive counseling. First, their embrace of Scripture as the source out of which all counseling emerges is commendable in a secular age that constantly rejects God’s truth. Second, as I read the article, their obvious love for people was apparent on every page. The Southeastern faculty are kind Christians who desire to help hurting people and want to equip counselors with all the resources necessary to do that work. These are blessings for which we should all be thankful.

Six Confusions

Unfortunately, there is also a great deal to be concerned about in the redemptive counseling of Southeastern Seminary. Their position misrepresents the positions of their colleagues in both the integration and biblical counseling camps. While these misrepresentations persist, a meaningful advance of the Christian conversation about counseling will be impossible. Additionally, the faculty demonstrates a number of serious misunderstandings about the nature of information utilized in counseling. These misunderstandings will stand in the way of the help the professors want to offer the people for whom they have such compassion. Out of a desire to further the contemporary conversation, and to help hurting people in need of counseling care, I seek here to bring clarity to six crucial confusions represented by the counseling faculty of Southeastern Seminary.

Confusion about the Integration of Integrationists

It is clear that the faculty of Southeastern wish to situate their redemptive counseling between a classic approach to the integration of secular psychology with biblical truth on the one side, and, on the other side, a uniquely biblical approach to counseling which views Scripture as sufficient for counseling care. In their attempt to establish a middle way between two extremes they misrepresent both integration and biblical counseling. We will begin with their misrepresentation of integration.

The mischaracterization of classic integration occurs when they try to make a distinction between that model and their own redemptive counseling. They say that redemptive counseling is “Not Integrationism, as special revelation is not just the foundation of counseling but woven all throughout the DNA of everything done in counseling.”[3] Later, we read, “This willingness to learn skills, but not accept whole systems, distinguishes redemptive counseling from . . .  traditional Integrationism.”[4] The argument is that redemptive counseling is set apart from classic integration by their commitment to use Scripture as the authority over everything done in counseling which allows them to learn helpful interventions but reject broken systems.

The new integration they commend unfortunately misrepresents classic integration. In fact, the best work in integration over the years has labored very hard to have Scripture set the standard for control beliefs in order to faithfully remove anything opposed to Scripture and to utilize the good things that have been left over. Stan Jones and Richard Butman made this very clear over thirty years ago when they said that integration is “An approach that involves the explicit incorporation of religiously based beliefs as the control beliefs that shape the perceptions of facts, theories and methods in social science.”[5] Later, they make it clear that “destructive” integration is crucial to remove anything unbiblical from secular counseling systems, “The ‘destructive’ mode of functioning is vital for Christians today.  There are times when the best response of the Christian is to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5).”[6]

I realize not all integrationists are created equal. Eric Johnson has made a clear distinction between strong conceptual integrationists and weak conceptual integrationists.[7] There are doubtless some weak conceptual integrationists whose use of Scripture is not as robust as that of the Southeastern faculty. But it misrepresents the position of strong conceptual integrationists like Mark McMinn, Larry Crabb, Gary Collins, and many others to suggest they are not as committed as the professors at Southeastern to “eat the fish and spit out the bones” of secular psychology.

To be clear, the New Integration espoused at Southeastern does commend supplementing biblical truth with secular interventions, and they may do this work in a way that is superior to the classic integration they oppose, but it is not clear in their article how this is true. Before we can understand potential differences, we need a demonstration that the faculty has engaged the best, most responsible representatives of the position with which they disagree.

Confusion about the “Integration” of Biblical Counselors

The Southeastern faculty wishes to make clear that “Integration is practically inevitable, even for the most ‘biblical’ of counselors.”[8] They explain that this is true by making a distinction between the noun and verb forms of integration.[9] They say that biblical counselors engage in the verb form of integration as they live life and assimilate information into a biblical worldview even when they do not identify themselves using the noun, integrationist. As proof that this is true, the Southeastern faculty deploy the founder of contemporary biblical counseling, Jay Adams, and say, “Even the staunchest Nouthetic counselor is persistently integrating. Adams in particular used all kinds of material outside Scripture to develop biblical counseling. Thus, he is integrating (process, verb), but he’s not an Integrationist (school of thought, noun).”[10]

Many confusions exist in this argument. Let me begin a modest response with two clarifications. The first clarification is to make a distinction between the discipline of integration and the practice of engagement with opposing counseling systems. For a half-century, the biblical counseling movement has been involved in intellectual engagement with counseling systems opposed to Scripture while refusing to implement the insights and interventions of those systems into the Bible’s comprehensive counseling strategy. But when the redemptive counselors at Southeastern Seminary interact with that body of literature, instead of talking about the work of biblical counselors using established language with which we understand our position, they confuse the issues. They refer to our work of engagement as integration and accuse us of doing what we oppose. For decades, “integration” has not referred to the process of engaging with other views but to the practice following such engagement when secular insights and interventions are added to Scripture in counseling practice. That practice of integration is only one option available to Christians after they have engaged a secular worldview, and it is not the option utilized by classic biblical counselors. Using the label of integration to refer to both engagement and integration confuses the issues, conflates separate activities, and misrepresents biblical counselors.

A second clarification is to make a distinction between personal loyalty and biblical conviction. The redemptive counselors at Southeastern seem frustrated that some counseling practitioners get a pass when they integrate, and others get condemned for doing the same thing. They solve the perceived dilemma by boiling the matter down to personalities. They argue that biblical counselors trust some people, like Jay Adams, to do integration, and they distrust others. They ask, “‘Why do some biblical counselors trust Jay Adams to do this type of integration, but not trust others who claim to do the same thing?’ A question this broad has many answers. I’ll explore only one. The trust exists because of the person.”[11] Later they add, “Within biblical counseling, we’ve historically operated out of a rather idiosyncratic approach to integration . . . The fact is that certain individuals function as “gatekeepers” for what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable integration.”[12] The argument is that biblical counselors are not convictionally opposed to integration as much as they embrace it when the right people do it and oppose it when the wrong people do. At least two misunderstandings drive this incorrect claim.

The first misunderstanding is located in the attempt to label Jay Adams an integrationist. Brad Hambrick says, “Someone who reads even in the introductory pages of Competent to Counsel—Jay Adams’s first book on counseling—realizes Jay Adams was grateful to have learned from O. Hobart Mowrer, a secular psychologist with a very critical and oppositional view of Christianity.”[13] Hambrick goes on to quote the passage from Competent to Counsel, where Adams describes his indebtedness to Mowrer. But, as I just discussed, engaging with resources outside of Scripture and learning from unbelievers does not constitute the project of integration. Integration is not the biblical evaluation of a secular system but the syncretization of a secular system with biblical truth.

Advancing the counseling dialogue requires demonstrating the kind of understanding that articulates a person’s position in a language they understand. Jay Adams would characterize his engagement with Mowrer neither as an exercise in integration nor as a refusal to learn from an unbeliever. It was, instead, robust engagement with an opposing counseling system. On the other side of that engagement, Adams did not implement a worldview critical of and opposed to Christianity, but he found in Scripture what was there all along—that the Word of God is powerfully relevant for troubled people. Appreciating this requires no special insight into the work of Jay Adams. It is only necessary to read the passage that was quoted by Hambrick when Adams clearly states, “I came home deeply indebted to Mowrer for indirectly driving me to a conclusion that I, as a Christian minister, should have known all along, namely, that many of the mentally ill are people who can be helped by Word of God.”[14]

In A Theology of Biblical Counseling, I carefully described three responses that Christians can have to their engagement with secular psychology. [15] One of those responses is to be provoked to greater faithfulness in ministering the Scriptures. When Christians engage secular resources, they will find problems and should be provoked to return to Scripture to figure out how to do things better. This is exactly what Adams thought he was doing with Mowrer.

There is a very good reason why outside information provokes Christians to more faithful reading of the Scriptures. Biblical counselors believe that the Bible is a sufficient source of counseling wisdom, not that each individual human being is. God’s revelation of counseling care in the Scriptures is comprehensive. Our grasp of that revelation is not. That is precisely why we are able to be provoked to new knowledge when reading outside sources. None of us have understood all the counseling principles in Scripture. When we read outside sources—even secular ones—that stumble into truth unwittingly, we can compare it to Scripture, see what was there all along, and realize it was our understanding that was expanded, not that of God’s Word. All of us need to avoid confusing our human limitations in understanding the change process with God’s understanding of that process revealed in Scripture.

I promised two responses to the contention that the biblical counseling opposition to integration is not grounded in convictional terms but interpersonal ones. The second response is that it is at the level of conceptual integration that Jay Adams has received one of his most significant critiques from within the biblical counseling movement. Several scholars from the areas of biblical counseling and biblical studies have argued that Adams’s view of change and indwelling sin was more influenced by secular psychology than biblical teaching.[16] They understood this secular influence to be in need of correction to be more biblical. Adams strenuously denied this charge.[17] The point here is that all sides were arguing about what was biblical and understood that anything that was not needed to be stripped from the biblical counseling model. Rightly or wrongly, the biblical counseling movement has been willing to push back against any teaching that does not grow out of Scripture—even when that teaching comes from the founder of the movement.

The faithful members of the biblical counseling movement are some of the most convictional people in all of evangelicalism. Of course, there are voices that they trust as reliable guides. But that trust is based on a track record of faithful commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture. Redemptive counselors do not have the trust of those in the movement Adams founded, not because they don’t share his name, but because they don’t share his convictions.

Confusion about Extrabiblical Information

As Southeastern’s faculty discuss their understanding of the value of integrating secular therapy, they introduce the reader to an entirely different confusion. We are told that, after Adams, “Later counselors within the Nouthetic tradition will strongly insist that the incorporation of extra-biblical material in counseling is either unnecessary or unfaithful. Yet, you can’t actually do counseling without incorporating extra-biblical material in counseling.”[18]

This claim is astounding precisely because there is no leader, professor, author, or practitioner in the entire biblical counseling movement of whom I am aware that “strongly insists that the incorporation of extra-biblical material in counseling is either unnecessary or unfaithful.” Every biblical counseling leader, professor, author, and serious practitioner affirms the existence of extrabiblical information as essential to life and counseling ministry.

Let me prove it to you. I affirm the existence of every counselee I have ever had together with their names and all their problems without reliance on a single proof text. All the information I have about their families and the time we spent together is data I gleaned outside the pages of Scripture. I am able to affirm these facts because I affirm the existence of extrabiblical information. One important reason why I can affirm the existence of extrabiblical information is because the Bible teaches it. Jesus himself affirms the existence of this information when he says, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Matt. 6:26). Right there in the Bible Jesus uses the extrabiblical information of birds as a jumping off point to provide special revelation to worried people.

That’s an example of extrabiblical information that leads to biblical truth. There are many other kinds of extrabiblical information. Just one other kind is extrabiblical information that flows out of Scripture. This is the kind of information that comes to us as we reflect carefully on the words of the Bible. This kind of extrabiblical information is called application and is taught in Scripture. Just one passage in the Bible that gets at this is Hebrews 10:24, “Let us consider how to stir up one another love and good works.” The author of Hebrews says, in effect, you’ve been learning about love and good works, now go think about how to do that in your situation with the people you know facing all their troubles. When counselors schedule a time to meet, when we encourage counselees to live out the practical implications of biblical teaching, and when we follow up with them about how they’re doing, we are not integrating—even when secular approaches stumble unwittingly onto similar applications—we are applying the text of Scripture using extrabiblical information.

I know of no one in the biblical counseling movement who disputes this. Anyone who rejects extrabiblical information is making an argument outside the stream of responsible biblical counseling and, more seriously, is unhinged from reality. Why, when biblical counselors are at pains to acknowledge the existence of extrabiblical information, would a professor at a major seminary falsely claim we insist its incorporation is either unnecessary or unfaithful? Two confusions may explain the misrepresentation.

The first confusion has to do with misunderstanding the difference between Scripture as a sufficient resource and Scripture as an exhaustive resource. In order for Scripture to be an exhaustive resource, it would have to contain all information about all topics in every single area of human existence. The Bible is, rather obviously, not this kind of resource, and biblical counseling does not claim it is. The biblical counseling movement claims that Scripture is a sufficient resource, giving us a worldview that informs our understanding of all the kinds of problems people face along with the template for their solutions so that we are in need of no other resource to discern what is wrong with people and how to help.

The second confusion has to do with the limits biblical counselors place on extrabiblical information. Biblical counselors affirm the existence of this information, believe it is important, and make use of it in counseling. But there is a strict limit on how we use it. We do not believe that any information outside Scripture can be used to replace the biblical insights of what is wrong with people or the biblical interventions we use to help them. That would be integration. We affirm the existence of extrabiblical information in general but specifically reject the use of secular counseling interventions in actual counseling practice. Rejecting the integration of secular counseling interventions with biblical truth is not the same thing as rejecting all information outside Scripture. To say otherwise is a demonstration of confusion.

Confusion about Identifying Information Helpful to Counseling

When the Southeastern faculty characterize Jay Adams as an integrationist, they mean to give high praise. They say he was able to “eat the fish” and “spit out the bones” of psychology. The possession of such knowledge is praiseworthy indeed. It would be wonderful if all of us could have access to a resource that could clarify which insights and interventions are helpful for counseling and which ones are not.

In fact, we have such a resource. Biblical counselors have identified this resource as the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The redemptive counselors at Southeastern seem to agree. They make that agreement clear in the full context of the quotation praising Adams’s wisdom, “Jay Adams was able to “eat the fish” (take what was useful) and “spit out the bones” (reject what contradicted Scripture), which is what faithful Christians do when engaging any field of study, including psychology.”[19] Amen! I could not have said it better myself.

 In another part of the conversation, we are treated to a faithful example of using Scripture this way. We read these words from Nate Brooks,

It’s really difficult to study God’s images, breathe God’s air, reason with the intellect God has given and get absolutely nothing right. I think this explains why some of these secular approaches to counseling are so helpful—due to God’s common grace they do stumble into his truth, unwittingly. However, each of them is ultimately reductionistic. They’re trying to reverse engineer the person without the instruction manual, and because of that they also get things terribly wrong at times.

Redemptive counseling is counseling with the instruction manual in hand. This helps us understand where some of the approaches may be helpful and where they’re a dead end. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), for instance, gets right that beliefs and thinking are so important. However, Jas 4:17 insists that we can know what’s right and choose not to do it. We can’t put all our chips in on cognition, as our affections and the orientation of our hearts often direct our thoughts. At our core we aren’t reasonable—otherwise we wouldn’t have listened to a snake instead.[20]

This is absolutely wonderful! It is a remarkable demonstration of how to evaluate secular psychology with the “instruction manual in hand.”

As wonderful an example as this is of using the Bible to evaluate the secular psychology of CBT, the clarity doesn’t last long. Confusion begins when Brooks offers the commentary of his biblical evaluation of CBT, “CBT can teach us much about how to practically engage in thought change and what kinds of practices help new thoughts stick.”[21] Strictly speaking, this is true. Brooks’s very helpful evaluation of CBT did demonstrate that there are things to learn from CBT. But the commentary he offers on his own evaluation of CBT is not as profound as the evaluation itself. Brooks’s engagement did more than demonstrate that we can learn correct information from CBT. He demonstrated how we can know what that correct information is. The way any of us can know what is true and false about CBT is the same way Brooks knows and is the same way Jay Adams knew. We know it by allowing God’s authoritative and sufficient word to illuminate the difference between the fish and the bones.

Brooks’s commentary that “CBT can teach us a lot” is confused. He almost seems to have forgotten his earlier and more profound thoughts that secular therapies are only able to stumble unwittingly into truth because practitioners don’t have the instruction manual in hand. Brooks picked up that manual and engaged in a profoundly insightful evaluation of a secular therapy. But instead of seeing an example of the power and relevance of Scripture to evaluate something as modern as CBT, he sees it as an example of the utility of the secular psychology. This is confused.

In A Theology of Biblical Counseling, I engaged in an evaluation of CBT that is almost identical to Brooks’ more recent one.[22] When that book came out, Brooks wrote a positive review of my work.[23] My views on these matters remain in print and unchanged, but today, Brooks is applying his evaluation of CBT in the opposite way I did, which he once found helpful. After I described a biblical evaluation of the good and bad of CBT, I concluded that such an exercise shows the good parts of CBT were created by God and disclosed to us by him in Scripture several millennia before secular therapists stumbled onto it unaware they were using God’s common grace. The bad parts were not disclosed by him, are not helpful, and should not be used by biblical counselors. Brooks once praised this view, saying, “The critical rejection of secular-sourced interpretations and intervention theories does not constitute simplistic thinking, but biblical discernment.” [24] This is a faithful articulation of the views of biblical counselors who don’t mindlessly reject facts found in interventions like CBT as we are now being accused. Instead, we prefer to cut out the middleman of the secular and the therapeutic and mine Scripture as the divine, primary source for every helpful intervention.

I suspect this confusion is grounded in a very understandable difference between biblical counselors and the redemptive counselors at Southeastern. Redemptive counselors, along with every other integrative approach, enjoy studying secular therapy. There is nothing wrong with this as long as they are able to engage these broken systems without losing their way from biblical truth and as long as they don’t confuse their personal enjoyment of engaging secular ministry with a requirement for everyone in counseling ministry to do the same thing. Biblical counselors do not reject the value of engagement with secular therapies when that is done under the authority of Scripture. But it is not what they most truly love. They love ministering the truth of God’s Word to hurting and broken people. Their lack of interest in engagement with these other sources has nothing to do with a rejection of extrabiblical wisdom but with love for the truth and for people that point counselees to the eternal wisdom of Scripture. I suspect that much of the current tension would dissipate if Southeastern’s faculty would stop accusing biblical counselors of rejecting facts outside Scripture simply because they want to study and apply Scripture more than they want to evaluate the corpus of secular psychology.

Confusion about Sanctification

It is impossible to read the counseling conversation from the faculty of Southeastern Seminary without realizing that integration is really important to them. The faculty believes that this work is wise, good stewardship, and inevitable.[25] The necessity of integration is seen on every page of the article, but one of the clearest places is when we read, “We can use secular methods, within a biblical framework and paired with biblical teaching, in such a way that they lead toward sanctification.”[26] Read that statement again. From the standpoint of biblical teaching, it is utterly shocking. This is a new kind of integration indeed. The professors at Southeastern believe sanctification flows from “secular methods.”

The statement is even more shocking when you read in the larger context that the faculty believes counseling is about becoming more like Christ rather than seeking relief from pain. To be clear, every Christian believes a sovereign God superintends all things to conform us into the image of Christ. But God has not charged Christians with plumbing the depths of secular thought to find kernels of wisdom to share with broken people in ministry. Southeastern’s faculty believes that secular methods should be used in ministry to lead to sanctification into the image of Christ. This level of confusion about the doctrine of sanctification is stunning from the faculty of a theological seminary.

The confusion is corrected by the Apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 when he declares of Christians that “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” The passage makes clear that sanctification brings about the fullness of our salvation as Christians are conformed into the image of Christ. This salvation is the work of the Holy Spirit that he accomplishes through our belief in the truth of his Word. The new suggestion that it is possible to pair secular methods with a biblical framework or that such methods can be syncretized with biblical truth is worse than confusion. It is an obvious error. If the faculty of Southeastern truly desire to have their counselees be sanctified into the image of Christ, as I believe they do, they must correct their error and pursue sanctification the way God has declared. Sanctification happens through biblical truth applied by the mighty Holy Spirit—not through the application of secular principles.

Confusion about the Stakes

Towards the end of their published conversation, Southeastern’s team of redemptive counselors reflect on their desires for the future of dialogue between Christians committed to counseling. In the context of those reflections we read,

One thing I’ve always appreciated about many other disciplines is their ability to have discussions about ideas without turning those discussions into a disputation of someone’s character. The conflict over narrower points of doctrine doesn’t devolve into questions about someone’s salvation . . . I would love to see biblical counseling mature this way, away from the faithful/unfaithful binary that sows suspicion, promotes tribalism, and leads to unnecessary conflict.[27]

I appreciate the desire for charitable engagement in these words. I have spent many years on a theological faculty and know it is far too common for energetic professors to get carried away in arguing for their position. Almost everyone I know in nearly every discipline has gotten carried away at times. I know I sure have. We all need God’s mercy.

But a crucial confusion is present in these words. The confusion occurs when we are told that the distinction between those who believe in the sufficiency of Scripture and those urging integration is a minor disagreement that should not be equated with faithfulness and unfaithfulness. I want to be clear that my numerous concerns about these redemptive counselors have nothing to do with their character or their salvation. I believe they are sincere and saved. They are also in error. And that error is not over a narrow point of doctrine but has to do with fundamental Christian faithfulness.

Biblical counselors believe that God gave Christians the Bible so we could live our lives by it, be equipped for every good work, and could possess everything we need for life and godliness (cf., 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:3). As we apply that conviction to counseling, we believe that Scripture contains God’s point of view regarding our counseling problems and their solutions. We believe it is just as syncretistic to mix secular worldviews with the content of biblical counseling as it would be to mix those same fallen worldviews with biblical preaching.

This means that we are not talking about a typical doctrinal debate that occurs among faithful believers in Christian higher education. Most of those debates, like the ones between progressive and traditional dispensationalists, for example, is a disagreement about how to faithfully apply texts of Scripture. The debate between biblical counselors and those urging integration is about whether our ministry will be defined by content that is uniquely biblical or content that is syncretistic. Absolutely everything is at stake in this issue for the precious people who come to us for counseling. It is these people and their pain that motivate biblical counselors. When we think about syncretizing therapeutic worldviews with God’s truth, we think of the real people we know facing debilitating sorrow, the end of their marriage, enslavement to alcohol, heartbreak over their prodigal children, overwhelming homosexual desires, and we want to meet them with Christ and his Word. The conviction of biblical counselors is that we must give these people the pure milk of God’s Word, not syncretize the mind of Christ with worldly wisdom.

I realize the use of terms like “fundamental faithlessness,” “syncretism,” and “biblical fidelity” will be frustrating to the redemptive counselors who dispute that their integrative work demonstrates the faithlessness I am describing. But the present confusion requires the clarity that such a belief is only an example of consistency on the part of biblical counselors. If biblical counselors believe that the Scriptures really are sufficient on their own to do counseling ministry and that it is wrong to add secular worldviews to them, then they will judge the addition of those worldviews to be unfaithful. The conviction of biblical counselors that creates such frustration is, then, only a logical extension of their view. I am ready to accept that the logical extension of the position of integrationists is that I am simplistic, and so I respond to those arguments with an argument of my own in an attempt to demonstrate it is not true. The way to respond to the charge of faithlessness is not to complain about it but to prove on biblical grounds that it is not true. We have yet to see such proof.

Moving Forward with Charitable Listening

When I read the mischaracterizations of biblical counseling by the Southeastern faculty, I kept thinking about a similar interaction that David Powlison had in 2001 with James Beck, a Christian critical of Powlison’s approach to biblical counseling. Way back then, Beck accused Powlison of most of the same things that Southeastern’s faculty accuse biblical counselors today: simplistic, Bible-only counseling that rejects outside information, misunderstands Scripture, and fails to help hurting people. Powlison’s response is worth quoting at length:

But what about his specific charges against us: biblicistic anti-science and a moralizing reductionism of the human condition? . . . Let me attempt a simple answer. I think that God intends Scripture to serve as the orienting and reorienting wellspring of all wisdom (“the Faith’s psychology,” we might call it). Scripture gives a vista, not a straitjacket. Other systems (philosophies in the Colossians 2:8 sense) give distorted lenses and compasses skewed away from North. They don’t give us straight facts or a good sense of direction. God intends to teach us how to rightly understand and properly use anything in the whole world (without being misconverted). Everything is fair game: from your own life story to today’s weather; from something a counselee said yesterday to a research study of 829,000 students; from a guru’s comment (Jay Adams favorably quoted Swami Akhilananda in the Christian Counselor’s Manual) to war in the Middle East; from a hymn to Zeus (Acts 17:28) to observations of behaviors that never appear in Scripture . . . All of this is a far cry both from biblicistic anti-science and from syncretistic integrationism . . . The way James Beck puts it has the ring of his own prejudices. I hope we can replace the caricature with an accurate photograph. He did not evaluate what was actually written in my articles or what has been written over the past 30 years. In the Four Views book, I openly criticized biblicism and distanced biblical counseling’s epistemology from the notion that the Bible was intended or was to be treated as an exhaustive encyclopedia containing all truth. . . . I might be wrong in my view of the issues in question, and Beck might be right, but he savaged a view that I don’t hold (and neither does Jay Adams).[28]

Powlison was discouraged a generation ago over the irresponsible mischaracterization of the biblical counseling movement. The fact that such confused misrepresentation persists over two decades later is truly disappointing.

The New Integrationists who label themselves redemptive counselors are guilty of more confusion in their article than those I have outlined. But these are six crucial ones that must be clarified before we can have any hope of progress in the contemporary counseling conversation. It is out of a desire for progress in the contemporary conversation that leads me to highlight one more reality of the published conversation between these redemptive counselors.

As they talk about steps for forward progress on counseling disagreements between evangelicals, we are told of a crucial step at the very end of the article, “I believe one step would be foundational: namely, listening with charity.”[29]Later, we are encouraged that there must be “An emphasis upon accurately quoting others and engaging at the level of thoughts and ideas.”[30] These words were quite challenging to read at the end of an article so full of confusion, misunderstanding, and mischaracterization. Biblical counseling leaders from all over the country have told me they agree with these exhortations but disagree that the people issuing them have followed their own counsel.

Biblical counselors have labored for decades to make careful arguments about their position, which have been rejected in a single article without a fair hearing. The arguments for biblical counseling have been made so repeatedly that it is almost embarrassing to state them yet again. Nevertheless, in the midst of a conversation so full of confusion, I think it is important to risk redundancy for the sake of clarity. So here is just another attempt to articulate our view. The biblical counseling position is that Scripture has been given by God to share his unique perspective on what is wrong with people and what they need to overcome life’s greatest problems. We do not believe that he has told us everything, but we believe he has given us principles to understand every counseling problem and its solution. We have no desire to reject any facts in God’s world but rather believe in, use, and celebrate extrabiblical information grounded in a biblical view of common grace. As important as such information is, we do not believe it is ever appropriate to use that outside information, however true it might be, as a replacement for or adjunct to the essential insight into the problems people have or the interventions necessary for change that are prescribed in Scripture.

This position is both coherent and consistent and is absolutely not a fringe view held by a few unreasonable people with extreme positions. It is the position of classic biblical counseling articulated over decades in countless resources. The redemptive counselors at Southeastern may be correct in their position, and the biblical counseling position may be incorrect, but at this point, it is not clear that the faculty at Southeastern even comprehend the position held by biblical counselors across the country who feel misrepresented by their article. These biblical counselors have been hurt and frustrated by the recent and ongoing mischaracterizations. I am also a Southern Baptist pastor whose church has historically been part of the cooperative effort to provide generous funding for Southeastern Seminary, a school owned by a convention full of churches that practice the kind of word-based ministry they are publicly mischaracterizing. I, along with many other pastors and biblical counselors, are only trying to be faithful ministers of God’s Word. To have those efforts be misrepresented by faculty who are called to serve our Great Commission efforts is disappointing, to say the absolute least. We are all willing to listen with charity and to focus on accurate quotations and engaging thoughts and ideas. But, candidly, this is not going to work without a more faithful dialogue partner.

To be clear, I am not opposing the use of strong arguments in advancing a position. I’ve made a few of those myself. I am opposing any argument that is recklessly and irresponsibly incorrect. When you name names and offer serious critique, you have a serious responsibility to avoid misrepresentation and mischaracterization.

In this article, I have tried very carefully to avoid this. At the beginning, I tried to summarize the view of Southeastern’s faculty in ways that they would understand. Throughout the article, as I have disagreed at serious points, I have done so by trying to focus on accurate quotations and engaging their thoughts and ideas. I am confident I have done that imperfectly. Where I have failed, it is not out of any desire to mislead or intentionally misrepresent. Such unintentional misrepresentations will be grounded in a misstatement of their view by the faculty, a misunderstanding of it by me, or both. Wherever it has happened, I am willing to listen and be corrected. Too much is at stake to avoid that minimum level of care.

Do you remember Steve, the counselee I mentioned at the beginning of this article? When he stopped accusing and started listening, he learned he didn’t have the problem of a discontented wife but of an angry and accusing heart. The bad news was that the problem was more personal and more painful than the one he thought he had. The good news was that once he recognized the true nature of the problem, we could begin to work towards solutions. And that’s just what we did. Sometimes, we counselors need to learn lessons like this from those we counsel. When you slow down, stop accusing, and really start to listen, you might discover the counseling system you thought you were opposing does not actually exist. As frustrating and as humbling as that can be, the clarification of that confusion is the first essential step towards real progress. I offer these words in the hope that all of us who love Jesus, his Word, and his people can finally begin to move in that direction.

[1] Nate Brooks, Brad Hambrick, Kristin Kellen, Sam Williams, “SEBTS Counseling Professors Roundtable: As It Is and As It Could Be,” Southeastern Theological Review 15, no. 1 (2024): 73–86,

[2] Brooks, Hambrick, Kellen, Williams, “SEBTS Counseling Professors Roundtable,” 73.

[3] Brooks, Hambrick, Kellen, Williams, “SEBTS Counseling Professors Roundtable,” 73.

[4] Brooks, Hambrick, Kellen, Williams, “SEBTS Counseling Professors Roundtable,” 76.

[5] Richard Butman, Stanton Jones, Modern Psychotherapies: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal (Chicago, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 20.

[6] Butman, Jones, Modern Psychotherapies, 21.  They continue, “But we contend that the appropriate time for such apologetic efforts is when the views are actually raised up against God.  In other words when the views of [secular psychologists] are presented as ultimately satisfying answers to the major questions of life, the right Christian response is to point out critical flaws in the approach and to reject [those] views.

[7] Eric Johnson, Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 92.

[8]Brooks, Hambrick, Kellen, Williams,” SEBTS Counseling Professors Roundtable,” 76.

[9]Brooks, Hambrick, Kellen, Williams, “SEBTS Counseling Professors Roundtable,” 79.

[10] Brooks, Hambrick, Kellen, Williams, “SEBTS Counseling Professors Roundtable,” 79.

[11] Brooks, Hambrick, Kellen, Williams, “SEBTS Counseling Professors Roundtable,” 78.

[12] Brooks, Hambrick, Kellen, Williams, “SEBTS Counseling Professors Roundtable,” 80.

[13] Brooks, Hambrick, Kellen, Williams, “SEBTS Counseling Professors Roundtable,” 77.

[14] Jay Adams, Competent to Counsel, xiv-xviii, as cited in Hambrick, Kellen, Williams, “SEBTS Counseling Professors Roundtable,” 77.

[15] Heath Lambert, A Theology of Biblical Counseling: The Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 79-82.

[16]I chronicle their critique in Heath Lambert, The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 70-73.

[17]I recorded his entire response in Lambert, The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams, 165-170.

[18] Brooks, Hambrick, Kellen, Williams, “SEBTS Counseling Professors Roundtable,” 79-80.

[19] Brooks, Hambrick, Kellen, Williams, “SEBTS Counseling Professors Roundtable,” 78.

[20] Brooks, Hambrick, Kellen, Williams, “SEBTS Counseling Professors Roundtable,” 75.

[21] Brooks, Hambrick, Kellen, Williams, “SEBTS Counseling Professors Roundtable,” 75-76.

[22] Lambert, A Theology of Biblical Counseling, 97-100.

[23] Nate Brooks, “A Theology of Biblical Counseling: The Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry Book Review,” accessed May 15, 2024,

[24] Brooks, “A Theology of Biblical Counseling: The Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry Book Review.”

[25] Brooks, Hambrick, Kellen, Williams, “SEBTS Counseling Professors Roundtable,” 79.

[26] Brooks, Hambrick, Kellen, Williams, “SEBTS Counseling Professors Roundtable,” 75.

[27] Brooks, Hambrick, Kellen, Williams, “SEBTS Counseling Professors Roundtable,” 85.

[28] David Powlison, “Does the Shoe Fit?,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 20, no. 3 (2002): 10-12.

[29] Brooks, Hambrick, Kellen, Williams, “SEBTS Counseling Professors Roundtable,” 84.

[30] Brooks, Hambrick, Kellen, Williams, “SEBTS Counseling Professors Roundtable,” 85.

Dr. Heath Lambert is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. He is the author of several books, including The Great Love of God: Encountering God’s Heart for a Hostile World. 

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