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In the last chapter, we pretended the prodigal son was sitting in your counseling office, stewing in anger and rebellion—resisting all your attempts to help him. Because you have read the story (Luke 15:11-17), you know the Lord did not grant the gift of repentance to him until verse seventeen. But in our pretend story, he comes to you, though he plans to leave home soon 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 are awry with his thinking, not to mention his whacked theological perspective.
Your hope is for him to change while meeting with you, but you are working within a traditional biblical counseling window of opportunity; you have six counseling sessions to get him to change his mind. Though you can only speculate, it may be another two years before he comes to an end of himself. The historical biblical counseling model does not work because the prodigal’s determination to rebel will outlast your opportunities to encourage him to repent. Your goal would be to string out the counseling sessions with him. But you can’t. You have a limited watering and planting season.
This situation is where we need a better system for working with people who need our wisdom but are not yet ready to change. It must be a system that can work in the flow of a person’s progressive sanctification. Or, if God has not saved them, that system must be able to plod along while being patient as we build the relational bridges to bring the person to Christ. I shared with you my story, which is not an outlier, after getting out of jail. I wanted to change, but the process had to be more than meeting with someone for a series of sessions. It was ten more years become I came to Christ. People with problems, especially life-dominating ones, need long-term soul care in multiple contexts to experience a radical, worldview-shifting transformation.
Traditional biblical counseling is not that system. Perhaps it can be part of a grander model for soul care—a subset of the larger framework. 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 guide him toward righteous repentance. That’s an impasse in the counseling office, and if the counselor is not careful, his plan will press his counselee between a rock and a hard place. There will be a strange tension in the counselor’s office as the counselor pushes him to repent while God does not grant 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 in verse seventeen of Luke’s gospel (Luke 15:17). They received the gift of repentance from God, 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 I was an excellent counselor. She came to me for counseling, and through the counseling process, she changed. Eventually, she repented and jumped on the road to Christian maturity. I did not tell her what I was thinking.
The truth is that I am not that great of a counselor. I just happened to be in front of her when God broke into her stubborn, cold heart. It was my lucky day, and hers, too. God granted repentance. There was a reason the fifteen previous counselees I met would not change: God did not give them repentance. 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 the counselor’s understanding of the Lord’s role in counseling is inadequate or they do not include the local church in the person’s process for change. 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 for everyone. 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. Every church member is a biblical counselor, whether they know it or do it like me, because the Bible assumes every church member is a Christian.
The issue here is not whether I am for biblical counseling. I am! I love biblical counseling. 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—what the Bible has always assumed as discipleship. 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 participate 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 counseling (Romans 15:14). He repackaged and re-launched the idea of counseling in a compelling way that has served multiple 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—called discipleship, the very thing Jay said we should be doing.
Though everyone can and should care for others, most of the heavy lifting of counseling happens among a few people rather than all the people. Part of the reason for this is that biblical counseling has taken on a life 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 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 we should be doing. 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 discipleship process for specific situations, we are shooting ourselves in the foot if we do not broaden what it means to care for each other. We must envision the entire church. Everyone should participate in the “counseling process” at some level, according to the person’s God-given gift.
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. We do not want to reduce the number of people doing discipleship or set up unnecessary artificial contexts (counseling sessions) that can manipulate or attempt to press righteousness on a person prematurely. This self-imposed pressure for holy living 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; 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 today 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 practice 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 call him to repentance every time you meet. How exasperating! 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.
That’s a shortlist. What if you added five more just for the fun of it? No biblical counselor can provide this many things for anyone 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 you to change soon.” Discipleship in the context of the local church is a more relaxed environment. It permits people to live in the gospel’s good while coming alongside each other, helping them 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 living 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 counselor’s challenge is building 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 corrections to them. Most discipleship 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 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. (This time problem is one reason I have always counseled 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 return next week. Good luck with that weak model for progressive sanctification if it is outside a sanctification center—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 lived a gospel-centered life, there would not be much need for all the formalized counseling we see today.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).