The following incidents occurred in my church this past Sunday:
1. In Sunday School, a class member asked for prayer and advice about her husband who was struggling with pornography and had stopped coming to church
2. After the morning worship service, in which the pastor had preached on the healing of the nobleman’s son (John 4:46-54), a church member stopped me and talked to me about his daughter who has a severe liver problem for which we prayed
3. Before the evening service, a church member talked to me about the fact that he had lost his job that week, about which I shared some Scripture (including Matthew 6:25-34) and then we prayed.
Counseling takes place in the church all the time. In Sunday School classes, in worship services, in hallways. The church is where it should take place. We will look at the importance of the church in counseling in three segments:
First, we will give a biblical rationale for counseling as part of the church’s ministry
Second, we will look at some specific examples of the importance of this
Third, we will discuss what must happen for counseling to be part of a church’s ministry.
A Biblical Rationale
Jesus is the church’s founder. In Matthew 16:18, He states: “‘I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.’” He gave His life to found the church Paul warns the leaders of the church in Ephesus as he is about to depart from them with these words in Acts 20:28: “‘Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”
Jesus is also the head of the church. Paul writes in Colossians 1:18: “He is also head of the body, the church.” As such, Jesus gives the church its mission and the authority and power to carry out that mission as found in the following passages for example:
1. Matthew 28:18-20: “‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations … and lo, I am with you always….’”
2. Acts 1:8: “‘… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”
God in turn gives the Spirit to gift and empower use of those gifts for ministry. We see this clearly in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12.
Last, but by no means least, God gave us His Word to equip us to carry out that ministry to which He calls us. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” Therefore, if counseling is part of the “every good work” of the church for which we are equipped, then it must be part of the overall ministry of the church.
Counseling is about understanding the human condition and problems and helping to resolve these. This is exactly what the Bible speaks to. This is the Lord’s concern. The church is the way He has designed to minister to people using His Word. Thus counseling must be part of the church’s ministry. Counseling like preaching and teaching is applying God’s Word to people’s lives in such a way that it moves them to change to be more like Christ. Thus it must be part of the church’s ministry. It must have the support of the church. It must be under the authority of the church. It must have the goal of persons being reached becoming involved in ministry through the church. As David Powlison so eloquently stated it:
“The church—as the Bible defines it—contains an exquisite blending of leadership and mutuality, of specialized roles and general calling, of truth and love, of wisdom for living, and of flexibility to meet the problems that sinners and sufferers face. The people of God, functioning as the people of God, provide the ideal and desirable institution to fix what ails us.” (Speaking Truth in Love [Winston-Salem, NC: Punch Press, 2005], 110.)
Now let me give a couple of specific ways this proves to be true.
One example is the area of Church Discipline and Accountability. Many have a negative response to church discipline, but it is essential to the helping process. Many see it as unloving, but it is just the opposite. It is not about censure and punishment, as some seem to view it, but it is about ministry and reconciliation. As one biblical counselor described it, it is God’s search and rescue mission (Journal of Biblical Counseling 20 Spring 2002, 53).
Matthew 18:15-20 is where we find Jesus’ explanation of the method by which Church Discipline is to occur. The context of Jesus’ words provides the heart with which he intended them. Matthew 18:12-24 is the parable of the shepherd who leaves 99 of his sheep to go after one. Matthew 18:21-35 contains Jesus’ beautiful teaching on forgiveness. It is prefaced by Peter’s question: “‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’” Peter of course thought himself to be generous in this question. Jesus’ response gives us a clear picture of the heart of God: “‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. This context – the teaching on Church Discipline sandwiched between the bread of these two passages – makes it clear that there is only one purpose for Church Discipline – to bring people back into right relationship with God and one another. How can that ever be seen as unloving and mean spirited?
Paul confirms this purpose Colossians 1:28: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.” The purpose is the same as it is for all that god calls us to do – to help us to grow toward Christ-likeness.
It is in fact frustrating when we do not practice this. Two stories from recent counseling experiences make it clear why this is so. First, a woman came to see me who wanted to save her marriage. Her husband was in the midst of an adulterous relationship and she had gone to her pastor. The husband had assured the pastor that he would cease the adulterous affair, but he did not. The church would not take the Church Discipline process any further. The church was leaving this woman in a situation where she was not able to pursue reconciliation with all the weapons God gave to the church to do so, and the husband was left to continue to flounder in his sin (not to mention the spiritual fate of the woman with which he was having the affair).
In a second incident, a man came for counsel whose wife had filed for divorce. While he was far from a perfect husband, he had done nothing biblically that would have been grounds for divorce (even if you believe there are such biblical grounds). He was willing to do whatever it took to reconcile his marriage. When his pastor was contacted about the possibility of going to this man’s wife for the purpose of attempting to confront her with her unbiblical actions and to ask her to seek reconciliation with her husband, the pastor stated that there was disagreement in the church over the issue of divorce, and, therefore, nothing could be done by the church.
In both of these cases it left the persons involved who desired reconciliation with few options. It is a frustrating occurrence when God’s Word is ignored, but it is glorious when the church does practice all of Scripture, including Church Discipline. Several years ago, I was counseling a pastor whose wife had left him to live with another man. I contacted the church and they became involved in the practice of Matthew 18. The result was that when confronted by key leaders in the church, the pastor’s wife repented, she later went before the church and asked the entire body’s forgiveness, and the outpouring of love and forgiveness was incredible. Both a marriage and a church were saved the heartache of divorce.
This type of counseling ministry is part of the broader ministry of the church as summarized in 1 Thessalonians 5:14: “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” This passage speaks of four types of ministry that the church and its members must be involved in:
1. Admonishing the unruly. This is what we do when people are caught in sin. The unruly are those who are living in disobedience to God, whether out of ignorance or out of shear rebellion. These folks must be admonished – literally, the Word of God must be placed into their minds so that they will change their way of understanding to a biblical mindset that leads them to obedience to God’s Word. Often times this must take the form of strong teaching and sometimes requires the involvement of other believers.
2. Encourage the fainthearted. Fainthearted literally means “little soled.” These are folks who are discouraged; physically and/or emotionally weak and/or exhausted. They might be discouraged by their attempt to stand firm in their faith in the midst of the temptations, trials and tribulations of life or the daily struggle to live a godly life. They need to be encouraged, which means “to speak kindly, soothingly, comfortingly” (Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study New Testament [Chattanooga, TN: AMG, 1991], 1110); “to urge, spur, or cheer on” (Kittel and Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985], 784-5). This is the responsibility of the church, not just the pastor, other paid staff, or even the biblical counselor alone. Hebrews 10:23-25 confirms this: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”
3. Help the weak. The weak are those “without strength; those who are powerless, who have no physical ability, who are physically imperfect or naturally weak. It would include the infirmed and physically handicapped; the spiritually weak and the weak of mind” (Zodhiates, 274). The church is called upon in these circumstances to help, which means “to hold firmly onto, to support” (Zodhiates, 190). The mature believer is commanded to support or hold up the person who is struggling to stand on his own, whether it be spiritually, physically, or economically. For some counselees this may mean supporting them until they can stand on their own feet. For others, it may be supporting them for the long term. This type of broader ministry requires the church body as a whole.
What Must Happen
If this type of complete counsel is to take place, it must happen within the confines of the entire church body. It must go beyond the counseling room. For biblical counseling to be truly biblical it requires that the entire church be involved and be committed to the entire Word of God, not just those parts that are comfortable to carry out. If churches are going to move toward this type of biblical pattern, several things must occur:
1. Pastors and counselors must commit to returning counseling to the church. When I was in seminary, I was taught that ministers must refer most counseling cases to “professionals” because I did not have the skills or tools to do counseling myself. God convicted me of this and I have come to realize I have the greatest tools of all – the Word of God and His church. These are far superior tools to anything any licensed counselor works with in the world. Unfortunately, many ministers are still being taught what I was in seminary and many pastors still refer counselees to those outside the church. It is never expected by ministers or their congregations that anything different should or could occur. Recently I was part of the ordination service for a young youth minister. He was asked question by the ordination council formed in his church about preaching, teaching, philosophy of ministry, orthodoxy, and character, but not one question about counseling. I am certain the ordination council members felt no need to do so, for it was not something they expect their ministers to be equipped to do.
2. Church leaders must learn and equip other church members about what the Bible teaches about how people change. Remember 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that was quoted earlier. The Bible is what we need to every good work in the church and that includes the good work of counseling.
3. Church leaders must trust and entrust. They must trust that God can use them and their members. They must entrust this ministry to trained members as well. They must follow the exhortation of Paul to his young protégé Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
This article has only touched on the vital issue of returning counseling to the church. It is hoped that this brief entreaty will be an encouragement for ministers and lay persons alike to study these ideas more, to allow God to convict them concerning this topic, and prayerfully, to begin learning how to bring the process of helping people to the church where it belongs. God help us if we continue to send church members to those outside the church to find answers that only God can provide.C