It should come as no surprise that Southern Seminary has announced that the pastoral care and counseling curriculum formed under the direction of Wayne Oates should now be replaced by model known as “biblical” counseling. The reductionistic logic of biblical fundamentalism would lead one to consider this to be a conclusive outcome.
But predictable or not, the announcement still arrives as a shock to the system. While it seems a likely possibility the leaders who control the denomination would want the seminary’s approach to pastoral care to reflect their beliefs, the chilling insult to the legacy of one of Southern Baptists’ great thinkers is startling.
Wayne Oates was a profound Baptist practitioner of the healing arts. One can measure his influence by the deep respect he had from his peers outside the Baptist family. He was a giant of his time who influenced the shape and direction of the entire field of study. He was certainly the best known among many Baptist theologians in helping define the ministry of healing that pastors, chaplains and pastoral counselors may have in the practice of ministry.
Just what is “biblical counseling?” It is a loosely held view that the Bible alone provides guidance for the myriad of concerns persons in pain may present to the counselor (one of the many roles pastors may be called upon to play in ministry).
Biblical counseling may take many forms depending solely upon the theological beliefs of the pastor. At its heart it reduces both the person in pain and the God who loves them in this condition to something less than who and what they are.
It reduces human pain to sin. It reduces Christian belief to a set of rules that must be followed. Break the rules and one will suffer. It implies the Bible has a definitive plan for life for every person. It also implies that it is the job of the counselor to advise the person in pain about that plan in prescriptive fashion.
The biblical counseling model has no place for the healing power of one who truly listens beyond the words to the sources of pain that plague the human heart. In short, biblical counseling is motivated by the desire to direct and control. It is shaped by the person in pain doing what the counselor says regardless of whether it is appropriate or even healing.
To disregard other realms of knowledge as tools to complement the traditional biblical faith is arrogant. To believe that only the Bible offers truth and that other disciplines have nothing of merit to offer is to misunderstand both the Bible and the other fields of study.
What does the biblical counselor say to the one suffering from the depths of acute depression? How does the pastoral counselor help the person in pain who contemplates thoughts of suicide?
How does the pastor hear the anger that would lead to self-harm or the harm of others? How does the minister care for the one suffering from psychotic delusions? What is said to the one suffering from Bi-Polar Disorder?
What does the biblical counselor derive from the Bible other than platitudes and advice? Does every mental ailment or pain of the soul reduce down to sin? If not sin, then what? Biblical reductionism violates the oath that the healer will at the very least, “do no harm.”
The question one should ask in response to this decision would be, “Is this form of help healthy for those in pain?”
To call biblical counseling therapeutic would be a stretch. Can persons who seek this kind of help expect adequate pastoral care when the pastor has thrown out other realms of knowledge that could make the biblical insights truly healing?
Many persons who seek biblical counseling discover it is inadequate for the situation they face. They are then left with the impression the Bible is not much of a resource in light of the pain they are trying to survive. One can only surmise what they think of the ineptitude of the pastor no matter how sincere they may be about the work they have done.
The pastoral care model developed by Oates is powerful because it allows the person to utilize their faith as a resource for healing. It is respectful of biblical faith because it truly believes God has given the scriptures for that purpose. But it does not reduce the Bible down to religious advice. Ironically, Oates’ pastoral care model has a higher view of the Bible than the one that will replace it.
After persons in pain have been disappointed by the small-minded biblical counseling they will receive by those trained in the new system, where will they go for help?
Keith Herron is senior pastor at Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).