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Biblical Foundations in Therapy: Exploring Christian Counseling

January 22, 2016

More than 45 million Americans — approximately one in five adults — experienced a mental health issue in 2014, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. One in 10 young people experienced a period of major depression, and one in 25 Americans lived with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. However, a 2010 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reveals that only 60 percent of people with a mental illness receive treatment each year.

More than 45 million Americans — approximately one in five adults — experienced a mental health issue in 2014.

Secular and faith-based counseling approaches offer treatment to individuals who have mental health issues. Since the middle of the 21st century, Christian counseling has integrated a Christian worldview with helpful and positive aspects of psychology. “While there are a wide variety of approaches within the integration movement,” James Nelson wrote in his book Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality, “there is broad agreement among its members that psychology and Christianity have the potential to illuminate each other.”

Understanding Christian Counseling

Background and Framework

A majority of university psychology departments were perceived as being unwelcoming to religion or psychologists with religious affiliations, according to Nelson. This led to the Christian integration movement, which began out of a need to start independent schools that would conduct research and train clinicians in an atmosphere friendlier to religion as well as develop an approach to psychology that would integrate scientific knowledge with Christian beliefs. By the 1960s, the first independent, faith-based clinical psychology training programs were founded.

Commonly confused, Christian counseling is different than biblical and nouthetic counseling.

In mental health treatment, counselors assist clients through traditional psychotherapy and other approaches. Counselors offer ways to cope and strategies to facilitate change for issues such as anxiety, stress, depression and trauma. Christian counseling uses these same methodologies, but integrates the religious and spiritual aspects that are absent. A Christian counselor may draw upon a Christian understanding of grace and sin, but he or she will maintain a psychological understanding of mental illness.

Christian counseling should not be confused with biblical or nouthetic counseling. Biblical counseling relies solely on the Bible and rejects the psychological framework that secular mental health counseling and Christian counseling use.

Comparison to Secular Approaches

Imagine that a person is experiencing depression and is in need of a therapist.

A secular mental health counselor may first refer the client to a psychiatrist to determine if medications are needed due to biological factors. The counselor would pair this with a structured approach, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. The therapy would look at what the person is thinking and how they’re acting, along with how the person can change to have a healthier outlook and behaviors.

A Christian counselor might take a similar approach, with a referral to a psychiatrist and a structured approach. However, the client would also receive spiritual counseling. He or she may be urged to read certain Scripture and to pray and meditate. Overall, the approach might still use the cognitive behavioral therapeutic philosophy but would add spiritual aspects — such as grace, repentance and restoring relationships — to the healing process.

Becoming a Christian Counselor

General Information

In secular settings, counselors are unable to bring up faith-related topics unless the client initiates it. The American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics prohibits counselors from imposing their own values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors on clients. However, there are plenty of counselors who work in secular settings and who are devoted Christians — whether or not they are trained as Christian counselors.

Christian counselors typically work in Christian mental health clinics. Employment in large churches and other faith-based environments is also possible. Additionally, Christian counselors can specialize in certain populations (children, adolescents, adults or elderly) and specific disorders (depression or addiction). Christian counselors are fully trained to work in secular environments.

A mental health counselor requires no additional training to become a Christian counselor. There is no specific certification or academic training that signifies a counselor can practice in a Christian setting. However, an education from a faith-based college or university can express this intention.

Professional Associations

Current and future Christian counselors can consider advancing their career by joining a professional association in the field.

  • Christian Association for Psychological Studies (CAPS): CAPS serves more than 1,500 Christian mental health professionals across the world. It is a nondenominational organization consisting of psychologists, therapists, counselors, professors, social workers, students and more. CAPS encourages in-depth consideration of therapeutic, research, theoretical and theological issues. Membership includes a subscription to the Journal of Psychology and Christianity, discounted registration on the annual conference and events, and other benefits to help members connect to other professionals in the association.
  • American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC): Nearly 50,000 members make up AACC, which serves licensed professionals, pastors and lay church members. The mission is to “equip clinical, pastoral, and lay care-givers with biblical truth and psychosocial insights that minister to hurting persons and helps them move to personal wholeness, interpersonal competence, mental stability, and spiritual maturity.” Membership includes affiliation with others, a subscription to Christian Counseling Today, a quarterly newsletter subscription, quarterly audio CDs and other benefits.

A Future in Christian Counseling

Individuals interested in Christian counseling can consider the online M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Grace College. This is a faith-based program that prepares graduates to make a difference in clients’ lives. Graduates are trained for work in Christian and secular counseling environments.

The degree is a fully online counseling program with limited residency requirements. Students complete the majority of their coursework in a fully online format, attending an annual seven- to 10-day residency on campus in scenic Winona Lake, Indiana. The program is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).