Spring 1998


Volume 17, Issue 1

Counseling in the Church

by Dr. Gary Rupp


Dr. Gary Rupp is Associate Professor of Counseling at RTS/Orlando. He holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from Georgia State University. He resides in Winter Park, Florida, with his wife, Kay, and their twin sons, Nate and Ben.


The idea of a counseling ministry in the church precipitates a wide range of response held with greater or lesser passion. Some believe the church is under attack from counseling and it needs to be opposed. Others believe the church should do the attacking and obliterate counseling before it does more harm. Still others are tolerant of counseling in the church, but believe its usefulness is limited and marginal to the real work of the church. Another group is eager for the church to incorporate a counseling ministry, as it would allow for a place to refer difficult people and time-consuming conflicts. And finally, some feel that a counseling ministry is an essential aspect of the Gospel and the best vehicle available for soul care of the congregation. In view of these divergent attitudes, the following points -- in no way exhaustive -- hopefully offer a thoughtful beginning as to the role of counseling in the church.

A COUNSELING MINISTRY: HELP IN THE STRUGGLE

First, through a counseling ministry, the church says we want to help you struggle with life’s demands. What are these demands? Here’s a partial list: marital conflicts, depression, anxiety, vocational problems, financial stress, addiction, grief, domestic violence, abuse, temper, sexual identity problems, adjustment disorders, eating disorders, spiritual conflicts and more. These demands can often become life crushing, and the person’s attempts to meet them may result in fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, shame or despair. A believer may be tempted to despise his struggle rather than address it honestly and grow in grace.

A church counseling ministry becomes a declaration that the believer’s struggle is not illegitimate, but a means of spiritual growth and development. Maturity does not come full blown into a believer’s life, but often starts with a first step into an authentic struggle with life’s demands. When a church validates this struggle by implementing a counseling ministry, believers respond and begin to share their concerns.

The counseling ministry, however, is not limited to believers. Non-believers are looking for real solutions to life’s demands also. For them, the counseling may become an entrance into spiritual awakening. No doubt some will wrestle and leave with little hope. Others will find God in the struggle and the wrestling gives way to celebration. And counseling becomes outreach and evangelism to the community.

Recently, a successful lawyer came to the counseling center depressed and devastated that his wife and children had left him after enduring fifteen years of physical and emotional abuse. By his own admission, he had never seriously considered God or his own spiritual needs. However, in the brokenness of his marriage, God comforted him, and he was converted. He stated, "In all my life, I’ve never cared about anyone but myself. Now I want to know God and learn to love my wife." A tragedy was redeemed. *
(*Certain details of this account were changed to protect confidentiality.)

MAKING RESOURCES AVAILABLE TO THE NEEDY

Second, there is recognition that not all believers are living at similar levels of maturity. This may seem patently obvious, but it seems to be a truth we ignore when placing expectations on a believer’s behavior and involvement in the church. The church often sets a standard for behavior that all members are expected (or at least encouraged) to meet, regardless of maturity level. But we must discern each believer’s starting point and the amount of resources available to them to meet these expectations. For some, the effort to hurdle the expectation is minimal and barely ruffles their feathers. For others the effort would require as yet undeveloped resources and thus lead to dismal failure.

Let us consider for a moment God’s exhortation in His word for husbands and fathers to be lovers of their wives and tender with their children. We believe this behavior has a profound impact on the marriage, the home, and the children. We teach fathers about their God-given responsibilities because it is critical for the children. Fulfillment will be seen in the maturity of the children as they meet life’s demands with faith and integrity nurtured by their fathers. But if the fathers are capable of this positive impact, is it not also reasonable to assume the powerful impact of a neglectful, unloving father? Dare we expect a person’s conversion to reverse immediately and completely a lifetime of emotional neglect or abuse when God himself has warned us of the impact fathers have on their families?

Too many times, the church supplies the mature believer with unneeded resources --he already meets the expectations with considerable ease. On the other hand, the less mature believer is left with demands he cannot meet with the resources provided and does not know how to ask or what to ask for. After all, "asking" in most of our churches suggests "incompetence" and tragically may even bring into question the validity of the person’s conversion.

The counseling ministry recognizes the various starting places of fellow believers and seeks to administer grace to them in forms and ways that are meaningful and nurturing of further maturity. In one sense, it is translating the gospel so it might be better comprehended. The translation, however, is not to a foreign language, but to a different level of maturity and understanding.

The apostle Paul firmly challenged believers to move from spiritual milk to spiritual meat. His statement implies however that we were all once infants in the faith and very much in need of someone giving us a bottle. We must exercise wisdom in how to feed our fellow believers. Not everyone in the body of Christ is ready for a steak dinner, but this makes them no less valuable to the body.

Many churches are providing a rich and wonderful banquet for their members through preaching, teaching, programs, seminars, literature, bible studies, prayer meetings, fellowship groups, video tapes, audio tapes, mission trips, youth groups, bible school, etc. There is good food in abundance, but an infant cannot digest a feast! An infant could spend days in the presence of a smorgasboard and in the end he would starve—not because of the quality of food, but because no one provided it to him in a manner that was beneficial.

All parents know the careful preparation of food necessary to insure their infant’s growth but at the same time being careful he does not choke. If a baby chokes, we don’t question the child, we question the wisdom of the parent serving the food. If a believer is unable to enjoy the banquet, should we condemn him or should we make the necessary changes in the menu?

WRESTLING WITH ANOTHER

Third, the counseling ministry provides the believer with a place to wrestle deeply, intensely, and intimately with the gospel and a fellow believer. You may ask why is this necessary? Isn’t hearing the gospel through preaching and teaching enough? No. Hearing is not enough. In fact, the gospel warns us strongly that hearing is only the beginning—we must become doers.

Preaching and teaching are innately one-way activities and by their nature do not usually allow for interaction. For most believers to move from hearing to doing, they require an opportunity to interact, ask questions, share their fears, and address their personal guilt and shame. Counseling offers them this opportunity by providing a context to ask: "How does the gospel fit with my circumstances? Is God speaking to me about this issue? What is it God is asking me to do?

But this is not just a place to ask—it is a place to ask with another. This place of wrestling then becomes a holy place. Certain questions have never before been spoken in the daylight. Sometimes the counselor is the first human being to hear the question verbalized. It is in this place, then, the believer and counselor interact and see the questions woven together with God’s grace. And it is in such a place that hearing becomes doing.

Fourth, in addition to this relatively intense interaction with the counselor other services of the church are explored for their benefit and nurture. These include worship, classes, support groups, specialized topic groups, mentoring, discipline, prayer, and service projects. The goal is to see counseling as one aspect of the church in helping to bring the believer to maturity. The counselor is a tremendous resource to the believer for identifying other vital ways to function in the body of Christ and to encourage his participation.

The counseling process then becomes extremely helpful in locating the appropriate ministry for believers. Thus, the counselor refers to other ministries and the other ministries refer believers to the counseling center. All aspects of the church benefit from this relationship, since mutual participation is encouraged. This model also serves as an example to the believer of how the body of Christ functions. The various gifts and talents of believers in the body are observed and strengthen the desire for participation. The counselor serves also as a reminder to the believer that he is the holder of a unique gift that needs to be opened and shared within his fellowship. Every believer at every level of maturity needs encouragement to add his gift to the spiritual life of the church.

AN OPPORTUNITY FOR BLESSING

Finally, the counseling ministry provides the opportunity for a blessing. As the believer struggles, God blesses and enriches his body, the church. However, the blessing is not limited to the believer. The believers struggle not only blesses him, but also blesses the counselor. In the counseling interaction, there is a reciprocity of blessing that deepens and strengthens the faith of all involved. When Paul admonishes us to bear one another’s burdens, the result is not just a lightened load. There is also the blessing of being participant with another believer on his journey –both lives are changed, both lives are blessed, both lives mature. The ministry of counseling says to the believer - "come, share your burden—for in this sharing we will both be blessed."

In summary, a counseling ministry offers a place for persons to engage in an authentic struggle to increase their faith, know God and love their fellows. If the church validates this struggle as normative in the Christian life people will respond. As Jesus said:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom
for the prisoners and recovery of sight
for the blind, to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
(Luke 4:18-19)

A counseling ministry in the church seeks to touch the poor, the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed with the good news of God’s grace.



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