"God knows me well," a friend once said to me. "He knew that, apart from the accountability and love that comes from a Christian community, I would not survive in this world."
God never meant for Christians to live alone. Through the church on earth, therefore, he created a place where Christians could gather for corporate worship, accountability, fellowship, instruction, and godly exhortation. I would even dare say that the fullest expression of our faith cannot occur apart from loving communion with other believers in a local church.
Yet because Christians are often scared to reveal their problems to people they know, they commonly seek out counselors who work in private practices outside of their church. Now, many of these counselors are doing good work, and I do believe there is a role for private practice counseling. Yet, I want to argue that there are distinct advantages to doing specialized counseling in the context of one's local church, and I would even propose that it should be the norm.
Here are five thoughts on counseling in the context of the local church.
SUBMITTING TO THOSE WHO HAVE WATCH
First, church-based counseling means submitting to leaders who already have watch over your soul.
If you had a choice between seeing someone who knows nothing about you and has no obligation to you outside of counseling or seeing someone who will give an account to God for how well he has watched over your soul, who would you choose?
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. (Heb. 13:17)
Counselors counsel, pastors pastor. Counselors help you and send you on your way. But pastors are charged with helping you and staying committed to you for the long-haul. Counselors are typically open to you returning to their office if the problem resurfaces. But pastors are constantly in your life, so if the problem comes back they will already be walking alongside you. The counselor will help, care, and love. But the pastor will help, care, love, and will exercise authority over you through the ministry of the Word.
Both pastor and counselor do important work in the kingdom. But the nature of the pastoral relationship includes an ongoing commitment to the members of his local church. Thus, within a church context, the pastor's task is much greater than the counselor's.
If you are struggling with a problem, it would not be uncommon to want to see someone who is skilled at counseling. The market for Christian counselors has grown steadily over the last twenty years. And there are many more competent, biblical counselors available today as compared to twenty years ago. But what if you could go to someone who was both a skilled counselor and also your pastor? What if you could combine both professions into one? Think about someone who was trained in counseling, who didn't charge a fee for counseling (and allowed you to avoid the hassles of insurance), who was committed to pastoring you and your family for twenty or thirty years, and was readily available to you in your own church. Would you at least give him a try?
BUILDING ONE ANOTHER UP IN THE FAITH
Second, church-based counseling reaffirms our commitment to build one another up in the faith.
One priority laid out in Scripture is the importance of Christians building one another up in the faith.
It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:11-13)
God has given the church pastors and teachers, and part of the work of pastoring includes counseling as well as teaching the members of a church to counsel one another (see also 1 Thes. 5:14). A biblical counselor's work is one part of the overall project building the church toward maturity and attaining the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
In counseling, there is always a temptation to problem-solve and "fix" people's lives. Yet the end goal of biblical counseling is spiritual growth. Pastoral counselors use their gifts to counsel because they want people to grow in greater maturity in Christ.
EXTENDING OUR COVENANT
Third, church-based counseling is a natural extension of our covenant to one another as members of the same church.
Covenants are important tools in the life of the church. They represent a commitment that members of the same church have to one another. When a church member meets a counselor in his church, he is meeting with someone who has already made a commitment to live with the member in a Christ-centered way. Biblical counseling should be a natural extension of the covenantal commitment we have made as members of the same church.
Not all churches have a formal covenant. But whether or not they do, all churches have a sense of how they are going to live together, which is what a covenant articulates. At my church, there are several lines in the church covenant that articulate what we want to accomplish in the counseling room and beyond:
"We will work and pray for the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."
"We will walk together in brotherly love, as becomes the members of a Christian church; we will exercise affectionate care and watchfulness over each other and faithfully admonish and entreat one another as occasion may require."
"We will rejoice at each other's happiness, and endeavor with tenderness and sympathy to bear each other's burdens and sorrows."
"We will seek, by Divine aid, to live carefully in the world, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, and remembering that, as we have been voluntarily buried by baptism and raised again from the symbolic grave, so there is on us a special obligation now to lead a new and holy life."
On the one hand, every member of our church commits to pursuing these promises toward every other member. On the other hand, our church has generously set aside one individual full timemeto help it with the work of fulfilling these promises in areas of special need. Of course, I and the other elders need to work hard at reminding the congregation that all this remains their work too. As I've already mentioned, I as the pastor of counseling am also called to equip the congregation to do this work.
OTHER BENEFITS OF BELONGING TO THE SAME CHURCH
Fourth, there are other benefits for pastoral counselor and counselee to belong to the same church.
Many of the secular counseling paradigms advocate no contact with counseling clients outside of the counseling office. But being in the same church helps because
- it allows the counselor to live as a Christ-like example both inside and outside the counseling setting. The integrity of the counselor's words can be matched with the way he lives and participates in a church. It shows the counselee that the counselor doesn't just "talk the talk" but also "walks the walk."
- It provides the counselor with greater insight into the most important dimension of the counselee's lifetheir spiritual life.
- It allows the two to serve together in a variety of ministries.
- It allows them to serve each other and pray for each other.
- It allows them to grow together through the same corporate experiences. As they sing, worship, hear the Word preached, pray, study Scripture, carry burdens, care for the community, and exalt God together, they share in the experiences that builds them up together in their faith.
Recently, one of our pastors taught from the book of Philemon, and his thoughtful sermons prompted members to share with me their struggles with forgiveness. What an invaluable opportunity! Both the counselor and the counselee talked about the pastor's sermon and the ways God's Word had shaped us. And we got to do this because of our shared experience on Sunday mornings.
GREATER ACCOUNTABILITY AND NETWORKING CAREGIVING
Fifth, church based counseling provides the potential for greater accountability of shared problems, as well as the opportunity to know who else in the church can share the care-giving load.
A pastor has a unique opportunity to hear people share their struggles. Often no one else will hear and know the things that a pastor knows. How can a pastor of counseling then use this privileged knowledge well? When there is a church member who struggling with a problem, a pastor of counseling can serve the individual by connecting him or her with someone else who has already worked through the same problem. A private practice counselor outside the church has no other human resources to draw uponno one else in the counselee's life who can assist. It all comes down to that counselor's wisdom.
But is there not wisdom in a multitude of counselors (Prov. 14:11; 24:6)? Why not charge the close friends of an individual to play a larger role in counseling and care-giving? Why not bring together those people who share the same problems to encourage one another through their struggles? Let the former alcoholic help the struggling alcoholic; or let the abuse survivor comfort the woman who was recently abused. Let them do this as Christians in a church. Let them do this as brothers and sisters who have a covenantal obligation to one another. Let them do this as those who received God's comfort, and now desire to show that comfort to others. Let them do this as those who have grown and matured in Christ, and who now desire to help those who are struggling.
What a beautiful picture of the body of Christnot just the strong helping the weak, but the weak helping one another.
IS CHURCH BASED COUNSELING FOR YOU?
America is full of choices. There are probably a variety of counselors available in your community. But, as I've suggested in this article, there are good reasons why you should consider counseling in your own church. God has made us to live and grow in the context of a church. It is good for us to receive strength and encouragement from that community. And it is wise for us to seek godly counsel from wise members of that community.
Deepak Reju is an associate pastor at the Capitol Hill Baptist Church with particular oversight over biblical counseling and family ministries.
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