Counseling Must Reflect What Christ Teaches About the Body, Heart, and Head

Note: This www.BiblicalCounsel.org website includes content from Appendix Four of the 2nd edition of Reflecting God’s Character in Your Planning by Tim Voorhees. To download a free copy of the 1st edition, please visit www.Legacies.info.


Christ reflects the Father's divine character to the world (John 14:9). “The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” (Hebrews 1:3). In Hebrews 1:4, we see how Christ purifies the heart of sins while maintaining headship at the right hand of the Majesty. Jesus exercises this authority by fostering love and unity in the body. (See, e.g., John 17:20-23.)

This connection among the heart, body, and head (mind) is seen in Colossians 3:15-16. Paul writes, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.” Apostle Paul clearly engages the mind and exercises headship when teaching, admonishing, and exhorting others to do the same with all wisdom.

The above passages encourage individuals to reflect God’s character in their own hearts, bodies, and minds. This fosters peace with God, oneself and others. When peace is disrupted, solutions begin with mature elders in the upper room who oversee church relationships, as is indicated at the top of the diagram at the right. Through preaching to the church body and pastoral care, individuals are encouraged to seek the heart of God and know the mind of Christ. In this way, divine character qualities are increasingly reflected throughout the body of believers.

When family and church members listen together to pure preaching about God (at the center of the diagram), they can help one another understand God’s law and Gospel as well as His doctrines of grace. This knowledge of God reveals the sin that leads to repentance. More important, knowledge of God leads to gratitude for how His doctrines of grace are made evident in covenant community relationships. Within covenant communities, the means of grace (preaching of the Word, prayer, and sacraments) help individuals know God’s character, confess of human failures, draw closer to God, and form deeper bonds with other believers.

When the heart, mind and body reflect God’s character, communities can foster mature relationships in the boardrooms, courtrooms, classrooms, and family rooms where Christians spend most of their time. When immature relationships disrupt the peace in covenant communities, elders in the upper room can appoint “designated elders” who provide counseling services to restore the peace. Such counselors can be equipped by the elders (and seminaries or counseling programs endorsed by the elders) to help each church member purify the heart, love fellow members of the body, and respect the wisdom of God reflected through mature church heads.

When the counselor does not work with church elders, the counselor may not have proper connection to the head and the body, and this lack of authority or knowledge may limit the counselor’s ability to reflect the character of God into the heart of person being counseled. This head-body-heart connection is explained throughout Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory, which Dr. Timothy Keller calls, "the greatest manual on biblical counseling ever produced." Baxter makes more than 2,000 references to the heart when describing how a pastor (or a counselor designated by the pastor) should address core spiritual issues. Baxter also refers thousands of times to the role of the church body and the need to respect the spiritual heads of the church.

Baxter inspires readers to understand how mature bodies respect the heart of God and mind of Christ. Nonetheless, when the head-body-heart issues are not addressed with proper elder oversight, counseling can fail for twenty-one reasons. Part one of this appendix lists these reasons and then part two suggests how elders can appoint and oversee qualified counselors who realize success by, 1) respecting the role of Christ and His church, 2) designating counselors who apply God’s principles in a proper manner, 3) focusing on heart issues, 4) working within the body, 5) fostering the maturity that results from addressing issues of the heart, facts from the body, and principles from the head of the church, Jesus Christ.

Part One

When the counselor does not work with the church body (e.g. small group leaders), it is difficult to discern accurate facts and find necessary prayer support:
  1. The people in counseling spend too much time giving their own versions of events because the counselor does not have objective input from members of the counselees’ church fellowship groups.
  2. Without input from church group leaders, most of the counseling time is spent describing “what is,” thereby leaving little time for helping counselees agree on “what ought to be.”
  3. Without active prayer from small group members, the people being counseled may lack the wisdom or support needed in order to make changes that heal.
When the counselor does not properly address heart issues:
  1. Much time is spent discussing emotions without identifying the bad behaviors that are often causing the negative emotions or the sin causing the bad behaviors.
  2. The counselor may focus too much on the sins in the heart of the person being counseled without seeing of how the counselee’s pain may be caused primarily by sinful thoughts and behaviors of a spouse, pastor, parent, or other person who avoids counseling that focuses on heart issues.
  3. Application of God’s law to confront sin is deemphasized because there is not a loving church group or discipleship pastor who can help work through the painful emotions that may come to the surface when sin is confronted.
When the counselor lacks authority because he or she is working apart from church heads:
  1. One person can dominate the discussion without ever looking at herself/himself.
  2. One person can threaten to leave the counseling sessions unless deference is given to him or her (because leaving the counseling has no negative consequence with pastors or other church heads)
  3. One person can undermine the counselor if the outcomes are not what the underminer desires because counselors not working under mature elders may not have the necessary prayer support.
  4. Efforts to provide prayer support outside of the church may foster gossip if the prayer partners are not hearing mature teaching about gossip or if they are not experiencing consequences from church leaders who see inappropriate gossip.
  5. Issues are put on the table by one party and the other party is not given equal time to respond.
  6. The counselor can prescribe solutions that may be contrary to church teachings or inconsistent with agreements already established during meetings with pastors.
  7. Parties can assert different views about budgeting, parenting, or church attendance without the views being reconciled through application of Biblical standards.
  8. Harsh or negative statements may not be addressed with positive alternatives; consequently, the counseling sessions do not lead to resolution of issues or restoration of relationships
  9. Agreements developed during counseling sessions are ignored because the counselor lacks the authority (that church heads have) to remove people from leadership or otherwise apply discipline.
  10. Any discipline attempted by the counselors outside the church is not likely to be consistent with discipline applied to other members in the church because no church head is coordinating the discipline.
  11. The work of the discipleship pastors in the church may be marginalized or compromised as the paid counselors outside of the church try to provide the pastoral care.
  12. Small group members may appoint themselves as peacemakers and attempt to resolve conflicts without sufficient assistance from a qualified counselor or peacemaker overseen by the church heads. Without a mature understanding of biblical peacemaking processes, self-appointed judges and juries (e.g., small group members) can easily be persuaded to take the side of the person who spends the most time gossiping to them.
  13. The counselor may claim to be overseen by (or recommended by) the church heads but the counselor may not work with pastors to confront issues and, in fact, may justify withholding information from pastors because counseling ethics (man’s law) contradict with God’s law says about truthful communication and pastoral oversight
  14. The counselor may not work with the head of the family because a child being counseled objects to the family head being involved. As a result, a parent's views may be marginalized and the relationship between the parent and child may go unreconciled.
  15. The counselor may work closely with the government in order to get funding even when the government's demand for "values-neutral" counseling undermines spiritual principles that are essential for Biblical counseling.
God has designed the church to shepherd the hearts of the members. When the church body and headship are respected, the Holy Spirit illuminates the issues and guides counselors to resolve matters. When teachings about the head, body and heart are de-emphasized, it is too easy for people to operate in the shadows, thereby undermining God’s righteousness and justice.

So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. - Isaiah 59:9

Part Two

Qualified counselors can shine light into the lives of people who struggle with broken relationships. Trained counselors know how to look behind the shadows to address sins of the heart while maintaining proper connections to the church head and body. The most successful counseling often involves churches that are committed to, 1) respecting the role of Christ and His church, 2) designating counselors who apply God’s principles in a proper manner, 3) focusing on heart issues, 4) working within the body, 5) fostering the maturity that results from respecting from the head of the church, Jesus Christ.

1) Respecting the Role of Christ and His Church

Scripture teaches that peace with God, others, and ourselves requires affirmation of Christ, the church, and counseling. The Peacemaker, by Ken Sande, elucidates the comprehensive wisdom of Scripture as well as the role of individual Christians working with the church to receive Biblical counsel. The church is the place where deep connections can develop among the elders (heads), the members (body), the counselor, and the person being counseled. With proper involvement from the church, a deep heart-level connection can develop between the counselor and person being counseled.

Of course, when a church leader or a visible church member is caught up in sin, it may not be safe to address these issues within the church body. This is particularly true when church leaders and counselors lack training in Biblical peacemaking. In such cases, the church elders may need to work with outside counselors. Nonetheless, the church can still maintain a defined role in the counseling.

Defining the role of the church can be a challenge. While 80% of Americans will affirm Christianity and the church, we find many disagreements among people offering “Christian” advice. To resolve the differences of opinion and discern the most prudent sources of biblical wisdom, we must continually turn to seek the most mature advice. When biblical definitions of maturity are applied, we often find the most mature wisdom in the leadership of churches that properly appoint, equip, empower and monitor elders to superintend the counseling process.

2) Designating Counselors Who Know God’s Principles

Elders in the upper room have been given authority by God. To avoid being overwhelmed with peacemaking and counseling responsibilities given to the church heads, elders can appoint Christian counselors who reflect the character of Christ. Counselors work with the elders to foster a healthy understanding of how each church member should grow in his or her relationship with Christ, the church, and the institutions influenced by the church.

The Westminster Confession and Catechisms, as well as similar confessional documents, provide robust and time-tested descriptions of the mature biblical teacher/pastor and the role of the church in overseeing the teacher/pastor. Jay Adams, in his book Competent to Counsel, provides clear application of the confessional premises to counseling situations. Following these proven standards helps believers identify and benefit from the wisdom of mature counselors.

Successful counseling requires respect for elders carrying out Christ’s role as head of the church. Without elders encouraging involvement in mature counseling programs, too often the person needing counseling will avoid accountability for months or years. This problem is addressed when church counselors have the keys to the Kingdom (Matthew 16) and/or report to elders who have the keys. This gives the counselor much more influence to use church discipline (e.g., removal from leadership) to encourage respect for Christian teachings.

Competent church counselors normally receive training at respected seminaries. The best of these seminaries teach a counseling process that encourages prayer to identify root issues and the application of God’s law to confront sins that go unidentified or unaddressed too often in counseling by poorly trained teachers/ pastors.

Good churches seek wisdom from “synods and councils” or denominations that help maintain faithfulness to biblical teaching. Denominations with the best peacemaking records equip members with Certified Christian Conciliator™ and Certified Nouthetic Counselor designations. These credential programs require rigorous biblical training as students learn to use prayer to identify issues of the heart while using wisdom to apply relevant Scriptural principles. The certification programs encourage active involvement from the church body in overseeing the counselor and helping the counselor collect information relevant to the counseling situation.

3) Focusing on Heart Issues

Unless a counselor is trained to identify the heart issues, there will not be an effective way to organize facts and apply biblical principles. This problem is understood when we watch how most people will spend hours trying to solve Rubik’s cube but only minutes if they know how to identify the relationships of the colored blocks and apply the correct algorithm. When the counselor is motivated to solve problems, he or she examines the current situation, envisions the desired biblical outcome, and applies the biblical “algorithm” to clarify “what ought to be.” This process can help create a safe and empathic environment for helping people identify and repent of wrong thoughts and attitudes that undermine relationships.

Trained counselors know how to identify the root spiritual issues. Biblically trained and intelligent counselors will ask insightful questions that identify all types of idolatrous thinking that interfere with our ability to hear the voice of God. To discern core issues most efficiently, counselors need to work with the fellow believers who meet with the counselee in small group settings. Church small groups understand “what is” the problem of the counselee because the small group members interact (ideally) with the counselee on a regular basis. The counselor can easily and quickly check with church-based small groups to confirm the accuracy of perceptions and then confirm the validity of premises underlying statements. (Without small group involvement, counselors may spend months or years just describing “what is” the problem. This is because the counselee may avoid confrontation by “spinning” events until fellow small group members draw on their collective experience and help a qualified counselor see patterns of disruptive behaviors or faulty reasoning.)

4) Working within the Body

When a church body has too many unresolved conflicts, there are answers. When friends or family members invest too much time and money in unproductive counseling sessions, there are solutions. When Christians find themselves turning to unchurched or un-trained friends who allow un-biblical behaviors and attitudes that foster conflict, there are better sources of advice. Whenever people complain about the ineffectiveness of counseling, new hope exists. All of the answers, solutions, better advice, and new hope require involvement from the church body.

Within healthy church bodies, the members meet daily in homes and on the church campus to hear biblical teaching and faithful proclamation of the gospel message. Counselors within the church are paid with the portion of tithes intended for shepherding the sheep (approximately 1/3 of tithes – if Old Testament equitable principles are applied). Counselors paid a steady income from tithes are usually motivated to be good stewards of tithe money and resolve problems quickly. Such economic alignment can contrast with counseling models outside of the church, where counselors may be tempted to resolve matters less quickly in order to maintain steady income streams from people being counseled. Counselors working within the church can be designated by the elders and paid by the church.

The biblical counseling model works well for individuals and family heads who are members of the church providing counseling. Challenges arise, however, when broken relationships outside the church require counseling. For example, church elders frequently become aware of problems of church members having problems in boardrooms, courtrooms, classrooms, and family rooms that are not clearly under the authority of the church. In such cases, the church leaders can help member address the conflict by identifying, a) competent Christian business consultants to work in the boardroom, b) Certified Christian Conciliators™ to work with Christians adjudicating conflicts in courtrooms, c) Christian teachers helping develop maturity in the classrooms, and d) family therapists to help with issues in the family room.

Any church can bring in outside experts to address relational issues under the oversight and accountability of a mature church body. Nonetheless, not all people needing counseling will agree to submit to the church elders or counselors chosen by them. In such cases, the authority of the court system may have to be applied. See Appendix Three of this book regarding the “Courtroom.” This appendix refers to www.Peacemaker.net/Rules. These rules and related materials available through Peacemaker Ministries explain how secular legal authority can often encourage submission to church authority as well as the counselors/consultants chosen by the church.

5) Fostering the Maturity that Results from Respecting the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ

Christ is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. (Colossians 1:8). Christ’s supremacy applies to every heart, body, and headship issues that arises in counseling. By respecting Christ and the leaders He puts in place, qualified heads can coordinate the resources needed to resolve conflicts.

Very often resolving a conflict requires a team with a leader. The leader must have the authority to bring conflicted parties to the table; define the scope of the conflict mediation; and coordinate experts with the necessary skills to address legal, financial, psychological or other problems. Church heads, raised up by the Holy Spirit according to the teachings of Christ, are often well-positioned to provide necessary church leadership.

A church leader must know when members in conflict should overlook their differences (as suggested by Proverbs 19:11 and Proverbs 12:16) and when people in conflict need to heal conflict with God, with themselves and with one another. When two or three Christians gather together in Christ’s name, there will be conflict. Conflict is not inherently bad. Different opinions and priorities can easily result from people having different spiritual gifts, different passions, and different priorities. When these gifts, passions, and priorities are from God, they are good. Nonetheless, when parties are not able to build teams that respect the different roles and priorities, conflicts may cause too much separation from God, tension with other people in the body, or anxiety within the hearts of the conflicted parties. In such cases, a qualified church leader can help restore the peace using the authority of the church to bring together qualified counselors who delve into the heart of the matter while working with the church body.

Church heads (pastors) must understand the connection among the head, heart, and body issues. Moreover, pastors must know when help is needed in clarifying conflicts within the heart, facts from the body, or wisdom from the head. Advice frequently evidences a lack of knowledge about the issues of the heart. Advisers often try to apply confusing principles because there is no oversight from the headship of elders who uphold consistent doctrinal statement. Assessments of facts are often unbalanced because advisers do not know much about the daily relationships in the home (family room), workplace (board room), school (classroom), administrative bodies (court rooms), or church body. In short, without informed alignment of the heart, head, and body there will be misunderstandings about issues, principles, and facts.

Qualified church heads in the upper room can appoint counselors who pray with conflicted parties to identify heart issues, who meet with church members to clarify facts, and who meet with trained pastors to ascertain which biblical principles should apply to particular sets of issues and facts. As long as these meetings occur according to guidelines of appropriate membership covenants and confidentiality agreements, meetings can lead to God-honoring agreement about the best biblical solutions.

Conclusion

The Church is a Trinitarian community comprised of those who help one another reflect God’s image. Just as the Trinity is -- in its essence -- communal and relational, the Church exists to foster community and connected relationships among members serving as the church head and body. As members know one another, they can connect at a heart level. The father, son, and Holy Spirit work together to connect the head, body, and heart.

Do you see marriage (or pre-marital), family, corporate or other counseling that has not worked? Ask whether there was one lead counselor overseen by qualified church heads (elders). Ask whether the counselor talked with co-workers or fellow church members of the person being counseled in order to discern facts from a body of believers. Ask whether the counselor was trained to discern and address the core issues at the heart of any conflicts disrupting peace with God or other people.

Christian counselors reflect the character of God when giving advice that respects our Lord’s head, body, and heart. Qualified pastors and teachers in biblical churches know how to identify idolatrous attitudes and redirect attention toward principles and priorities based on the character of our Lord. Trained pastors help their counselors develop awareness of the core problems (in the heart), maintain authority to insist on biblical solutions (through Biblical headship), and encourage biblical education about counseling throughout the body.

Whenever conflicts fester too long, observers should ask whether the parties are applying God’s plan for counseling, as outlined in the above five sections and as described in Baxter’s Christian Directory. For more information about how Baxter’s teachings apply to conflicts in all five rooms above, please see Exhibit One at the end of this book.