Why The Bible Is Not Enough For Abuse Victims
The Bible is not enough for abuse victims. If you are a longtime church goer, this statement might come as a surprise to you. If you are a pastor, this may even sound like heresy. Let me explain exactly what I mean.
When I was suffering through some of the darkest parts of my depression with regular panic attacks and suicidal thoughts, I reached out to a pastor.
I wasn’t looking for his advice, but he had made a statement in a message: “All fear is a sin.” I shared with him about my severe anxiety and panic attacks. I attempted to gently persuade him that he was wrong, and share how teaching this idea in a church setting could be hurtful to anyone suffering from anxiety disorders, PTSD, and panic attacks.
He seemed interested and asked for more details on “medical anxiety,” so I shared an article about the scientific correlation between anxiety and trauma from abuse. He was aware that I had recently left an abusive relationship, and I described how this was affecting me in the form of anxiety and panic. It turned out he hadn’t asked for the purpose of learning though, and instead wanted to convince me otherwise. He told me that anxiety was a spiritual issue (code word for sin) and asked me if I wanted him to share some Bible verses to help cure my anxiety disorder and panic attacks.
This response alerted me that he was not a safe person to discuss my trauma with so I politely shut down the conversation as quickly as possible.
As I have spoken with other survivors, I find that my story is not unique. There is a trend in churches to subscribe to a type of counseling called “Nouthetic Counseling.”
Nouthetic Counseling a big word that sounds professional, and even celebrity pastors like John MacArthur support it (1). When people in crisis see that their church offers Nouthetic (Biblical) Counseling, they understandably believe that the church leaders providing the counsel are equipped to advise them. Sadly, this is not the case.
Nouthetic Counseling (2) is a term coined by a man named Jay Adams. This form of counseling is where: “one Christian personally gives counsel to another from the Scriptures. He does not confront him with his own ideas or the ideas of others. He limits his counsel strictly to that which may be found in the Bible, believing that: All Scripture is breathed out by God and useful for teaching, for conviction, for correction and for disciplined training in righteousness in order to fit and fully equip the man from God for every good task. (2 Timothy 3:16,17) The nouthetic counselor believes that all that is needed to help another person love God and his neighbor as he should, as the verse above indicates, may be found in the Bible.” (3)
In other words, Nouthetic Counseling rejects scientifically proven psychology treatments (“the ideas of other”) and chooses only to use Bible verses to counsel. I have seen pastors try to use this method with individuals dealing with mental illness, abuse, trauma, sexual dysfunction, and the like.
The problem is that these issues are not primarily spiritual. Victims of abuse who come to a pastor for advice on healing from trauma may be experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Anxiety Disorders, Clinical Depression, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, and other issues stemming from the abuse they suffered. These symptoms and others are the body’s normal, involuntary responses to trauma and are categorized as mental health concerns, not spiritual issues.
We are comprised of body, mind, and spirit. Each of these parts are intertwined, but they are also distinctly different and should be treated differently.
I like to look at it this way. If a parishioner came to a pastor with an open wound or infection, the pastor should quickly advise them to seek treatment from a licensed medical doctor. The pastor may even need to call an ambulance for emergency situations. Perhaps, if the hurting individual allows it, the pastor might ride along with them to the hospital and pray or read comforting scripture, but they certainly would not attempt to treat their injury or infection in their church office. The pastor would realize their limitations and encourage the ailing individual to submit to the expert advice of the medical doctor treating them. During the healing process, the pastor would not give advice contrary to the Doctor’s recommendation, or bring up scripture they feel would convict the patient of the “sin” of getting hurt.
It should be the same way with mental health issues, trauma, and abuse. Pastors need to recognize their limitations. Give abuse survivors and those with mental health issues the help they really need: compassionate prayer, a swift recommendation to see a licensed counselor, and a call to local law enforcement in emergency or possible criminal instances. It may be appropriate for the pastor to pray a comforting prayer with the victim, but this should not be a time of attempting to theologically explain why the individual is hurting, nor should it be a victim blaming session.
Pastors and other individuals who believe they are equipped to address abuse, trauma, and mental health issues solely from the Bible have a gross misunderstanding of brains, trauma, and mental illness. Courses such as Jay Adams’ Nouthetic Counseling program are not robust enough to equip individuals to respond to trauma or mental health issues adequately.
On the official Institute for Nouthetic Studies website (4) it states that those who go through Adams’ Nouthetic Counseling course are not accredited or awarded any degree and that those who take the course are not required or asked to turn in any homework, it is a student driven course.
“While there will be homework assignments (mostly outside reading) we will not be administering tests or requiring research papers in order to measure the student’s progress. Those who enroll in INS will not be doing so in order to earn a degree. They will be motivated by the desire to be a more effective minister of the Word of God.”
So basically, someone who is a Nouthetic Counselor may or may not have gone through a course of study. If they did, this study does not give them a degree or any accreditation to counsel trauma, mental health issues, or even complex relationship issues. Furthermore, the course is student driven and does not require that they submit homework or have approval or correction from any teacher.
The bottom line is that Nouthetic Counselors have zero qualifications to fully serve those with mental health issues, abuse, trauma, or other psychological difficulties. Pastors who are not also licensed therapists with proper credentials need to defer to professionals.
The Bible isn’t enough for abuse victims. Just as it could be devastating or potentially deadly for a pastor to attempt to fix a physically injured or infected person in their church office by reading Scripture, so is it dangerous for pastors to try and act as trauma and mental health counselors with hurting individuals. The effects of abuse, trauma, and mental health issues are serious and in some cases may lead to physical danger, self-destructive behaviors, or even suicide.
The Bible isn’t enough for abusers either. If a person has committed abuse, they need both consequences from law enforcement and significant, long-term psychological counseling by a trained professional. Untrained pastors are not capable of rehabilitating abusers. Abuser’s issues go much deeper than just spiritual concerns; they overlap into warped thinking and sometimes serious mental health problems that need to be addressed by a licensed expert. When an untrained individual attempts to rehabilitate an abuser, it is extremely dangerous to everyone involved.
This is not deny that there is a spiritual component to abuse, trauma, and mental health issues; not at all. But just as the Bible would be used as a comfort and compassion to the physically ill alongside professional medical treatment, so should the Bible be used as comfort and compassion alongside professional therapy.
When we treat the Bible as a mental health text, we are not only doing a great disservice to victims of abuse; we are disrespecting the Bible itself. We are contorting this sacred Scripture into something it was never meant to be, a trauma manual.
Let us end the re-victimization of the vulnerable, and use the wisdom God gave us to heal through scientifically proven mental health care.
Notes and Sources:
I do believe pastors can be great comfort to people in abusive, traumatic, or mental health situations, but they can best do so by realizing their limitations and offering spiritual comfort and compassion. I also believe that God can miraculously heal people, although I think medication, medical doctors, and licensed counselors are usually the ways God chooses to heal in modern times. If a person believes God has miraculously healed them from abuse, trauma, and mental health issues, it would be wise to have this confirmed by a licensed professional. I highly recommend seeing a licensed professional first, and if someone wishes to seek miraculous healing as well it should be done in conjunction with professional treatment for safety purposes.
(1) It appears this video with John MacArthur speaking out against psychology that has been up for years has been taken down… interesting. Could that have to do with me mentioning it in my post about Scientology And Spiritually Abusive Christian Churches a few weeks back?
“Like theistic evolution, “Christian psychology” is an attempt to harmonize two inherently contradictory systems of thought. Modern psychology and the Bible cannot be blended without serious compromise to or utter abandonment of the principle of Scripture’s sufficiency.” - John MacArtur, Our Sufficiency in Christ (Dallas, Texas: Word Publishing, 1991) p. 66
(3) What Is Nouthetic Counseling?
(4) The frequently asked questions page on the INS website showing that the course is not equipped to train someone to become a licensed counselor.