Over the past few decades, millions of Christians in America have turned away from conventional psychology and psychiatry—and toward biblical counseling. These Christians believe that all remedies, even for severe problems such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, are best treated with counseling based on the Bible alone. Under this approach, medication and secular therapy are eschewed in favor of self-examination, repentance, and prayer. When biblical counseling began in the 1960s, it was a reaction to the excesses and overconfidence of secular mental health professionals. But, today, biblical counseling stands accused of the same fault of overconfidence. Critics say it disregards evidence of mental problems beyond a person’s control, encourages victim-blaming, and leaves patients worse off rather than better. Kathryn Joyce traces the rise—and looming identity crisis—of a movement that has affected millions of people.
Kathryn Joyce’s Pacific Standard feature is available to subscribers—in print or digital formats—now, and will be posted online in full on Tuesday, September 02. Until then, an excerpt:
Biblical counseling had overcome its first great challenge. Now it was freer to expand without worry—and so it did. Today, it is a major force among conservative American Protestants. It is so popular, and so widespread, that in 2005 the Southern Baptist Convention’s theological seminaries—the pastoral schools of the largest Protestant denomination in the country—announced a “wholesale change of emphasis” in favor of biblical counseling over an earlier “pastoral care” model that had drawn in part on the behavioral sciences.
But biblical counseling also faces serious difficulties, ones as great as those faced by Grace Community Church over 30 years ago. It has been confronted with mounting external criticisms and widening internal divisions, and the result, among its practitioners, is a looming crisis of principle. How Christians address this crisis will shape the mental health choices of millions of Americans.
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