Many Christians think about counseling in this way: If I need a cavity filled, I should see a dentist; if I run into legal trouble, I should hire a lawyer; and if I need some counseling, I should see a counselor. In other words, counseling should be restricted to the professionals alone.
Other Christians might not take such an exclusive view, but they will minimize the role of biblical counselors or lay counselors. To them, most issues require a professional, and they would be quick to send a person to a counselor for help.
Defining terms and goals
Our goal is not to promote a low view of professional counselors. These people are allies—not enemies. Instead, our goal is to teach a high view of lay counselors and biblical counselors in Christian community. We are not going to depreciate clinical counselors, but attempt to raise our appreciation for everyday counseling in the Christian community. Before we get much further, let’s define terms:
- A lay counselor refers to a friend who is giving counsel to another friend.
- A biblical counselor refers to a paid person at a church who is giving pastoral, biblical counseling.
- A clinical counselor refers to someone with a graduate degree and licensure.
In this article, we are going to make a case for a wholistic approach to counseling. We will argue that we should utilize all three forms of counseling above to their maximum potential—not minimizing or marginalizing any of them.
The Biblical Case for Lay Counseling
The NT authors use a variety of terms that refer to counseling fellow Christians. Since they give these imperatives in the context of Christian community and for “one another,” this implies that counseling “one another” is the norm—not the exception.
#1. “Admonish” (noutheteō)
“Admonish” (noutheteō) is used 9 times in the NT. This is a compound word that comes from the words “mind” (nous) and “put” (tithēmi). Thus, it refers to putting something on someone’s mind. Specifically, it means “to counsel about avoidance or cessation of an improper course of conduct, admonish, warn, instruct.” The term is used alongside shedding tears (Acts 20:31), teaching others (Col. 1:28; 3:16), and “warning” others (Titus 3:10). Consider a few examples of this key term.
(Rom. 15:14 NIV) I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct [noutheteō] one another.
The term “instruct” to refer to Christian counseling. Commentators contend that it means more than merely “the imparting of information,” and it refers to the ability to “counsel” other Christians. Indeed, in its context, this implies being “competent to counsel.” Even though he had never been to Rome, Paul was confident that these Christians were capable of counseling one another.
(Col. 1:28) We proclaim Him, admonishing [noutheteō] every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.
Paul is describing counseling. Paul states that we are to “present every man complete [or “mature,” teleios] in Christ.” At the very least, this must refer to seeing relative “maturity” (ESV, TNIV, NET). Part of being able to lead others to spiritual maturity requires counseling dysfunctions and problems. This is why Paul pairs the term with “teaching” as well as “wisdom.”
Paul understands this to refer to all Christians. This is why he mentions “every man” twice for emphasis.
(1 Thess. 5:14) We urge you, brethren, admonish [noutheteō] the unruly, encourage [paramytheomai] the fainthearted, help [antechomai] the weak, be patient [makrothumeō] with everyone.
This shows that there is a spectrum in our approach that requires wisdom. We need the ability to discern the person, the problem, and the appropriate response. All of this falls under the vast umbrella of “patience.” Once again, this is directed to the entire church—not just professionals.
From these uses, we can see that this is quite close to our modern concept of counseling, which is the ability to help others grow in various areas of their lives. And once again, God calls all Christians to do this sort of counseling for “one another.” Other terms support this perspective.
#2. “Teach” (didaskō)
(Col. 3:16) “With all wisdom teaching (didaskō) and admonishing (noutheteō) one another.”
“Teach” (didaskō) is used 97 times in the NT. It means “to tell someone what to do, tell, instruct” or “to provide instruction in a formal or informal setting, teach.” This doesn’t simply refer to “information-transfer” between two people. Biblical teaching is most often done in the context of relationship. This is why Paul couples “teaching” with “admonition,” implying a dynamic give-and-take between two people. As you can see, this sort of counseling is not limited to professionals, but for “one another.”
#3. “Exhort” (parakaleō)
(1 Thess. 5:11) “Encourage (parakaleō) one another.”
(Heb. 3:13) “Encourage (parakaleō) one another day after day… so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
“Exhort” (parakaleō) is used 107 times in the NT. It means to “to call to one’s side” or “to urge strongly, appeal to, urge, exhort, encourage.” Sin has an effect on our minds (“hardened by the deceitfulness of sin”), and this is why we need “encouragement” from others. Surely, some form of counsel is in view. Furthermore, God calls all Christians to do this sort of counseling because this is addressed to “one another” and it should occur “day after day.” In other words, this should be the norm in Christian community.
(Rom. 12:6, 8) Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly… He who exhorts, in his exhortation.
Regarding Romans 12:8, Keller writes, “This is the word parakaleo, which means to ‘come alongside.’ ‘Encouragement’ is a good translation, but it also includes most of what today we would call ‘counseling’—support, inspiration. Encouragers are not necessarily trained, formal counselors. They can serve as advisors, supporters, greeters, and welcomers in many ways.” The concept of “greeters” and “welcomers” seems to be a feature of contemporary church culture. But Keller is surely right that the term carries the semantic range of “counseling.”
#4. “Reprove” (elenchō)
(Eph. 5:11) “Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose (elenchō) them.”
“Reprove” (elenchō) means “to scrutinize or examine carefully, bring to light, expose, set forth” or “to bring a person to the point of recognizing wrongdoing, convict, convince.” Here is a key component to effective counseling: The ability to carefully help a person to see hidden motivations, beliefs, and attitudes, bringing them into the light.
#5. “Restore” (katartizō)
(Gal. 6:1) “If anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore [katartizō] such a one in a spirit of gentleness.”
The term “restore” (katartizō) refers to helping a person to “function well” or to “put in order” or to “restore to a former condition.” This is the term used for “mending” torn nets (Mt. 4:21; Mk. 1:19).
In Galatians 6:1, the people who should “restore” others are not professionals, but simply those people “who are spiritual.” Are you a spiritual person? Then God calls you to take part in this important ministry of mending and restoring the lives of others.
#6. “Healings” (iamatōn)
(1 Cor. 12:8-9) For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit.
The word “healing” (iamatōn) is plural in the Greek (i.e. “healings”). It refers to “different gifts for different kinds of sickness.” Believers suffer from all sorts of illnesses (e.g. physical, spiritual, psychological, emotional, etc.). Apparently, some people have a supernatural gift in this area.
The Rational Case for Lay Counseling
In addition to Scripture, we can appeal to reason and common sense to support a need for lay counseling. We hope to give a thoughtful perspective on how to think about the role of clinical counseling.
Clinical counseling isn’t always better than biblical counseling or even lay counseling. This is because not all clinical counselors hold to a biblical worldview. Others hold to a biblical worldview, but they use a methodology that doesn’t arise or emerge from Scripture. We agree with the late Dr. Larry Crabb in this regard. He received his PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Illinois, and he is a well-renowned clinician. He writes,
Revelation must be the basis upon which we develop and defend our counseling ideas… It is my view that counseling models must demonstrate more than mere consistency with Scripture; they must in fact emerge from it.
The difference between “guided by” and “consistent with” is enormous. The theorist who is guided by the Bible more fully acknowledges its authority. Someone who depends for guidance on another source and then seeks to maintain biblical consistency will tend to regard the Bible merely as helpful. The product of the latter way of thinking should not properly be called “biblical.”
While Scripture doesn’t answer every question about how to counsel others, our counseling model should arise and emerge from Scripture. This is because Scripture answers the central questions for a flourishing human condition.
Unfortunately, not all clinicians hold methods that emerge from Scripture, and some methods even contradict Scripture. When beleaguered Christians seek counseling, they are usually in a very vulnerable state. Crippling conditions are ruining their lives, and they are often not in the best state to discern if a counseling method is biblically grounded. This could be a dangerous situation.
To be clear, many biblical counselors and lay counselors have unbiblical methodologies or practices as well. We all do. We shouldn’t cast suspicion on clinicians without cause. The point is simply that a clinician should be held to the same standard as anyone else: They shouldn’t get a pass simply because they hold a graduate degree.
Clinical counselors may not be skilled at their job. Consider a parallel. Imagine if a man applied to be a pastor at your church. This man was thoroughly trained in Hebrew and Greek; he read many books on biblical interpretation; he even graduated summa cum laude from a distinguished seminary. Moreover, he has letters of recommendation from his professors and colleagues. What do you think? Would he be the best fit for the job?
Perhaps. But I’d have a lot of questions: Is he a loving man? Does he have a high view of Scripture? Does he have a tangible history of impacting others through his leadership? Is he disqualified in any way due to his character? Is he skilled or even gifted in leadership? Or does he just have a graduate degree and a few letters of recommendation?
This may be a good parallel with clinical counseling today. Merely getting a graduate degree is insufficient to show that someone is qualified as a skilled counselor. I would want to know that they have a history of love, integrity, and a successful impact on others. Many counselors are quite skilled at their job. But again, they shouldn’t get a pass on these other qualifications simply because they have a graduate degree.
Clinical counselors can be quite expensive. Many clinicians charge between $75-200 per session. In the case of acute psychological problems, this is money well spent! However, who can we talk to about all of the common pains of life without paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars? Insurance will sometimes offset the cost for serious psychological issues. But insurance will often refuse to pay for common debilitating issues such as general depression, anxiety, grief, porn addiction, substance abuse, infertility, marriage problems, family discord, raising children, sickness, etc. Lay counselors can help to meet these needs.
Clinical counselors are required to keep confidentiality by law. We agree with confidentiality in some respects (Mt. 18:15), because gossip is a sin (Rom. 1:29; 2 Cor. 12:20; 1 Tim. 5:13; 2 Thess. 3:11; Prov. 11:13; 16:27-28; 17:9; 20:19; 25:9-10). However, the Bible teaches that we experience healing in community. Jesus taught that we should keep each other’s sins “private” (Mt. 18:15). Yet in cases where the person refuses to change, Jesus exhorts us to tell “one or two” others (Mt. 18:16), and even in extreme cases to “tell it to the church” (Mt. 18:17). Paul writes, “If anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1). If we couldn’t talk to spiritual members about a sinning brother, then how could they help? Chloe informed Paul of sin in the church in Corinth—even mentioning specific people (1 Cor. 1:11; 5:1). If we keep to a strict level of confidentiality, we run into various problems:
- It’s difficult to get an objective perspective. When a person comes to us for counsel, we need to always remember that they are not going to be objective. We all suffer from perspective bias. Also, sin has a deceiving effect on our minds (Heb. 3:13; Eph. 4:17-19; Jer. 17:9-10). It’s interesting to routinely hear one perspective from the counselee—only to get a completely different (and even contradictory) perspective from another person involved. By getting an outside perspective from a loved one, we move closer to objectivity.
- It’s difficult to offer the counselee a support system. To effectively change, we need help from “one another,” not just one other person. We shouldn’t carry the unrealistic expectation that a counselor can shoulder this burden all alone.
- It’s easy for a client to twist the words of a counselor. One of my professors (a PhD and practicing clinician) once addressed the issue of confidentiality. A student asked what a professional counselor should do if a counselee was misrepresenting him or even slandering him based on the content of their recent counseling session. My professor responded, “Not only can you not defend yourself… but you can’t even admit to meeting with that person to a third party.” We would pay a terrible price if we held to such a strict view of confidentiality in Christian community.
Western culture extols the right of individual privacy, but it does so at the expense of relationship and community. As followers of Christ, we need to defend both. We not only need to discourage gossip, but we need to encourage transparency.
Lay counseling is quite effective! Consider this recent article from Joanne Silberner—a journalist for National Public Radio. She writes, “[Lay counseling] is a controversial approach. Critics say the use of lay counselors means that patients receive substandard care… Thirty or 40 years ago, the U.S. was [piloting lay counseling programs.] Lay counselors were going to be the next big thing for depression treatment. There were lots of pilot programs, and medical journals carried the results of research trials. Most of the old research showed that lay counselors were just as effective for depression as counselors with lots more education—sometimes even more effective. A 1979 review paper in Psychological Bulletin analyzed 42 papers and concluded so-called paraprofessionals got results ‘equal to or significantly better than those obtained by professionals.’ In a 1985 rebuttal in the same journal, the best the opponents could come up with was that professionals did just as well, but not better. And the results got better and better. The medical journal Lancet has just published two large studies that confirm earlier research showing that lay counseling works and is cost-effective… [Psychiatrist Vikram Patel] recalls being criticized at international meetings for advocating for substandard care. His standard reply: ‘We need to wake up.’ Lay counselors are effective, he says, and they address the lack of mental health workers that is so common in poor parts of the world.”
Lay counseling is a biblical imperative for “one another.” Lay counseling should be the norm in Christian community—not the exception. These are “one another” commands just like all of the other 54 “one another” passages in the NT. We have no right to eliminate these.
Lay counseling shouldn’t be minimized or disregarded altogether. This is another mutation of the clergy-laity distinction that we see so often. We rightly reject the clergy-laity distinction in roles like leadership, teaching, and discipleship. But many won’t apply this view to counseling. This is misguided. Gifted counselors shouldn’t minimize the role of the others any more than gifted leaders should. Good leaders know that it’s their role to empower and train others to make an impact for Christ. They also welcome input and help from others around them. Skilled counselors should do the same.
Lay counseling is truly a form of love. What does it communicate to our friend if we are quick to send them away to a clinician at the first sign of difficulty? This could imply that we don’t care enough to help when it hurts. Our friendship will miss the experience of bonding at a deep level, as we walk alongside our friend during such a crucial, life-changing time.
Clinical counselors are allies—not enemies. Like all spiritual gifts, the Body of Christ should have experienced and professional Christian counselors to help in complex circumstances. Like other gifted people, these counselors should help to equip less skilled believers. We need to benefit from “million dollar” counselors, and we also need a million more “one dollar” counselors to be equipped to meet the growing mental health needs. These lay counselors can help meet the needs of the mental health crisis that surrounds us. We all face various problems: depression, anxiety, grief, porn addiction, substance abuse, infertility, marriage problems, family discord, raising children, sickness, etc. Who will be able to meet this ocean of needs? Christian community has a support network that the world can only dream of. But will we use it?
APPENDIX: When should I refer someone to professional counseling?
It’s not always clear when to send someone to professional counseling, yet it’s always a safe bet to contact a clinical counselor if we are unsure. We should definitely refer a person to clinical counseling in these two cases:
(1) Suicidal ideation. Amateur counselors often worry that if they ask someone about suicidal thoughts or self-harm, that this might incite suicide. Yet the opposite is true. You should ask directly if you suspect someone may have thoughts about hurting themselves. It’s important to get them to verbalize these thoughts, since they are less likely to act on them if they talk about it.
It is important to ask the individual if they have considered a plan for suicide, or if they’ve ever had these thoughts before in the past. If they say “I wish I were dead,” this is not taken nearly as seriously as if they say “I’m thinking about taking an overdose, and I have some pills.” If they have a plan it must be taken seriously and you should take them to mental health facility or hospital. In our area, OSU’s Harding Hospital or Netcare is usually contacted for help.
(2) Biological causes. Certain conditions can greatly benefit from medication, including Major Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Dysthymic Disorder, Panic Disorder, Schizophrenia, and Trichotillomania (hair pulling). Recent evidence suggests that eating disorders may benefit from medication, but group therapy can also be quite helpful. Medication can restore balance in brain function, so that a person can have the relief needed to change their lifestyle and battle their false-belief systems.
In cases that are borderline or uncertain, here are some questions to ask:
- Have you checked with others to get a second opinion?
- Has your friend opened up about this problem with more than one qualified person?
- Is your friend practicing the basic means of growth?
- Have you tried to study something on this subject? Or have you tried to read some literature on this subject to help your friend?
- Have they talked to their doctor? It’s often helpful to have a blood test to check for an imbalance in thyroid or for anemia. Hypothyroid and anemia can lead to fatigue, while hyperthyroid can lead to anxiety. This is a relatively cheap test, which can help identify common biological causes for depression and anxiety.
 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 679.
 Everett F. Harrison, “Romans,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans through Galatians, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 10 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 155.
 Robert H. Mounce, Romans, vol. 27, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 266.
 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 241.
 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 764-765.
 Timothy Keller, Romans 8-16 For You (The Good Book Co., 2015), 113.
 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 315.
 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 526.
 Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 7, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 166.
 Larry Crabb, Understanding People: Deep Longings for Relationship (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 29.
 Larry Crabb, Understanding People: Deep Longings for Relationship (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 38.
 Durlak, J. A. (1979). Comparative effectiveness of paraprofessional and professional helpers. Psychological Bulletin, 86 (1), 80-92.
 Joanne Silberner, “When There’s No Therapist, How Can The Depressed Find Help?” NPR, January 5, 2017.