The Psychologizing of the Church

The Psychologizing of the Church

William MacDonald

One of the phenomena of the age in which we live is the way the church has been infiltrated by secular psychology. Contrary to 2 Timothy 3:16-17, the Bible is no longer sufficient as a basis for counseling. We need psychotherapy. The Holy Spirit is no longer depended on to produce needed changes in the lives of believers. Elders are no longer competent to counsel. They must refer their people to a professional therapist. This in spite of the fact that God has given us in the Word and by the Spirit all that is necessary for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3).

For generations believers took their problems to the Lord in prayer. Now they must take them to a psychiatrist or psychologist. Young men are no longer urged to preach the Word. Now the buzz-word is “Practice psychological counseling.”

Professional counseling has become such a sacred cow that someone will inevitably arise in its defense. What’s so wrong with it? Let me list eleven things that are wrong with it.

1. The person’s attention is directed to self rather than to Christ. That is a fatal flaw. There is no victory in self. Self-examination is not a cure. Good seamen don’t cast their anchors inside the boat. We need Someone bigger than ourselves and that Someone is Christ. Sooner or later we have to realize that occupation with Christ is the way to victory in the Christian life (2 Cor. 3:18).

Ibsen, the Norwegian dramatist, tells of a visit which Peter Gynt paid to a mental hospital. All the people seemed normal. No one seemed crazy. They talked quite sensibly about their plans. When Peter mentioned this to a doctor, the latter said, “They’re mad. I admit they talk very sensibly, but it’s all about themselves. They are, in fact, most intelligently obsessed with self. It’s self – morning, noon, and night. We can’t get away from self here. We lug it around with us, even through our dreams. Oh yes, young sir, we talk sensibly, but we’re mad right enough.”

2. Modern psychology is based on human, not divine, wisdom. It is man’s opinion rather than God’s authoritative Word. The variety of human opinions is seen in the fact that there are over 250 systems of psychotherapy and over 10,000 techniques (including one to help your pets), each one claiming superiority over the others.

Says Don Hillis, “This trend carries with it at least one dangerous element: human reasoning takes the place of the Word of God in solving emotional and spiritual problems. Rational answers… that are not based on spiritual principles can lead to temporary relief but in turn may become disillusioning and detrimental.”

3. Many and probably most of the problems for which people seek counseling are caused by sin – broken marriages, fractured families, interpersonal conflicts, worry, drugs, alcohol, and some forms of depression. For these problems we don’t need the “couch” but the Cross. Only the Savior can say, “Your sins are forgiven; go in peace.”

4. Modern counseling engages in a lot of blame-shifting. Sin is sickness. Or it is caused by a person’s environment. Parents are blamed for their children’s unacceptable behavior. As a result people are relieved of personal responsibility. John MacArthur tells of a woman who said she had a problem with compulsive fornication for years: “The counselor suggested that her conduct was the result of wounds inflicted by a passive father and an overbearing mother.”

Henry Sloane Coffin sized up the situation insightfully:

“Current psychology adds to… moral alibis. Men and women have themselves analyzed, and find emancipation in banishing the ugly names which vigorous religion attached to sins, where they are re-christened with labels with no suggestion of guilt. They are maladjusted, or introverted, rather than dishonest or selfish. A middle-aged father tires of his wife and becomes involved with a young woman half his age, and is told by a practitioner that he is suffering from ‘a spasm of re-adolescence,’ when he ought to be struck in the face with ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ ”

5. Psychotherapy works directly contrary to the Holy Spirit by emphasizing the importance of a good self-image, of a healthy case of self-esteem. The Holy Spirit is seeking to convict sinners of sin and bring them to repentance. He is seeking to restore backsliding believers and bring them to confession. Any self-esteem that is not based on the forgiveness of sins and of man’s position in Christ is phony to the core.

6. Then, of course, there is the financial side. James Montgomery Boice comments, “So we have the unique phenomenon in our day of people paying other people to listen to them, which is what the psychiatric, psychologic, and counseling professions are all about. Counseling is a billion dollar business. But it is not that counselors actually advise or guide people in the vast majority of cases.

Basically all they do is listen. They are paid to do what people in an earlier day did voluntarily.”

When a lady complained that twenty years of counseling had not helped her, a friend asked her, “Have you ever gone to church for help?”

“No, all the church wants is your money.”

“How much have you paid to the psychologist?”

“I’ve paid $60 a week for these twenty years and that is out of a monthly salary of $2400.”

Sixty dollars a week adds up to $240 a month. That is a tenth of her income. She was “tithing” to her counselor, but she wouldn’t “tithe” to the church. And she admitted that she was no better

Another woman objected to what she called her analyst’s double standards. “For six years I visited my analyst five times a week and gave up many of the little extras in life – like nice clothes and vacations – to afford him. But when I got sick and missed a session, a funny thing happened. My analyst would insist that my illness was some kind of a psychosomatic revenge – that I was subconsciously resisting treatment. Of course, I always had to pay. Yet, when he went away on his usual full month vacation in August, leaving me stranded, alone and panicky with many unresolved conflicts, I’m supposed to understand why his vacation doesn’t interrupt the analysis.”

Rollo May, a leading voice in the profession since its beginnings in the 1950′s, lamented that psychotherapy has succumbed to money-making and to “gimmicks.”

“Psychotherapy,” he said, “has become a business where you have clients and make money.” Many practitioners claim that, to be effective, the treatment should constitute a financial sacrifice for the “patient.” The latter wouldn’t have respect for it if it were a bargain. Small wonder that people joke: A neurotic is one who builds castles in the air. A psychotic is one who lives in them. A therapist is one who collects the rent.

7. Sometimes people pay a small fortune to be analyzed when what they need is a regular doctor. During two years of counseling, an author complained that his vision was blurred when he tried to read. The therapist replied that “inability to concentrate was a typical syndrome in people with floating anxieties.” Finding it difficult to make enough money to pay the psychologist, the counselee went to an oculist. The latter suggested that a pair of reading glasses would cure the syndrome. It did.

8. Christian counselors claim to merge the best insights of unregenerate men like Freud, Rogers, Maslow, and Jung with the teachings of the Bible. It is an unholy union. At a congress on Christian counseling in 1988, Jay Adams said, “With all that is within me I urge you to give up the fruitless task to which I alluded: the attempt to integrate pagan and biblical truth… Think of the millions of hours, the more than one generation of lives already spent on this hopeless task. Why are there no discernible results? I’ll tell you why. Because it just can’t be done… Counseling has to do with changing people. You see, that’s God’s business.”

9. Even in most Christian psychological counseling, prayer is not accepted as a viable “technique.” At best it is tolerated; at worst it is neglected. Few Christian therapists spent significant time praying with their counselees. Are we to believe that prayer is only of marginal importance in coping with the problems of life? Have we been wrong all these years in believing that if we meet God’s conditions, He will answer our prayers?

10. In many churches the ministry is psychology with a veneer of Biblical vocabulary. People go looking for bread and they get a stone.

11. To put things very bluntly, psychotherapy has not proved eminently successful, and in many cases it has been harmful.

In recent years, some courageous Christian authors have raised warning flags concerning the whole area of psychological counseling. For instance:

Competent to Counsel, by J.E. Adams (1970)

Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self Worship, by Paul C. Vitz (1977)

The Psychological Way/The Spiritual Way, by Martin and Deidre Bobgan (1979)

Psychological Seduction, by W.K. Kilpatrick (1983)

The Seduction of Christianity, by David Hunt and T.A. McMahon (1985)

Psychoheresy, by Martin and Deidre Bobgan (1987)

Beyond Seduction, by David Hunt (1987)

Prophets of Psychoheresy, by Martin and Deidre Bobgan (1989)

Opponents have either waved aside the books with a cavalier flourish or accused the authors of divisiveness or sundry other evils. However, they now have to face the fact that non-Christian men who are professionals in the field are voicing grave doubts and disillusionment as to psychotherapy. Here are a few:

The Myth of Psychotherapy, by Dr. Thomas Szasz (1978)

The Shrinking of America, by Bernie Zilbergeld (1983)

Against Therapy: Emotional Tyranny And the Myth of Psychological Healing, by Jeffrey Masson (1988)

Dr. Szasz, a professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York, has been an outspoken critic for years. He has termed psychiatry a pseudo-science, like astrology or alchemy. He calls mental illness a myth, a convenient label adopted to disguise and thus make more palatable the bitter pill of moral conflict in human relations. He contends that no form of abnormal behavior is a disease, and thus treatment is not the concern of an M.D.

He goes even farther. He says that perhaps most psychotherapeutic procedures are harmful for the so-called patients. “All such interventions and proposals should therefore be regarded as evil until they are proven otherwise.”

Zilbergeld says that it is generally as helpful for a counselee to talk to a lay person as to a professional.

Jeffrey Masson is a graduate of the Toronto Psychoanalytic Institute and a member of the International Psychoanalytic Association. He served as Projects Director of the Sigmund Freud Archives. In the Preface of Against Therapy, he writes: “This is a book about why I believe psycho-therapy, of any kind, is wrong. Although I criticize many individual therapists and therapies, my main objective is to point out that the very idea of psychotherapy is wrong.”

Dr. Hans J. Eysenck, Professor of Psychology at London University, found that between 66% and 77% of neurotic “patients” will recover or improve to a marked extent with or without psychotherapy. It is a matter of spontaneous remission.

O. Hobart Mowrer, Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois, said, “As the clock of history has ticked off the decades of this century, we have gradually discovered that Freud’s great postulate – that all our behavior can be blamed on others and that the goal of life is not to act morally but to free ourselves of guilt – has dumped us from the frying-pan into the fire.”

The claim that psychotherapy has a high rate of success is not based on fact. In the Cambridge-Somerville study, potential juvenile delinquents who were give psychological counseling turned out worse than the control group that had received no counseling.

It should also be noted that in psychotherapy, there is a psychosomatic or placebo effect. “A high expectancy of improvement, fueled by the therapist’s promise that he can deal effectively with the problem, leads to a sense of good results and enthusiastic praise, even though there is no real change.”

So what is the conclusion of the matter? The conclusion is that “a great revolutionary movement which promised to account in scientific terms for all neurotic illnesses and to cure many of them” has failed to deliver. And while many secular practitioners are admitting that dramatic breakthroughs and cures are almost non-existent, the evangelical church is flocking more and more to psychotherapy instead of the Bible as the shining panacea for tensions, anxieties and other problems.

To quote Don Hillis again, “Perhaps it is time for the church to do some soul searching about the fact that religious people are turning to psychologists and psychiatrists for help rather than to the church. Perhaps someone should be concerned when Christian youth feel they can accomplish more for mankind as psychologists and psychiatrists than as pastors and evangelists. Perhaps a new look at the Book will reveal a spiritual psychology that will provide spiritual answers to the emotional and mental needs of God’s people.”

There is a place for counseling, but it must be Biblical counseling. It must not displace the Bible, or the Holy Spirit, or prayer. It must not excuse sin or relieve people of personal responsibility.

Published by express permission from the author – 2004

Weary of Psychotherapy? Or merely wary?

The following book by Charles Solomon of Grace Fellowship International points another way – the way of “spiritual therapy”.

In “Handbook to Happiness” the way of the Cross is explored and seen to be God’s answer to Man’s perplexities. Find out more at: