Competent to Counsel


Recently I read Competent to Counsel by Jay E Adams.[i] (It’s been around since the 1970s, so maybe you have a copy on your bookshelf.) As a pastor, Adams attended seminars and read all he could in order to be able to counsel those needing it. Increasingly disillusioned with the help provided by psychology and psychiatrists he decided to turn to God’s Word for answers. He came to the conclusion that the Holy Spirit gives the church the ability and duty to counsel one another and that the congregation should not turn to psychology or outside organisations. It’s time, he says in his book, that the church believes again in her own competency to help those needing counsel.

For Adams the central issue is whether people who come for counselling are suffering from a spiritual sickness or a sin (p.19). His research found that psychiatrists act in the belief that the ‘patient’ is spiritually or mentally sick. Consequently, they apply a sort of medical model whereby the cause of a patient’s problem is seen as being outside of themselves. Thereby, says Adams, psychiatrists “took away the sense of personal responsibility” and searched into the past to find others—parents, the church, society, grandmother—as the source of the problem and the one on whom to place the blame.

Adding a touch of humour he refers to Anna Russell who uses hyperbole to satirise psychiatry in this folk song (note especially the last two lines):

I went to my psychiatrist to be psychoanalyzed
To find out why I killed the cat and blacked my husband’s eyes.
He laid me on a downy couch to see what he could find,
And here is what he dredged up from my subconscious mind:
When I was one, my mommie hid my dolly in a trunk,
And so it follows naturally that I am always drunk.
When I was two, I saw my father kiss the maid one day,
And that is why I suffer now from kleptomania.
At three, I had the feeling of ambivalence toward my brothers,
And so it follows naturally I poison all my lovers.
But I am happy; now I’ve learned the lesson this has taught;
That everything I do that’s wrong is someone else’s fault.

A person, says Adams, “must stop blaming others and accept responsibility for his own poor behaviour. Problems may be solved … by confession of sin.”[ii] Office bearers can fail in their counselling when they become too sympathetic towards excuses. If the person being counselled “tells a very pitiful tale” there is the temptation to agree that under the circumstances the person was not responsible for his actions. Once that happens “there is little more that the counsellor can do” (p.58).

Adams points to the research of O H Mowrer.[iii] Though not a Christian, Mowrer called psychology a failure because it is based on Freudian presuppositions. He was critical of the churches’ readiness to use psychiatrists and asked: “Has Evangelical religion sold its birthright for a mess of psychological pottage?”[iv] Mowrer replaced the medical model with a moral model wherein the difficulties are seen in the behaviour of the person: our behaviour determines our emotions. The person needs to change his behaviour and then the emotions will also become healthy and his feelings will have the right balance.

Mowrer’s findings and criticisms led Adams to reject the ‘medical model’ (i.e. treating poor behaviour as an illness). But unlike Mowrer he looked to Scripture for the answer. This resulted in him concluding that sin is the cause of psychological problems. Healing, he found, came about through the power of confessing sin and through repentance. He doesn’t deny that there may be a biological cause, such as a chemical imbalance or deficiency. But that, he says, is something of the body and needs a medical doctor. For Adams there is no such thing as mental illness (p.28).

“To put the issue simply: the Scriptures plainly speak of both organically based problems as well as those problems that stem from sinful attitudes and behaviour; but where, in all of God’s Word, is there so much as a trace of any third source of problems which might approximate the modern concept of ‘mental illness’?” (p.29)

Therefore, Adams contends, the behavioural problems of the mind or spirit should not be tackled by the medical model of psychology but by a religious model; one which is to be addressed by office bearers and fellow believers. We should not send people to psychiatrists who don’t solve anything because they don’t recognise a personal responsibility to God. Only the Bible can give the answers needed for spiritual problems. For the Holy Spirit, the great Counsellor (John 14:16), works with the Word to change people’s behaviour (2 Timothy 3:16). Psychology, however, removes people’s guilt and responsibility. Adams calls ministers and church members back to their abilities to engage in what he calls ‘nouthetic counselling’[v], directing people through the living Word of God. He refers to Romans 15:14 where Paul wrote:

“And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to admonish (nouthetically confront) one another” (p. 60).

Adams refers to Psalms 32, 38, and 51 to illustrate how sin affects psychological behaviours. Even in cases of sickness, he says, there is the possibility of checking to see if sin is involved because Scripture teaches that there are illnesses that are caused by personal sins.

Unlike psychiatrists, Christians who follow Adams’ call to engage in nouthetic counselling “spend less time finding out how people feel. They are more interested in how they behave” (p. 93). He gives the pertinent example found in Genesis 4:3-7:

“When God rejected Cain’s offering … Cain became angry and upset, ‘and his face fell’ (vs. 5). God then rhetorically asked Cain, ‘Why are you depressed?’ and pointed the way to overcoming it: ‘If you do right, will it [your face] not be lifted up?’ Here, God sets forth the important principle that behaviour determines feelings” (p. 93).

The Bible, he said, teaches that good feelings come from a good conscience and good behaviour. Adams wants to restore the Bible to its rightful position as having the first say in caring for the souls of the people. The aim is to confront the person with the gospel and law of God in order to change the person so that his life conforms to God’s Word as summarised in 2 Tim. 3:16, 17. The Bible gives the answer to every problem, says Adams with an appeal to 1 Cor. 10:13:

“When clients think that they are helpless, that some strange mysterious force is at work overpowering them, and they say that 1 Cor. 10:13 does not apply to their case, the truth may be that they are not serious about wanting to do the Lord’s will” (pp.133-134).

I found Competent to Counsel a very helpful and stimulating guide, with lots of practical Bible-based examples for those tasked with counselling members of the congregation (and that probably extends to all church members with the ability to speak). Although Adams is not without his critics, it is pleasing to read his emphasis on a return to the truth of God’s Word in counselling and his defence of that truth in the face of psychology based on false premises. His contention is that psychiatrists have taken away people’s responsibility for their actions and that people need to return to the saving power of the gospel, whereby God is honoured and people are directed to live in accordance with His Word. That Word provides the answers. Accompanied as it is by the inward working of the Holy Spirit the Word provides comfort, direction and the cure to peoples’ spiritual problems. That Word has been entrusted to the church which God has made ‘competent to counsel’ and which should, therefore, not abrogate its responsibility to outsiders.

Jelte Numan

[i] Jay E Adams, Competent to Counsel, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, USA, 1974.

[ii] Adams, ‘Introduction’, p. xvii.

[iii] O H Mowrer was past president of the American Psychological Association.

[iv] Adams, ‘Introduction’, p. xvi.

[v] Nouthetic comes from the Greek word ‘nouthetein’, a term also found in Acts 20:31; 1 Cor. 4:14; Col. 1:28 & 3:16; 1 Thess. 5:12, 14 &2 Thess. 3:15, etc.