Usually, evangelicals have a hate-hate relationship with mental-health counseling. And they should. Counseling puts the lie to their entire conceptualization of Jesusing their troubles away. But yesterday, one evangelical guy gave a speech to Asian Southern Baptists that sought to reposition counseling as a responsibility church congregations have toward each other as part of his denomination’s overall push for more discipleship.
His rationalizations for the idea are just perfectly, quintessentially evangelical, too. Today, we’ll go over those rationalizations, look at this idea’s connection to discipleship, and explore just why evangelicals tend to be incredibly bad at all of this community stuff.
Everyone, meet the Asian Collective
As I write, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) enters the penultimate day of its 2023 Annual Meeting. A lot has happened, and I expect more to happen still.
Like with any similarly-sized convention, attendees like to catch both the main events and the side events that appeal to their own particular interests. Ultraconservatives have their official Angry Control Freaks Prayer Breakfast, pastors have a special little Pastors’ Conference just for them, and Asian pastors and their wives have the Asian Collective NextGen Luncheon.
According to Biblical Recorder, the Asian Collective comprises some 2000 churches from 27 countries. These churches affiliate with the SBC because they like the idea of its Cooperative Fund—particularly the seminaries and missionary projects it sponsors in America and abroad. For one group within the Asian Collective, Myanmar Baptist Churches USA, this year was also their very first meeting.
And now, let’s meet Deepak Reju, who has some ideas about in-house counseling
For the NextGen Luncheon, attendees got to hear a presentation from Deepak Reju. He co-wrote the 2015 book The Pastor and Counseling: The Basics of Shepherding Members in Need.
The gist of his speech (and of his book, for that matter) seems to be that pastors and congregations should be DIYing counseling even for the hardest, most challenging conditions and problems. They shouldn’t be leaving those tough cases to professional therapists, no no no! Rather, fixing their own problems in-house will demonstrate to the entire world just how Jesusy they are—and, of course, how powerful their Jesusing truly is.
According to Reju’s Amazon bio page, he is the “pastor of biblical counseling and families” at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. This church is so huge it has its own Wikipedia page. Its lead pastor and presumably Reju’s boss, Mark Dever, is a hardline Calvinist who also runs 9Marks, an incredibly toxic pastor-mentoring group.
(The name is based on a letter Dever once wrote about the “9 Marks” of a healthy church. Of note, none of them actually lead to a healthy church. They actually lead to a dysfunctional authoritarian church, which suits Calvinists down to their fingertips.)
I notice that in the book’s sample, Reju gave its top endorsement spot to Al Mohler—who is apparently Calvinist as well as quite conservative, just not enough to make extremists like Tom Ascol happy. Dever gets the still-covetable 3rd spot, but nowhere does his endorsement mention that Reju is his actual employee. This strange omission makes me wonder what other professional and personal affiliations aren’t being mentioned.
Well, let me amend that. I don’t know how many of those affiliations exist. But I know how many aren’t being mentioned: any of them.
Reju: Pastors just don’t do the really tough counseling, but they really should!
Here’s the Amazon blurb for the book itself:
Pastors spend much of their time counseling people in crisis―a delicate task that requires one to carefully evaluate each situation, share relevant principles from God’s Word, and offer practical suggestions for moving forward. Too often, however, pastors feel unprepared to effectively shepherd their people through difficult circumstances such as depression, adultery, eating disorders, and suicidal thinking.
Written to help pastors and church leaders understand the basics of biblical counseling, this book provides an overview of the counseling process from the initial meeting to the final session. It also includes suggestions for cultivating a culture of discipleship within a church and four appendixes featuring a quick checklist, tips for taking notes, and more.
“Depression, adultery, eating disorders, and suicidal thinking.”
DEPRESSION, ADULTERY, EATING DISORDERS, and SUICIDAL THINKING.
♫ One of these things is not like the others; one of these things doesn’t belong…♫
Well, Reju is here to tell pastors that why yes, they totally can handle all of these situations. And so can their congregation. Here’s how Baptist Press, the official site of the SBC, summarizes his suggestions:
He noted professional healthcare providers have, at best, one or two hours a week to dedicate to helping a person work through their issues. A church, on the other hand, has the capability of surrounding a person throughout the week.
Oh. My. DOG. That last bit is actually exactly why churches shouldn’t be tackling tough counseling cases, as we’ll be discussing shortly here.
A few classes do not a competent therapist make
At SBC-affiliated seminaries, which are Calvinist-dominated, we find degree programs in actual “Biblical Counseling.” That’s authoritarian, Jesus-flavored faux counseling.
The SBC’s flagship seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), offers a Master of Divinity in Biblical Counseling and a Master of Arts in Biblical Counseling. In fact, they’ve got an entire department devoted to the topic.
The Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC), run by Heath Lambert (who contributed a first-page endorsement to Reju’s book), operates a certification center on campus at SBTS as well. If an aspiring pastor doesn’t want to get a full degree in faux-counseling, they may take six classes and do a practicum to get the certification.
Now let’s make matters even worse by rolling counseling into Calvinist-style discipleship
During the SBC’s last schism, the Conservative Resurgence, Calvinists kick-started the festivities by implanting inerrancy as a belief into Southern Baptists’ heads. Inerrancy allowed them to take over the SBC’s affiliated seminaries—which are now the selfsame ones that the Asian Collective likes so much. It also allowed them to trample dissenters out of the denomination, infest committees at all levels of power with their allies, and make sure women never, ever get serious leadership roles within the denomination.
But all of that wasn’t as important to Calvinists as their ultimate goal. That ultimate goal was and still is discipleship. Discipleship is a sickening, dysfunctional authoritarian power-grab. It sets pastors up as the ultimate wielders of power over their congregations. These powerless congregations have zero rights and zero recourse or appeal against overreach and abuse.
If that setup already sounds like the dream situation for SBC pastors, it is. It always has been. But most SBC pastors are nowhere near that powerful in reality. Church committees hire them, and they can fire them too if need be. New pastors often battle church factions that ossified before they were even born. So discipleship tries to make the dream situation a reality with official membership contracts (often called covenants). These contracts specify often-invasive and humiliating punishments for members who refuse to obey their Dear Leaders to the letter.
The only red flag any evangelical needs to see to know to completely avoid a church is that its pastors likes discipleship or that the church has a membership contract following discipleship lines. With such churches, the question isn’t if they will sprout forth abuse allegations, but when.
Inerrancy was supposed to lead to the implementation of discipleship throughout SBC-affiliated churches and organizations. When that failed to happen, Calvinists got cranky. Tom Ascol complained about it quite vocally some years ago:
Quoting [Tom] Ascol, [Colin] Hansen writes: “The conservatives have been in charge now for a couple of decades and our convention is no better off on basic issues than when the liberals were running things. That’s because inerrancy isn’t enough. We have to actually understand and apply what the Bible says. The conservatives thump the Bible but are unwilling to just obey the Bible in the most basic ways. How can you be an inerrantist and not practice [church discipline according to] Matthew 18? You might as well be a liberal. What difference does it make?” (p.77).
Hansen sympathizes entirely, incidentally. In that post, we also find him gloating about all the Calvinist foreign missionaries pouring forth from seminaries. Years later, we’d find him hosting a very terrible podcast called Gospelbound on the very Calvinist site The Gospel Coalition.
In his presentation to the Asian Collective, Reju suggested that his ideas about counseling should be combined with discipleship.
Segue: Someone wants older Asian pastors to thoroughly control and trample younger ones with discipleship
One of the two co-leaders of the Asian Collective, Hyung Lee, works as a pastor in California. And he offered this as a dessert tidbit:
“For our convention of churches to be better, stronger, and have a greater Gospel witness, we need greater connections and involvement with younger Asian pastors and their churches,” explained Lee. “One of the best resources to provide Asian pastors is to meet, connect with, and encourage fellow Asian pastors.”
That sound bite sounds so very pretty. It’s so pretty, in fact, that one almost overlooks what it really says. Lee is deeply concerned that younger Asian pastors aren’t toeing the line that older ones have determined for them. His solution is for those younger pastors to chain themselves to older ones, so the older ones can pass down their leadership style and doctrinal stances to mini-mes before they die.
Reading between the lines, it sounds like the younger pastors ain’t fallin’ for this ploy. Good. I hope they don’t. Older white evangelical leaders are already fretting hard about how the younger generations of leaders will change their ideology. The more the merrier, I say.
How counseling and discipleship would work together, in theory
There’s nothing about Reju’s proposal that is not horrifying to me. Here’s the start of it:
Contending for the local church to be the normative place for this care, Reju urged leaders to develop a church culture that includes counseling and care as part of the discipleship process. Churches must create meaningful fellowship, model such care as leaders, and set expectations early in a new disciple’s life, he said.
Right now, I’m just picturing a church welcome committee earnestly informing new converts that they’ll be taking over that person’s life forever now. I mean really, what could possibly go wrong, right?
Of course, every one of the parts of Reju’s formula is beyond the reach of a discipleship-addled Calvinist-style evangelical church.
- They cannot create meaningful fellowship. As dysfunctional authoritarians, none of them can or should trust anybody else with any deep, dark secrets.
- Their leaders cannot model adequate care for the flocks. As dysfunctional authoritarian leaders, their rule is based upon being given outsized personal power over the lives of the flocks. You cannot love that which you seek to control, and you cannot show adequate care for someone who you think is bound by a god to obey whatever command you feel like giving right then.
- Setting expectations early would seem to be a no-brainer, but it isn’t possible for these churches. If a very controlling group told all of its recruits exactly what would be happening to them, nobody would ever join them. Instead, they present their demands in the gauziest, softest-focus way imaginable. They always paint only best-case scenarios and make dissent from their procedures sound ridiculous and stupid.
Someone expecting such a church to help them resolve any serious problems they have is not only going to be disappointed, but possibly also traumatized.
Reading that post, I feel like I stepped into an SCP file. These dysfunctional authoritarians pretty up all these horrifying totalitarian goals in tribe-accepted, super-Jesusy, simpering ways. I bet the audience nodded and smiled along with all of it.
How this kind of counseling-and-discipleship looks in real life
For a very, very select few lucky evangelicals, nothing will go wrong with following this script. They’ll join a church, confess some shortcoming or other, and the congregation and pastor will decide to fix that person. To do that, they’ll coach their new recruit frequently—in fact, every time they see that person. That translates to many times a week, since these evangelicals want to see the flocks’ butts warming their pews on the regular! Our fortunate poppet responds well to all this coaching, the shortcoming recedes into the rear view mirror, and they become a stalwart member of their community. Hooray Team Jesus!
Except that is how it almost never works.
Discipleship itself allows abusers into positions of power. Evangelicals have no way to accurately evaluate any candidate for leadership. All anyone has to do to fool them is talk the talk and look like they walk the walk. Actually walking the walk is not necessary. Worse, candidates only need to fool the person/committee handing out the position. They do this by ingratiating themselves with that person/committee. It works remarkably well. More than that, this ingratiation solidifies into a full crony network that protects its members against all threats.
Once enshrined, discipleship gives abusive leaders full permission to commit overreach wherever they like. Often, the shortcoming they perceive doesn’t exist. Or it’s not really their business. Or it’s not something they’re even equipped to handle, emotionally or procedurally. A how-to book with all the checklists in the world won’t change anything there. And Jesus won’t lift a finger to help them figure out how to fix big or small problems.
For that matter, often the longest-term members of a church are its most dysfunctional and toxic. Regularly, a church’s worst offender is one of its top leaders. Discipleship never scratches the surface of the flaws of its highest-ranked members. Nor will discipleship trouble a church’s biggest donors. There is a distinct hierarchical aspect to discipleship; power and status flows down from disciple-r to disciple-ee.
This is why dysfunctional authoritarian group members are always jockeying for more power or to cut down those with more power than themselves. It’s the only way to stay relatively safe from overreach.
A suggestion about counseling that will backfire hard
Someone else in the presentation, DeAron Washington, offered this suggestion:
To help destigmatize counseling in the local church, he [Washington] suggested leaders talk about fallenness and brokenness and the disruption caused by sin.
That is gonna backfire so hard. And here’s why:
Evangelicals aren’t very fond of calling themselves fallen, broken, or sinners. I mean, technically according to their belief system they are all three. And often, they will say that about themselves in a general sense. It’s boilerplate evangelicalism. It means nothing. For Calvinists, all of this goes double.
But in lived reality, a group that thinks Jesus really changes people for the better thinks that a lack of change-for-the-better boils down to them not allowing Jesus to work his pixie magic. In other words, someone who can’t fix a glaring flaw is somehow rejecting Jesus’ help. If a discipleship process ensnares that person, and they can’t conform to the demands of their superiors, then those superiors are going to start making some assumptions about why—and start making drastic plans about how to handle it.
This is how discipleship churches start sprouting abuse scandals. It’s how otherwise “nice” evangelicals beat teenagers to death at a “counselling session,” and why a fancy megachurch’s power-maddened small group leaders tried to destroy the life of someone who wouldn’t accept their dating demands.
(By the way: That megachurch’s pastor, Mark Driscoll, was a founding member of The Gospel Coalition and is a hardline Calvinist. Dude also has serious anger issues and abusive tendencies that Jesus has somehow apparently not seen fit to correct.)
Another suggestion about counseling that forgets one teeny tiny detail
The third presentation panelist, Carianne Pritchett (a pastor’s wife and some kind of counselor), had this to add to Reju’s ideas:
“Psychology can be helpful because it gives us some good language to use to navigate through issues,” agreed Pritchett, saying she believes counseling is discipleship and part of the sanctification process. “In a counseling room, it is often a safe place for confession. If you can’t be honest, you can’t get to healing.”
For counseling to work, it can’t be part of discipleship. The authoritarian structure of discipleship precludes good therapeutic outcomes in therapy. Real therapists don’t set themselves up as some big authority figure to their clients. Rather, they set themselves up as their clients’ allies. They offer another way to look at situations, but they allow the client to arrive at that perspective on their own. Instead of offering a top-down authority-figure-driven set of demands, therapists create action plans with their clients that allow them to progress and challenge their thinking at their own pace.
Change is meaningless if it is imposed on someone. It won’t stick. That’s why weight-loss surgery fails so often. The people who get it think that it will force them to change their eating habits. Immediately afterward, it often does. But a very determined emotional eater and self-soother inevitably finds ways to get around that restriction. Without making changes happen from within to find other ways to get those effects without food, the imposed change will soon revert back to its former state.
These discipleship counselors aren’t even as consistent as bariatric surgery.
Also worth noting: Real therapists are bound by laws that prevent them from blabbing about their clients’ lives. Pastors dabbling in counseling, not so much. I’ve heard so many horror stories about someone’s biggest secrets spilling from the pastor’s office into the church gossip mill. These Calvinists, with their extreme focus on the entire congregation trying to fix one person, give me no hope at all that they’ll do better.
Transformational power that doesn’t actually transform anyone
As I’ve noted many times, Jesus doesn’t actually change anybody.
But Reju is very upset that evangelicals tacitly admit this point by seeking competent counseling outside of the tribe. He wants them instead to Jesus their way out of even the most serious problems:
Every lay member of the local church should be involved in the hardest things – or else it makes a statement that the Gospel cannot transform the really hard cases (of deep depression, suicidal ideation, abuse, and other issues), he [Reju] said. By not leaning into the hard cases, “we inadvertently say the Gospel is transformative—except for the really hard cases!”
And well yes, that’s exactly the case. If an evangelical wants to be transformed in small, superficial, surface-level ways, then good. They have found their way. But if an evangelical wishes to change anything major, it ain’t gonna happen through Jesusing. They have to make that change happen the same way anybody else would: by doing the work required to make that change into such a reflexive habit that even willpower doesn’t matter anymore.
We could say similar things about Jesus’ magic healing power. Evangelicals say they believe that Jesus magically heals people all the time. In fact, they say it often and loudly. But if they get grievously sick, they go to the emergency room like anyone else. Nobody gets upset with any evangelical for visiting a dentist when they get a toothache, or seeking prenatal care, or taking blood-pressure medication. They’ve even found ways to rationalize medical care with their beliefs—often by claiming Jesus magically healed them through the medical care they received.
But psychological care feels too much like the spiritual world to evangelicals, I suppose. Or it’s too newfangled for them to have evolved similar rationalizations around it. Or it deals in emotions that Jesus is supposed to fix for them. If they thought Jesus specifically promised an end to toothaches, maybe they’d reject dental care as unacceptably heathen.
So they accept rational, real-world, results-focused medical care for physical trauma, but they want invisible Jesus Power for the invisible problems of the heart and mind.
The problem: Jesus doesn’t fix mental and emotional problems either
When I was Pentecostal, I knew a lovely woman named Martha. We called her Marf. She was the twin sister to an equally lovely woman named Barbara, or Bebo. Marf and Bebo were fixtures in my first church. Both were married, but their lives couldn’t have been much different. Marf had strayed in life and married a worldly man, while Bebo had stayed Pentecostal and married a Pentecostal man. Bebo pretty much had her life together, while Marf struggled in her marriage, with her kids, and especially with her husband. Very seldom, he’d attend church with her. But usually, it was just her and her kids there. Now that I look back, it was Marf I resonated most with, though I cared about both of them.
However, Marf had a battle that Bebo had largely escaped. She fought regularly with clinical depression. And she fought it with Jesus Power.
It was heartbreaking to me to see. I was majoring in psychology in college, and even with my very limited knowledge I could tell she needed real professional help. But instead, she was trying to achieve what we called breakthroughs through prayer and other devotions. Sometimes, she’d be glowing with euphoric joy and radiating peace over some temporary breakthrough. She’d be convinced she’d seen the last of her depression forever. But a week or so later, she’d be back to her old state. She blamed this regression on demons. I had my doubts about that.
Obviously, I never blamed Marf for her struggles. That’s not who I am. But I know others did.
Pattern recognition isn’t evangelicals’ strong suit either
I’m sure we have all known people like Marf in evangelical churches all over the world: seeking and finding temporary respite through religious ecstasy and euphoria, only to lose it again. I went through much the same thing with my weapons-grade anxiety and anger problems.
But evangelicals who don’t get real help sometimes become news stories for the worst possible reasons, like Andrea Yates back in 2001. Because her extremely controlling evangelical tribe rejected proper therapy for mental illness, she spiraled into postpartum psychosis. While in that state, she drowned all five of her children.
Of course, most people won’t go to that extreme. Even while struggling with mental illness, they won’t hurt anybody. I certainly never did! I’m not saying they would, either. What I am saying is that evangelicals have repeatedly proven incapable of recognizing what can be dealt with using their catch-as-catch-can pseudo-therapy, and what needs to go to real professionals and dealt with using real-world therapy and medication.
I’d sooner trust a wild-eyed evangelical with a power drill go at my molars than a faux-counseling degree-wielder who thinks the Bible says that PTSD doesn’t really exist—or worse, that it can be prayed away through Jesus Power, as Mark Driscoll once asserted on Twitter. (The lil hothouse flower blocked me for gently pointing out that Jesusing can’t make PTSD go away, as I discovered myself when I was Christian.)
And that’s even if church congregations want to play at pretend counseling
Of course, everything so far has assumed that church congregations actually want to be 24/7 counselors for potentially very messed up peers. Many will relish the task simply because the activity feels like a power flex rather than what it more accurately is: their Dear Leader telling them, “Let’s you and him fight!”
But many others will soon become exhausted.
Most people are not up for that kind of caring role. They don’t join evangelical churches, particularly not discipleship-addled ones, to do work for no benefit to themselves. All week long, they’ve got plenty of things going on. They don’t want another responsibility added to their plate. And that’s what this kind of counseling would be. Reju wants congregations to become responsible for the mental health of new recruits. And the success of such an endeavor drastically depends on how much work the recruits are willing to do, how well the congregation counsels that person, and how patient they can be with slow progress and relapses.
You couldn’t pay me enough to put myself into that kind of relationship with anyone I’m not blood-related to. Even then, I’d push hard for them to enter real therapy. I’d also get my own so I could make sure I was setting healthy boundaries between the two of us.
Healthy boundaries are the problem that Reju wants biblical counseling to eradicate
And there we find the main problem with biblical counseling: its blurring of those healthy boundaries.
I’ve been in a situation where someone I barely even knew wanted me to be his full-time therapist. It was not a fun place to be. I did not consent to being thrust into that role. Eventually, when he refused to stop trying to push it onto me, I cut contact with him. He was deeply emotionally disturbed, and I hated to do it. But I couldn’t help him. While he was trying to make me into his ersatz therapist, he wasn’t listening to a real one. He was trying to use our acquaintanceship as a substitute for that therapy.
And it feels like that’s what Deepak Reju wants for Calvinist discipleship churches to do as well. He wants them to be the all-singing, all-dancing emotional center of its recruits. The funny thing here is that if they took his ideas, that might well happen. But it’d happen as a result of the blurring of boundaries. When that happens, people in groups leave a healthy interdependent state of equilibrium and enter a very unhealthy codependent state of chaos and drama.
(Why yes, I got therapy for codependence after deconverting and dumping my Evil Ex. I found out I was codependent years before I learned I had PTSD. Thankfully, real therapy dramatically improved both problems.)
Interdependent groups don’t put up with abuse or cruelty. But codependent ones sure can—and they do. Their members have lost all sense of how much is enough, too much, or not enough in their dealings with each other. Their problems and power struggles have eclipsed everything else about their relationship.
In such a group, only its top leader can feel any sense of security or safety. Everyone else must scrabble to find purchase in that shifting sand.
And growing numbers of evangelical leaders are saying that this codependent state is something Jesus wants for churches.
Yeah, there’s no way that can turn out poorly. Nope. No way at all. (/s)
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