In 2002, Amanda sat at a Christian counseling office in Indiana with an assignment in front of her. She was supposed to list the ways she had been blessed by her father, who had been sexually abusing her for years. She was a hopeful 17-year-old looking for help.
It was not the family’s first encounter with counseling for her father’s behavior. Earlier, he had confessed the abuse to another counselor, who notified Child Protective Services and encouraged him to report himself to the police. With the support of a lawyer and the family’s pastor, however, he opted instead to move out, effectively stifling any investigation. Amanda, a pseudonym, says authorities never interviewed her about the abuse. Her father’s counselor refused to see him anymore.
Amanda’s mother told her husband he needed to seek help and found another counseling center, connected to a church, that was willing to see the family. But “no one [at church, or in counseling] had told me what happened was wrong, wasn’t my fault, or anything of the kind,” Amanda recalled.
At the new center, the counselor’s assignment was difficult, but Amanda came up with two ways her father had blessed her: He had provided for them and taken them to church. According to Amanda, her counselor was not happy with this short list and told her she was bitter. “I was confused,” Amanda told CT. “Did what happen to me matter? Did God care that [my father] had used my body?”
In both cases, the family saw what are known as “biblical counselors,” practitioners who defer to the Bible and theology—instead of psychology—as the guiding foundation for therapy. Amanda’s pastor told her not to tell others about her abuse, she said, because “no one would want me around their children if they knew I’d been abused.”
In addition to the blessing exercise, Amanda recalls biblical counselors telling her the reason her dad “pursued” her sexually was because her mom was not “satisfying dad sexually.” They told her that “to discuss (with others) what happened would be dwelling on bitterness.”
At one point Amanda remembers listening to apologies from her father. He repeated after his counselor, who was seated with him at the time, that he was sorry for “misusing his authority” and “acting impurely.” To Amanda his apologies appeared so insincere, she wondered how anyone took them seriously.
The counselors began talking with Amanda about her father returning home. And eventually, he did.
Amanda left for college shortly before her father moved back but remained concerned for her younger sisters. She recalls her counselor telling her: “He had repented and now I was to forgive, and forgiveness meant never bringing up the wrong again and believing he would never do it again. So to say my sisters were in danger was sinful.”
Amanda insisted that it wasn’t safe for her father to return home. After Amanda disagreed with counselors over what forgiveness and reconciliation should look like within her family, her counseling sessions were discontinued. Years later, Amanda learned that her father had been sexually abusing both of her younger sisters, just as she had feared.
Her counselor went on to leadership positions within biblical counseling, writing books and speaking at conferences.
A spokesperson for the counseling center confirmed that Amanda’s family used its services in 2002 but would not comment on specific details of the sessions. “We take very seriously Amanda’s charge that we did not listen to her well. We agree that the issue of whether an abuser should ever be reunited with his/her family is a very complicated question,” the spokesperson said in an email, adding it is not the center’s practice to force family members to ask for or grant forgiveness. “We can guide people using biblical principles, but ultimately others are making the final decision about reunification.”
Recently, Amanda filed a formal complaint with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). She said they cautioned her not to talk to others about her counseling experience. But Amanda agreed to share her story with CT out of a desire to raise awareness of the need for churches to protect abuse victims while counseling them. Her story and others illustrate the high stakes facing Christian counselors in ministry settings as they weigh a challenging question: How high a priority should it be for victims of familial abuse to reconcile with their abusers?
The Bible’s place in counseling
While Amanda’s counseling happened under the umbrella of the ACBC, an organization that oversees certification and training of biblical counselors, Christian counselors more broadly belong to different professional associations and approach their work with varying philosophies.
Christian approaches to counseling go back several decades. Beginning in the late 1960s, the biblical counseling movement, initially called nouthetic counseling, was founded by Jay Adams. He saw Scripture as the ultimate authority on human problems and believed counseling is a theological task rather than a psychological one. Out of Adams’ work came two major organizations that continue to certify and train biblical counselors: the ACBC and the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF).
The ACBC approach tends to be popular in conservative Reformed circles, operating within churches or independent counseling centers. A few notable seminaries also train using biblical counseling principles, including Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky, and The Master’s University in Southern California. Prominent pastors such as John Piper and former Harvest Bible Chapel leader James MacDonald have also promoted this tradition through their ministries.
But biblical counseling has also been defined by what it is against: Generally, practitioners hold the conviction that modern psychology is humanistic and secular and cannot align with biblical revelation.
The CCEF is more open to forging relationships with evangelicals who are working as clinical psychologists but who also reserve a central role for Scripture. For example, the late David Powlison, the past president of CCEF, talked of different understandings of psychology, some of which he said are not at odds with biblical theology.
Eric Johnson, a psychologist who edited two editions of a book describing different approaches to psychology, says that the biblical counseling world today has grown more nuanced, particularly in its approach to women and abuse. He notes the recent work by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) committee to create a curriculum on caring for abuse victims. Yet Johnson hasn’t always found a place alongside those in the movement. Johnson was the only psychology professor at SBTS until 2017, when he left the seminary due to incompatibilities with biblical counseling faculty.
That said, Johnson isn’t unreservedly embracing psychology. The founder of a new institute at Houston Baptist University, Johnson agrees with the biblical counseling crowd that secular psychology often approaches the world from a faulty foundation. But instead of rejecting it, he feels it’s possible to build a better psychology on a historical Christian philosophy rather than add religion into mainstream psychology. Johnson mostly finds himself—and a small cadre of like-minded psychologists—somewhere in between biblical counseling and another prevalent view.
Around the same time as biblical counseling’s rise, other Christian practitioners and scholars, led by Clyde and Bruce Narramore, began to call themselves integrationists. Those following this tradition embrace, generally speaking, the methods and theories of psychology as part of God’s general revelation and see it as something that can complement his special revelation in Scripture. Integrationists are not setting out to change psychology at its core, rather to add the nuance it lacks on religion and theology. They are more likely to travel in mainstream psychology circles and publish articles in leading academic journals.
Institutions such as Fuller Seminary and Rosemead Graduate School of Psychology at Biola University were among the first to receive accreditation from the American Psychological Association. Today, Christian colleges and universities that have master’s level counseling programs overwhelmingly teach from an integrationist standpoint.
Trauma in counseling
Society’s very systems that abuse victims turn to for support can sometimes revictimize them—including law enforcement, counselors, social workers, family members, and church leaders.
Several abuse survivors told CT of additional harm done (if unintentionally) mostly by biblical counselors or pastors and, in at least one case, a licensed professional counselor who was a Christian. Vicki, Erica, and Cara—all pseudonyms, at their request—along with their children, turned to ACBC counselors or trainees after abuse at the hands of their husbands.
In Vicki’s case, she says her pastors and counselor were unwilling to see abusive behavior as serious, told her husband they thought she was lying, and instructed him to go home and stay home. He later went to jail after being convicted of child abuse.
Cara, at a large conservative Baptist church, initially felt encouraged that her counselor took her husband’s abuse seriously. But then, she says, the focus shifted to her sins in provoking her husband. She and her children moved out for safety, but the church continues to support her husband as a respected member of the community while they put her under church discipline. She is still battling for sole custody of her children.
Erica was forced to flee to a women’s shelter after her husband, who was sexually and emotionally abusing her, threatened her with a gun. Because of her husband’s tearful demeanor, she says, ACBC counselors thought he displayed more “fruits of repentance” than she did. While they would have supported a temporary separation, their goal was for restoration of the marriage and her coming back and “fully submitting” to her husband, a scenario she felt was unsafe.
Reconciliation for the hurting?
At the crux of the matter seems to be the question: When, if ever, should counselors encourage abuse victims to reconcile with their abuser? Beyond that, how can Christian counselors—whether vocational or pastoral—ensure that promoting forgiveness leads to healing rather than perpetuating violence?
Dale Johnson, executive director of the ACBC, told CT that restoration doesn’t look the same in all cases and that counselors recognize an abuser may not always be able to move back in. “We have to work with the victim to be wise on where she is, what she thinks about this, how she’s processing this,” he said.
He also pointed to ACBC’s training materials. But the guidance given could be interpreted in several ways, one of which emphasizes a biblical call to keep spouses and families together.
In a session during its 2018 abuse counseling training conference, Zondra Scott distributed a handout with a definition of forgiveness. It noted, quoting her husband Stuart Scott, a professor of counseling at SBTS, that once someone has fully repented of the sin and asked for forgiveness, forgiveness is “the full restoration of a sinning brother who is now repentant.” The promise of forgiveness was also defined as promising to “not hold this offense in my heart,” to “not spread this around to others,” and “to not bring this up against you again.”
Heath Lambert, professor of counseling at SBTS and the previous executive director of ACBC, says he focuses on protecting women and listening to them and he understands the damage abuse causes. He is also firm on confrontation of abuse and including the authorities.
However, his approach to the abuser seeks to provide equal care with the goal of “restoration, not stigmatization.” Lambert makes the case that “we never want abusers to sense that we are against them” and that “the goal in ministry to an abuser—as long as he will receive such ministry—is to see him be restored to his family, and ultimately to Christ.” Lambert advocates for a “fierce willingness to protect the abused. Yet this need must not be placed at odds with ministry to the husband.”
But the survivors CT talked to saw it differently. When the same counselors were juggling ministry to both survivors and abusers, the victims felt their safety was compromised. While the ACBC emphasizes that restoration should only happen after genuine change and repentance, several victims pointed out the difficulty of knowing when real change has happened, and that it was prideful for their counselors to assume they knew the hearts of their abusers.
Researchers have long asked what role personal biases might play in the ways that counselors work with abuse survivors. Just last year, Steven Sandage, a professor of psychology at Boston University and a licensed therapist, co-authored a study with Bethel Seminary professor Peter Jankowski that examined connections between theological views and attitudes toward domestic violence. They surveyed more than 200 Bethel students and found that where students held Calvinist views and adhered to gender complementarianism, there was a strong correlation with believing “domestic violence myths.” The term is used by psychologists to describe prejudice toward blaming a female victim and minimizing a perpetrator’s violent behavior—agreement with phrases such as “women can avoid physical abuse if they give in occasionally” and “women instigate most family violence.”
The study, published in the mainstream journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, is not without its critics, particularly some in Reformed circles who dispute the research methodology and caution against drawing overly broad conclusions from it. The authors zeroed in on that tradition in part because John Calvin once wrote that an abused wife should only leave her husband “when there is imminent peril to her life,” and otherwise should “bear with patience the cross which God has seen fit to place upon her.” That view was echoed more recently by pastor and popular author John Piper, who said in 2009 that a wife should endure “verbal abuse for a season, she endures perhaps being smacked one night,” before seeking intervention from her church. (Piper later clarified his comments and said churches should not harbor abusers and should seek law enforcement when necessary.)
Certainly, revictimization can happen in therapy of all kinds, faith-based and otherwise. While Chris Moles says he doesn’t speak for ACBC as a whole, he recognizes harmful ways some victims have been counseled by Christians. Counselors are aiming for the wrong target when their primary goal is reconciliation in abuse situations. “Safety,” he told CT, “is the first goal.”
Moles, who is a pastor, ACBC counselor, and group facilitator in domestic violence intervention and prevention, sees safety as a biblical priority because of the way Scripture depicts God’s heart toward the oppressed.
“Reconciliation can be a distraction from the process,” he pointed out, “because domestic violence shouldn’t be treated as a marriage problem.” Biblically, when abuse has taken place, he feels accountability should be the priority for the perpetrator. As far as when or even if a victim reconciles to their abuser, Moles emphasized that “decisions that belong to the victim belong to the victim” and that “victims do not need me to dictate.” He also said that reconciliation should only happen once safety for the victim has been established and the perpetrator has experienced transformation.
Moles acknowledges that some victims have received “dangerous” advice from biblical counselors and some “pro-biblical counseling” churches. During a talk at the 2018 conference, he shared examples: “You need to work on being more submissive.” “Pray more, read your Bible, have more sex.” “He didn’t mean to hit you.” “He didn’t just hit you for no reason. What did you do?”
He warned how biblical counselors might sometimes misuse doctrines of forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration in a way that benefit only abusers.
Sandage, who wrote a book on the psychology of forgiveness, told CT that “in many cases, perpetrators of abuse can also use the language of ‘forgiveness’ in manipulative or coercive ways to guilt their victims into maintaining the status quo in a relationship. It is relatively easy to offer a verbal apology and much harder to transform patterns of behavior.”
Sandage described forgiveness as a long-term process. It may start with simply not exacting revenge. For some abuse victims, they may even prematurely “forgive” their perpetrator. This allows them to “bypass an accurate understanding of what they have experienced and the patterns involved and to ‘assume the best’ about future interactions with perpetrators in order to unconsciously avoid the fear, shame, anger, and difficult decisions that are involved,” he said, calling it a psychological survival strategy.
If perpetrators want healing, then they need “extended time” in treatment and should be exhibiting personal change, Sandage said, adding that growth is compromised if there are no significant consequences.
Finally, he concluded that reconciliation is something different from forgiveness, both biblically and psychosocially. “A person can ultimately forgive an offender and decide that reconciliation is not safe or warranted due to a lack of repentance and transformation on the part of the offender.”
For her part, Amanda wants counselors to have a more trauma-informed theology and to recognize that victims often need help beyond what pastoral counseling can offer. “There is a superficial belief that trauma can be dealt with and everyone can move on in a few months,” she said. “Brain imaging has taught us that trauma actually rewires the brain and brain function is changed. A few verses, reading a book, and a couple months doesn’t change those facts.” She and most of the women interviewed are conservative Christians and hold a high regard for the Bible. “Survivors of abuse need God’s Word, just as someone suffering with cancer needs God’s hope,” Amanda said. “But it isn’t all they need.”
Years after Amanda’s abuse, a new pastor who identified with the Calvinist tradition came to her church and was crucial in helping her take important steps toward healing as an adult. She reported her abuse to police in 2008, although she said the investigation was short-lived because neither her family nor their counselors would talk to the police.
Amanda feels the new pastor helped “rescue” her. His theological framework for acknowledging evil and God’s sovereignty, and his support for church discipline of wrongdoers, informed how he helped. Rightly understood, Amanda says, these doctrines can bring comfort to survivors.
Brad Strawn, a psychology and theology integration professor at Fuller Seminary, suggested that when empirical research or anecdotal evidence spotlight potentially negative tendencies in a particular Christian tradition, its members don’t need to abandon that tradition or despair.
“If there’s something in Calvinism that might lend itself to a more complementary and traditional model of marriage, that doesn’t mean (Calvinism) is wrong or bad,” Strawn said. “But theologians could go back to their work and say what in my tradition doesn’t point to spousal abuse? What is there in my theological tradition that would denounce spousal abuse?”
Moles said churches first need awareness, but also lament and repentance when abuse hasn’t been handled well in the past. He pointed out that no one should trivialize the pain of victims hurt by the church, but that it can be “hope-giving to victims” when churches lead the way in modeling change in how victims are treated.
He noted that unfortunately, few counselors, Christian or otherwise, “are thoroughly trained in the dynamics and impacts of abuse.”
The process for becoming a licensed therapist should include such training, Sandage said. “I am sure that doesn’t always happen or may not override individuals’ beliefs about blaming victims,” he said. “Some therapists will hold sexist beliefs, and some therapists will also hold biases against religious beliefs that may be important to clients.”
A team approach
Momentum is building for new approaches to help churches better support abuse victims. The SBC’s new training curriculum for responding to abuse drew on experts from a variety of backgrounds, including both conservative and progressive biblical counselors, psychologists, social workers, law enforcement, and abuse survivors.
The group was led by Brad Hambrick, a pastoral counselor at The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina. He hopes the collaboration that went into building the curriculum, called Church Cares, will serve as an example of “a team of people that are representatives of relationships a pastor will want to have with people in their community,” he said.
Many of the women CT spoke with did receive additional help from sources outside the church—including women’s shelters, police, and psychologists. But these women turned to the church first. In fact, multiple studies have shown that pastors are often the first contact for individuals in need of mental health resources.
That can be a challenge when pastors approach counseling, for example, like one of Sandage’s students, who indicated that he would never meet with a married woman unless her husband was present. “He had never considered whether that might limit (her) freedom to report domestic violence,” Sandage said.
As Hambrick sees it, different “jurisdictions,” such as therapy, counseling, and pastoral care, have different underlying theories or theologies, and pastors can become suspicious of underlying worldviews. “Churches have a tendency to make everything about the theories and theologies, then we get lost in it. We assume others have a different theology than we do, when maybe they just come from a different jurisdiction and have a different set of questions,” Hambrick said.
“I don’t think the answers are nearly as neat as we’d like them to be,” he said. Though he’s always counseled in a pastoral setting and never sought licensing, he views those who are licensed in a secular context as community helpers with whom pastors should seek a good relationship. “I think we both do important, valuable work.”
Hambrick believes abuse survivors need distinctly pastoral support while wrestling with theological questions about suffering, but notes that abuse survivors particularly need the civil authorities to whom Christians are called to submit in Romans 13.
Since the Church Cares material released, all six SBC seminaries have agreed to incorporate it into their mandatory curriculum. The SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, tasked with promoting it, hopes it will be used widely by seminaries and churches of other evangelical denominations.
“There’s a certain convergence happening. [Churches are] coming at the same topic from different standpoints,” Johnson said. “I think that’s a fascinating sea change.”
Rebecca Randall is the science editor at Christianity Today. Kimi Harris is a writer, mother, and wife of a pastor. She and her husband serve in the Midwest.
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