Here’s an abuse survivor’s plea about nouthetic “Biblical” counseling

Yesterday I published a synopsis of and response to “Helping Women with Child Sexual Abuse in Their Past,” by Zondra Scott, a teacher of nouthetic counselors (going by the name “Biblical counselors”) whose husband Stuart taught “Biblical counseling” at  John MacArthur’s The Master’s Seminary and who currently teaches it at Southern Seminary (SBC) in Louisville, KY. I wrote this in light of the way “Jane” from The Master’s University says she was counseled after having been raped.

I emphasized that their style of counseling is one that they called “Biblical” but I’m calling “nouthetic” since that was its original name and there are other styles of counseling that are equally Biblical and arguably more so.

Though the details of “Jane’s” so-called counseling experience were of course unique, the overall picture looked eerily familiar to me.

Over on the other side of the continent, where I live, there’s a university called Bob Jones University, which is staunchly fundamentalist. That is, many people would think, from the music and the attire, that there would be little in common with The Master’s University.

But the style of counseling is the same.

Over two years ago, a childhood sexual abuse survivor who went through the counseling system at Bob Jones University wrote a response to it and a plea to the college to change their counseling system. You can read the original post here, but I’m also presenting it at this blog for a wider audience.

As you read her words, please know that this applies to far more than Bob Jones University. Every college, Bible school, seminary, church, and other institution that follows nouthetic counseling (self-proclaimed “Biblical counseling”) needs to hear her words and undertake some deep and necessary changes.

Reposted from the website BJUGrace, at this link, originally posted in May of 2015. From an anonymous childhood sexual abuse survivor.

***

Bob Jones University president Steve Pettit said about BJU’s counseling: “We believe Scripture is sufficient for addressing and meeting the spiritual needs of individual believers. We remain firmly committed to a biblical counseling model for all our on-campus counseling.”

This is the nouthetic counseling I received that did not help me.

 My counseling at the school

* I was simply told what to think instead of the counselor spending time finding out what it was that I already thought. The counselor did all the talking.

* My dorm counselor allowed for some acknowledgement of pain. She had me memorize Isaiah 61:3 “beauty for ashes,” but emphasized that God was using the “ashes” as a tool so that I could eventually get to the beauty.

* The focus was to consider the abuse as a trial that is “for my good and God’s glory.”

* With my counselor, I studied the story of Tamar (II Samuel 13). The focus was on the idea that God is the judge, we can leave the results in His hands.

* I was told that though I was not to blame for the abuser’s actions, I was accountable to God for responding in a Biblical way. According to Matthew 18, I was to confront him and forgive him, which I did.

* It was taught that forgiving him meant that I didn’t think about it anymore or hold it against him.

* I was told not to be bitter; but that wasn’t an issue for me; it hadn’t even occurred to me to be bitter. I had never even been mad at him. I had never been angry.

* I was later counseled for bulimia. It had become a way to make myself feel clean inside, as if I were getting rid of something evil or dirty. But the reasons I had this problem were never probed or discussed; instead it was treated as if I had chosen an unhealthy, sinful weight loss plan.

* I needed answers to deep questions, but the answers I was given didn’t fulfill the need to know; they just frustrated me, and made me feel guilty because I didn’t find the answers satisfying. (When I asked questions, wanting to know why this happened, I was told I just needed to trust God.)

Questions and confusion never addressed in counseling

I always felt guilty for all of these questions and confusion. I was never encouraged in counseling to honestly wrestle through my questions and confusion. I never confided in anyone, I never voiced these questions, but felt guilty for having them.

 Questions about the abuser and the assault

No one ever asked anything about the abuser. They knew nothing about who he was, whether he was my dad or uncle or whoever. All the focus was on me and what I needed to do. There was no opening for me to even try to formulate questions about the abuser and the assault. Such as:

 Why did this happen? Did I as a child do something to make this happen? Why did he take what he wanted of my body, but then pretended nothing had changed in our relationship?

Why didn’t I tell anyone? Did that mean I wanted it to happen again? Would I ever tell my future husband about any or this, or should I pretend to be “pure” when I wasn’t?

Why could the abuser do what he did and still act spiritual and godly when I knew he wasn’t?

 Questions about forgiveness

I was told to forgive my abuser. This forgiveness was treated in counseling as if he had called me a name, or made fun of me, like when my children irritate each other and I tell them to forgive each other.  It was as if he did nothing more than irritate me.

In my jumbled thoughts, forgiving seemed easier than one might expect.  Because I hadn’t yet understood what he had done to me, I wasn’t even angry.

But what was I forgiving him for?  For what he did to my body?  For what he did to my soul?  For stealing the innocence and naïveté of a child?  Which of these was I to forgive?  How is one to forgive, when they don’t even know what they are forgiving?

Because I had to focus on forgiving him, as I grew older and understood what it was he had taken from me, my anger turned instead to God and to myself.  But not to him – because I had forgiven.

I was taught at the University that if one hasn’t asked for forgiveness, forgiveness can’t really be granted, but in counseling I was told to grant forgiveness without my abuser asking for it. These two teachings don’t seem to match.

Questions about God

My relationship with God was damaged. How can God be both powerful and good? I have a visual image of God being present during my abuse and being passive. This makes me think that either He is good and doesn’t have sovereignty over everything, or he is sovereign and isn’t very good.  It doesn’t seem to make sense that both of these qualities can coexist.

And then when I finally sought help, I was told that God was asking me to do this horrible thing – contact the abuser and speak to him about what had never been said or acknowledged between us.  Then God required me to forgive, while God’s expectations of my abuser were so small – an easy apology was all that he was required to give.  I was the one who suffered, and yet God still expected the impossible of me, and not him.

These were questions that I wasn’t allowed to bring up and wrestle through.

Confused emotions I didn’t understand that were never addressed 

Shame – No one told me that shame was the word for the feelings I was struggling with. This word was right there in the story of Tamar. “How can I bear my shame.” The dorm counselor studied that story with me for weeks, but she never said anything about the shame.

Guilt – I didn’t understand the nature of what happened to me. I didn’t tell anyone at the time, so I felt that I was complicit in what happened.

Fear of getting in trouble, because in my mind I was complicit. Fear of exposure, of others knowing.

Grief – There was no allowance for working through grief in any way. I was never to mention the abuse again or even think about it, and if I did, it was evidence that I hadn’t really forgiven.

Rejection – I struggled with feelings of rejection, but wasn’t allowed to work through them. No one ever told me that Christ felt the same feelings I do – shame, nakedness, rejection.

Anger– I wasn’t allowed to be angry at the abuser because I had “forgiven” him, so my anger turned inward toward myself for letting it happen and upward toward God, for allowing it.

Doubt – My faith became compartmentalized.  I am angry and mistrustful of God, yet I love and serve him.  I go through the motions of Christian living, and do not deal with my hurt and feeling betrayed by Him.  I feel guilty for feeling the way I do, but I don’t know how to change it.

What is needed 

You think we are asking you to abandon the use of Scripture in counseling.  That’s not it at all.  We need more Scripture, not less.  But we need it to be a help, and not a weapon. People who have been abused need to have a clear understanding about certain things.

* My view of myself changed, and this is true of other abuse survivors too, so we need to be assured of God’s love for us, and His acceptance of us.  We need to be assured that how He views us doesn’t change.

* Survivors need to be assured that no part of the abuse was our fault.

* We need to have freedom to feel, and to work through those feelings rather than pushing them down inside.

* We need freedom to be honest, freedom to respond in a different way from others and not on a certain timetable.

* We need freedom to grieve our loss without being judged for grieving.

* We need to learn to pray to God honestly and candidly, not “good girl prayers,” not compartmentalizing our hearts.

* The counselor should show love for us, not expectations that seem insurmountable.

* The counselor should get to know the counselee as an individual, listening more than talking, finding out their beliefs about God and about themselves, instead of just following a formula.

* The counselor needs to understand us when we can’t understand ourselves.  To help us understand our confused feelings, our unhealthy ways of dealing with our pain.

* We need a clear understanding that our questions were/are normal. We need someone to explain to us the nature of abuse and abusers.

* Acknowledge the connection between eating disorders and abuse. Instead of treating eating disorders as isolated sin problems, seek to identify the reasons behind the disorder.

Synopsis of the University’s counseling system

By ignoring issues such as shame, confusion, anger, and despair, and instead focusing solely on my “Biblical response,” (repent of bitterness, confront abuser, forgive) the counselors at the University give the idea that I can fix this problem myself.  That if I just do all the “right” things, I will be able to heal myself.

The reality is that I can’t heal myself, and all of my attempts just result in further shame, confusion, and despair.  I did everything I was told to do.  But I am not healed.

I know healing comes from God, but I still don’t know how to allow him to do it.  From the University’s perspective, I either didn’t “truly” forgive, or I didn’t actually repent of my bitterness, or I am broken.  Instead of finding a loving God who wants to meet me where I am, I find a God who rejects me, who won’t help me to find the healing I seek, unless I can do everything perfectly in my own strength.

I don’t know who God is anymore.  Is He a list of rules?  Is He loving?  Is He active?  Does He care? If I try harder to be perfect, will He love me more? The Bible seems so contradictory about who He is.  The Jesus I know is constantly dissatisfied with me.  The God I know wants me to fix myself before I am allowed to draw near to Him.

You’re using God’s Word to harm, and so you’re causing us to doubt God and His love and goodness.  But when you tell us that the reason we aren’t healed is because of our lack of trust in God’s love and goodness, you’re unable to see that you yourselves are the ones who have caused these doubts.

I want you to know that we’re not asking you to embrace a philosophy of counseling that diminishes the importance of God’s Word in the life of suffering believers.  The University president has said that he believes that the University’s counseling practices are Biblical, and you’ve stated that the University will continue to practice nouthetic counseling, albeit in a more loving manner.  You believe that the problems of the past are due to the manner in which the counseling was given; that if the counseling were more loving or occurred at a slower pace, the counseling would then be adequate.

I hope you understand that the content of the counseling I received has damaged my faith and my understanding of God.  And I’m not alone; my questions and struggles are common among those of us who are survivors of the counseling you are defending. It wasn’t the manner or the way the counseling was given that has resulted in my struggles to understand Christ.  It’s the counseling itself; not only what was said, but more importantly, what was not said.  The answers to many of my questions were in the Bible, but no one pointed them out.

Why must the University insist that they aren’t abandoning Biblical counseling, as if to imply that we are negating the importance of Scripture in healing?  I needed Scripture. But I needed someone who knew how to use it properly.  Someone who wanted to understand and identify what my needs were, and help me to find my healing in a God who loved and accepted me, and who wanted to heal my suffering by giving me more of Himself.   A 22-year-old with a couple of classes in counseling theory is not going to be able to provide this, even if she has handouts with fill-in-the blank statements about Scripture.

I’m urging you to reconsider your practices when it comes to victims of trauma.  God asks us to “rightly divide the Word of Truth.”  The University is not obeying this command.

I pray that you will reconsider.  Whether you realize it or not, God has surrounded you with people who want to help and who understand the needs of abuse survivors. I ask you to please actively listen.

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Montse
Montse
2 years ago

Thank you so much for this article. I can relate to this but instead of a university it was my family.

Listening
Listening
2 years ago

This is exactly what was used on me for marriage counseling. The root could never be looked at because the focus was on me being more forgiving and more loving so that he,my husband, would stop the abuse…..if there even was abuse. They wouldn’t use that word and continually pointed out that if I was pointing a finger at him there were three others pointing back at myself…..meaning I needed to look deeper at myself. I spent 20 years at the hands of this method, growing more lost, confused and guilty…

Rachel Nichols
2 years ago

Ever seen that horrible “Christian” movie Loving the Bad Man? Horrible film. Great way to trigger and shame rape victims for not quickly and easily forgiving the rapist and visiting him in prison, baby from rape in tow, all smiley with a scrapbook made just for him!

This movie really exists, Rebecca. And you thought Facing the Giants was bad!

Quietrunner
Quietrunner
1 year ago

Amen amen amen!!!!!!

Julie Bolzenthal
Julie Bolzenthal
10 months ago

As a certified biblical counselor through ACBC who has gone through horrific child abuse and just left my husband for physical and verbal abuse…this article put into words what I have been feeling! Especially the end section. The counsel I have received has damaged my faith and kept me in harm’s way! I am so grateful that I am not alone in my struggle to understand the issues with the shortcomings of this type of counseling. Their theology of suffering and submission is missing the rest of the counsel of God!

Julie Bolzenthal
Julie Bolzenthal
Reply to  Rebecca Davis
10 months ago

Thank you, I also just bought your book, Untwisting Scripture, so far it is eye opening! This will I face my pastor, confronting him with the unbiblical things I have been told and the harm it has caused. I will probably be leaving my church as well. Thank you for praying.

Tomas
Tomas
7 months ago

Is Gods word sufficient or not? Do we seek a deeper understanding of God or, do we want our itching ears tickled?
Do we say; Lord Jesus, thank you for your Holy Infallible Word but, I’m going to seek some worldly wisdom because the Bible just isn’t making me feel better?
Do you have your hope fixed on HIM? Is THIS world your home? Or are you a pilgrim passing through, waiting to go where our citizenship is?
Philippians 3:20 For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we EAGERLY WAIT for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is what is wrong with the Church in general today. Man’s wisdom, mans ways, man’s music, man’s programs, etc.

A RIGHT diagnosis of man leads to a right remedy.
Both ARE REVEALED IN SCRIPTURE.
Genuine solutions that change lives; they come from the WORD OF GOD.

Colossians 2:8
8. See to it that no one TAKES YOU CAPTIVE through PHILOSOPHY AND EMPTY DECEPTION, according to the TRADITIONS OF MEN, according to the ELEMENTARY PRINCIPLES OF THE WORLD, RATHER THAN ACCORDING TO CHRIST.

Sheri
Sheri
Reply to  Tomas
7 months ago

I totally agree with the blog post. Sad for the response posted above. It is very shaming and really proves the point of the blog post. For the person commenting- please take the advice of the blog post and become trauma informed before you do more harm.

Dr. Don Owsley
Reply to  Tomas
7 months ago

Tomas,

Allow me to start by telling you that I am a certified biblical counselor with a Masters in Divinity and Doctorate in Pastoral Ministry from two conservative seminaries. I’ve served several churches over a period of nearly twenty years. I’m also and instructor at a Christian University and now serve as a life coach and pastoral, Christian counselor

I wholeheartedly agree with this article as it is a good critique and synopsis of the challenges many people have faced by the misuse of Scripture. The stories are very similar to the miserable abuse I experienced at the hands of fellow pastors and elders who were trained as nouthetic counselors. Because of this nonsense and abusive ways, I am no longer willing to step back into the pastorate.

You present a very common criticism. But it is neither helpful nor accurate. If you are going to make an argument against something, you ought to do so through a logical, biblical critique. What would that entail? Here are the qualities of a good critique:

Clarity – Is it clear. Does it make sense? Will the reader understand your terms? Defining and describing what you mean will make things clearer.

Cogency – Is it persuasive, rich, and stated well? It is not filled with redundant comments, sentences, or words.

Concise – Is your presentation wordy or do you have a good economy of your words? Is it crisp and succinct?

Intelligent – The content is written with strong, clear, logical language appropriate to the subject at hand? Does it engage the actual tenets of the opposing view and critique them intelligently?

Interesting – Does your presentation engage the reader or is it a sleeper?

Orderly – Does your presentation have logical flow? Is it organized?

Profundity – Is your work profound in the sense that it engages and wrestles with the difficult issues as well as with the easy ones. Do you get to the heart of the matter? Are you bringing insights or something new?

Frankly, your comments fail on all but one point.

Having said that, a few things need to be said in answer to your criticism:

1. To say that the author or others who agree with her seek to make people feel better is nonsense. People seeking counsel desire to find resolutions to their trials and answers to serious questions. People who have been affronted and I dare say injured (spiritually, mentally, emotionally, by reputation and in other ways) by nouthetic counseling are not seeking an easy way out. It is the epitome of ignorance, a demonstration of a serious lack of Christ’s love, kindness, mercy, grace, gentleness, justice and wisdom to think any counsel that does not only use the Bible is wrong.

2. The Bible does address what is necessary for life and godliness (2 Peter 3) but that does not prohibit the wisdom God has given, even to unbelievers. Moses was trained in Egyptian schools. Joseph also received training in Pharaoh’s Egyptian court. Daniel did as well. Yet God commended them and never condemned them. Even Luke, the author of the Gospel and Acts was a physician who studied popular Roman and Greek medicine. The techniques were based on various religious aspects of the Greek and Roman beliefs, yet God does not condemn him.

The Bible does not restrict the use of insights from the world. Much of what we do, say, and practice today as Christians is strongly informed by a world-informed culture.

The Bible does not address or forbid the use of insights that are helpful with matters like traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s that impact a person’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. “Counseling” someone with those diseases or other things that negatively impact a person (such as battle fatigue or PTSD, torture as a prisoner of war, or torture-abuse by a spouse) by throwing specific out-of-context Bible verses is irresponsible and a misuse of Scripture.

I’ve heard and I know of biblical counselors say a right diagnosis for a person who is afflicted with conditions mentioned above means they need to think exactly the way the counselor prescribes (supposedly based on the Bible); they need to see their torture as no big deal because of God’s providence, or they need to acknowledge they are anxious or angry about their brain injury or abuse and only deal with their “sinful” perspectives so all will be well. Or to blame the person who was afflicted for having a bad attitude and claiming the bad attitude is the root cause for their problem – that is rather wicked. That approach is simplistic and rather ignorant and a terrible mishandling of the Bible.

So much more can be said about your criticism but I’ll stop here.

I know biblical counselors who would tell you something about your comments like, “I perceive you are angry about this blog post. You need to repent and confess your sin to God and to the author of the blog.” And there are others who would blame you for having people write posts such as this one. But that’s so silly and it too is unbiblical.

Lori
Lori
Reply to  Dr. Don Owsley
7 months ago

Dr. Owsley, Thank you for your voice of sound reasoning here. I agree with your statement and would add that I believe Jesus fulfilled Gods Law and was therefore not constrained by it. Rather He Himself became the Way, The Truth and the Life. All scripture is subject to He Who authored it and He has authority to interpret and dispense it according to His infinite wisdom, mercy, grace and justice.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
Reply to  Lori
7 months ago

Lori what does it mean Jesus was not constrained by God’s law because he fulfilled it?

Debra Lagarde
Debra Lagarde
Reply to  Tomas
7 months ago

Tomas, you sound like a very fervent believer. Would you mind giving a few details? What is it about the blog post that sounds wrong to you?

Stephen F Walsh
Stephen F Walsh
Reply to  Tomas
7 months ago

Wow the ignorance and callousness you display is absolutely stunning. You did not address even one genuine concern that this woman suffering terribly from someone committing grievous sin against her which is a crime as well. How easy it is to mouth empty platitudes which do nothing to help bear the pain. If someone is hit by a car and is bleeding on the road would you say all that is needed is the Word of God spoken over them? Would you look down on them with disapproval as their blood runs into the road? Would you tell them to repent of being hit by a car? Trauma is a spiritual, psychological and physiological injury. Biology and neurology are a huge part of it. Please keep your ignorance to yourself.

Angela
Angela
Reply to  Tomas
7 months ago

Tomas, We are not saying the Scripture is insufficient. The author said “I want you to know that we’re not asking you to embrace a philosophy of counseling that diminishes the importance of God’s Word in the life of suffering believers.” What is wrong is the misappropriation of it. The Scripture calls it not rightly dividing the Word of Truth. Satan himself quoted Scripture but perverted it by misusing it. Let us not fall into that same trap.

Michelle
Michelle
Reply to  Tomas
7 months ago

Tomas,

I am the author of the original post that Rebecca shared. It has been nearly five years since I wrote those words. In that time I have found a great deal of healing and peace, and I haven’t thought about these words in quite a while.

You were not very specific in your critique of my words, so I am not completely sure how to address your criticisms.

My hope has always been in Him. I think it is very clear from reading my words that I was desperately seeking a greater understanding of Him.

Asking God questions is not “seeking worldly wisdom.” It is searching for wisdom from HIM. It is hard and holy work. I did not give up on Him, and He continues to hold me in gentleness and love.

It seems that you are making a lot of assumptions.

Perhaps you should consider this… there is still a man out there who admitted to sexually assaulting multiple young women. I was not his first victim, nor was I his last. He is the father of several teenage girls. Those girls have friends who are also teenage girls. He is a “spiritual” Christian – sneaky and manipulative. He is dangerous. He is a wolf. Years ago, when I sought help, something could have been done to stop him. Instead, I was told to tell him he was forgiven and not think about it again. I obeyed. How many others have been assaulted as a result?

Seeking justice is not “worldly wisdom.” And none of what you have written is an accurate description of where I am or where I have been.

Brenda Linn
Brenda Linn
Reply to  Tomas
7 months ago

I tire of these false statements…

“The Bible is all you need.”

“Jesus is all you need.”

“Holiness is all you need.”

Etc…

All of these are shaming statements, because according to these declarations, we are wrong / sinning if we need anything else.

They are also statements of cowardice, because those who say those things refuse to meet the needs of the needy.

” I’m not going to meet your needs. Instead, I will shame you for having those needs.

…” And, I will double-shame you if you reach for help that I have not approved. “

Jeff Sylvester
Jeff Sylvester
Reply to  Tomas
7 months ago

As far as I can tell. so-called “Biblical counseling” is “man’s wisdom” that purports to be Godly. It’s an old game, and one Jesus had some harsh words for.

Labels don’t make things scriptural. Following the principles of scripture does.

Angela
Angela
7 months ago

Tomas, We are not saying the Scripture is insufficient. The author said “I want you to know that we’re not asking you to embrace a philosophy of counseling that diminishes the importance of God’s Word in the life of suffering believers.” What is wrong is the misappropriation of it. The Scripture calls it not rightly dividing the Word of Truth. Satan himself quoted Scripture but perverted it by misusing it. Let us not fall into that same trap.

carmen
carmen
2 months ago

my father was a born again spirit filled christian who worked in deliverance mninistry with abused people but at home he was doing it to my mum and sister. i dont blame him totally- he was mentally broken himself but he would gaslight and shut us down constantly if we tried to speak up about oyur trauma calling it self pitying and attention seeking. i have a will to forgive him and i no longer wish him harm (i used to wish him dead so i would feel safe).
i was told my well mean ing christian counsellors that if i really forgave i would nto still be afraid of him and they told me i ahd to start spending time with him and trusting him. this was very bad for me and my mind got worse.

Lee
Lee
1 month ago

As a graduate of BJU’s Biblical counseling undergrad (2014) and grad programs (2018), I wholeheartedly second this article. I also received “counseling” there for personal trauma or “trials” and 100% vouch for what you have written. I experienced a huge amount of confusion and pain while there, and almost left Christianity as a result. I am now pursuing counseling for myself outside of the school (still Christian, but not what is considered nouthetic) and I’m pursuing my Clinical Mental Health degree at Liberty for these exact reasons. Thank you for being a voice in the silence.

Kim Jones
Kim Jones
7 days ago

I’m frightened , my daughter is seeking to become a counselor of this type of hurtful wrong thinking !! A John MacArthur follower – ugh!! HELP