How Theology Informs Our Counseling

 |  March 20, 2019

“What role does theology play in counseling?”

This simple, yet thought-provoking question was asked by Dr. John Babler during a counseling PhD seminar last fall. Students, both in class and online, offered their perspectives with varying degrees of eloquence. During the discussion, one online student’s response stuck out due to its brevity and delivery. Without saying a word, Mr. Nate Brooks casually rotated a sign on his desk which reads,

“Your counseling is only as strong as your theology.”

After reading this quote and hearing Nate’s explanation, I remember thinking, “Well that makes sense…I think I will steal it.” All joking aside, Nate’s statement helped me understand that a relationship exists between theology and counseling. His simple quote challenged me to see that an individual’s counsel is a reflection of their theology. In other words, a pastor’s understanding of concepts such as God, man, sin, and scripture is demonstrated by the counsel he gives.

How are theology and counseling connected? 

In basic terms, theology is understood as “the study of religious faith, practice, and experience…especially: the study of God and of God’s relation to the world.”[1]https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/theology With this definition in mind, one might wonder, “How does counseling fit into the study of God and his relation to the world?” To answer this question, a general definition of the word counsel is helpful. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines counsel as “advice given especially as a result of consultation.”[2]https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/counsel. It is important to note the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “counseling” as “professional guidance of the individual by utilizing psychological methods especially in collecting case history data, using various techniques of the personal interview, and testing interests and aptitudes.” I do not use this definition due to the exclusivist nature of its wording. Counseling, or specifically, the act of providing counsel to someone, does not require training in psychological methods. Otherwise, parents cannot counsel their children on relationship issues, teachers cannot counsel their student concerning educational matters, and pastors cannot counsel their members on spiritual issues. In short, a definition of counseling that is restricted only to the field of psychology is too limited to be useful. Consequently, the key to understanding how counseling, or the act of giving counsel, reflects an individual’s theology rests in the word “advice.”

Often times, an individual seeks counsel or advice when a question or problem arises (or reoccurs) that requires outside help. This question/problem may be relational, occupational, health-related, or spiritual in nature. Regardless of the nature of the question/problem, the counselee (the one seeking counsel) comes to the counselor (the one giving advice) seeking answers. But what kind of advice to do they receive from the counselor? Is it anthropocentric, existentialist, or theocentric? In other words, is man at the center, existence at the center, or is God at the center?

Hopefully, it goes without saying, but the pastor’s counsel should always place God at the center.[3]The following link offers a brief explanation of theocentricism: https://www.gotquestions.org/theocentric.html. God must be acknowledged by the pastor in a counseling situation since God’s love, grace, and sovereignty offer hope and perspective to those who are struggling and searching for answers. This love, grace, and sovereignty are most clearly communicated in the Bible, which is why the use of scripture in counseling is imperative. The following questions are helpful to evaluate the extent your theology informs your counsel. 

How is scripture used in my counsel?

Is it used often or is it used sparingly? Is it the first place you turn when someone comes to you with a marriage problem or do you go to your shelf and grab your favorite marriage book? The point of this question is not to minimize outside materials, but to question the degree to which scripture is used in your counseling. In 2 Timothy 3:16–17 Paul says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

In this passage, Paul demonstrates that Scripture not only finds its origin in the creator of all things, but that scripture is sufficient to provide effective counseling and superior to any worldly resource. It is given so that the people of God “may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Does your use of scripture in a counseling relationship reflect the truths contained in these two verses?

What role does the gospel play in my counsel? 

At what point, if ever, do you inquire about the salvation of the individual you are counseling? Although this may seem like a minor point, discerning whether or not you are counseling a believer or a non-believer significantly impacts how you counsel. Many who come for counsel as believers simply need to be taught or reminded biblical principles. However, other counselees come as the “natural person” Paul mentions in 1 Corinthian 2:14 who do not accept or understand “the things of the Spirit of God.”[4]1 Corinthians 2:14 “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” In this scenario, the hope that is found in the gospel eclipses any temporary relief you can offer.

Final Thoughts

In reality, the theological influence on counseling issues such as depression, grief, suicide, and marital problems can be discussed ad nauseam. But this post is not written to cover every possible counseling scenario. Instead, it is written to challenge the pastor/reader to consider the theology they convey by the counsel they give. With this in mind, I offer you a humble reminder of Mr. Nate Brooks’ words, “Your counseling is only as strong as your theology.”


Daniel Bollen is an Academic Advisor in the Office of the Registrar and a Biblical Counseling PhD student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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