The Old Paths
By T.A. McMahon
“Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein. Also I set watchmen over you, saying, Hearken to the sound of the trumpet. But they said, We will not hearken.” – Jeremiah 6:16-17
Why wouldn’t the Israelites want the “good way” and “rest for their souls”? Why wouldn’t they “hearken to the sound of the trumpet,” i.e., want to hear what God has to say? Let me suggest one reason that could certainly apply. They were so far removed from doing things God’s way that they couldn’t relate to the “old paths.” Furthermore, their idea of “good” was not God’s good, and the “rest” they sought after was not the rest of God. Doing their own thing for their own selves for so long may have pushed God’s way well beyond their interests and comprehension. This condition was not unique to ancient Israel; we also see it in the church today.
For decades Dave Hunt and I have been addressing the detrimental influence of psychological counseling among evangelical Christians. Trying to convince believers that psychotherapy is both pseudoscience and antibiblical quite often has been like endeavoring to paddle a canoe upstream, mostly in the face of rapids and occasionally as though challenging a Niagara Falls. One reason for this is similar to what probably contributed to the rebellion documented by Jeremiah: the church has been so seduced by psychological counseling for so long that anything that seems at odds with the current counseling practices is usually considered a consequence of ignorance.
I recently received a book written by Dr. Martin and Deidre Bobgan titled Person to Person Ministry: Soul Care in the Body of Christ. It is, in part, an indictment of the unbiblical way the evangelical church has gone about counseling. It is also a call to return to the “old paths,” that is, God’s instructions for how He wants believers to minister to one another. This is not a critical treatise directed at the problems inherent within professional psychotherapy; the Bobgans have shined the light of Scripture in that dark arena in their many other books (see resource materials). Rather, Person to Person Ministry reproves those approaches that call themselves biblical counseling yet have gleaned much from the way the world counsels.
My experience has shown me that questions rush through the minds of many who take exception to our criticism of psychological counseling (although they may appreciate our addressing other things): “So what are you saying? Are you now telling us that even biblical counseling is wrong?” In a few words, yes–in most cases. The Bobgans’ book gives enough examples to make anyone who loves the Lord and His Word very cautious about recommending someone who calls himself a biblical counselor, even if he claims that he is anti-psychology. On the other hand, the greater value of what the Bobgans have written is in their “sounding the trumpet,” that is, exhorting and encouraging believers by reminding them that God has provided everything they need to deal with and benefit from the troubling issues of life “through the Word of God, the work of the Holy Spirit…[and] the fellowship of the saints….” (p. 172).
What will perhaps make Person to Person Ministry upsetting to some is not necessarily the content, which is simply and clearly biblical, but the fact that unbiblical ways and means of counseling have so permeated the church that anything that challenges them is likely to be regarded as extreme. Here are some “counseling” problems that should concern those who want to minister, and be ministered to, God’s way. As I list some of the errors they expose, see if there is either a practice or teaching found in the New Testament to support these current practices. In other words, in reference to the old hymn, was it “good for Paul and Silas”? Many “biblical” counselors mimic the way professional counselors counsel. They have a counseling office, a calendar of appointments, meet with people on an hourly basis often once a week or more, and that sometimes goes on for months or years. They charge fees or accept donations for their church (which pays their salaries). Some don’t see a problem here as long as the counselor is “using the Word of God.” Other than the fact that the methods are at odds with what Scripture teaches, I’m not sure what “using the Word of God” means, because the “biblical” concepts and methods vary from biblical counselor to biblical counselor. For example, most biblical counselors integrate psychological concepts in some fashion, often incorporating humanistic or behavioral psychology that has been spiritualized, so they sound as though they were biblically consistent.
Teachings such as Freudian psychic determinism and the unconscious or Jungian dream analysis and the collective unconscious or behaviorism or inner healing, etc. (without using those specific terms), are rampant among those who nevertheless claim to counsel sola Scriptura. Exploring the past and looking for causes for sinful decisions based upon one’s parents or one’s environment or a life trauma are also common. Some specialize in deliverance from demons while others major in the unbiblical four temperaments. Most of those who practice the healing of memories would argue that they are adhering to the Scriptures rather than psychology. However, as the Bobgans point out, “Each counselor uses the Bible according to some combination of personal experience, secular theories, biblical doctrines, and common sense….While some have attempted to control the field through certificates, diplomas, degrees, and organizations, there is no single model or method of biblical counseling” (p. 49). Yet for all the differences among biblical counselors, including those who attempt strictly to adhere to God’s Word, they all have this in common: they have set themselves up (some unwittingly) as experts in solving the problems of living that are adversely affecting Christians. This problem-solving approach is plagued with problems of its own, as the Bobgans demonstrate.
First of all, neither the God of the Bible, nor His instructions in Scripture, nor the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer is about fixing our daily mental, emotional, and behavioral problems. Every believer is a new creature in Christ, and his objective in life is to have Christ formed in him. That is the process of sanctification-being set apart from the ways, means, and lusts of the world to a life that is in submission to the Lord and in which choices are made that are pleasing to Him, the One with whom every true believer will spend eternity. It’s a growth process, which at times involves sufferings and trials that the Lord allows in our lives to help us depend upon Him and mature in our relationship with Him. Yet most biblical counseling is trapped in a “just fix the problem” or “get rid of the symptoms” mentality and mode, along with other concepts that are contrary to the biblical way. The Bobgans write, Problem-centered counseling appeals to the flesh of both the counselor and the counselee….The counselor appears as the expert who has it all together and who is able to fix the one who does not….The appeal to the counselees’ flesh exists because the counselees can present their case usually without being contradicted, condemned, or judged, but with gaining great sympathy and support. The more directly problem-centered one becomes, the more self-centered the counseling is. Problem-centeredness and self-centeredness are linked.[J]ust as the psychotherapists are looked up to as experts in the world, so too have their problem-centered biblical counterparts been looked up to as experts in the church. The counselor is often regarded more highly than the pastor, and counseling is often regarded more highly than the teaching, preaching, and evangelizing. (p. 24-25)
Preaching, teaching, and evangelizing are gifts of the Holy Spirit. Counseling, however, is noticeably absent from among the gifts. Why is counseling missing, especially since high profile counselors and others in that position are arguably the most influential people, either nationally or at the local church level, in the evangelical community today? The answer is that counseling is not a biblical ministry. Those who function as counselors (biblical or otherwise) are erroneously involved in an activity that is primarily a function of the Spirit of Christ. He is our Counselor. More often than not, counselors supplant the Spirit of Christ as they try to do in the life of a believer what only God can do. They attempt to peer into the heart of the counselee, grasping for motivations, connections, sin inducements, and other insights, in order to remedy troubling conditions. They are grasping at straws because such an activity can only result in man’s speculations at least, and, even more important, it displaces the convicting, correcting, and comforting ministry of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God as the only true “discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
So, if psychological counseling is out, and biblical counseling is rarely–if ever–biblical, what are believers left with? The “old paths”! The old paths, as applied in this article, are simply the way God wants us to minister to one another. One third of the Bobgans’ book is titled “What Can Be Done: Christ-centered Ministry.” What they supply from the Word of God is so simple and true that it no doubt will seem alien, even incredulous, to multitudes of believers conditioned by psychology’s pervasive influence on the church. That, sadly, is not a wild guess. I’ve experienced such a reaction for years when I’ve voiced my concerns about the unbiblical nature of psychological counseling.
Let me give you a current situation, which I believe is analogous to what the Bobgans are encouraging in the Body of Christ. I hope that it will help some to better understand. The American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association have spent billions of dollars, over decades of years, searching for the cure for cancer and heart disease respectively. At some point, both organizations recognized that a better strategy would be to promote a program of prevention rather than putting all their time, energy, and funding into curing the illnesses themselves. Today, they are mostly committed to recommending changes in a person’s lifestyle that would help to prevent cancer and heart disease, particularly through health-sustaining diet and exercise. It’s a secular “old path” plan, and it has produced “good” results for those who have followed their advice. As Benjamin Franklin noted, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Yet many have decided, “We will not walk [or run or bicycle] therein.” The discipline necessary for a lifestyle involving a beneficial diet and reasonable exercise is not high on their agenda, preferring (wishfully) a quick fix or cure of the disease, should it show up in their bodies.
God’s “old paths” are primarily preventive. The emphasis is on the growth and maturity of the believer. Again, the Bobgans point the reader to the Scriptures: “‘The just shall live by faith’ (Habbakuk 2:4; Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11, Hebrews 10:38). Therefore faith in all that Christ has done (to overcome sin, secure salvation, provide new life and power through the process of sanctification, and give believers the solid hope of eternity with Him) constitutes the primary emphasis of all New Testament ministry” (p. 171). A believer’s life in Christ is to be led of the Holy Spirit, who dwells within every believer, enables him to make righteous choices, helps him to be fruitful, to understand and know better the Word and the Word made flesh, to love Jesus more, and thus to do what pleases Him. Such an approach is not a method or technique or program or anything else conjured up by man but rather a miraculous life superintended by God. It is a life of faith, without which it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Problem-centered counseling is tragic by comparison. The Bobgans write, Becoming mature in the faith far surpasses any change in circumstances or immediate solutions to temporal problems, though temporal change does accompany spiritual growth. What we are talking about here has eternal consequences, not just solutions that make people feel better for the time being. (p. 171-72)
Those who have concluded that what the Bobgans are urging is impractical for dealing with life’s problems need to consider this: which troubling issues can you think of that do not involve “the lust of the flesh,” i.e., sin? They need to take that up with the Apostle Paul, who, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote, “This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would….If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16-17, 25). These are God’s instructions, His “old paths,” which the church has followed successfully for two millennia. Nothing could be more practical. Furthermore, His words are for every believer, every one of whom He has equipped to minister to fellow believers. That is the clarion call of Person to Person Ministry: By God’s grace and enabling, believers in the Lord Jesus Christ who are walking daily with Him and maturing in the faith through the trials of life are already equipped to minister to fellow believers who are suffering from the same kinds of problems generally addressed by trained counselors. These believers are equipped to do this by what Christ has already done in them through the Word of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, the trials of life, the fellowship of the saints, and opportunities to serve.
Paul wrote the following for every one of us who desires to follow the Lord and minister in His truth: “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1-2).
This should be the heart’s cry of each of us: Lord, concerning the “old paths”–Your ways–help Your Body of believers “to walk therein.”