Editor’s Note: Who should offer counseling to those needing help? Are you competent to counsel? Biblical counselor Jim Newheiser answers by explaining different levels of counseling for counseling complexity.
Permission to reprint this article has been granted from the author. It was originally posted online at this link.
We Are All Called to Be Counselors
Jay Adams launched the modern biblical counseling movement by quoting Romans 15:14, which states, “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.” He reminds us that this was written not only to the leaders in the Roman church, but to every believer. Thus, in a sense, we are all counselors. We all regularly offer advice (counsel) to friends and family members. The mission of the biblical counseling movement is to equip believers to give wise advice to one another from God’s Word. Each believer should be aware of this calling as he or she seeks to grow in knowledge and application of Scripture.
Not Every One of Us Is Competent to Counsel Every Issue
Just because each of us is a counselor does not mean that each of us is competent to counsel in every situation. We have varying levels of spiritual maturity, experience, and knowledge of God’s Word. We each have particular strengths and weaknesses. For example, while I feel well-equipped to counsel in cases of marital conflict, I don’t believe I am the best person to counsel an anorexic teenage girl. It is important to know your strengths, your weaknesses, and your limitations.
When Moses was overwhelmed by his responsibilities as judge of Israel, his father-in-law, Jethro, wisely advised him to appoint elders to handle the small issues while Moses would address the great matters (Ex. 18:13-27). While Scripture is fully sufficient to offer God’s wisdom in every life situation (2 Tim. 3:16-17), not every believer is well equipped to offer help in certain situations. When we face cases which are out of our depth, we are wise to enlist other counselors whose gifts and experience would be better suited to help. There also may be times when a more experienced counselor will not be available. Then we will be providentially called to offer help, even in our weakness, with a humble dependence upon God.
There Are Different Settings in Which Counsel Takes Place
When I speak in churches about the need for each of us to be equipped to offer wise advice to one another, many people are intimidated by the idea that they could be a “counselor.” In order to reduce their trepidation, I will talk about three different levels of counseling complexity. Everyone is involved in at least one of these. The higher the level, the more training and experience one needs.
Level 1 – Offering Informal Advice to the People with Whom You Do Life
Every believer is engaged in this kind of counseling. When we spend time informally with family and friends, we offer advice. Sometimes our counsel is implicit; for example, when we subtly refuse to laugh at coarse humor (Eph. 5:4) or to nod in approval when someone says something unbiblical. At other times we must explicitly speak up for truth; for example, if a professing believer is considering a romantic relationship with an unbeliever or a family member is pursuing an unbiblical divorce. It can be challenging to admonish a friend who is seeking (and expects) your approval. But “faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:6a). Positively believers edify and encourage one another as they speak truth to one another in love (Eph. 4:15). “Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel “(Prov. 27:9). In the Pilgrim’s Progress, the conversations among the believers on their journey exemplify this kind of mutual edification.
Level 2 – Deliberate Discipleship
This type of counseling is somewhat more structured and intentional. You meet with someone for a particular purpose on a regular basis, perhaps every Friday morning for breakfast or coffee. It could be discipleship with a new believer as you teach them the basics of the Christian life. Or you might meet regularly to help an individual or couple work through a particular issue, such as worry, anger, lust, or conflict. You provide accountability and practical biblical advice to help them grow in sanctification. You might choose to read and discuss a book together. A mature lady might regularly spend time in the home of a younger woman to help her to grow as a wife and a mother (Titus 2:3-5). I sometimes schedule discipleship walks or runs with men whom I am seeking to mentor. During these times, we have had delightful and profitable conversations.
Level 3 – Formal Counseling
This is what many people typically think of when we speak of counseling. Significant issues need to be addressed. Sessions are focused and often intense and may take place in an office or some other place where there will be no distractions. Usually, formal counseling takes place over a limited number of sessions. The counselor should be mature, well-trained, and experienced. He or she may be certified by a biblical counseling organization or have an academic degree (although there are godly qualified and experienced counselors who have neither). Formal counseling often begins with a crisis, such as adultery or abuse. The counselor must have a “thick” Bible (knowledge of Scripture) to be prepared for almost any issue. Sometimes the counselor will not know much about the problem (or even much about the counselee) prior to the session. Ideally, formal counseling takes place in the context of the local church but can also occur at a counseling center. Some formal counseling cases are more complex than others. Even experienced counselors will face cases for which they are not equipped, and they will need to seek help from other counselors.
Every Christian is a counselor. Each of us regularly offers advice to the people around us. Some of us are called to counsel in more formal settings. Each of us should strive to grow in the knowledge of God’s Word and its application to His people so that we can do more to build up our brothers and sisters in Christ (Eph. 4:15-16).
Questions for Reflection
- At what level do you believe that you are competent to counsel?
- What can you do to be equipped to do a better job of offering advice to others?
- Do you believe you may be gifted to counsel at a higher/deeper level? What would it take to get you there?
- When should you refer a counseling situation to another counselor?
Jim Newheiser is an individual associate member of the Reformed Baptist Network. He serves as the Director of the Christian Counseling program and Professor of Pastoral Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC. He also served in pastoral ministry for over thirty years in Southern California and Saudi Arabia, and has been the director of The Institute for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship (IBCD) since 2006. He is a Fellow and a board member of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).