Updated: Mar 16
Since psychology was established as a scientific field in the late 19th century, the Church has increasingly deferred to its authority. Today, about two-thirds of churches offer no lay counselling services, instead referring believers to professional psychotherapists and in many churches and ministries, staff are actively discouraged from counselling unless they have the proper training, degrees, or credentials. But this very recent shift in orthopraxy begs some rather important questions—particularly, why did the church adopt this belief and practice and, has it actually produced superior fruit?
The Ascent of Scientific Faith
Soon after the early church formed, Gentile believers outnumbered their Jewish counterparts and Greek influence became prevalent, introducing philosophical concepts into biblical theology. Some of these appeared compatible with scripture, but many were not, prompting the apostles and later church fathers to condemn heretical pagan philosophies taught within the church. Paul for example condemned Greek Gnosticism and spoke of tearing down any argument or opinion which stood against the knowledge of God (2 Co 10:5). To preserve sound doctrine and weed out heretical ideas, institutions of learning were established to act as gatekeepers, but these institutions had the unfortunate side effect of creating a separate and elite class of professional clergy. Rather than the leaders of the Church "equipping the saints for the work of the ministry" (Eph 4:11-12), the leaders were viewed as the only ones qualified to minister and so the saints became spectators. No longer being the church, going to church became a religious activity separate and distinct from daily life. The Catholic church took this a step further to intentionally make the saints completely dependent upon the clergy to walk out their faith, and so the reliance upon "experts" became further engrained in Western civilization.
While the Protestant Reformation knocked the clergy down a few pegs, they were still regarded as a separate class and a century later, the Enlightenment further reinforced our cultural mesmerization with intellectualism and the elite class of experts, now with science taking the spotlight. As scientific inquiry, theory, and discovery progressed, philosophy and theology became less and less fashionable, with secularism rising to prominence only to give way to materialism. Western civilization largely substituted belief in God with belief in experts, particularly those engaged in the field of science. Our society became less and less based on biblical truth and authority and more and more enamored with doctrines and theories of men, caught up in the hubris and narcissistic idolatry of humanism. After the industrial revolution, this trend accelerated and then with the reintroduction of evolutionary theory and naturalism—now with a veneer of scientific credibility—an all out assault on biblical authority was launched. Belief in experts didn't wane, it just shifted from white robes to white lab coats.
With the advent of World War I and II, we turned to experts in the field of science all the more and they answered the call. Nuclear technology ended the conflict and created a seemingly endless energy source. Post World War II scientific advancements were astounding and with the GI Bill, university attendance exploded, furthering our cultural belief in credentialed experts. Only recently has that faith in academia and experts began to show some cracks in our society, with a few brave souls pulling back the curtain and revealing the less-than-flattering state of modern science, with fraud often used as a means to fame and funding (see The New Atlantis article, Saving Science or Reason Magazine's summarization titled, Most Scientific Findings are Wrong or Useless). Despite this reality, with traditional philosophy in decline and religion viewed as antiquated, an almost equally religious belief in science emerged in the form of scientism. In this new religion, scientists became the new clergy in which we placed our unwavering faith and trust.
The Failure of the Experts
As George Friedman discusses in his book, The Storm Before the Calm, the Western world has become completely infatuated with experts, particularly in the last century. As Freidman notes however, experts have some rather obvious shortcomings in that they have specialized in such a narrow area of expertise, they often lack the general context, common knowledge, or even common sense that the lay person has. Friedman draws upon a line from the Greek poet Archilochus who said, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing," characterizing this weakness of specialists as experts in one tiny area without the wisdom or understanding of how it affects and interplays with the complex and interconnected world around them—a phenomena probably best captured by the old adage "can't see the forest for the trees." Another interesting book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein, shows just how blind experts often are to what generalists (non-experts) can clearly see.
Despite 2,000 years of church history being replete with non-experts and even non-clergy "counseling" troubled souls with countless testimonies of both complete personal and societal transformations, this term has recently taken on clinical, medical, and professional connotations and we have created an entire class of secular Sadducees in the field of psychotherapy. As such, the church has largely abdicated authority in this arena and often restricts discipleship so as not to stray into areas which are now viewed as the domain of trained professionals. This nebulous boundary can even be observed in my own missions organization's staff training manual where it states:
Given the fact that most of us are not trained counselors, we should never assume an automatic “right” or authority to offer counseling. We should continually be looking to refer the student or staff to the appropriate trained people in our midst... It [our organization's training school] is not a place for the focused objective of counselling each other. Just because one is a leader does not make them an automatic counsellor. We don’t necessarily have the qualifications necessary for that. A one on one is a place for support, prayer and encouragement. (YWAM DTS Staff Training Manual, p103-104)
Though there is some wisdom in this caution, there are also some major problems. First and foremost, the assumption that secular psychotherapy training in the fields of professional counselling, psychiatry, and psychology produce superior results due to specialization and self-proclaimed expertise. However, the reality is many studies have shown that professionally educated, credentialled, and trained counsellors are either indistinguishable from, or even inferior to lay people in terms of efficacy and outcomes. In a 2001 study tellingly titled, Is Professional Training Worth the Bother? A Review of the impact of Psychotherapy Training on Client Outcome, authors David C. Atkins and Andrew Christiansen conclude there is scant evidence to suggest counselling should be left to the professionals. In a 2010 study titled, How Effective are Minimally Trained/Experienced Volunteer Mental Health Counsellors? Evaluation of CORE Outcome Data, author Joe Armstrong also notes that all the available research indicates that non-professional counsellors are just as effective as highly credentialled and experienced ones, stating:
Other reviews by Stein and Lambert (1984), Atkins and Christensen (2001), Christensen and Jacobson (1994) and Faust and Zlotnick (1995), and a recent systematic review by den Boer, Wiersma, Russo, and van den Bosch (2005) support the general conclusion that professional training and experience appear to contribute little to therapist effectiveness. Burlingame and Barlow (1996) drew similar conclusions in relation to paraprofessional therapists in time-limited group psychotherapy, and Bright, Baker, and Neimeyer (1999) in relation to group treatments for depression. (Emphasis mine)
Andrea E. Reupert concurred in her 2006 peer-reviewed paper, The Counselor’s Self in Therapy: An Inevitable Presence, stating that:
The training and experience of counsellors has been another counsellor variable considered (Atkins & Christensen, 2001; Berman & Norton, 1985; Durlak, 1979; Hattie, Sharpley, & Rogers, 1984; Stein & Lambert, 1995). Durlak (1979) compared the effectiveness of professional counsellors (therapists with postgraduate degrees in counselling) to paraprofessional counsellors (for example, parents, volunteers, students) on various outcome measures, such as client's level of satisfaction and symptomology, and found that outcomes of paraprofessionals equaled or surpassed the clinical outcomes of the professionals... Consequently, Durlak (1979) concluded that education, training and experience were not predictive of therapy outcome. Other studies since that time (cf., Atkins & Christensen, 2001; Berman & Norton, 1985; Hattie, Sharpley, & Rogers, 1984; Stein & Lambert, 1995) have also shown that the relationship between level of training and therapeutic outcome is tenuous and that counsellor training and experience has a weak relationship with successful counselling. (Emphasis mine)
But arguably the most honest statement in light of all the available data can be found in James Macdonald’s 2013 study, ‘Formal’ Feedback in Psychotherapy as Psychoanalytic Technique where he states:
Perhaps, this shows how easy it is for us to develop problematic attachments to our theoretical model, privileging our theoretical 'knowledge' and loyalty to our psychoanalytic 'parents', above the relationship with our (relatively lower status?) clients. Incidentally, this study's failure to show any benefit of training is consistent with the wider literature on training in psychological therapy, which shows little impact of either therapist experience or level of training on client outcomes…
Problematic Theoretical Models
One of the reasons trained experts and specialists (hedgehogs, using Archilochus' metaphor) perform no better, and possibly worse, than untrained generalists (foxes) in psychotherapy patient outcomes is the assumptions baked into their training and education. The field of psychology, like other fields of science, is largely based on the assumption of materialism—that everything we experience is the result of the material world of particles and energy interacting with each other. Layered on top of that assumption is then the philosophy of humanism, which states that happiness is the goal of human existence. As such, if you take a look at the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual—the Bible of psychology—you'll understand why just about every human emotion and mental state outside of happiness appears to be considered a disorder. Due to the underlying assumption of materialism, you then can understand why drugs are often defaulted to as a solution, because the problem must be a chemical imbalance or some other physiological issue.
But the reality is, not only has psychology produced woeful outcomes for patients in the area of psychotherapy, but also in the area of psycho-pharmaceuticals. One of the most popular drugs produced and prescribed in this field are antidepressants, which are taken by 1 out of every 8 Americans—around 43 million people. Since their introduction in the 1980's, antidepressants (SSRI's—selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) have been viewed as a miracle of modern science and have been liberally prescribed to hundreds of millions of people worldwide. But the evidence is mounting that the entire theory behind SSRI's is wrong—depression isn't caused by low serotonin levels in the brain, so trying to chemically alter serotonin levels via drugs is a solution looking for a problem. This would explain why a recent groundbreaking study found that SSRI's are only more effective than sugar pills (AKA a placebo) 15% of the time. The study also warns that the side effects and withdrawal symptoms from SSRI's are often worse than the depression they were supposed to cure.
Dr. Joanna Moncrief, the lead author of the recent serotonin paper and the professor of Critical and Social Psychiatry at University College London said, "We have a mistaken view of what psychiatric drugs are doing. This idea that they work by targeting the underlying biological mechanisms that produce the symptoms of mental disorders is actually not supported by evidence for any type of mental disorder, whether that's depression or schizophrenia or whatever... It's not helpful to think of depression as a brain disease, I think that we should be thinking of it as an emotional reaction to life circumstances and life events. And indeed, there is very strong evidence that people who suffer from adverse life events are much more likely to get depressed." She goes on to state that SSRI's, like common recreational drugs and alcohol, simply numb the brain and mask the underlying emotions in a small number of (typically severe) cases. If you're skeptical of that claim, consider for a moment that when SSRI's don't work, ketamine is often prescribed by these professionals to suppress the emotions and numb the mind, much like the drug soma in Brave New World and other dystopian novels and movies.
The well-known ineffectiveness of SSRI's actually prompted Meron Gribetz, a tech entrepreneur who formerly was developing augmented reality headsets, to launch a new company called Inner Cosmos, which recently was given the greenlight by the FDA to do human trials with implant technology. As depression is the largest chronic disease in the world, affecting 241 million individuals before COVID, and more than doubling during the pandemic, mental disorders are projected to cost $16 trillion globally by 2030. This lucrative market inspired Gribetz to tackle the problem with an implant which sends tiny electrical pulses to the region of the brain affected by depression—the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—once daily for 15 minutes.
Gribetz said at a tech conference in 2022, “There’s 140 million Americans every year that use attention or depression drugs, that’s more users than have iPhones. Antidepressants are the most widely prescribed solution for depression and they blast your entire brain with neurotransmitters. You end up with severe side effects such as suicidality when we switch cocktails, mental fog fatigue, libido loss, and of course, the efficacy is just over placebo. So it’s very, very low. We started thinking, how is it possible that for the largest disorder in the world, we’re using horse and buggy era technology when there’s Tesla’s driving around? So we decided, why not create the Tesla of the mind, if you will, the absolute most modern and precise brain computer interface ever created for depression. And that’s exactly what we have done.”
The irony of course is that electroshock therapy (now called electroconvulsive treatment, or ECT) isn't a new technology used on mental disorders—it's actually one of the oldest and most controversial psychiatric treatments available, having been pioneered in the 1920's. And while seemingly more effective than antidepressant drugs, it's still at best just a band-aid, which even proponents acknowledge. It's also branded as "mental euthanasia" by a medical watchdog organization who is calling for its ban and has a litany of side-effects including nausea, fatigue, headaches, confusion, memory loss, irregular heartbeat and breathing rates, and in some cases, brain damage and death. But now with implant technology, the most controversial psychiatric band-aid available can be applied daily with a smartphone app. This certainly makes ECT more convenient so it can compete with the simplicity and marketability of pills, but it's still just masking symptoms (and creating others) rather than addressing causes.
Of course the average person probably already knew what some of the specialists have apparently just discovered: that emotions—even extreme ones—are caused by outside stimuli, not internal chemical or electrical imbalances. The mind's response to these stimuli triggers physiological changes in the body, not the other way around. We know that stress can cause all sorts of negative health effects and there are certainly chemical changes in the human body associated with stress, but it is the stress which is the cause, not the body's chemical response to the stress. The solution is to lower stress levels by changing your behavior or environment, not by trying to mask, shock, or chemically confuse your body's natural response. Fear also affects the mind and then subsequently the body's chemistry, but a materialist perspective defaults to thinking that fear is caused by these chemicals or electrical impulses as more metaphysical explanations are either uncomfortable or unwelcome. The mind and human consciousness is nothing more than the interaction of physical particles and energy in this view, so chemistry and physics have to explain everything.
But as not just generalists, but theists (as opposed to materialists), what should be painfully obvious to the body of Christ is that "mental health" is a complex and dynamic product of much more than just brain chemistry. In New Testament Greek language, man consists of soma (body), psuche (soul, which is the mind, will, and emotions), and pneuma (spirit). Note that Greek philosophy separated the soul from the body—the former being pure and immortal, while the latter being defiled and mortal. As such, the body was seen as a mere temporary prison of the immortal soul which lived on in the afterlife once the body expired. By contrast, the Hebrew understanding was that both the body and soul were mortal and intrinsically bound—one could not exist without the other—using the word nephesh for both while ruach was the equivalent of the Greek pneuma or spirit. The Greeks viewed the soul as preceding the body in Neoplatonist philosophy as it was part of the eternal consciousness, emanating from the "world soul," which in turn emanated from the "Nous" or the divine mind. Conversely, the Hebrew scriptures state that man's body came first, then God breathed life into that body making him a living soul or nephesh (see Gen 2:7 and 1 Co 15:45-49).
The Hebrew concept therefore did not view the soul as a separate eternal consciousness which temporarily experienced embodiment, but rather an element of a human being which required embodiment in order to experience consciousness—hence the resurrection of the dead at judgement day and glorified bodies for those given eternal life. However, the Hebrew language still distinguished between body and soul using the word leb (or lebab) when referring specifically to one's emotions, will, or intellect rather than the more general nephesh. So, while the Greeks viewed the soul as separate from the body and therefore eternal, the Hebrews understood the soul as a specific part of the body and therefore mortal. While these opposing concepts have some rather interesting implications in our understanding of the afterlife which I discuss at length in another article, in the context of this argument, both the Greek philosophical and Hebrew theological frameworks agree that human existence is more than just the material or physical, but also metaphysical and spiritual.
The biblical understanding of a person's "inner man" is an entanglement of soul and spirit. Here, the Greek concept also agrees as they believed the heart (kardia) was the center of all physical, spiritual, and soulish life. The Hebrew concept differed in location, believing the soul and spirit resided in the belly rather than the chest—hence the biblical concepts of original sin, unclean food, and fasting (a subject I cover in depth here). But the Hebrew concept agreed that soul and spirit were entwined. So entwined in fact, that the writer of Hebrews used these seemingly indivisible elements to demonstrate the power of logos (the written word of God), claiming that it is actually able to rightly divide them.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. -Hebrews 4:12 (ESV)
So, when dealing with a complex subject like mental health, a generalist and a theist would have to look at more than just chemistry, they would also probe into the metaphysical thoughts of a person, their physical patterns and behaviors, and also the spiritual elements of their life. Psychotherapy ignores half the equation, but at least accounts for thoughts and behaviors, trying to address the underlying cause rather than just clumsily attempting to chemically castrate the natural hormonal responses in the body after the fact. However, secular theories derived from questionable sources (Freud being a prime example) are no substitute for the love, healing, wisdom, and knowledge of God. For the broken heart of humanity, there is but one salve which offers salvation and He is not found in either the body or the soul, but in spirit.
Psychology may ignore the spirit, but scripture does not ignore the soul. Proverbs 23:7 is often paraphrased, "As a man thinks, so he is," indicating that the metaphysical thoughts of a man precede the physical reality. Jesus affirmed this reality on multiple occasions stating it's not what goes into a man's belly which defiles him, but what comes out of his heart (Mat 15:17-20), as well as saying that anyone who has even had lustful thoughts is guilty of adultery (Mat 5:27-28). This is why Paul says in Romans that part of our sanctification through Christ involves the daily renewing of our mind (interestingly he invokes the Greek word nous here rather than psuche, leaning into the concept of the divine intellect or the metaphysical attributes of the human mind which was prevalent in Plato and Aristotle's philosophies, and later in Plotinus' Neoplatonism).
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. -Rom 12:1-2 (ESV)
Renewing the mind involves changing how we think and what we think about. Modern psychology has devised elaborate and specialized therapies to address this issue, but are such sophisticated techniques more effective? A recent study found that actually, performing simple acts of kindness were more effective in treating depression and anxiety than the cognitive behavioral therapies prescribed by so-called experts. This academic acknowledgement of the power of a basic biblical principle underscores the argument that the metaphysical mind is where our battle lies, not chemical imbalances. Given this reality, what weapons then should we bring to bear? This is the dilemma for secular psychoanalytical techniques as they rest upon several shaky pillars: that the patient knows his or her heart and is honest, and that the therapist can then understand the patient's heart, accurately judge and diagnose the wound, and then prescribe the appropriate healing mechanism. If the feasibility of these premises without supernatural aid seem dubious to you, the Bible casts them into even further doubt.
"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? I the Lord search the heart and test the mind..." Jer 17:9-10 (ESV)
The spirit of man is the lamp of the LORD, searching all his innermost parts. -Pro 20:27 (ESV)
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. -Hebrews 4:12 (ESV)
...these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. -1 Co 2:10-12 (ESV)
But to me it is an insignificant matter that I would be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself; however I am not vindicated by this, but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of human hearts... -1 Co 4:3-5 (NASB)
Scripture makes it clear that even judging one's own heart is nearly impossible without the aid of God's Spirit within us, and judging another's heart is even more difficult and precarious. Of course I'm talking about the three forms of "judge" which are advocated in scripture (the Greek anakrino, diakrino, and dokimazo) which mean to test, weigh, or examine, not the forbidden "judge" (the Greek krino) which means to conclude or condemn, which is even further out of reach for mortal man. Even Paul's defense in the court in 1st Corinthians warns that neither his accusers nor even he himself can fully be sure of his innocence or guilt due to the deceptive nature of the heart. He essentially argues that if even he can't be sure of his heart, how on earth could they? This reality casts modern psychotherapy techniques in a deep and subjective shadow without "the lamp of the Lord" to bring light and "the word of God" to bring truth.
Given the unfavorable reality consistently revealed by studies over the last 40 years, it is quite ridiculous for the church to continue to defer to self-proclaimed experts trained in a secular humanist materialistic theory, effectively disqualifying itself from its God-given mandate of salvation, healing, and discipleship through the renewing of the mind. The church is far more capable of offering Godly wisdom and sound counsel to a hurt, wounded, broken, and confused humanity because we not only can see the human "tree," but the "forest" of humanity, and most importantly, know the God who designed and created it and humbly rely upon His Spirit to search the innermost parts of man to illuminate what is hidden in the darkness.
But all too often, even the church falls prey to what James Macdonald wrote in his 2013 study about how easy it is for us to develop problematic attachments to our theoretical model, privileging our theoretical 'knowledge' and loyalty to our psychoanalytic 'parents.' Sadly, the Body of Christ often relies upon our intellect to deduce, assess, and diagnose, thinking our mind can conclude reasonably and rationally what often can only be revealed spiritually. But Jesus warned against this folly, commanding His disciples to not attempt supernatural ministry without supernatural help.
And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “You heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now... But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” -Acts 1:4-5, 8 (ESV)
If there's any solace in the fact that believers often leave their sharpest weapon at home, entering the battle for humanity armed only with dull carnal tools, it's that even in this disadvantaged state of preparedness studies show they will still be at least as effective as professionally trained and credentialled psychotherapists—and possibly more so. However, proper biblical discipleship requires both spiritual maturity and authority, which is often lacking in the church. Therefore, within any spiritual setting in this hour of need, great care and attention should be given to the character and maturity of leaders so that they can provide wise biblical counsel while relying upon the Holy Spirit to bring knowledge, revelation, healing, redemption, and restoration. The qualifications of biblical eldership should not be sacrificed in order to release people prematurely as there is very limited benefit to the blind leading the blind. "Hurt people hurt people," so the walking wounded need to seek their own healing and restoration before attempting to lead others down that path. For the church desperately needs empowered spiritual fathers and mothers involved in discipleship, not just spiritual children.
...making mention of you in my prayers; that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the boundless greatness of His power toward us who believe. -Eph 1:16-19 (NASB)