1. Moralism – Behavioral Change is Life Change
There is nothing wrong with morality! Morality speaks of an adherence to an ethical code; doing what is right; avoiding what is wrong. But “moralism” is a corruption of morality. As I use the term it means we focus on external codes of behavior but give little thought to what’s going on in the heart.
In counseling this means the counselor utilizes a kind of Christian Behaviorism, using proven techniques to get the client to change his or her actions and habits. Some of these behavioral practices may be, in themselves, good. For example, many Christian counselors will encourage the client to begin praying or reading the Bible daily. No one Christian would argue this is a bad idea! However, moralism in the counseling process means that because the client begins a prayer routine he now thinks (or the counselor implies, intentionally or not) he has changed. But that is clearly not an accurate assessment of what has happened. Even monkeys can learn new habits!
There is a sweeping emphasis in the church today on character instruction. I suppose it’s been with us for a hundred years, but it’s very common today to hear entire sermons devoted to character qualities. Again, there is nothing wrong with character or virtue! However, too often this emphasis comes at the expense of two things: a.) heart change—the listeners are not taught or reminded that the only true morality begins in the heart. b.) self-deception –the more moralism is emphasized the greater the likelihood of a secret self. That’s because the “real” self (as found in the “heart”) is buried or hidden away under the guise of behavioral compliance.
What can Christian counselors do to guard against the error of moralism? There needs to be an active, thoughtful and Christ-centered “pietism.” Pietism, as the term suggests, is the expression of “piety.” I realize there was a historic movement of pietism that is often challenged for its orthodoxy. That’s not what I’m referring to. Though the term “pious” has become pejorative in our day, indicating some kind of false humility, the historic use of the word is not that at all. Historically, pietism was a movement of deep devotion for holiness and godliness during the Reformation period of church history. Pietism, as I use the word, means an emphasis on life change, not just behavioral change.
2. Dualism – Fragmentation of Biological, Psychological and Spiritual
Since Adam and Eve ate the Forbidden Fruit, plunging the world into chaos and confusion, fragmentation has characterized humanity and culture. In the original creation there was no fragmentation. All was integrated and unified. In terms of our anthropology (study of mankind) this means that in the original creation, matter and spirit—body and soul—functioned in a kind of seamless harmony. As to the ontological basis for that statement, I cannot take the time to develop it here. Let’s just say that if there were any counselors in the Garden of Eden they would never have worried about whether an issue was “biological” or “spiritual.” This all began to change after the Fall. And the fragmentation in theory and practice has continued ever since. In the history of theory, there was a massive shift during the time of the Greek philosophers to address the pendulum swings with a new approach called “dualism.” Philosophical dualism did not swing back and forth between an emphasis on matter or spirit but attempted to hold both in an uneasy tension. Again, how that played out in history would take us beyond our scope here. Let’s just say that one usually swallows up the other. This is where we find ourselves today.
Christian counselors are typically not philosophers and most I know do not even view themselves as theorists but practitioners and clinicians. So these kinds of debates often seem irrelevant to them. But they are not. And most Christian counselors have, by default, accepted the conventional dualistic wisdom of our age. Consequently, there is an uneasy and uncomfortable conflict between matters of the body and matters of the soul. This conflict has the practical effect of creating a bifurcated or compartmentalized approach to various kinds of problems. For example, “physical problems” are considered the domain of “medical doctors” and “psychological problems” the purview of “psychologists.” Some will allow that “spiritual problems” are best addressed by pastors or spiritual advisors. But the way these problems are defined makes a lot of difference!
I believe the resulting compartmentalization and fragmentation of caregiving is one of the greatest challenges facing Christian counseling today. Ideally, all caregivers would be trained to view the individual holistically. This doesn’t mean there is no room for medical specialists or spiritual advisors. However, the person under care must beware of allowing the various specialists to aggravate the conflict between the different perspectives. The corrective for this error is a dynamic and theologically consistent “holism.” Those qualifiers are all important. There are many who champion “holism.” But not all holism is worthy of the term. It is not enough for holism to focus on the whole person. There must be an accurate frame of reference within which that focus occurs. This is where much of the holism goes badly astray. “Holism” in the eyes of a New Age Guru looks very different from holism in the eyes of a biblically grounded caregiver.
3. Synergism – Relying on Natural Resources more than the Power of God
It isn’t surprising that professional caregivers would be more inclined to trust their own advice and resources . That is typically what advanced education and training attempts to instill. But what is “expertise?” There are Christian counselors and teachers who have a great deal to offer. However, Christianity has suffered for generations from a refusal to acknowledge its own limitations. It has become a victim of its own expertise.
In theological terms, there is a common notion that Christian practice is a cooperative effort between God and man. The old adage, “God helps those who help themselves” is one statement of this perspective. In more technical terms, the theoretical justification for this view is called “synergism.” Synergism just means that two different forces combine to make something new take place. In Christian counseling, synergistic views usually result in a greater emphasis on taking charge of your life; of “intentional living” or, in the words of Nike Footwear: “just do it” theology.
There is much to be commended about “just do it” theology. At least it’s not passive or irresponsible! The problem is, it doesn’t work. It may accomplish a lot of things but it misses the most important. Synergistic theologies, when they have short term success, make us believe we can do anything we set our minds to. And what happens over time is they undermine our confidence and trust in God. We may give lip service to God’s power in our lives but we don’t really live like it. Why should we? We’ve managed things quite well on our own.
While we would never want to undermine a person’s determination to change or to do battle with stubborn sinful behaviors in his life, a synergistic foundation will ultimately lead us astray. That’s why we need a “monergistic” theology. Monergism, like the prefix suggests, does not emphasize cooperative effort between God and man but depends fully on God recognizing that without him we can do nothing. While synergism says, I can do all things—monergism qualifies that through the recognition that human effort will never succeed. That’s why the Bible says, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. This is no mere afterthought or sugar coating. Monergism is very narrow and intensely counterintuitive. However, it is a needed corrective to the synergistic theology so common in Christian counseling today.
4. Syncretism – Confusing Christian and Non-Christian Assumptions
Like “synergism,” “syncretism” is another example of an uneasy alliance that ultimately resulted from Adam’s Fall. Syncretism is defined as the mixing and combining of various beliefs and viewpoints—typically conflicting beliefs and viewpoints. Christian counseling has become a minefield of syncretic ideas parading under the banner of “eclecticism” or “integrationism.” It would be impossible in this space to address even a fraction of the syncretic errors in Christian beliefs today so I will have to limit it to one that has a special impact on counseling: the assumption about self-image. How often have we heard that a person has a “poor self-image” or suffers from “low self-esteem?” How often have we heard that the solution is to have a “good self-image” and to increase one’s self-esteem? Such thought appear often in Christian counseling manuals, sermons and self-help books. But I would argue the entire concept of self-esteem is an example of syncretism—confusing Christian and non-Christian assumptions about human nature.
The only way to deal with this error is to plumb the depths of all our viewpoints, peeling back the layers of our terminology and belief until we get down to the assumptions. Assumptions are where this battle can be fought and won. But only when we do the hard work of exposing them. This is what “iconoclasm” is all about.
You may know that, historically, iconoclasts were those who destroyed icons. They were especially active during the early days of the reformation—in church buildings and public buildings, ridding them of statues and other “graven images.” Debating the ultimate value of their iconoclastic pursuits will have to wait for another time. My point here is that iconoclasm is not just about shrines and figurines. It’s about anything that purports to be worthy of our devotion and worship.
Some well-meaning Christian counselors do get this problem. And as a result have rejected out of hand all psychological and counseling theory. Sadly, they forgot that you don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater. There are insights and values to be gained from even the most blatantly erroneous theorists and researchers. For example, one of my favorites relates to brain structure. Briefly, research scientist Paul MacLean was an evolutionary scientist who argued for a “triune brain.” He based his views on the assumption that human beings evolved over millions of years, developing added brain capacities and functions through the process of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Many Christians would reject MacLean’s research because of his evolutionary language and assumptions as “syncretic.” However, the syncretism is not found in talking about a triune brain. In fact, if MacLean was correct, it could actually point to a divine creator of the brain who made his creatures in his own (triune) image. The syncretism is not in every observation of MacLean’s but in his worldview. The syncretism is the evolutionary assumptions that underpin his triune brain theory. This is just one example of how careful we must be in our iconoclastic pursuits that we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Christian counseling can learn much from the theorists and researchers. However, we must not adopt their views uncritically.
5. Legalism – Self-Righteous Judging of Others
A fifth error in Christian counseling is more related to practice. It is especially evident in churches and organizations with a great emphasis on caregiving and problem solving. I’ll subsume the entire error under one big label: legalism. Legalism, like moralism, ultimately focuses on the trees instead of the forest. It is so busy looking at what a person does it overlooks who he is. But legalism does something else: it attempts to use social dynamics to accomplish its objectives. It uses the power of “self-righteousness” to judge others. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, it creates different classes of people based on compliance to external codes of morality and behavior.
But its worst infraction is the motive behind it. Unlike moralism, it isn’t just overlooking the heart-issues. In fact, many legalists spend quite a bit of energy focusing on the heart—of everyone else. The failure is to examine their own. Legalists are fond of straining at gnats and swallowing camels, to cite Jesus’ condemnation. They are quick to see the “splinter” in their brother’s eye (the sin problem or conflict) meanwhile they neglect the “log” in their own.
The solution for legalism is always the same: humility and brokenness of the legalists. This is why Jesus said that we should pluck the log from our own eye before trying to deal with the dust in the other’s. In terms of counseling, this means caregivers and counselors dare not become self-righteous judges of others in their effort to control and direct them. It doesn’t mean we cannot confront error in others. But it does mean we better not unless and until we’ve dealt with the errors in our own lives.