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9. The Ministry Of Counseling, Part 1 (1 Thessalonians 5:11-15; Hebrews 10:23-25)

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December 29, 1979

Introduction1

The librarian at the Beverly Hills, California library simply told the gentleman that he must list at least one personal reference if he expected to get a library card.

But the gentleman was unable to come up with the name of even one friend. “I don’t have a friend,” he said. “But if I ever get one again, I’ll come back.” And he tore up the form, leaving it on the librarian’s counter.

Thinking the man looked vaguely familiar, the librarian pieced the application form together again and read the name: “John Wesley Dean III,” one of the key figures in the Watergate investigation.2

I hope that something in this story deeply touches you and underscores the desperate loneliness which is so prevalent in our times. What many Christians do not (or will not) recognize is that this loneliness exists within the church.

While I was a student in seminary, I remember the strong reaction of some to a statement made by Ray Stedman, who spoke during a missions emphasis week. Ray said something to this effect,

“There is more fellowship in a local bar than there is in many local churches.”

I would go one step further than this,

“There is often more encouragement and counsel available in a local bar than in the local church.”

There is a reason for this. J. I. Packer, in his book, Knowing God, has made this indictment,

A certain type of ministry of the gospel is cruel. . . . What kind of ministry is this? The first thing to say is that, sad as it may seem, it is an evangelical ministry. . . .The type of ministry that is here in mind starts by stressing, in an evangelistic context, the difference that becoming a Christian will make. Not only will it bring a man forgiveness of sins, peace of conscience, and fellowship with God as his Father; it will also mean that . . . he will be able to overcome the sins that previously mastered him, and the light and leading that God will give him will enable him to find a way through problems of guidance, self-fulfillment, personal relations, heart’s desires, and such like, which had hitherto defeated him completely.3

In short, Packer is distressed at the false impression given by sincere but misguided Christians, who would have men believe that those who come to Christ need not have problems. Christ is preached to men, not only as the Lamb of God sacrificed for sinners, but as the panacea for all problems.

Newly-saved Christians are thrown for a loss when their problems multiply rather than melt away. If they do not doubt their salvation, they at least despair of reaching any level of maturity or spirituality.

Beyond the impact of this error on individual Christians, it also creates problems for the church corporate. Since “Christians don’t have problems,” churches close their eyes to ministries which undergird those in distress and difficulty. The church fails to provide help or to preach on how to deal with problems. Consequently, the saints conclude that Christians don’t have problems. Everyone then attempts to save face by playing the role of a happy-go-lucky, carefree Christian. Trite cliches such as “Praise the Lord,” “What a blessing,” “Fantastic,” prevail within the church. Our conversation sounds much like a Christian cocktail party. The saints become hypocrites. They conceal their faults rather than confess them. They despair of their carnality and sense that the problems they face are somehow unique to them. How tragic!

Those bold enough to seek help often go to unhealthy extremes. One such method might be called “psychological streaking.” This is the “let it all hang out” type of confession session which is practiced in some Christian circles. All too often, the individual relieves his guilt feelings at the expense of another. Rather than confessing sin to the one who has been wronged and obtaining forgiveness and reconciliation, we confess to others. We “get it off our chest.” This may make us feel better, but actually serve to tempt or burden those to whom we confess by supplying them with unwholesome thoughts to ponder.

Another approach to personal problems is to privately deal with difficulties––like an unwanted pregnancy. I call this “psychological abortion.” Christians seek to have their problems fixed professionally and (most of all) privately. The price of such help, apart from the ministry of those in the local church, is often greater loneliness and spiritual isolationism.4

For these reasons, we dare not conclude our study of the work of the ministry without giving consideration to the subject of Christian counseling in the local church.

The Meaning of “Counsel” in Scripture

In the past century, counseling has taken on a very different meaning. Most often we connote by the term a formal, and often professional, function. It generally revolves around a specific problem (or problems). The counselee shares his problem with the counselor, who, at least ideally, identifies the difficulty and prescribes the solution. Often the counselor helps the counselee then work through the solution process.

Counsel in the Old Testament. Essentially one Hebrew word (more accurately one root) is employed for counsel in the Old Testament, esah. It refers to a carefully considered plan or purpose, whether of God (Isaiah 28:29), or of man (Isaiah 8:10). While man’s counsels are subject to the will of God (Isaiah 19:3; cf. Proverbs 16:9), God’s purposes are immutable and eternal (Isaiah 25:1; 44:26; 46:10).

Counsel is also used of advice, upon which a plan or course of action can be formulated. This can be from God (Psalm 16:7), or from man (Exodus 18:19), and therefore it can be either good (Proverbs 1:25, 30) or evil (Psalm 1:1). A counselor was frequently a political advisor to the king (2 Samuel 15:12).

Counsel in the New Testament. The Greek word for counsel in the New Testament is boulé, or its almost interchangeable counterpart thélhma.5 Counsel is used with meanings consistent with that in the Old Testament.

The significance of a study of the word “counsel” in the Bible is that it has little relationship to the contemporary meaning of counsel.

While the Bible does not define the word “counsel” in contemporary terms, we do find the functions of modern Christian counseling described. Several key passages describe these functions:

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15).

And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able also to admonish one another (Colossians 3:16).

And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men. See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all men (1 Thessalonians 5:14-15).

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

…and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Those passages describe some of the various functions of Christian counseling. Consider these facets of counseling with me.

1. Admonition.

The Greek noun, nouthesia, and the verb, noutheteō, contain the force of “putting into the mind.” It can convey the milder sense of instruction or warning, which is more preventative in nature (1 Corinthians 10:11). Also, it refers to a rebuke which seeks to correct a wrong already committed
(1 Thessalonians 5:12; 2 Thessalonians 3:15; Titus 3:10). The motive behind admonition is not punitive, but restoration and correction. It seeks to turn the wayward from their sin, or to keep the susceptible from it. It is noteworthy that Paul admonished the Ephesians with tears (Acts 20:31), which tells us much about the spirit in which this work must be carried out. If ignored, admonition can become the first step in the process of church discipline (cf. Titus 3:10). Those prone to sin or practicing it are the objects of admonition.

2. Encouragement.

While the willful need admonition, the faint-hearted need encouragement
(1 Thessalonians 5:14). Not rebuke but reinforcement is needed by those who are fearful and reluctant. Admonition is a kick in the seat of the pants; encouragement is an arm around the shoulder.

There are two primary Greek words used for encouragement, paramytheomai (John 11:19, 31; 1 Thessalonians 2:11; 5:14)6 and parakaleō (Acts 11:23; 14:22; 15:32; 2 Corinthians 2:7, etc.). Both words convey the idea of comforting as well as challenging or urging.

Barnabas was known for his gift of exhortation or encouragement (Acts 4:36). He encouraged the Apostle Paul during his early days as a believer (Acts 9:26-28). He ministered encouragement to the new Christians at Antioch (Acts 11:22-24). When Mark was rejected as a helper after his first failure, Barnabas took him alongside (Acts 15:36-41) and encouraged him to the point that he became an asset to the ministry
(2 Timothy 4:11).

Fear and inferiority and guilt often hinder Christians from realizing their god-given potential. The Christian with a ministry of encouragement comes alongside and stimulates growth in grace.

It would appear to me that Timothy was plagued with timidity and fear. Paul’s letters to him were, to a great extent, an encouragement to his ministry (cf. 2 Timothy 1:6-7; 8-14; 3:14-17; 4:1-2).

In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, the objects of encouragement are the oligopsychos (oligo = little; psychos = soul), the little-souled, the faint-hearted or discouraged. One of the greatest hindrances to personal ministry and fulfillment is, in my experience, a low self-image. I cannot help but think that the ministry of encouragement is desperately needed to minister to those Christians who suffer from this condition.

3. Help.

The objects of help, according to 1 Thessalonians 5:14, are the weak. Most scholars understand the weak to be those, not with physical ailments, but those who are spiritually weak. Such persons have failed to fully grasp Christian liberty and are the more likely to sin due to the example set by those who exercise their liberty (cf. Romans 14:1; 15:1; 1 Corinthians 8:7, 9).

The word help, antexō, conveys the sense of “clinging to,” “taking an interest in” or “paying attention to.” There are two wrong responses to those who are weak. One would be to accept them, but only in order to try to change their thinking, to correct or enlighten them (Romans 14:1). The other would be to ignore them altogether. Paul’s command in 1 Thessalonians 5:14 forbids being aloof, and instructs us to take an active interest in them.

The “weak” may also be understood to be those who are morally weak, those who are deeply entrapped by sin. In this case, we are not told to condemn or to criticize, but to shore up their defenses and to share their burdens (cf. Galatians 6:2). Jesus did not condemn the woman caught in adultery (nor did he condone her sin), but said, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Perhaps what this woman sought in elicit sexual encounters was to be found in a loving, caring, accepting fellowship of Christians.

4. Stimulate.

One of the functions of the Christian is to “stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). In many respects, this stimulation is akin to exhortation and encouragement. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, encouragement was to be directed specifically to the faint-hearted. In Hebrews 10:24, we are not to restrict this provoking to righteousness only to the discouraged and downhearted. All Christians have an obligation to promote the sanctification process of other believers. It is an ongoing ministry that devotes mental energy to one’s needs and how they can best be brought to greater godliness and maturity.

5. Empathy.

Some Christians have not yet come to realize that God does not give us the answer to every problem. Christ is the answer, yes, the answer to the problem of sin and guilt and alienation. But God does not always choose to reveal the solution to every problem. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was never taken away (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). God never explained to Job the reasons for his suffering.

Many Christians seemingly cannot accept the fact that God doesn’t explain His every action to men. Counselors who insist upon explaining every problem in life find themselves in the same predicament as Job’s friends, trying to fit square pegs into round holes. The worst part of it is that they only increase human suffering in their attempts to help.

In those times where there is nothing to say, there may be something we can do, and that, I believe, is the role of empathy. Empathy is “rejoicing with those who rejoice, and weeping with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). It is showing that we care, even though we do not have easy answers or solutions for human suffering and tragedy. I love these words of wisdom from a man who has walked the path of the upright for many years. Vance Havner has written concerning the death of his wife,

I don’t understand some of the things we went through. There were a lot of things I don’t have any clever answers for. When I meet some brother who has smug and quick answers for some of these problems, I say, “Brother, bless your heart; you’re not for me; you know too much.” So even though I don’t understand some things, I still accept them.7

6. Teaching.

A vital part of the counseling process is that of teaching. Much of our difficulty comes from misunderstanding or improper emphasis. The Bible addresses itself to the most common problems of life, most of which stem from wrong thinking. Pride, inferiority, worry, fear, insecurity, and guilt are just a few problem areas which the Scriptures constantly address. This is why Paul reminds Timothy of the inspiration and authority of Scripture and its primary role in ministering to the needs of men (2 Timothy
3:15-17). Nothing is more vital to counseling than an intimate knowledge of the Word of God––nothing!

Oh how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day. Thy commandments make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever mine. I have more insight than all my teachers, for Thy testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, because I have observed Thy precepts. I have restrained my feet from every evil way, that I may keep Thy word. I have not turned aside from Thine ordinances, for Thou Thyself hast taught me. How sweet are Thy words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth! From Thy precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way (Psalm 119:97-104).

7. Reconciling.

The Apostle Paul referred to his ministry as one of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18). In the context, it is clear that this reconciliation is essentially that which occurs through the preaching of the gospel––the reconciliation of men to God. But Paul also stresses in his teaching that Christ has brought peace between men as well as peace with Himself (Ephesians 2:14-22).

Our Lord fairly frequently had to deal with strife and tension within the twelve (Matthew 20:20ff.; Mark 9:33-50). Paul spoke to Euodia and Syntyche about their disharmony and asked another to help them in this matter (Philippians 4:2-3). In 1 Thessalonians 5:15, the saints are instructed,

See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all men.

Our Lord said,

Blessed are the peacemakers,… (Matthew 5:9).

Much of the ministry of counseling is occupied in seeking to restore harmony and unity in human relationships.

8. Prayer.

One ministry in which every Christian should be engaged is that of intercessory prayer.

Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much (James 5:16).

I would strongly question that profit of any counsel that is not the result of diligent study of the Word and prayer. Nothing is more needed in counseling than wisdom, and that is found in the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:15-17) and is given in answer to prayer (James 1:5). Mark it well: we must speak to God on behalf of others before we speak to others on behalf of God.

Paul’s Epistles are rich in counsel, but it is readily apparent that they are the product of intense and persistent prayer (cf. Ephesians 1:15-23; 3:14-19; Philippians 1:3-5; Colossians 1:3-8; etc.). May God burden us with the urgent need for intercessory prayer in ministering to others.

Conclusion and Application

From our study of counseling, we must come to several conclusions.

1. Counseling is not the task of a few individuals, but the responsibility of the entire church.

The Scriptures nowhere speak of the gift of counseling.8 We have attempted to show that there are many facets to counseling––far too many for any one person to effectively carry out. The imperatives of Scripture to carry on these functions are not addressed to the few, but to the entire body of Christ.

2. Counseling should not be divorced from the context of a local church.

I am exceedingly grateful for the ministry of professional Christian counselors. I have and will continue to refer individuals for professional help. My conclusion is that the primary responsibility for counseling falls squarely upon the local church. If the church were functioning as it should, many problems which must be referred could and should have been deferred. And when professional counsel is needed, it should be buttressed with the continued ministry of the saints to the one receiving professional help.

3. Counseling, like all ministry, is our responsibility.

We are to engage in all aspects of ministry, as the Scripture commands. But most of all, we are to play that part in the counseling process which God has enabled us to do by His gifts and calling.

My prayer is that each of us will be convinced that counseling, in its broad sense, is our task. I would pray that we would not attempt to abuse or misuse our task to the detriment of the saints. I would urge you to ask God to give you a servant’s heart, one that is tender and sensitive toward those in need. Pray that God may give you the wisdom to minister effectively to others.

To be entirely fair and honest, I must also inform you that there is grave responsibility attached to this ministry. The principle expressed by James must surely apply to this ministry:

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment (James 3:1).

I do not think that most of us should become counselors. I am saying that counseling is a process, and that God has called all of us to play our part well. May God grant us to know what that part is.


1 This is the edited manuscript of a message delivered by Robert L. Deffinbaugh, teacher and elder at Community Bible Chapel, December 29, 1979. Anyone is at liberty to use this edited manuscript for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel. Copyright 1979 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081.

2 “Brief Case,” Eternity, February, 1977, p. 8

3 J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), pp. 221-222.

4 I, in no way, intend to criticize the contribution made by professional Christian counselors, or, for that matter, any professional psychiatric or psychological services which do not attempt to undermine a Christian client’s faith. Neither do I mean to discourage any who have or should seek such help. I personally have encouraged certain Christians to seek professional help.

This, however, does not change the fact that some Christians who use such services do so for the wrong reasons. Some, out of fear or pride, don’t want any of their fellow-Christians to be aware of their problems, and hypocritically put on a happy, smiling face in church, while they are desperately in need of help.

Some Christians, due to the serious nature of their problems, need extensive clinical help. Wisdom would demand that these persons should be referred to those who can offer the needed therapy.

Unfortunately, one reason why so many Christians seek help from professional counselors is because the local church fails to offer the help that is desperately needed. This kind of help is the subject of our study.

5 Cf. D. Muller, “Will, Purpose,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Edited by Collin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), III, pp. 1015-1023.

6 These are the only occurrences of the word paramytheomai, while parakaleō is found very frequently in the New Testament.

7 Vance Havner, “Things I’ve Learned in the Night,” Moody Monthly, June, 1974, p. 28.

8 With all due respect, I must lovingly disagree here with Dr. Collins. He assumes that there must be the gift of counseling. Collins, How To Be A People Helper, pp. 60-62.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry