Perspectives on the Compatibility of Christianity and Psychology

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What should Christians think of the study and use of psychology and psychiatry?

I don’t think it’s fair to assume that all mental health problems have a physiological (of the body) or psychological (of the mind) basis. Aren’t some issues purely spiritual? I know that Focus on the Family emphasizes integrating psychology and theology — and that you refer people to licensed professional therapists. But that seems to ignore lay counselors and biblical counselors. How can you justify requiring applicants to your referral network of counselors to take secular (and, some would argue, anti-Christian) coursework just so they can say they hold a state mental health credential?



You’re right: We do take a decidedly integrative approach to psychology and Scripture (a type of therapy often known as Christian counseling). And we don’t include non-licensed biblical counselors in our Christian Counselors Network. But that’s not to detract from the ministry carried out by well-trained biblical and pastoral counselors (those who offer biblical or nouthetic counseling based solely on Scripture).

Stick with us here while we give an overview of why we value psychology while still giving full authority to God’s Word — and explain the reasoning behind the current structure of our referral network.

An overview of why Focus on the Family integrates psychology and theology

We’ll be the first to acknowledge that different perspectives exist on the appropriateness of integrating principles of psychology with the Christian faith. (For balanced input from scholars and practitioners, we encourage you to read Psychology and Christianity: Five Views and a related book review: Psychology and Christianity: Five Views.)

For our part, we do approach life and its struggles from a Christian worldview. At the same time, we believe that God designed humans as physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual beings. All these aspects of human nature interact with each other, so it’s rare to encounter a problem that’s exclusively spiritual.

We aren’t saying that all troubles have a physiological or psychological basis. But physiological and psychological factors are often a critical part of the overall mix. As a result, Christians can find valuable help with many of life’s difficulties by consulting with a qualified doctor, psychologist, or trained therapist. We believe that Christ’s lordship applies over all these professions — particularly when the practitioner seeks Christ in all aspects of their work.

Why we caution against strictly secular psychology

Still, as in every other area of life, Christians who become involved with psychology need to use discernment.

That’s because secular psychology frequently doesn’t support traditional Christian teachings since it’s not based on those values. Instead, secular psychology often makes the person the center of their decisions. Some aspects of it can tend to elevate a belief in “human goodness” and fail to recognize the fallen world and sinfulness as ultimate sources of harm. In other words, secular psychology doesn’t acknowledge a sovereign God who loves us and asks us to trust and obey His wisdom and authority.

For this reason, we strongly recommend that believers get therapy only from practitioners who share their Christian faith. And it’s why we don’t suggest that individuals can find sufficient help through referrals from the American Psychological Association and other secular professional groups.

It also explains why we go to great lengths to be sure that counselors on staff at Focus on the Family, as well as professionals who are part of our Christian Counselors Network, provide input and care based on a biblical Christian worldview. This often includes praying for clients (before, during, and after treatment). And it involves working with specifically scriptural concepts, principles, and references that a therapist decides are appropriate and in the client’s best interests.

Our goal is to provide or recommend input that is scientifically sound and thoroughly biblical in character. God does give people insight through nature and science in the world He created, yet we also know that the wisdom of man isn’t what ultimately heals someone. Healing comes from the formational work of the Holy Spirit. Just as a person needs the Holy Spirit’s discerning guidance when reading Scripture or hearing a Sunday sermon, they need that same discernment when reading scientific research and making related applications.

The history of Focus on the Family’s view of counseling

Our ministry was founded by Dr. James Dobson, a deeply committed Christian whose career as a trained clinical psychologist led to Focus’ start several decades ago. His prolific work integrating psychology and theology for the betterment of the family unit — with an overall emphasis on Scripture’s authority to serve as the filter for all disciplines — remains influential in our efforts.

We believe that all truth is God’s truth

God has chosen to reveal Himself to humanity in two ways: special revelation and general revelation.

Special revelation refers to how God has chosen to reveal Himself through His Word, the Bible. He has, by His own free grace, given us a series of particular and pointed messages about Himself through His prophets. These God-breathed words carry His authority and show us specific truths and wisdom that we could never discover on our own. The Gospel of Jesus as our Redeemer and Savior is specifically revealed in the Bible —and that good news is the ultimate need of all people.

General revelation refers to truths about God that might be known to all people at all times and in all places through nature and accurate scientific study. God reveals Himself through the miracle of creation:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. (Psalm 19:1-2)

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:19-20)

These two Bible passages (of many!) confirm that a counseling session doesn’t have to include a direct presentation of the Gospel to contain powerful Christ-centered truths.

All truth is God’s truth. And every truth points people to the Source of all goodness and help. Jesus Christ is that Source. And we pray that every person comes to know Jesus as Truth, Savior, Lord, and Compassionate Helper. That’s the overarching mission of Focus on the Family.

So, how does this help explain our integration of psychology and Christianity? It does so because not every life challenge can be readily resolved with a direct verse of Scripture or a biblical encouragement to leave sin and accept the truths of Jesus.

We believe in helping fallen people of a fallen world

People are not one-dimensional.

Yes, all the pain we see in the world is ultimately tied to the sin and rebellion that exist in every human heart. However, people sometimes face physical and psychological problems that come from living in a broken world rather than being a direct or exclusive result of personal sin.

In life, we must also help individuals through the wisdom of God’s general revelation — with truths He’s given us in the accurate study of nature and science. For example, take the fact that chemical imbalances in the brain can be associated with depression or any number of mental health symptoms:

  • We also know that clinical mental health counselors have studied human behavior. They understand how personal traits, environmental factors, and interpersonal relationships can influence symptoms — positively or negatively.
  • Further, we know that therapists use their training to help the person who’s depressed or uncontrollably anxious to make necessary changes in areas such as control, responsibility, and appropriate self-care.
  • Moreover, we know that scientists have studied brain biochemistry and have developed pharmaceutical interventions to help the brain return to optimal function. (Similar medical interventions help regulate blood sugar, breathing, heart rate, and many organic–based illnesses.)

God is the creator of all these truths, even if they’re not explicitly included in the Bible. God designed the entirety of our humanity — body, mind, spirit, and our social and interactive nature. He formed the scientists, doctors, and therapists. He gave them the wisdom and ability to understand and apply His practical principles for the good of humanity.

As we said earlier, God fashioned humans as physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual beings — to reflect His image. So we address social and emotional suffering from the understanding that we are all fallen people in a fallen world. We all need eternal salvation through Christ and daily renewal to work through the hard things of earthly life.

That’s why we can’t minimize the complex interconnection of spirit, mind, body/brain, and relationships. Instead, we stay rooted in scriptural authority and the Bible’s overall truths about humanity’s sinful nature while also staying open to evidence-based principles, informed assessment, and potential interventions.

We believe Christians can pursue, study, discern, and apply truth in psychological studies

Professional Christian counselors study and endeavor to understand human nature and behavior as carefully as possible so they can help people overcome life’s challenges.

They stay current in their field and stay strong in their faith, and they continually learn how biblical teaching intersects with everyday life. They must apply biblical principles, critical thinking, good judgment, and attunement to the Holy Spirit. They measure every discovery and every statement against the standard of God’s Word.

Accordingly, the work of a trained Christian counseling professional isn’t fundamentally different from that of a Christian in any other specialized field. Because all truth is God’s truth, the calling of a Christian therapist is every bit as legitimate as that of a Christian auto mechanic or a Christian IT tech. Everything was made through and for God. He rules in and over every area of life.

Compare the work of a Christian psychologist with that of a Christian cardiologist. God created the human heart as well as the human mind. Accurate observations about how the heart or mind function can be useful for Christians and non-Christians alike.

Another way to look at it is that people trust doctors to deal with physical problems because they have studied and mastered the laws and principles underlying God’s physical creation. Something similar can be said with respect to the Christian therapist, Christian psychologist, or Christian psychiatrist who helps people with their mental or emotional difficulties.

Bottom line? Biblical Christians don’t need to avoid sound academic study or potential benefits of scientific research. And we don’t need to dismiss the role that psychology and physiology play in healing, wholeness, and God-honoring living. When we humbly study to rightly interpret God’s truth in the Bible and we diligently study to learn how the world He created works, we can be assured that there’s no contradiction between the two.

But that raises an important question: How can we be sure that a licensed Christian counseling professional does do the hard work of study, reflection, and integration?

Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselor Network

Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselors Network (CCN) connects hurting families with trusted, professional care for ongoing counseling needs. That help can save and heal lives, marriages, and parent-child relationships.

The therapists in our CCN are colleagues in our ministry’s efforts to offer the balm of Christ and the life-giving message of Jesus, and they provide services based on a practical biblical worldview. Because of that, all applicants to Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselors Network complete an extensive questionnaire in addition to our requirement for formal professional licensure and credentialing.

This two-pronged approach generally ensures theological alignment and many hours of supervised experience (and ethical regulation) on the part of our CCN members. We’ve found this to be the most effective way to give our constituents trustworthy referrals to therapists who demonstrate clinical and ethical competency while also sharing Focus on the Family’s ministry values.

Why Focus on the Family requires CCN members to hold state credentials

We realize that some states make exemptions and allow for legal practice of non-licensed counselors (often faith-based or church-related). We support those allowances. People who invest in both theological and counseling-specific training to further God’s work in others’ lives should have this exemption to practice in the many ways fitting their competencies and training.

However, Focus on the Family can’t open CCN membership (at this time) to credentials other than those required for providing state-credentialed public therapeutic services.

Our decision and the criteria we use in forming our clinical network aren’t meant to discourage the pastoral counseling that can be found through many churches or other biblical counseling associations. Neither are we trying to undermine the sound and excellent ministry carried out by some well-trained professionals who don’t hold state licensure. Rather, it comes down to the logistics of handling wide-ranging standards and regulations as well as highly varied levels of clinical training and grievance board accountability.

We’re not currently able to vet, track, and provide a public list of non-licensed referrals — especially since other certifications (even faith-based ones) have such a wide range of type, scope, and emphasis.

To that end, we require that CCN applicants hold a state mental health credential (a full or provisional license) as a psychiatrist, psychologist, psychiatric nurse, social worker, professional counselor, marriage and family therapist, addictions counselor, or related mental health title. This decision is based on several important factors:

  • It provides a form of proof that the applicant is competent because they have sufficient and applicable formal educational training as well as hands-on supervised experiential training.
  • Somebody other than Focus on the Family has done a thorough professional vetting and legal background check so we don’t have to spend time and donor gifts to do so.
  • It involves a formal organization that sets legal and ethical standards members must follow.
  • It provides an ongoing oversight body or board with the leverage and power to discipline any legal or ethical infractions that may happen.
  • It keeps Focus on the Family current with professional standards of care when giving referrals to callers. This gives us credibility in the mental health field and allows us to offer help and serve as salt and light to non­-religious individuals and organizations.

Again, these requirements aren’t meant to devalue seminaries or personal callings that exist for mentoring, coaching, discipling, and caring for those in need of some form of spiritual counsel or mental health guidance. Many biblical and pastoral counselors help the individuals they serve in significant and necessary ways.

If we make adjustments to the qualifications for inclusion in our CCN, we’ll post the information on our CCN membership page.

Learn more about the integration of psychology and theology

We hope that what we’ve shared helps explain the approach we take in integrating psychology and Christianity — and why we require specific standards for membership in our Christian Counselors Network.

For a deeper look into this important issue, we’ll again mention Psychology and Christianity: Five Views and a related book review: Psychology and Christianity: Five Views.

We also recommend Dr. Gary R. Collins’ classic book, The Rebuilding of Psychology, which summarizes the field of psychology from a Christian perspective. (You may be able to find a copy through online retailers or a local bookstore.) A more recent book by Dr. Collins that might be helpful is Christian Counseling.

In addition, pastor and theologian Dr. Timothy Keller wrote an insightful, free download titled Four Models of Counseling in Pastoral Ministry.

We’ve listed these titles below along with other resources. And if what we’ve shared raises questions about your personal situation, you’re welcome to call our Counseling department for a free over-the-phone consultation (1-855-771-4357). 

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