The Church as a Culture of Care, Finding Hope in Biblical Community
As Dale Johnson is the current executive director of the Association of Certified Bible Counselors and a professor of biblical counseling at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the reader would expect this work to be an explanation and promotion of biblical counseling, and they would be right. But Johnson is eager to tie counseling to the life and ministry of the local church. This is a most important union, especially in a current church environment which tends to specialize and professionalize its care of souls. The author states several purposes behind the book: to defend the place of soul care in the church, to guard against integrating psychology and Scripture, to show how God uses the body of Christ in soul care, and to challenge the idea that the church is inadequate for the task (pp. 2-3).
Biblical counseling is defined as “the personal discipleship ministry of God’s people to others under the oversight of God’s church, dependent upon the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word through the work of the Holy Spirit. Biblical counseling seeks to reorient disordered desires, affections, thoughts, behaviors, and worship toward a God-designed anthropology in an effort to restore people to a right fellowship with God and others. This is accomplished by speaking the truth in love and applying Scripture to the need of the moment by comforting the suffering and calling sinners to repentance, thus working to make them mature as they abide in Jesus Christ” (p. 9). However, biblical counseling must flow from the life of the church, “Every aspect of the work of the church is intended to care for souls. Preaching, shepherding, one-anothering, church discipline, missionary proclamation, personal obedience—all are intended to awaken or strengthen the soul to live faithfully and peacefully in a war-torn and sin-cursed world” (p. 17).
Laced throughout the book are demonstrations of the weaknesses and inadequacies of secular psychology and why the church should not adopt its theories (see pp. 32-33, 40, 49-51, 62). When it does counseling becomes a specialized function independent from the life of the church (p 43) and sinners are morphed into people with disorders (pp. 45, 48, 65). Whereas sinners can be redeemed and restored, people diagnosed with psychological issues can only be coped with or managed (p. 45). The strength of the volume is its emphasis on counseling being part of the ministry of the local church: under-shepherds are to equip the saints (pp. 108-122), the “one anothers” are practiced within the body (pp. 140-142, 149), and formal counseling is reserved for those in need of spiritual intensive care with the goal of moving counselees back into the normal processes of care and growth within the church (pp. 148-149). The balance is well-represented when Johnson writes, “Having a thriving pulpit ministry and a culture of discipleship that breeds love for one another in obedience to the commands of Jesus overflows toward healthy one-on-one counseling. This organically grown atmosphere leads very naturally into a formal counseling ministry, but it is the overflow of healthy biblical disciplining and caring relationships that creates a demand for a more formal counseling ministry” (p. 149). “Counseling is simply the overflow of the normal discipleship process” (p. 78), the author asserts.
Johnson’s overall thrust is on target and deeply appreciated. His emphasis on the church and soul-care is highlighted in his discussion of Martin Bucer’s book Concerning the True Care of Souls based on Ezekiel 34 (pp. 88-104). However, there are a few areas of concern that need to be identified. First, he describes Jesus as the “normal” human (pp. 33, 34, 40), and the true human (p. 131). While Jesus was the perfect human and the goal of our sanctification, Jesus as the God-man was hardly normal and I think “normal” miscommunicates. Next, while Johnson is correct that often the specialized approach to pastoral ministry follows the world’s pattern (p. 61), he seems inconsistent when he writes, “Deferring clear pastoral duties to others who are more specialized or expertly trained in that area is an inexcusable dereliction of pastoral duties. The movement toward specialization in the church during the early part of the twentieth century has had lasting deleterious effects upon pastors and upon their care of God’s people” (p. 62). Given that he was once an associate pastor who specialized in counseling, and now ministers in two specialized parachurch organizations, this comment is confusing at best. If he means that many churches out-source their counseling to secular specialists, he has a point, but he seems to be attacking the idea of specialized ministries within the church.
Johnson several times references the gentleness of Christ in dealing with His sheep (p. 73). While the gentle care of Christ is real and needed, we must not forget that Jesus was often very direct, always demanding commitment and calling out the sins of His followers, sometimes even in public. I wonder what would happen if I called one of my elders Satan, as Jesus called Peter? My point is that we must never isolate one attribute of Jesus (or God) to the exclusion of others. The author is also a believer in church discipline, which is excellent, yet discipline seems to result, in Johnson’s view, in exclusion from the Lord’s Table (vv. 79-81). In contrast, the NT calls for full exclusion from every aspect of church life.
Some of Johnson’s accusations against the church are too general to be of value. He says “your church’s culture needs to change” (p. 68) and, quoting Jim Elliot, “I am further convinced that the 20th century has in no way stimulated this pattern in its ‘churching’ a community, so that almost nothing is really ‘working’ to the glory and pleasure of God” (p. 69). On the contrary many churches are in fact doing an excellent job of “churching;” they just may not be the churches that are well-known. Finally, a handful of small miscues include promising, out of context, that the Spirit will give “just the right words” when we need them (p. 121), his claim that John 17:17 has Christ saying that the Spirit, would “sanctify them in the truth,” despite the fact that Jesus does not mention the Spirit in John 17, and that Paul took on the heresy of Gnosticism in the epistle to the Colossians (p. 133), when Gnosticism did not exist in the first century, being formed in the second.
None of these critiques rises to the level of serious concern, but they should be addressed. Nevertheless, the author fulfilled his goal and aptly demonstrated the importance of the church, including biblical counseling, in the soul care of God’s people.
by T. Dale Johnson Jr. (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2021) 167 pp, paper $17.50
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel