Is Nouthetic Counseling Appropriate for Victims of Abuse and PTSD?
“I could not help but notice that the more directive I became (simply telling counselees what God required of them), the more people were helped. Spelling out and getting commitments to biblical patterns of behavior after an acknowledgement of and repentance for sin seemed to bring relief and results.” Jay Adams, Competent to Counsel
“Apart from those who had organic problems, like brain damage, the people I met in the two institutions in Illinois were there because of their own failure to meet life’s problems. To put it simply, they were there because of their unforgiven and unaltered sinful behavior.” Jay Adams, Competent to Counsel
“The thesis of this book is that qualified Christian counselors properly trained in the Scriptures are competent to counsel — more competent than psychiatrists or anyone else.” Jay Adams, Competent to Counsel
“The reason why people get into trouble in their relationships to God and others is because of their sinful natures. Men are born sinners.” Jay Adams, Competent to Counsel
Jay Adams in his widely circulated book Competent to Counsel, lays out his counseling model which he calls nouthetic counseling. He draws the name from a New Testament Greek word used in, for example, Colossians 1:28. “We proclaim him confronting every man nouthetically, and teaching every man with all wisdom in order that we may present every man complete in Christ.” Adams goes on to say that nouthetic counseling consists of three fundamental elements:
- Nouthetic confrontation necessarily suggests first of all that there is something wrong with the person who is to be confronted nouthetically. The idea of something wrong, some sin, some obstruction, some problem, some difficulty, some need that has to be acknowledged and dealt with, is central. In short, nouthetic confrontation arises out of a condition in the counselee that God wants changed.
- The second element of nouthetic confrontation is that problems are solved nouthetically by verbal means. Nouthetic confrontation, in its biblical usage, aims at straightening out the individual by changing his patterns of behavior to conform to biblical standards.
- The third element in nouthetic confrontation implies changing that in his life which hurts the counselee. “Instead of excuse-making or blameshifting, nouthetic counseling advocates the assumption of responsibility and blame, the admission of guilt, the confession of sin, and the seeking of forgiveness in Christ.”
Let’s think about this model through the lens of abuse. Imagine an abuse victim, suffering the effects of ongoing, intense trauma (PTSD), coming to such a counselor. Is her behavior and thinking to be attributed to sin? Yes. But WHOSE sin? Hers? Hardly. Oh yes, as Christians with the sinful flesh still remaining, victims of abuse are certainly prone to unbiblical thinking about what has or is happening to them. They can respond sinfully to abuse. But is that their chief problem? No. The problem is that these are wounded, traumatized people. Would we counsel a person who has lost their legs in a traumatic car accident that their injury is due to their own sin? Yet somehow, correct me if I am wrong, this is how Adams’ nouthetic counseling model communicates to me. Sin! Counter with Truth! Change of thinking! Problem solved, counseling success! Barbara Roberts suggested the following link to a web site that discusses PTSD and critiques nouthetic counseling’s inappropriateness to dealing with it —
Here is still another troublesome aspect of Adams’ model –
“This is one reason why properly equipped ministers may make excellent counselors. A good seminary education rather than medical school or a degree in clinical psychology, is the most fitting background for a counselor. ” (Competent to Counsel)
I absolutely agree that if a pastor (or any person) possesses true godly wisdom and knowledge of the Scriptures, that person will be competent to counsel. However, as the sad treatment so commonly dealt to abuse victims in our churches, often at the hands of pastors, demonstrates – good seminary educations do not ensure wisdom. (And, I might add, “good” seminary educations are very hard to come by these days). Pastors emerge from seminary most commonly quite ignorant of the nature and dynamics of abuse – which is really to say, they are ignorant of the nature and dynamics of sin. I can say that because I was one of them. Oh we learned facts about sin – but we never heard about the cunning, evil, scheming nature and strategies of sin that we would face in our churches. That is why many of the graduates have long since crashed and burned in the ministry – or become puppets of abusive, manipulative, narcissistic individuals in their churches.
I would submit that a good seminary education, supplemented by studies in clinical psychology would be an excellent choice for ministry preparation. Those of us who have been pastors for 30 or 40 years have studied clinical psychology in the front lines. We have survived only by the protection of Christ and have had our thinking enlightened by His Spirit as to the nature of evil. This was a much longer and more difficult course of study. But perhaps it was the better one. Not even a PhD in clinical psychology can give the lessons that years of being in the battle can.
I am not an expert in nouthetic counseling. I am not widely read in the subject. But I have read enough of Jay Adams’ writings, now that I have studied abuse, to have some serious reservations about this model of counseling — especially in dealing with victims of abuse, or any case of PTSD. Who would this model be more appropriate for? As you read what I have said in this article, many of you may have been thinking – “Yeah, this is the way we should deal with the ABUSER, but certainly NOT with the victim.” I agree.
If you want to see an example of my concern, get a copy of Adams’ book, From Forgiven to Forgiving: Learning to Forgive One Another God’s Way, and read chapter 12. There you will find Adams describing how a pastor should deal with a wife whose husband has committed adultery. She initially and too quickly told her husband that she would not divorce him, but has now changed her mind. The ensuing “counseling session” conducted by the pastor, with the husband present, is really nothing short of bullying this woman into remaining in the marriage. She, in other words, is really treated as the problem. Her husband, because he has run to the safety zone of “Gee, honey, I’m sure sorry” – gets off the hook. Abusers are very good at crying out “Olly, olly oxen free!” (Olly olly oxen free is a catchphrase used in such children’s games as hide and seek to indicate that players who are hiding can come out into the open without losing the game, that the position of the sides in a game has changed or, alternatively, that the game is entirely over). Adams seems to agree with this rule.
I will be very interested to hear our readers’ comments on this subject.