Abuse and Nouthetic Counseling: A Firsthand Analysis of the Harm it Does
Nouthetic counseling (fathered by Jay Adams) finds widespread reception in our conservative, Bible-believing churches today. It is not appropriate for abuse victims in our opinion. In fact, we think it isn’t appropriate in most any case! It is too simplistic, it employs people who simply are not “competent to counsel,” and naively confronts essentially every issue as a moral failure (sin). I have seen nouthetic bullies in action, frankly.
The following personal account comes from a very fine Christian woman who has been to hell and back in an abusive marriage. She has suffered personally at the hands of supposed fellow Christians who should have helped her get free long before. She has a degree in counseling and tells about the radical paradigm change she had to undergo to get free of what she was taught by proponents of nouthetic counseling. Thanks sister!!
We were married in 2000. While on our honeymoon, my sister, who lived next door, went into a mental hospital. Out of sheer grief and instability . . . .. coupled with pure jealousy over what she thought was my perfect life, she tried to kill herself. I watched and agonized with her as the doctors put her on several different kinds of medications that did not help her. She continued to “try” to kill herself several times over the next few years . . . . gaining weight and losing all concept of reality while doped up on psychotropic drugs. 😦 I thought there had to be another way.
I wanted to get a masters in music but my then husband’s “calling” to ministry trumped any desire of my heart so we went to a conservative Seminary. I found they had a Master’s in counseling. It was anti-drugs; it was “nouthetic” counseling. [“Nouthetic” is from the Greek word for “admonishment.” It is a therapy of admonishment]. It seemed like a better concept of soul-help than what my sister went through. I received a full scholarship. I spent 3 years working on classes there. I learned some incredibly oppressive practices in that program, and I often counseled others in these practices. I regret this deeply.
Some of the ideas we learned were:
1. Feelings are not to be trusted. Truth comes before feelings. God does not appreciate our feelings.
2. Suffering is a way of life for the Christian. We are to imitate Christ and He suffered . . . . so we must suffer.
3. There is a Bible verse for every problem. We were given books that had certain sins at the top of each chapter like . . . . “gluttony”, “divorce”, “anger” . . . . underneath were pat answers for everyone’s sin issues.
4. EVERY PROBLEM was actually a sin issue.
5. We cannot change anyone else, we can only change ourselves. So . . . . if, say, my husband were abusing me . . . . MY job was to work only on my reaction and make sure it is not sinful.
6. Marriage was held as the highest, most important entity. It was considered higher than our right to live.
7. ALL psychotropic drugs were bad, sinful and harmful.
8. A woman’s job is to submit to her husband, NO MATTER WHAT he is doing to her.
I bravely (I know how difficult it was for me) went to two counselors while at seminary and told them the horrific abuse that was going on in my marriage. They always managed to get me to focus on my own sin issues. For example, when I told them about my husband’s pornography problems, they suggested that I wasn’t available enough to my husband. That maybe I didn’t allow him to see me naked. I was often scolded that I came in to see them without my husband. I always left their offices feeling discouraged, dirty, sinful and at fault. They threw me back into my marriage over and over. I truly believed that this was God’s will. After 9 years of this . . . . I believed that God only created me to be used and abused by my husband and I went into a deep depression. I was given lengthy studies to look at my own sin issues such as “Heart of the Problem” and “The Self-Confrontation Manual”. The depression got worse. I had just had my third baby and I was losing my will to live.
Somewhere during this time, I dropped out of the program. Miraculously, I received a full scholarship to finish my masters degree at a different seminary. These classes were more balanced. I saw an integrationist view. I began to understand that this was a much MUCH better approach to counseling. It began to open my eyes, although my husband hated it. I worked very hard to finish . . . . . right as I had my fourth baby.
I had several friends along the way who helped me. It really is a miracle that I was able to climb out of the paradigm that had shackled me for 11 years (understatement). I worked HARD to shed the lies I had been taught. It was painful; it was agonizing. I felt like I was trying to gain perspective after leaving a cult. I felt cloudy and unstable and needed an enormous amount of reassurance after I left my husband.
I haven’t counseled anyone in 3 years. I just have felt so much confusion and have needed so much truth and counsel myself that I don’t feel like I could help anyone. I don’t know how/if God will use this degree but I definitely know He wanted me to get it.
I think that true humility means that one is willing to say “this isn’t right . . . . this doesn’t work . . . . . every book I read . . every sermon I heard . . . every lecture I heard . . . . EVERYTHING I thought I knew was wrong. I am willing, Lord Jesus, to start over from scratch. Teach me.” I am still learning.
I have counseled people poorly. I thought if I had to suffer, others should, too. I threw women back into their own abusive situations because that is what I was told to do. Oh, the regret . . . . Now, I choose to work tirelessly to help free women. If I am not raising money, I am helping a friend. I am careful. I do not assume every woman is being abused or project my own issues on others (I hope!). And it is not some sort of penance. It is because I know how it feels to be enslaved. And Jesus came to set us free.