An Ex-Biblical Counselor Responds to Christianity Today

*Today’s blog post will look a little different than my previous ones. I will not be using gifs because it would be inappropriate to the topic at hand. Trigger warning for the discussion of child and spousal abuse.

This week, Christianity Today published an article called “Grace Community Church Rejected Elder’s Calls to ‘Do Justice’ in Abuse Case.” Hohn Cho, an ex-elder from John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church, opened up about calling the church elders to admit their wrongdoing after they publicly shamed a woman for leaving her abusive husband. They refused to do so. This case was brought to light last March by Julie Roys on The Roys Report.

I am a woman who graduated from John MacArthur’s school, The Master’s College (now called The Master’s University) in 2006 with a Master’s in Biblical Counseling (MABC). I was very active in biblical counseling in the white evangelical world for almost 20 years. Because of this, I feel the need to voice some inside truths about how counselors were and how some still are trained to counsel women by Grace Community Church, The Master’s Seminary, The Master’s University, and many others in the biblical counseling world. Let me just say, the facts exposed in this article are not at all surprising to many of us who came out of that world, horrible and heart-wrenching, yes, but not at all surprising. 

Nor is this article the first time many of us have heard about concerning counseling cases coming out of John MacArthur’s vast sphere of influence, especially in the conservative white evangelical spaces in Southern California where many churches and pastors venerate him as almost pope-like. Some evangelicals honestly believe his school and seminary are the only true Christian ones in the country, if not the world. Every time an article like this has come out exposing how women have been encouraged to stay with their abusers, even keeping their children with abusers, my DMs and texts blow up with messages from former classmates and counselees (all women) who experienced the same things, or were told to counsel women in this way. We discuss these things quietly amongst ourselves because we know there would be repercussions in our lives if we speak openly. There is a cultlike silencing of anyone who questions even a tiny bit of JM’s teachings, a closing of the ranks any time there is even a mention of possible mistakes made, and a villainization of any and all who beg for repentance and reform as “persecuting the church.” I’ve lost best friends, mentors, and entire church homes by speaking up against injustice in our ranks, as so many of us who are questioning what we were taught at Master’s have. I admire and respect Hohn Cho for speaking out about this to CT as I know a bit of how much it cost him.

The cases brought to light in this article, and others in The Roys Report, involve women who were at their most vulnerable, abused by their husbands. Sometimes their children were being abused too. These women sought biblical counseling from those trained by GCC and the schools connected with John MacArthur. Biblical Counseling is its own brand of counseling – it is a movement that began in the 1960’s with men like Jay Adams and Wayne Mack, with the belief that “sufficiency of scripture” meant counselors should exclusively use the Bible to help others through times of hardship. The biblical counselors who trained me looked down on psychology and other secular mental health practices as unnecessary at best, dangerous and sinful at worst. In the past decade, there has been a slightly more liberal approach to biblical counseling than when I was trained between 2003-2006, with more involvement from therapists, psychologists, social workers and people actually trained in domestic violence counseling and care. There are many good, capable men and women who have been trying to change things in this bubble from the inside out, and there are churches and schools that teach these newer methods of biblical counseling. But there are still many churches and Christian schools that teach the older approach, and out of this stems much danger – especially for women.

In John MacArthur’s circles, we were taught a very strict patriarchal, complementarian view of women in marriage, in the church, and often in life in general. This teaching includes submission and obedience in marriage and an extremely self-sacrificing approach to relating to one’s husband. Requirements for wives include maintaining a peaceful and quiet demeanor, always giving the husband the benefit of the doubt, as well as endless forgiveness, prioritizing him over oneself and one’s children, and rarely, if ever, considering divorce. This unquestioning obedience is sometimes taken to extremes, like counseling women to have sex with their husbands even if they’re not in the mood, don’t feel safe and loved, or when it’s painful so as not to push their husbands into infidelity. This idea of biblical self-sacrifice extends to telling women they should do their best to please their husbands by staying thin, putting on makeup and dressing up, cooking, cleaning, etc. otherwise they might provoke him to potential violence. And this endless forgiveness includes counseling women to take back their abusive husbands when the church deems they’re repentant enough. 

Biblical counseling students were explicitly taught that if a counselee told us their children were being physically or sexually abused (spanking and other forms of “corporal punishment” the church didn’t consider too extreme and emotional abuse didn’t count) we were to tell the woman to call the police and give her time to do so. If she didn’t report it, the counselor was to report it to the pastors of the church with the expectation that they would call the police. This isn’t quite what mandated reporting requires, but pastors and lay counselors of the church are exempt from mandated reporting laws in many states. This is horrible and needs to be changed as they should be held to the same standard of protecting children as secular counselors. In my classes, we were told to take child abuse very seriously and utilize the governing authorities as God’s extended hands of justice. To see specific counselors at Grace Community Church not following this protocol disgusts me. This is what they themselves taught me, which reveals their hypocrisy and suggests their first priority is keeping cases of abuse hidden so they don’t reflect badly on the church.

When it came to a husband abusing his wife, our teaching became murky. I was taught that we did not have to report such abuses to the police, as a wife wasn’t a minor and therefore there were no laws saying we must do so. Instead, we could encourage her to self-report but the expectation was that “most women wouldn’t want to do this anyway.” We could help women get to a safe place, but encourage them to do so temporarily with the eventual goal of reconciliation. Even if a husband cheated on his wife, thus giving her the one and only ground for “biblical divorce” recognized by John MacArthur and his followers, she should do everything in her power to reconcile with her husband for though God allows divorce in this instance, it’s not required or preferred. Divorce for abuse alone was not considered biblical. As a counseling student, I was told that even Legal Separation should be discouraged because “separation usually leads to divorce,” so it was better for the wife to stay with a friend with the expectation it would just be for a few weeks or a couple months.  Meanwhile, the church would try to counsel the husband into changing his ways as they saw fit.

The church was also supposed to call upon the husband to repent, counsel him, hold him accountable to permanent change, and teach him how to “court” his wife and win her back. The ideal outcome would be to send the wife back to her husband with a nice little bow on top. I must admit this was rarely the actual outcome – it takes more than this to change a violent husband, and many never do change.

One of my professors used this metaphor when discussing the case of an abused wife: she was a soldier in the Great Spiritual Battle, a soldier fighting for the soul of her husband. Sometimes, soldiers get injured, but they keep fighting. And how does a wife “win” her husband? Without a word, by her quiet and graceful righteous demeanor and endless patience and forgiveness, of course. This was based on 1 Peter 3:1-2, which says, “wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear” (NKJV). Many churches do NOT consider abuse part of this equation and would tell the woman to leave, but my professor at TMC told us about a counselee who went back to her abusive husband in order to “save his soul” like she was a war hero, even when she continued to be abused. He held her up as a great example of a Christlike wife and a godly woman. 

One of the main tenets of biblical counseling is that you must help your counselees find where their own sin in the situation lies – the “idol of their heart,” or the “root sin.” And this applies to everyone – even the victims of abuse. The idea stems from the Calvinist view of Total Depravity, meaning sin has infiltrated every part of us. Therefore, anytime we counsel someone we must first ask them to confront their own sin as no one is perfect. So even if a wife goes to biblical counseling because her husband punched her, she must spend time agonizing over how she has not been the perfect wife and repent of whatever sins she’s committed against her husband. He is to do the same – then they can come back together as the perfect repentant Christian couple. Do you see the danger here? Rather than believing the wife and counseling her to safety, she is held culpable for “her part” in the abuse. Was she a nagging wife? Did she withhold sex? Was she too distracted by her job or children to focus on her husband first? The victim-blaming can be subtle, but it’s very dangerous and can tear these women down and push them into more danger.

The examples of women not being believed when they go to biblical counselors about abuse are endless. Right now, I can think of a teenage girl who was raped at The Master’s University. Her perpetrator was believed instead of her and she was painted as a “Jezebel.” I know of another girl who went to her dorm advisor for spiritual help, and was referred for biblical counseling to a woman who then sexually preyed upon her. I know of a Master’s professor who sexually harassed students but was dealt with secretly. He was able to move on to other schools and churches and repeat his offenses there. He’s not the only professor I know of there to whom this has happened. I also know of a young wife who went to a Master’s Seminary trained counselor because she was experiencing painful intercourse. She was counseled to keep trying because her body was his body, and he might “stray” otherwise. It turned out she had some medical issues leading to the pain. The church never apologized to her. I can tell you case after case where biblical counselors trained by John MacArthur’s schools and churches didn’t believe women, harmed women, shamed women, and never repented nor were held accountable.

I don’t want to disparage all biblical counseling. In a world where therapy is prohibitively expensive and health insurance often won’t cover mental health care – biblical counseling offers a free or affordable option for people to get help through their churches. It can build relationships and networks of support that secular counseling can’t always offer. For some things, like grief and loss, it is incredibly effective. And, as I said before, there are some remarkable people working under its umbrella doing important, life-saving, life-giving work: writing books, blogging, podcasting, teaching and counseling with God’s love and great skill, trying to change it from the inside out.  But for me, it felt like years of banging my head against a brick wall – painful and injurious with no budging from the institutions. Whether a counselee gets compassionate, Christ-like help as opposed to harsh, victim-blaming mandates can be hit or miss. So if you’re seeking biblical counseling, look into the church or organization offering it and what they believe, as well as the individual counselor. Ask good questions. And if you find it’s hurting you more than helping, look for better alternatives.

There are many who still venerate MacArthur and his ilk as infallible leaders, but I plead with them to examine the evidence — such as the very damning details found in Christianity Today and The Roys Report — about how Grace Community Church is harming women and children who are victims of abuse. From my personal experience as a biblical counselor, I know that inherently dangerous and misguided methods of training and practicing in this field have helped lead to this harm, not only at GCC, but at many other churches and Christian organizations. These reports should disgust us and prompt us to call for accountability, true repentance, and justice. There is something horribly wrong when a church defends abusers and pedophiles and helps them harm women and children.

Psalm 82:1-4 tells us where God’s priorities lay, protecting and enacting justice for the vulnerable rather than siding with the wicked. Our priorities should match his: 

God stands in the congregation of the mighty;
He judges among the gods.
How long will you judge unjustly,
And show partiality to the wicked?
Defend the poor and fatherless;
Do justice to the afflicted and needy.
Deliver the poor and needy;
Free them from the hand of the wicked.

33 thoughts on “An Ex-Biblical Counselor Responds to Christianity Today”

  1. Well done, friend! I’m proud of you and praying against any writer’s remorse.

    I had a few past counselees flash in my head as I read. I know there were things I was taught that are wrong, I blindly trusted and I now know I hurt people. Then I was nearly killed multiple times by this counsel that doesn’t consider psychosis real.
    The past few years that I’ve been talking about this spiritual abuse I’ve also been thinking about what public repentance of my participation in this ACBC world looks like. I know you aren’t counseling anymore but have you thought of this for those who are trying to change from the inside?

    1. That’s an excellent question. I’ll ponder it awhile. Honestly, I think the best forms of repentance include 2 things – admitting openly where we were wrong, and actively trying to change. That can look different for different people. I’ll think some more. And thank you for your encouragement.

  2. Fawn thank you addressing this. Your experience helps shed light. I just read about this yesterday and well sickened by it for not only because of how dangerous this is but also sadly because I wasn’t surprised. A lot of this seems to be “so the husband doesn’t”… where does accountability for the fruits of the spirit fall on them? When did the line between safety and grace get blurred? Ironic I could loose my job maybe even my license if I don’t report even seeing something…. I encouraged mom to think about what advice she was given and if there was anything they looking back she would change ….she would be a good voice in speaking out about this. Praying.

    1. Thanks for these words. Coming into the MABC program after a few years in social work, I was horrified by their lack of knowledge of how California’s Mandated Reporter laws work. They didn’t even know! Ugh. Yeah, I’m sure you mom got some crazy council back in the day. 😢 Glad you could speak with her about it.

  3. Thank you, sister in Christ, for writing this IMPORTANT piece. The soldier in battle metaphor will haunt me for life.

  4. Thank you for sharing. It takes real courage to stand for truth and justice against a giant machine like this.

    1. You’re welcome! Not gonna lie, this was hard to write. Fear and lots of emotions. But it needs to be said out loud on repeat until change happens.

  5. Yes! I was making a stink about this before moving and having to switch churches. 1000% agree. As a child of an abused woman who followed this doctrine I agree with everything you said. I was telling my former church leaders that the church has failed, abused women and has repeatedly sent them back into the arms of abusive men. Oh well, failing miserably, and keeping men accountable. It’s a stinkin’ shame.

    1. So tragic to see this happening to generations of women, one after the next, even when the leadership is confronted with their sin and literally begged to repent. Glad you made a stink though!

  6. Well, it’s been a minute since I’ve commented on one of your columns but know that I am endlessly proud of your candor and insight in all you do, friend.

    I have to be honest, I’m not sure how you managed to write this – it bothered me so much I couldn’t get past the first few paragraphs… you certainly have a lot of fortitude and a strong sense of justice. I just wish you could empower the evangelical church with those qualities. Having seen healthy, justice focused communities out there makes me so sad for not only my own youth, but for all those living with this cult of pseudo-Christianity today.

    Keep speaking truth, dear. We all need more of it ❤️

    1. Elisa! Great to hear from you, dear old friend of mine!

      I think years in social work and counseling gives me a bit of armor when talking about this type of stuff, even when it still horrifies me.

      Yeah, the lack of any concern for true justice is one of the reasons I’m done with the evangelical church. You can only try to change things from the inside for so long before you just have to go.

      Love you, and love to your family. 💗

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and naming these things so clearly and articulately, especially since this kind of counseling/teaching spreads across denominational lines. Thank you for shining the light on it.

  8. Thank you for writing this. It made me think of ‘They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.’ (Matthew 23.4). This seems to be a system where women are to have no personal agency, but somehow bear the responsibility for saving their husbands. What a strange picture this is.

    1. Yes! That’s a profound insight. So my h burden heaped on the woman’s shoulders – for her husband and her children, when she most needs help carrying it.

    2. Good comment! I’ve thought, and experienced, these things. Do they not see that we women get condemned for thinking we can fix him, at the same time we are given that very task in marriage counseling. “Win him without a word,” etc. Who’s the supposed leader anyway? (Well, I think both, but I didn’t before my eyes were opened while I was sorting through the rubble of nouthetic counseling.)

      Several times, my husband has quoted a line from a song: “You always tried to change me, that’s why I’ll always stay the same.” I can’t win. Do men just want to never grow up? And women don’t help a man do that; other men teach men how to be men. It’s nuts to put that onto a woman in counseling. It’s a no-win situation.

  9. Thank you, Fawn. As the daughter of a biblical counseling professor at TMU, my heart is broken and angry. I admire your courage in stepping away from that world and in speaking out against it as well. I pray that my dad and the others in that program will truly search their hearts and be willing to admit that something needs to change.
    P.S. You and I met many years ago after the tragedy at Virginia Tech.

    1. I remember you from that time and hope you are well! Thank you for your encouragement and prayers. We both know how many good folks there are caught up in this who need to step up and enact change, I pray they do so at TMU, GCC, and elsewhere in the evangelical world.

  10. For decades I’ve written about domestic abuse in a Christian context. Most evangelicals have ignored my work but survivors tell me it helped them.

    My book explains how the Bible allows divorce for abuse. Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion

    My blog

    Hope you don’t mind me sharing these here. I only do it because it might help people.

  11. I can’t express how important your words are to the church. We need to all take them to heart in our own contexts so that the most vulnerable are not continuing to be harmed. God have mercy on us for our complicity to harm others while using God’s word. May God be your defender and protector against anyone who would come at you for writing these words.

  12. Yes! Thank you for writing and acknowledging… I believe so many of us women, now middle aged, saw how the church viewed a Christian marriage, which “can” work if both partners truly understand what the Bible is saying… but putting one’s needs higher than the other is NOT truly biblical. Why this is taught and seen as following what the Lord says does not make sense. I believe God hates divorce but he hates someone he loves being hurt even more. For our church leaders to counsel and teach others to subject them to abuse is completely NOT what the Bible says… I would go as far as to say that it is pure evil… because abuse comes not from God. The church needs to realize their errors, pray for forgiveness, and then CHANGE. We as Christians need to come together to help make this change!

    1. The notion that God hates divorce comes from a mistranslation of Malachi 2:16. The verbs in Hebrew are both third person masculine singular (“he hates… he covers”). The one who feels the hatred is not God, but the divorcing husband.

      To be faithful to the Hebrew, the verse could be rendered, “If he [the husband] hates and divorces,’ says the Lord God of Israel…”
      I explain this in detail here:

      Myles Coverdale gave another possible translation, one that gives even more kindness and justice to the repudiated wife: “If thou hatest her, put her away, saith the Lord God of Israel, and give her a clothing for the scorn, saith the Lord of hosts. Look well then to your spirit, and despise her not.” (Matthew Bible, 1537)

      This tells the husband that if he hates his wife he must put her away—divorce her. And what’s more, when he divorces her he must ‘give her a clothing for the scorn’. What does that mean? The man must compensate the woman for the stigma she will suffer from being divorced, rejected, cast off. A clothing for the scorn. Clothing covers. Clothing covers shame and vulnerable parts. It shields. It protects.

      These two links discuss Coverdale’s rendering of Malachi 2:16.

  13. This is one of the best articles I have read about the approach to abusive behavior. Too many in the fundamentalist movement often vilify and ostracize women who are abused simply because the women reach a breaking point. Women were never designed to be subservient slaves to men. They were designed to be a “help mate” in life and not an item to be abused or degraded. There is more to the story of Jesus example for divorce than is discussed that would leave conservative fundamentalist churches unable to appropriately explain their destructive practices.
    Good article.

  14. I’m sorry you feel this way. Grace Community-is simply staying faithful to the Lord and His Word. His Word says only actual adultery and abandonment are grounds for divorce. A woman is free under law to call enforcement if she ever feels or is threatened. Many choose not to and counselors can’t do it for them.

    The church is to stay true to Him. If you don’t like that, you don’t want the God of scripture.

  15. How does remarriage enter into this? I’m confused over this. I’m divorced and have no intention of ever marrying again. I’ve asked this question and get varying answers so it’s hard to figure out the answer.

    1. Different churches have different viewpoints on remarriage so you won’t find a definitive answer.

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