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.