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.

The Financial Woes of the Single Life

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of no fortune must be in want of a retirement plan. As a 40something person, I find myself thinking about my future from time to time, and worrying a bit about what exactly will happen to me. Now, none of us have the answer to this but God, so that concern isn’t relegated only to singles and only to women. However, singles, and especially single women, do seem to have more cause for concern.

According to this 2021 Retirement Confidence Survey, single women tend to be in the worst financial position going into retirement by quite a large percent. Single men also fall behind their married counterparts. It is a genuine concern. The survey doesn’t go into the causes of this, just the reality of its existence.

Now I realize that I have lived my life in a rather nontraditional way, and my finances have reflected that. I paid my own way through college and graduate school and am still paying off the loans of the latter. I traveled quite a bit, though much of that was done incredibly cheaply or even for free as a chaperone for school trips. I changed jobs in the wrong financial direction (going from higher to lower paying ones) in order to find better life balance, physical and mental health, and be near my family (I still do not regret this trade off).

On top of these individual decisions, however, are factors that have impacted my finances merely from being a single woman all these years.

Let’s start with the woman part – as confident as I am, I fall victim to one of the problems with self-perspective that often preys upon women. That is, I haven’t always valued my time, skills, and experience. I tend not to ask for raises. I don’t try to bargain about salaries when starting a position, but just accept the offer on the table. Some combination of my evangelical culture which often requires everything of a woman with nothing in return (metaphorical martyrdom for ministry and family and service and assisting men and taking care of everyone other than yourself is big for women in the church), a bit of Imposter Syndrome, fear of reprisal from the almost-all male bosses, and just never having been told I even could negotiate salaries or ask for raises played into this. Which is common for women. We are way less likely to do any of these things, and it’s not because we don’t deserve them as much as the men in our workplaces, it’s purely a systemic part of our culture and a difference in the way we raise women to approach work versus men. Women are also more likely to be seen as demanding, shrill, uppity, or even bitchy when asking for these things when a man would come across as confident leadership material. The professional backlash can be strong. And sadly, even though women are getting better at asking for raises using the exact same techniques as men, we are still less likely to get them.

The second part of this is that I was one of the many many women who got paid less than the men in my same position, even though I had more responsibilities than some of them and better student outcomes. I did not know this for several years, of course, because our society frowns upon sharing salaries which means that women and minorities are often paid less but never know it for sure. So as a woman, I have earned less and therefore have had much less to save for my future.

Now for the single part of why my future is more precarious than many of my married cohort. Most of my married friends are double income households for at least part of the marriage, which means rents/mortgages/utilities/etc. have been shared. Even friends who took time off work while their children were young were able to buy houses before that because they had a few years of dual income first. There is help in paying off loans and cars and everything. And yes, the bills are slightly higher for groceries and maybe 2 cars instead of 1, but the rent and utilities tend to be not much higher for marrieds than singles, and again is often split. 

Married folks are also way more likely to buy a home than continue to rent, which gives them equity. Part of this again is the shared income – it is incredibly difficult to buy any place as a single person unless you get an inheritance or come from a well-off family who will assist you in that first mortgage. Singles are more likely to get higher interest rates on loans as well, and often need to find someone to cosign if their credit isn’t established. So we end up renting for much, if not all, of our lives and miss out on that equity. And, due to perceived and absolutely false stereotypes of single people (viewed as irresponsible flight risks) versus single families (viewed as more responsible and stable), landlords and realtors often discriminate against single renters and buyers, which makes the housing pool much more narrow and therefore more competitive for the types of homes a single person can afford. Unfortunately, most of us singles don’t have a glam group of Golden Girls just waiting to go in together on a fabulous retirement house for all.

Singles also tend to pay more in taxes. We end up paying more income taxes, get less out of Social Security than our married counterparts even though we pay the same amount into it, we pay more penalties for IRA related expenses than marrieds, we pay way more for our healthcare because we can’t have shared health insurance policies, and we often don’t have someone at home to help care for us when we are ill so we have to pay for more outside help if necessary.

All of these expenses don’t even begin to touch the extra financial burden placed on single parents, especially single mothers. They have to deal with all of the above, plus incredibly expensive childcare costs, healthcare for their kids, education costs for children, and so much more.

All this to say, singles worrying about our futures is a valid concern, especially for single women. And very few ever discuss this – especially in the church. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever talked about this in a church setting or heard about this. Churches talk about ministering to the singles in their community, but are they actually taking care of true needs? Can we focus only on “spiritual needs” when someone is struggling to have housing and healthcare as they get older? The churches I’ve been a part of in the past think they’re doing something about this by taking special collections, or giving people some small money here and there if a great need arises, but this is a systemic issue which requires systemic change. Donations and handouts are good and necessary, but they are Band-Aids on gaping wounds. The church needs to be on the forefront of trying to change how our society views and treats singles, especially single women, so we aren’t going into our later years at a clear disadvantage compared to all others. 

We need to pressure our workplaces into paying men and women equally and being open about salaries from the beginning. We need to consider women for higher paying jobs and encourage them to apply, even when they may not have considered it for themselves at first because they lack self-confidence. We need to rent and sell homes to singles without prejudice. We need to vote for changes to our Social Security and healthcare systems. We need to put societal and legal pressure on our culture in order to help it grow and serve more of us. The church is not exempt from this just because it donates to good causes here and there. The church should be fighting for the vulnerable, oppressed, and underrepresented. For justice.

Sadly, I’ve found that the Christian organizations for which I worked were often the worst offenders. The way the white evangelical church raises its girls to worship marriage before all, to see ourselves as doormats for others, to feel immense guilt any time we think of ourselves and our needs, to berate ourselves for not being humble enough or servant-hearted enough sends us out into the world unprepared to stand up for ourselves when we need to, to fight for our worth in the workplace, and to take care of ourselves if we don’t happen to find a knight in shining armor to take care of us (or it turns out that knight is actually horrible, or the knight leaves us, or dies).

Christians, do better. Christian parents, do better. Christian organizations, do better. Churches, do better. America, do better. And singles, especially single women, it’s time to start taking some small but decisive steps to financially take care of ourselves just as our male and married counterparts are already doing. We’re not asking for more than anyone else is getting, we’re asking for the same.

The New (Single) Girl At Church

I missed church this Sunday, accidentally. Somehow, I was an hour off in my head, starting last night when I set my alarm, right up to the middle of my shower this morning when I realized my error when it was too late. I’ve been trying out a different church for the past few weeks, and was looking forward to it. Ah well, such is life.

The church I’m trying out is multi-ethnic, tiny, and only a couple years old. It is led by a young, black, male pastor who loves God’s word and his people. As someone who has been unhappy with the state of the white evangelical church since moving away from my LA church, it was time to try something different. We’ll see how it goes. I’m still leading GriefShare (a grief support group for those who have recently lost a loved one) at my former church while I figure out if I’m going to leave or stay. The counseling pastor at my former church is aware and supportive of this transitional period, as is the pastor of the new church.

Trying out new churches as a single woman is always a daunting process. I know it’s now easy for marrieds either, but at least you have someone to walk through those doors with, someone to talk to about it after, someone to run interference in awkward social situations. You also don’t get stared at quite as much as you do as a single woman. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, having tried out churches as a singleton from college through today, but it’s still unpleasant. 

You have to face confused questions like “did you come here alone?” and, once they find out you’re single, the dreaded “don’t worry, there’s still time” or “never doubt that God can still bring you a husband” or “I know someone who got married at 50!” Ugh. I actually haven’t gotten much of this at my new church, which has been a pleasant surprise. I have gained enough confidence to shut it down pretty quickly when it does happen by reassuring people that I’m actually quite happy with my single life, and that I’m glad to be following God’s plan for me. And, when I’ve got nothing to say on the tip of my brain, I echo what my llama church notebook (pictured above) says, and just say “Nope!” and leave it at that.

There’s also the fear that every man you meet in the church might think you’re trying to hit on them, or their wives may get possessive. I don’t feel this way when I meet men outside of traditional Christian environments. But after enough experiences with men in conservative Christian circles being convinced that any unattached woman must be on the hunt for a man (specifically them?), and therefore dangerous possible vixens, I always feel more nervous during the church meet and greet when I shake a woman’s hand, then turn to shake her husband’s.

Sometimes the men ignore you altogether, and won’t even greet you. It’s bizarre. Then there’s the awkward Christian hugging thing – do I side hug?Actually hug? An awkward combo. of both? Anyway, I didn’t have horrible experiences with the men here, so that was nice.

A dear friend of mine who I’ve known for years has also started trying out this new church with me. She’s a single mom, and her adult daughter has come as well. Thank goodness she started coming before we had communion, or I’d never have figured out the whole wafer shrink-wrapped on top of the juice thing! We singles need to stick together to mitigate some of the awkwardness.

I battle between hope that this could be my church home for the foreseeable future, and cynicism that there is no church where I currently live that can fill that role. I’m not naive enough to think a church that’s “perfect for me” exists. I’m well aware that church is made up of fallen, broken sinners (like myself!) and it’s a family, which comes with some good, some bad, and lots of complications. I know it’s not all about me as well.  But I still yearn for a church where I see both a deep respect for God’s word and his love for the vulnerable lived out in word and deed.

I had the chance to meet with the pastor one on one to get some answers to questions about church doctrine, structure, and accountability, as well as views on women in ministry and on social justice and community involvement. It was a great start, and I always respect a Christian man who isn’t afraid to meet with me at the church, who listens well, and who responds with thoughtful, biblical, compassionate answers. I feel hopeful.

I’ll keep trying this new church throughout fall and hope to make my decision this winter. I’ll keep you guys posted on how it goes. Your prayers are appreciated!

Other singles out there, how do you handle trying out new churches?