“In evaluating any therapeutic theory and seeking to understand the extent to which it is (or can be) ‘Christian’ we must identify whether the goal is Christlikeness or something else entirely.”

There are over 250 different models of human personality in the world.  And there are even more informal ideas about why people do what they do too.  Whether it’s a formal theory like Psychoanalysis, a pop-psychology formulation like personality tests, or an anecdotal theory like birth order dynamics, our world is filled with different theories to explain why people do what they do and, subsequently, how to help people change.

Many of these different theories have been shown to be quite insightful and effective.  Some are complete nonsense, but most have proven to, in one way or another, be genuinely helpful for people.  That being the case, how should we think about all these different theories from a biblical perspective?  Do we need to reject all of them?  Could Christians possibly glean from their observations?  Could we integrate their solutions into a biblical model of ministry?  Many of these different theories seem to make observations that are eerily similar to those we find in Scripture.  How do we make sense of that?  

There are at least four steps we need to take when evaluating different therapeutic theories.  While Scripture is undeniably sufficient for all of life and change, figuring out how the biblical model of motivation compares to some of the other leading theories can both sharpen our understanding and clarify how we utilize (or choose not to utilize) the therapies developed out of these theories.  Here are the four steps:

Step 1: Understand the Theory.  In order to evaluate something you must first truly understand it.  Christians are at their worst when they use straw man and genetic fallacies to argue against ideas they’re unfamiliar with.  Instead we must seek to understand something from the inside out before we can truly evaluate it.  Where did it come from?  Who are its main proponents?  How does it assume people are motivated?  What are the key ways it seeks to help people?  Only then can we begin a truly helpful biblical evaluation.

Step 2: Evaluate the Observations Biblically.  As Christians we’re most fundamentally concerned with how a theory compares to Scripture.  How popular it is, or even how well it works are secondary concerns to identifying in what ways it is consistent or inconsistent with Scripture.  This starts with the observations the particular theory makes.  Observations are supposed to be objective and devoid of personal bias, but we all know that isn’t actually possible.  What observations are consistent with Scripture, and what observations seem to fly in the face of it?  One theory might observe that being raped causes trauma to one's sense of identity.  Scripture affirms that sin has consequences and that those are often experienced at the level of our identity and cause us to question reality (Ps 10:1, 11; Ps 22:1-2, 6-7).  Another theory might observe that our sexual desires define who we are.  But Scripture affirms that, while that might have been true apart from Christ, that is not who we are in Christ (Rom 6:11).

Step 3: Evaluate the Means of Change Biblically.  Therapeutic theories offer not only observations about humanity but also ideas about how to bring about change.  In order to evaluate a theory biblically we need to take the time to evaluate both.  Some of the means of change employed by therapists are simply sinful and easy to evaluate.  Trying to change adulterous behavior by masturbating to porn is not an option for Christians (Col 3:5).  Other means of change may not be clearly sinful, but aren’t how God has taught us true change occurs (Rom 12:2).  Hypnosis or psychoanalysis would fit into this category.  Still other therapeutic theories may reflect some of the biblical tools of change.  Family Systems Therapy emphasizes the power of community to bring about change.  Cognitive Behavioral Therapy relies on correcting untrue thoughts to bring about change.  We can affirm how these therapies echo pieces of the biblical model for change.  But we still must ask the question of whether any of these therapies includes all the aspects that come together to bring about biblical change including, most fundamentally, the work of the Holy Spirit.

Step 4: Evaluate the Ultimate Goal.  After evaluating the observations of a particular theory and the means of change it utilizes, we must finally evaluate whether or not the goal of a particular theory is in line with the biblical goal.  Every theory has a goal or ideal it is shooting for.  While some have an objective image they are hoping to achieve, the vast majority of modern theories are simply about alleviating undesirable symptoms.  The biblical goal of change is clear and unequivocal: Christlikeness.  In evaluating any therapeutic theory and seeking to understand the extent to which it is (or can be) “Christian” we must identify whether the goal is Christlikeness or something else entirely.

Scott Mehl

Scott serves the church by overseeing leadership, development, global ministries, and counseling/discipleship.

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