The wisest counsel

Evangelicals Now caught up with Steve Midgely to find out more about his involvement with Biblical Counselling UK.

Steve, you are the vicar of Christ Church in Cambridge, having come to that from a background in psychiatry, but you are also chair of a new organisation called Biblical Counselling UK. What is ‘biblical counselling’?

For a brief definition, I can’t do better than John Piper, who defines biblical counselling as ‘God-centered, Bible-saturated, emotionally in-touch use of language to help people become God-besotted, Christ-exalting, joyfully self-forgetting lovers of people.’

That almost makes biblical counselling sound like another way of describing the business of doing discipleship with people.

In many ways that is exactly right.

When I first encountered the biblical counselling movement, about seven years ago, I was struck by the way it was both familiar and yet significantly different. The familiar bit was the content. It was the same gospel I’d always believed in, with the same emphasis on Reformation principles of Scripture, church, grace and the glory of God.

The freshness came from the rich and emotionally intelligent way the Bible was applied to the detail of everyday life.

Haven’t Christians always tried to apply the Bible to everyday living?

We have, but I began to see just how superficial that often was. In my own ministry, I realised I typically applied the Bible at a surface level: as a change of behaviour rather than a change of heart. When we do that we produce churches which are more Pharisee-like than we would care to admit. As Jesus would put it, the outside of the dish has been cleaned but the inside hasn’t. A lot of us have been waking up to that failing.

I also have a suspicion that UK churches, particularly at the conservative end of the evangelical spectrum, don’t handle emotion well. We think of a mature understanding of the gospel only in cognitive terms. We give the impression that as long as we are tight doctrinally and correct behaviourally, then we have arrived at godliness. Yet in the Bible knowledge is relational and involves a comprehensive response to the grace of God. The call to love God also means delighting emotionally in him, finding our joy in him.

How does a biblical counselling approach help us with that?

It helps us think intelligently, and biblically, about what drives us. It asks the ‘why’ question: Why do I lose my temper so often? Why am I so much of a perfectionist? Why do I avoid confrontation? Why is it so hard for me to admit my mistakes? What is going on in my heart that makes me operate the way I do? Once we begin to ask, and answer, those sorts of questions about our motivations, we are a lot closer to working out how our faith in Christ should shape our hearts and what it means to receive his grace, to repent and to change. Instead of pasting on a veneer of external behaviour, we start praying for the sanctification God is really after: reformation into the very likeness of Christ.

So biblical counselling is much more than helping believers with ‘emotional and psychological struggles’?

We certainly do need experienced biblical counsellors who are equipped to help people with problems at the complicated end of the spectrum, but biblical counselling can help all our pastors, fellowship group leaders, youth group leaders and others besides. It is for any Christian believer who wants to be a godly friend to the people around them and help them love God and demonstrate that in love of their neighbour. It really is as essential as that.

But how exactly does biblical counselling help us?

In brief, I’d say that biblical counselling helps us get under the surface. It helps us notice when and how other desires and dreams, hopes and fears are usurping the place that rightly belongs only to God. It shows how Scripture speaks into our divided hearts so that the gospel can work in us a more wholehearted devotion to God.

The Changing Hearts Conference last year was the UK’s first major conference on biblical counselling. How did that start?

A small group of us had been taking the online training provided by an organisation called CCEF – the Christian Counselling and Educational Foundation, based in Philadelphia. They have been leading the way in biblical counselling for over 40 years and we were finding their training hugely helpful personally. We felt it deserved wider exposure so that more people in the UK could benefit. The idea of a conference came out of that.

How did the conference go?

We were delighted by the response: 1,700 people came to Central Hall Westminster and the feedback confirmed a real enthusiasm for this approach.

How have things developed since then?

We formed a new grouping – Biblical Counselling UK – led by a mix of church leaders, lay pastoral workers and trained counsellors. It’s early days, but we are establishing a number of regional groups where people can meet to share and learn together. Meanwhile a number of others are also taking things forward in exciting ways. The North West Partnership, under the leadership of Justin Mote, is supporting Sally Orwin Lee as she trains in biblical counselling to provide a resource to churches across that region. In Edinburgh, a new biblical counselling centre has been established with the support of a number of churches there.

And you are co-ordinating a training course in biblical counselling at Oak Hill Theological College?

Yes, I was delighted that Oak Hill was keen to establish a partnership with CCEF to offer this two-year part-time certificate course. We have 25 students on the course, some travelling long distances to attend the fortnightly seminars that go alongside the distance learning. We are just starting the second of six modules and the initial feedback has been very positive.

What about this year’s Changing Hearts conference?

Having set out a broad vision of biblical counselling at last year’s conference, we are getting more specific this year. The main conference on Saturday March 15 will show how a biblical counselling approach gets worked out in the detail of all our everyday relationships – as colleagues, parents, friends, home group members and so on. In Paul Tripp’s phrase, it’s about how we can be ‘Instruments in the Redeemer’s hands’. It will be suitable for all church members.

On Friday March 14 a limited number of spaces are available for a day conference on Marriage Counselling. The speaker, Winston Smith, brings a rare expertise and will be valuable for anyone working with couples. Finally, on Monday March 17 at All Souls Langham Place, there’s a shorter conference specifically designed to help those in church leadership understand more about the way a biblical counselling approach can be helpful in shaping church life. David Powlison, the executive director of CCEF, will be leading that and we’ve asked him to leave lots of time for questions and discussion. We’re excited to see how God might continue to take this initiative forward.

This article first appeared in Evangelicals Now, February 2014.