Is Discipleship Different than Psychotherapy?

In his paradigm-shifting book called Connecting, Christian psychotherapist Dr. Larry Crabb comes to the conclusion that “we have made a terrible mistake.” What is that mistake? He writes: “For most of the twentieth century, we have wrongly defined soul wounds as psychological disorder and delegated their treatment to trained specialists.”

From that mistaken definition and delegation, Crabb identifies three significant implications for the church. One of those implications especially catches my eye because it has to do with discipleship:

The work of discipling has been wrongly defined as less than and different from psychotherapy and counseling. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe discipleship, defined properly as caring for the soul, is the reality, and psychotherapy is the imitation. Perhaps husbands and wives should be discipling each other; perhaps parents should be discipling their children, and friends should be discipling their friends. Maybe they can, and maybe discipling (or shepherding) was designed to do what we think only therapists should tackle.    [pg. 201]

I’m not sure that I would define discipleship solely as “caring for the soul” (though soul-care may be a part of discipleship), but even with a more robust definition (such as this one from discipleship.org: “helping people to trust and follow Jesus”) I do agree that a shift in understanding is needed. We tend to think of discipleship only in academic terms of teaching Biblical truths to a new Christian, but miss the vital aspect of walking alongside one another to help each other trust and follow Jesus in all of life. And maybe, as Dr. Crabb is suggesting, that kind of connecting with one another not only applies in something “spiritual” like learning to pray, but also in something “psychological” like addictions or narcissism or anxiety.

This is not a simplistic solution that promises a cure-all by just throwing Bible verses at a person, but it recognizes that what is actually helpful in therapy is often simply the opportunity to share deeply and be understood and loved in the midst of great struggle. And that mercy is something that Christians are uniquely equipped to offer to one another because that is what we ourselves have received from Christ. Trained therapists may be able to offer a certain level of grace and love to a needy person, but God demonstrates His astounding love to us by extending an even greater love and mercy through Christ, and doing so “while we were yet sinners” and enemies of God (Romans 5:8). Because that is how God has loved us, we are enabled to “encourage one another every day…so that none of [us] may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13).

Is Freud Right?

Heath Lambert, in his book The Biblical Counseling Movement after Adams, says that a part of Sigmund Freud’s impetus to develop psychotherapy was that he believed the church had failed in the task of “helping people with life’s problems.” Because the church was not providing this needed care for souls, Freud sought to develop a class of professional, non-religious workers to carry it out. Ironically though, Freud called this class of counselors “secular pastoral workers,” by which he seems to be acknowledging that at its core, counseling is a pastoral role.

Many psychoanalytic theories—and theorists—have come and gone since Freud, but the question posed by his indictment of the church still remains: Is the care and cure of souls a uniquely pastoral role, and if so, has the church indeed failed by handing over this role to professional psychologists?

A present-day psychologist named Larry Crabb asks a similar question in his paradigm-shifting book Becoming a True Spiritual Community. This is what Dr. Crabb writes:

If that [i.e. a desperate determination toward autonomy from God] is what needs therapeutic attention, and if attention that is therapeutic is a relationship of love, wisdom, and integrity, then successful therapy consists of a kind of relationship a spiritual community is uniquely and intentionally gifted to provide. Why, then, do we turn to professionals?

Crabb’s answer to his own question—“Spiritual community is rare. That’s why we have professionals.”—sounds like he is coming to a similar conclusion as Freud. But rather than turning to the psychotherapy he had been trained in and practiced, Crabb started NewWay Ministries to train lay people in the art of spiritual direction. According to a CT article, Crabb “turned his back on diagnostic counseling methods in order to care for people’s souls in an unpredictable, unprofessional, fickle, and, in his opinion, most useful context: caring relationships. He now believes that there’s no better psychotherapy than friendships fashioned after the everlasting friendship between Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Spiritual community is rare. Therefore we as God’s people must rise to the challenge and learn to love one another in redemptive and healing ways, in order that one day perhaps Freud’s indictment of the church may be proved wrong.