Baptists have embraced the biblical office of pastor/elder/overseer and the biblical office of deacon. The nature and function of those offices have varied widely down through the centuries among the Baptist multitude, along with some variance as to the qualifications and membership of those groups.
Generally speaking, however, Baptists have avoided clericalism. The officers of our churches are not seen by us as grace-dispensing sacerdotes et pontifices. We have no priestly class. Our pastors and deacons are, substantially and significantly, brothers among the congregation. Not shepherds, but under-shepherds; co-laborers rather than management. The result has been that, in Baptist life, the line between "clergy" and "laity" is not nearly as bright as it has been among some other Christians.
Southern Baptists have, over the past half-century, greatly multiplied the number and nature of "in-between" offices in the church. We now hire professional ministers to work with youth, children, recreation, religious education, senior adults, singles, families, and a whole host of other specializations. Are these staff members pastors? Some of them are, and are explicitly identified as such. Some of them are non-pastors, and are explicitly identified as such. Some exist in the murky mists of inference. Most of them exist in some state in-between "the congregation" and "the pastor." This phenomenon, yet unresolved, has enormous implications for Baptist ecclesiology.
Also, Baptists have, from time to time, emphasized the idea of vocation as a category much larger than "vocational ministry"—large enough to be rightfully inclusive of the expended talents of every faithful Christian believer. We expect our young adults, whether they are bound for employment in a local church, a local hospital, a local factory, or a local news bureau, to choose their respective "callings" in life in response to the direction of God and to embrace their work as unto the Lord.
These three factors—anti-clericalism/anti-sacerdotalism, an emphasis upon vocation as pertaining to all believers, and a multiplication of quasi-pastoral employment positions in local churches—converge perhaps the most poignantly in the field of Christian Counseling.
Giving counsel has long been considered a feature of the ministry of pastors/elders/overseers, particularly associated with the "pastor" portion of the office (it is instructive that, in contrast to the frequency of the term "pastoral counseling," one is hard pressed to find references to "episcopal counseling" or "presbyterial counseling"). Counseling has also flourished in the last century as a separate, secular discipline. In the middle are those pastors who have received, in addition to their pastoral counseling, secular training in psychotherapy or counseling-related disciplines and who offer what many would regard as an enhanced counseling ministry within the context of pastoral ministry. Also in the middle are those non-pastors who have received training as counselors and who work as staff members of local churches or in counseling ministries closely associated with local churches.
The existence of these ministries poses something of an under-recognized dilemma for Baptists in particular. Counseling, as a secular pursuit, is licensed by the state. Service as a pastor/elder/overseer is not. And this lack of governmental oversight with regard to pastors is no oversight (wordplay intended) on the government's part. Once upon a time, governments did license pastors, for many of the same reasons given for governmental oversight of counseling today (to protect people from inept, lecherous practitioners, etc.). The ministry of "religious professionals" came to be outside the reach of governmental licensure through the tireless effort and sacrifice of great Baptists like Isaac Backus. For our heroic forefathers, religious liberty necessarily entailed the separation of ministry and state. If the government can set and enforce standards for the qualifications of ministers or the practice of ministry, then we do in fact have a state church, whatever we may name it.
So, which is the case with counseling? Is it a ministry, or not? Certainly, there is a sense in which pediatric dentistry and forensic accounting and petrochemical geology can be ministries, but is counseling a church ministry? Is it the sort of thing that a pastor/elder/overseer can and should do? If it is not, what are the implications of that fact for the aggressive expansion of churches into this sort of endeavor? If it is, what are the implications of that fact for religious liberty and state licensure of counseling?
These are difficult questions. I write today not so much to pronounce a verdict as to call the trial to order and invite you, my readers, to make your opening statements.