Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Separation of Ministry and State

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.


Big Daddy Weave said...

Isn't a big leap to say that:

Because government has standards on a field considered by some to be "ministry" - then we have a state church?

Compare counseling with education.

For many, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, etc., education is an area of ministry, specifically providing formal K-12 education. The government has for many many many years regulated - to some extent - religious education.

Here's my question:

Is the issue here that the government regulates a service which is considered "ministry" by many (whether education or counseling)? OR is the issue the EXTENT that government regulates the ministry?

I don't think we can ever really separate ministry and state, same for church and state - at least not to the point of some clear, strict separation. I think the prong of the Lemon Test which talks about EXCESSIVE entanglement is helpful here.

Just to add, my mom is a licensed professional counselor. I probably need counseling just from the experience of growing up with a counselor for a mom!

Bart Barber said...


re: your mom, ;-)

Part of the difficulty here regards the two senses of "ministry" that I tried to highlight in the article.

Let's consider, for example, a pediatrician. I believe that a Christian can have pediatric medicine as a vocation. I believe that God can and does equip individuals for pediatric medicine and direct them into that field as a part of the plan of His Kingdom. I believe that a Christian can consider pediatric medicine to be her or his ministry.

I further believe that a church might want to take a pediatrician with it on a medical mission trip to provide pediatric medicine as a ministry of that church. Indeed, a church might want to establish a pediatric hospital to provide pediatric medicine to sick children. Many have done so. These are certainly ministries.

And yet,…

Nobody but a devout Christian could serve well as a pastor. One can be a great pediatrician and be of any faith, or none at all. A Christian might (and should!) search out a good, atheist pediatrician rather than a bad, Christian one. A church hospital might be justified in making precisely the choice to hire the former rather than the latter. Would we ever say that about a pastor/elder/overseer?

Into which category belongs counseling? If it is like pediatric medicine, then let the state license and regulate it, and let churches, to the degree that they participate in it, recognize the differences between it and distinctively Christian ministry. If it is like pastoral ministry, then let the state butt out.

Which do you think it is, or do you see a tertium quid here?

Bart Barber said...


I should also mention, for the benefit of everyone, that this issue would be important for both you and me because it is already a subject of religious-liberty jurisprudence. I think the ambiguities here will be a source of many more cases to come.

Bart Barber said...

By the way, education is an excellent example of a similar dilemma. If my child is being taught to fly an airplane, I want the most competent instructor, faith notwithstanding. If my child is being taught to think and imparted with a worldview, I feel differently about it, believing that we are coming close to the meaning of Christian discipleship.

Bob Cleveland said...

Our church counselor is a friend of many years' standing, back to when she was a bank officer, and on through the events which led to her calling into professional counseling.

Unless a pastor is specifically trained in all the things that counselors are, all they can do is offer biblical advice. But I doubt they're educated to spot the signs of mental disease and things of that sort.

Counseling is a professional field apart from the church. If the church wants to hold itself out as counselors, too, those involved need to be just as trained and educated in that field as the outside professional. And the church would, as I understand it, have to accept patients outside the body of believers, and the church counselor needs all the extra-biblical tools the outside professional has, to help the patient deal with their problems.

As our pastor says, he's not a counselor and all he can do is offer "band-aids" to those in need to professional help.

Big Daddy Weave said...

I think this gets to what "type" of counseling we are dealing with.

Secular vs. Religious

Is a church with a counseling ministry "required" to meet certain state standards, via a license, etc.?

Or does a license simply bring with it privileges and credibility necessary to compete with secular counseling firms?

I would oppose the state regulating an actual church ministry that offers counseling services. I would likely not oppose the state regulating an individual Christian with a for-profit faith-based counseling practice. And I would definitely not oppose the state strongly regulating a for-profit faith-based counseling practice that receives a government contract (for example, see Michelle Bachmann's husband).

With regard to the Eastern Michigan student, I'm a proponent of broad religious exemptions. Exempt the student on religious grounds. I tend to think that exemptions would solve many church-state problems especially those involving the clash b/w gay rights and religious liberty.

Bart Barber said...


So it seems to me that you're suggesting that there are two kinds of counseling, one of which qualifies as a ministry (in the stricter sense that poses the conundrum here) and one of which does not. Religious counseling vs. secular counseling.

If that is the case (and it very well may be), then I would not have a problem with the governmental licensure of counseling that is not a ministry (i.e., secular counseling). No conflict there.

Now, as to what we're loosely calling "ministry counseling," are you saying that licensure is OK for such counseling so long as it is optional? The state does not penalize those who do not seek the counseling, but it provides incentives for those who do?

Would Backus have supported such a framework for pastors? Would you? I don't think so.

I know that this is the status quo, and that it seems radical to suggest something else. But Backus was fighting against the status quo as well, and his ideas about religious liberty scared the wits out of a lot of people in his day and time.

I guess it comes down to this: What's the difference, from the state's perspective, between a really devout Christian counselor and pastor who is heavily involved in solving the problems of people and is pretty effective in doing so?

Bart Barber said...


Don't your phrases "our church counselor" and "Counseling is a professional field apart from the church" stand in a wee bit of tension with one another?

Big Daddy Weave said...

I guess I don't see why a pastor doing "ministry counseling" as part of his duties as pastor, serving a local church, should feel compelled to become "licensed" - especially if earning that "license" involves having to affirm something contrary to your convictions.

I understand why a counselor who is a Christian working for a private secular clinic or state-run facility would need the license.

But does the pastor really "need" the license?

I'm really not familiar enough with licensure to know a definite answer to that question, the benefits of a license for a "church counselor" etc.

Back to the incentives question, I think Leland would say forget the incentives. The state is going to do what the state is going to do. We're responsible for our free conscience and accepting certain state-offered perks and incentives may result in compromised convictions and a fettered conscience.

One example that my dad has shared probably a dozen or more times in his classes is about a former student of his. This student graduated with a B or better average from a Georgia public high school and was thus eligible for the HOPE scholarship. HOPE was funded by the Georgia Lottery. As a good Southern Baptist, this student was very much opposed to gambling. So the student refused the money, refused the government's gift.

[I'm not positive, but pretty sure the story is about either our fav historian in Wake Forest, NC or maybe his wife....I personally took the money, so I can't claim to have been a good radical]

Bart Barber said...


I think that the major reason why church-related "ministry counseling" winds up seeking the state license is in order to convince insurance companies to underwrite their therapies.

I'm wondering why, if there will be "ministry counseling" and "secular counseling," the guild cannot sufficiently regulate itself? In other words, the government is not trying to eliminate as harmful that counseling which is non-licensed. Rather, it is simply placing governmental imprimatur on one sort of counseling as governmentally preferred and superior. Wouldn't the simple possession of an accredited degree from a reputable school or a membership in a professional organization accomplish the same thing? And then you don't have the government weighing in on whether religious behavioral therapies are inferior to or superior to secular behavioral therapies.

Bart Barber said...

BTW, thanks for the great story about the scholarship. I enjoyed it!

Evan said...

The crux of the problem is still the definition of counseling. I believe that true counseling, which can change people's live, is rooted in the ministry of the Word. Therefore, it is truly "ministry counseling."

My wife has a master's degree in counseling from one of our seminaries--no licensure, no need for licensure. She uses her "training" on a regular basis with people in our Sunday school class and other places. It looks a LOT like discipleship (in reality, it is discipleship).

What bothers me are statements like that coming from Bob's pastor that he can only offer "band-aids." Is the gospel just a band-aid? Does Scripture just offer superficial help? If we believe that true life change comes from responding to the gospel and that Scripture is sufficient to address our needs, then counseling should and must be located squarely within the ministry of the church. Thus, you can leave the gov't out of it.

Bart Barber said...


I agree that, in my experience, I've been more successful in helping people's lives as a pastor giving counsel the more I've set aside the counseling classes I took long ago in seminary and moved into Bible study and applied theology.

Tony said...

A very interesting discussion indeed. I have an MAR with a specialization in Pastoral Counseling, and counsel (mostly crisis marital, but also individuals) about 4-8 "clients" each week (no charge). Some are church members, and some are not. Some are Christians, and some are not. I am not licensed by the state, and have no desire to be. My "clients" know that I am not licensed.

I believe that the duty of counseling, on some level, is one that every church should be able to perform on some level. Either by avenue of Senior Pastor, a hired "quasi-pastor," as you've put forth, or through some network of counselors in the Christian community. Why? Because people around us (Christians and non-Christians alike) are hurting desperately. And as a Christian counselor, we have more solution to offer than any other professional out there. I agree with Bob, that if church staff is going to counsel, they need to be equally as trained and prepared as the professionals in the field. But I also agree with Aaron, that a pastoral counselor doesn't really "need" a license by the government...

In the comment threads, some emphasis has been placed on what KIND of counseling is offered. I do have a network of LPC's in my area. I do what Kollar, Benner, and Hawkins suggest as "Short-Term, Brief Therapy." Anything beyond that is a referral to one of my peers who have the time and resources to offer more in depth services to a counselee. However, as far as "Secular vs. Christian" counseling, I fail to see how ANY counselee with ANY presenting complication is best served by a "Secular" psychiatrist/LPC rather than a "Christian" psychiatrist/LPC. Bart, as you wrote in the original post, the vocational calling of Christians in those fields should compel them to exercise their faith and share the Truth that the gospel offers even inside a state-licensed counseling setting.

I also am aware of the Eastern Michigan student's case. Sad, but not surprising, honestly.

I see licensure of Christian counselors like I see accreditation for our seminaries. We want to attend seminaries that offer solid, sound biblical teaching, but state accreditation of a seminary seems silly to us. So we have our own associations for Bible schools (I need not give examples here). Perhaps a Christian network of accreditation for counseling services would be healthy to explore. I know of a few small certificate programs, but I'm thinking more on a national, wide-spread level. Do you know of one or a few that I'm missing?

Here's the deal - Real live people, to whom we are called and directed to minister/under-shepherd/oversee have real live problems that need real live solutions. Sometimes, the simple impartation of biblical truth is not enough to change their mental state. Sometimes, it takes some personal application and in-depth walking-through. It takes time, energy, skill, and patience. And even if the problem doesn't appear spiritual at the onset, it often is to some extent, and always carries effects that are spiritual. I believe it is biblical and necessary for our churches to offer significant help to significant problems.

Jonathan Melton said...

Regarding government regulation of religion, while government is not allowed to tax churches. as "the power to tax is the power to destroy" according to Chief Justice John Marshall in McCulloch v. Maryland, and therefore church taxation is a 1st Amendment issue, then why is it right to tax THEIR MINISTERS?

Jonathan Melton said...

Also, I am personally opposed to churches receiving ANY funding, licensure, accreditation, incorporation, etc., that subjects the church to regulation by the government.

Jonathan Melton said...

Also, while I would tend to say that there ARE psychological conditions that need treatment just as you would go to a doctor for a broken arm, a strep infection, etc., Evan made some GOOD POINTS, and great damage has been done to the ministry of churches by Christians going to secular counselors, or even to so-called "Christian" counselors who treat their patients using secular-based therapies.

Bart Barber said...

Great discussion here, folks. Sorry I vanished from the thread. Ministry and family come first, and in this latter phase of my blogging I have deliberately limited the amount of attention that I give to comment threads. Please understand that this does not arise out of any lack of respect for you nor out of any lack of desire on my part. This is just an item of self-control that I exercise in order to spend my time wisely.