Thursday, April 16, 2015

Controversial values of Christian Counselors & Psychotherapists

What Christian Counselors Believe, Value, and Practice
Part 2: Values

Should Christian counselors be exempt from providing premarital
counseling to same-sex couples if their group believes same-sex marriage is sin?

In this post I look at some values held by people in our sample of Christian Counselors. Last week I reported their Christian beliefs, which we (Chris Arnzen and me) thought important to understand key features of the type of Christianity held by the people completing the survey.
This week I look at some of their key values—values that polarize families, churches, and groups of Christians.

Why ask about values? Three Reasons

The first is disclosure. Counselors and psychotherapists (I will use a generic term, clinicians) often disclose personal information in the course of treatment. Odds are, if you went to a therapist, you learned something personal—research indicates 90% of clinicians disclose personal information. The effects on clients are mixed and context dependent as to appropriateness. At some point you have to wonder about the needs of the therapist (Verbeck et al., 2015). In any event, some clients want to know what their therapists believe about an issue.

The second reason is countertransference. People have argued about countertransference since Freud observed the phenomenon. In a more recent understanding of countertransference, clinicians respond emotionally to clients during treatment. Researchers have identified clinician experiences of loss and feelings of homophobia as examples of factors affecting the clinician and the relationship with the client (See Verbeck et al, 2015). Obviously, treatment sessions need to focus on the client’s concerns. And clinicians need not be distracted by personal issues that interfere with the treatment process.

A third reason is authenticity. Say all you want about the importance of clinicians being neutral, supportive, and empathic. But at some point, the clinician cannot deny so many personal values and beliefs without being obviously inauthentic. Do you really expect fundamentalist Christian clinicians to deny their core beliefs and values in order to:
Provide effective premarital counseling to a same-sex couple?
Help a gay couple resolve their sexual difficulties?
Prepare for divorce because one spouse fell out of love and wishes to be free?
Explore healthy ways to tell her boyfriend that she is having an abortion next week?

What did we ask?

As before, I will give you the questions so you can see what was asked. We asked the clinicians to indicate their level of agreement on a 5-point scale from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree. We grouped Strongly Agree and Agree together and did the same for Strongly Disagree and Disagree. The middle choice was neither agree or disagree.

Birth control- remember the Hobby Lobby- Supreme Court case from 2014?

  • All forms of birth control are sinful.
  • Birth control methods are acceptable if they do not cause an abortion.

Abortion items- an ongoing debate about limits in the U.S. and some other nations.

  • Abortion is always sinful.
  • Abortion is acceptable when a woman’s life is at risk.
  • Abortion is acceptable when a woman is pregnant as a result of incest or rape.

Premarital sex- although most Christian couples have sex before they marry, you probably know the official position of most churches is that sex is only acceptable within marriage.

  • Premarital sex is always sinful.
  • Cohabitation is always sinful.

Marriage, Same-Sex Marriage, and Sexual orientation. These are obviously hot topics in many countries and divisive within families and churches—let alone local communities.

  • A biblical marriage is between one man and one woman.
  • Same-sex marriage is sinful.
  • Sexual orientation is a choice.

Divorce—an old topic to be sure. Even evangelicals in the U.S. have softened on this value and welcomed divorced persons into the church. But we asked just to see if any held to traditional church beliefs.

  • Divorce is sinful.

The role of women. Women have fought long and hard for rights in western cultures where there is a measure of success. But within most Christian churches they cannot hold high office. Some groups give lip service to the importance of wives but view men and women having complementary rather than equal roles. And even in a secular agency I once received an email advising counselors to refer women to female psychologists for services.

  • In a Christian marriage, a man and a woman submit to each other but the man is always the head of the marriage.
  • Women have a vital role in Christian ministry but they should not be priests or pastors.
  • Women have an important role in churches and Christian organizations but they should not have authority over a man.
  • Women should seek counseling from women and men should seek counseling from men.

What did we find out?

Essentially, a substantial portion of our sample hold some values that are consistent with those of Christian fundamentalists. Depending on how you measure fundamentalism or Christians who hold conservative beliefs you will find a number in the 20% range for the U.S. I suspect many of the clinicians in our sample would feel quite comfortable with fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. Biblically, they are on the same pages. But, many fundamentalists prefer to see a pastor or talk to a Christian friend. 

I do not know the numbers but I suspect they would rather see a biblical counselor—someone who relies heavily on the Bible and not scientifically-based interventions even when framed to accommodate Christian beliefs.

As you look through the list, I think you will see some potential sources of spiritual struggle for clinicians when it comes to treating many in the U.S., if a value-conflict become relevant to the treatment issues.

Social issue
Birth control: Always sinful
Birth control: ok if not abortifacient

Abortion: Always sinful
Abortion: ok risk harm
Abortion: ok rape/incest

Premarital sex: Always sinful
Cohabitation: Always sinful
Marriage: 1 man, 1 woman
Marriage: Man is head
Divorce is sin

Sex orientation is a choice
Same sex marriage sinful

Women should not be clergy
Women- no authority over men
Women counsel women & men
counsel men

Table note. The n represents the number of people responding to the item. The numbers in the other three columns represent the percentage of people reporting agreement-disagreement.
If you see mistakes, do let me know.
Some bottom line questions might be:

If a client knew what a clinician believed and valued would that make a difference in seeing the person for therapy? After all, psychotherapy involves many hours in a relationship unlike 7.5 minutes with a physician.

Are their certain types of issues that are reasonably beyond the ability of most counselors to set aside their values to help clients achieve goals contrary to their religious faith?

Are their some religious or spiritual values (or beliefs from the previous week) that appear so irrational that a supervisor should confront the clinician before the clinician graduates from a degree program?

Should states and provinces refuse to grant licenses to clinicians unable to serve all members of the public? Are some Christian clinicians most suited to function as pastoral counselors with clergy privileges rather than licensed by a government body to serve all citizens?

Are a clinician's spiritual/religious values irrelevant to most treatment concerns? For example, who cares what clinicians believe if they are competent to treat depression, anxiety, ADHD, and so forth?

Do you have other constructive thoughts?

Do you know of other relevant research?

Related Posts


Sutton, G. W., Arnzen, C. A. (2015, April). Evidenced-Based religious accommodative psychotherapy: Practice and belief. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, International Conference, Denver, Colorado.

Verbeck et al. (2015). Religion, spirituality, and the working alliance with trauma survivors. In D. Walker, C. Courtois, and J. Aten (eds.). Spirituality oriented psychotherapy for trauma (pp 103-126). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

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