Should You Study Counseling Outside Christian Institutions? Yes and No

Would there be value for biblical counselors to pursue PhD work outside Christian institutions, and what challenges would they face?

There are two good answers to the question above: no and yes.

First, for the no. If you are not a competent critical thinker, I would suggest you not pursue it. If, like much of our culture, you hear with your eyes and think with your feelings, then you will be in trouble. The following warning by Mark Noll and David Wells (1988) gets right to the point.

[The] journey from Word to world is fraught with peril even as it is ripe with potential. Bridges built between God’s Word and our world are susceptible of carrying traffic in both directions . . . most of the traffic has been moving in the wrong direction. Twentieth-century people have allowed the cognitive constraints and the psychological conventions of our own day to limit what the Bible may say. This reverses the proper situation. It is the Bible that deserves to prescribe the cognitive horizon for the twentieth century, just as it has been for every century.

Which leads to the second point: If you are biblically and theologically anemic, I would not suggest you pursue PhD work outside Christian institutions. Everybody leans on what they know best. So if your understanding of people, problems, and change is deep and wide in the secular rudiments of the psyche but weak and thin in the faith once for all delivered to you and the rest of the saints, then you will be in trouble. You will function more as a psychologist who happens to be Christian than a Christian who happens to be a psychologist. The academic and professional guilds are persuasive when you function under their presuppositions rather than God’s, and powerful when they hold over your head a degree, a license, and a paycheck. Be careful.

If you have a PhD in psychology, counseling, or social work and a “Sunday school degree” in Bible and theology, anybody can guess what will exercise the greatest influence in your work. Prior training in biblical counseling, especially a developed theistic epistemology and biblical psychology, is a minimal prerequisite. Even better would be a seminary degree.

Finally, I would not suggest PhD work outside Christian institutions if you do not have sharp dialogue partners to accompany you on your trek. After I completed graduate school in clinical psychology and attempted to practice as a Christian, I sensed the spiritually vapid nature of my work. God used David Powlison and Sid Galloway as mentors to help me develop a more biblical perspective. They gave me their time and energy—countless conversations, helpful responses to my many “yes, but what about” questions, and many thoughtful e-mails.

Missionary Mindset

But here’s when I would say “yes”: if you can think and live like a missionary. Missionaries enter into another culture both as learners, and with time, as teachers. They are motivated by love and therefore move toward the culture with a measure of acceptance; they are moved by the mission of God and therefore possess a distinctively divine agenda. Our psychology and our counsel is messianic and revolutionary. There is good reason from our perspective as Christians to view the mental health subculture as a mission field, or at least as a kind of unreached people group. The gospel’s psychology subverts the foundational narratives and metaphysical, epistemological, and anthropological presuppositions of the secular psychologies. We don’t just offer up junior versions of their non-Christian systems. The secular psychotherapies desperately need redemption, not because they are all wrong, but because they are fundamentally wrong about the most important things.

Our goal, then, should not be simply to obtain a seat at the psychological table, but instead to invite diners in the Mental Health Café to a banquet feast with fare beyond their wildest dreams: a Chef who offers living bread and living water and even life beyond this one. Would not a retooling of C. S. Lewis’s inimitable challenge in The Weight of Glory be apropos?

We are half-hearted counselors, fooling about with Freud and Rogers and Beck when infinite joy is offered us by Another Counselor, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased (modified from Lewis, 1980, pp. 3-4).

  • Jason

    I appreciate your thoughts here, but I would like to offer a little push back. First, let me say that my PhD is in counseling psychology from a secular institution, which very likely affects my thinking. However, I have also been taking classes through CCEF’s distance program and I am the editor for the newsletter for the Society for Christian Psychology.

    Here is a potential disadvantage to pursuing training in “Christian” institutions. I have met some of the psychologists that have come out of the Christian programs who have all but abandoned their faith during their PhD programs because of the liberal theology that was taught. Unfortunately, I think that potential students are often careful to look at the quality of the psychology faculty, but fail to carefully appraise the theology faculty. They end up coming out not as Christians who are psychologists but as psychologists who happen *not* to be Christians. This is a very real danger for some that should be considered.

    I do like your notion of a secular PhD program as a mission field, but caution is needed. Secular PhD programs are often notoriously aggressive toward those who actually believe the Bible. Spirituality is okay, Christian theism marks you as a bigoted, hate-filled person. I was regularly asked why I was in a secular PhD program–that I should have gone to Bible college instead.

    The potential advantages to training in a secular program are that you can receive top notch training in research methods, theory, and clinical skill. Often, particularly at state institutions, costs are much less expensive. I think it is a mark of folly for someone to go to a Christian PhD program, rack up 200,000 in debt only to take a job paying less than 40,000 per year. There is a wisdom issue involved as well.

    My recommendation is that wherever someone chooses to go, he or she should prioritize their faith because it will be under attack. They should get connected with a local church and a body of believers who pray for them regularly. If they are married, they should pour a lot of time into their marriages because they also will be under attack.

    Thank you again for your comments.

    • Jonathan Tomes

      Thank you for that insight, Jason. Before beginning work on my Master of Divinity I pursued a BA in Psychology. It wasn’t nearly as aggresive, but there was some of that present. What happens to your faith in these institutions has more to do with your character and integrity. If you are orthodox beforehand and come out heterodox, that wouldn’t seem to be the secular institutions fault. If you are biblically and theological anemic, and are not a critical thinker, then you should not be pursuing that sort of advanced work in either the secular or “Christian” institution. We don’t need anemic counselors in either setting. There is already enough of that and it has caused harm.

  • Wes Phillips

    I don’t see the wisdom in paying $100,000 to $200,000 for the purpose of being a missionary to professor’s and fellow students. My primary purpose in paying to go to school would be for the purpose of learning. The bigger question seems to be, “are there things to learn in a secular PhD program?”

    • Darren Blair


      A person is going to college to learn how to do a job, not to be a missionary.

  • Joe Gerber

    I am a clinical social worker having received my Master’s Degree at a “Christian” institution. As far as I could tell, there was no real difference in the instruction received through this school and the local secular state school.
    I was well aware of the anti-Christian sentiments that were prevelant in the social work profession before deciding to pursue this degree. I suppose that I would fall into the second category of pursuing it more as a “missionary” endeavor. I always thought that my place in the profession was to be a bit of a thorn in the side of the accepted social work orthodoxy. I also felt it important to be a Christian counselor on the front lines of helping others who are in Dire Straits. To this day, I woould never send a person that I love to the vast majority of counselors that I know. In that sense, I felt there was a need for biblical Christians in this profession.
    All of that being said, being in this profession has been a significant challenge for me. Being a biblical, conservative Christian in this profession is not easy. I often feel alone and attacked (professionally). I agree with the author that this pursuit is not for everyone and would recommend extreme caution to any Christian brothers and sisters that are pursuing these types of professions.

  • dd

    Unfortunately, the yes/no nature of the focal article and discussions like it provide little help to those exploring these potential career paths. As a Christian and a practicing PhD psychologist, this has been my experience–those attempting to figure out this vocational trajectory are often left with confusion, contradiction, and mixed messages.

    Hopefully, the next few generations of holy counselors can start offering guidance that is more solid and complete. We need better trail markers for those seeking to follow. We should start by moving beyond theoretical distinctions (missionary versus not) and surface level treatments and get into the meat of what it means to redeem an occupation/calling amidst the real-life trials and tribulations of licensure, setting up or entering a practice, dealing with insurance/regulatory agencies and/or church hierarchies, understanding the chances of even finding a job, etc.

  • Heather

    Hope you don’t mind me adding to this conversation, as I find it very interesting to hear all your learned comments and advice. I am a born-again, Bible believing Christian. I have been a missionary in West Africa, been a chaplain at a secular school, Youth ‘Pastor’, and lay counsellor. I went to Bible College and studied theology, hermenutics, apologetics, etc, etc. My husband, myself and three children lived at the Bible College for three years. We saw ‘worldly lecturers’ who were not convinced that the Bible was the word of God, we saw students whose faith was shattered. We also saw many aspects of sin, living in a Christian community. We also saw strong Christians lecturers give their all, and students being formed and moulded to God’s will, families lives transformed by the Holy Spirit and dedicate their lives to missionary work overseas (our lives included).

    I have just finished my fourth year of psychology (Honours) at university. I found during my time at uni, that many students accepted me as a Christian, while lecturers who were not Christians tried to prove to me the folly of being a Christian, or justify why they were not Christians, not that I asked them why, but for some reason they felt their need to justify. The most common comment I received from students was “you are different from most Christians I know. You are not judgemental, or hypocritical and you actually care, and from what I see, try to live your life according to what you believe.” I in no way compromised my Christianity, or went along with anything that the Bible said not to. When asked I gave answers from the Bible, or my life experience of God, or directed them to Christian websites such as or others like that.

    I think that the foundation is the important thing. Foundation of the Word of God, believing and living it. Then when things become tough and ‘evolutionised’ it is easier to understand. I agree that having someone to mentor is of great benefit. It is difficult being young both in the Lord and in life experience, and confusing to know who is speaking the truth. We believe what the encyclopdias (online these days) tell us about everything, except those we choose not to (evolution). How is one who is young supposed to decide, perhaps it should be looked into. Perhaps to see how faith is supported or watered down in university students.

    Anyway, I am just a beginnner in the psychological field, although I am an experienced Christian. I too hope that the next few generations will study the Word of God more than their textbooks, and value the teachings of Jesus, rather than their professor. Thank you gentlemen (not meant to be a disrespectul presumption)for your wise words of experience