Sojourn leader: Counseling should be centered on the Gospel and done within community

Communications Staff — September 24, 2009

Robert Cheong had been in ministry for several years when he underwent a stunning revolution in his thinking about Christian counseling.

Cheong developed an altogether different – and more biblical, in his mind – view of counseling when he began to see the Gospel as existing at the heart of the care of souls.

“I have come to realize that our understanding of counseling, even within the church, has been shaped and more or less determined by the world’s understanding of counseling,” Cheong said.

“One of the ways in which I have come to understand counseling is instead of starting with the issues that we all struggle with is start with the Gospel and start with, “what is the mission of the Gospel?’ And start with understanding in broad terms that the mission of the Gospel is comprised of two aspects; one is building up the body in love from Ephesians 4 and then advancing the kingdom, typically associated with the Great Commission in Matthew 28.”

Cheong, who earned both a master of divinity and Ph.D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has served as pastor of home and counseling at Sojourn Community Church since March of 2006. Previously, he had served as a counselor in a church-based counseling center.

The revolution in Cheong’s view of counseling came not only through understanding that the Gospel is what believers need for their sanctification, but it also came through a related biblical truth that the local church is to function in such a way that every member is involved in counseling.

Thus, Christian counseling is not something that is done by a licensed professional – though there are certainly times, Cheong says, when acute problems require more seasoned biblical wisdom – but through church members encouraging each other and building each other up in love.

The key, Cheong said, is to understand Christ’s summary of the law as crystallized in the two greatest commandments:  “Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” God brings about change in people’s lives by grace through the person and work of Christ, Cheong said. Thus, Christians need to hear the Gospel and need to be held accountable lovingly through the local body of believers.  Only this way will they be able to exhibit deep affections for both God and neighbor.

“God has designed us as relational beings, but He has also designed relationships to be redemptive,” Cheong said. “That is why the first two commandments are so foundational. First you are talking about a relationship with God, who is the source of all change, and then relationship with others and that is the means that God has, by His sovereign wisdom, purposed to bring about change through His people speaking the Word of God to one another.

“And we do this by not only by speaking the words of God, but also by presenting Christ. All the words of Scripture point to Christ Himself. As Paul David Tripp has well said, we don’t offer a better system, but we offer a person.”

Cheong has developed a Gospel-centered definition of counseling, which aims biblical counsel at the taproot of human sinfulness: unbelief.  Cheong’s definition:  “Gospel-centered counseling is a way of loving one another as we listen, explore and understand the struggles of unbelief in the heart of one another in the midst of life and suffering by showing how Christ and His Gospel truths apply in deeply personal and specific ways so that we can live out the Gospel by faith in community by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

This view of counseling stands in bold contrast to the world’s aggressively therapeutic methods, Cheong points out, because it sees the fundamental problem as existing inside the human heart and the solution as existing outside the person in God’s mercy. Therapeutic counseling wrongly sees the problem as outside the person and the solution as inside him or her.

Thus, Christians do not need to by clinically trained and intimately acquainted with numerous behavioral theories that are rooted in naturalism in order to counsel, Cheong said. Believers need only to have a clear understanding of the Gospel and its comprehensive application to the human experience to be able to care for each other’s souls within the context of the local church.

As an illustration of the strength of Gospel-centered, community-based counseling, Cheong points to marriage. When he counseled through a center, most couples who sought help did not follow up with the local church, Cheong said, because there was no accountability; the counselees were not bound by the protective reality of church membership.

But when a couple is being loved by a local body and is being held accountable as members of the church, there is a far greater probability that the marriage will overcome its difficulties and thrive.

“A couple needs to be in community with brothers and sisters in Christ who are journeying with them day in and day out, pointing them to Christ and encouraging them in the Gospel,” Cheong said. “Counseling is just one part of a person being redirected or learning and growing in how to live their lives in the midst of life’s difficulties. Also, the leaders of the church body are able to patiently and lovingly shepherd them, which is one crucial aspect of biblical counseling.

“It was a huge thing for me to understand that the community plays a huge role in our change process. Another important aspect of counseling in the church is church discipline.  It ties to the first point of shepherding – the pastors have been entrusted with the care of the souls within the church.

“There are times in which ministry leaders in the community have to escalate the discipline process. This is foundational and stands in stark contrast to the world’s definition. … This whole vision of counseling as God has designed for His church is expressed through the two greatest commandments that the Lord gave.”

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