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(These are notes on lessons concerning the nature of the church and discipleship; particularly as it relates to biblical counseling).



I.       The Importance of the Church:

         A.   “The preeminence of the church in God’s scheme of things could hardly be stated more vigorously than in several texts in the Epistle to the Ephesians. With moving rhetorical power Paul says in the closing verses of chapter 1 that God (the Father) has designed Christ as Lord of all creation ‘and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way’ (Eph. 1:22,23 NIV).

“Later he goes onto say that though God’s justice and wisdom in providence may have been ‘hidden for ages in God who created all things,’ it is His purpose that ‘through the church the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the principalities and powers in heavenly places’ (Eph. 3:9,10, RSV).

“Further on, he says that the church was from eternity so cherished by the Son that He ‘loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (Eph. 5:25 NIV). As for the Holy Spirit’s interest in the church, Paul explains that members of the church are ‘sealed with promised Holy Spirit’ (Eph. 1:13), and that by virtue of Christ’s reconciliation through that Spirit, we all ‘have access …to the Father’ (2:18), and that the Spirit is the spiritual presence in us that brings forth ‘fruit … in all that is good and right and true’ (Eph. 5:9).”[1]

B.   “There has been no time in the history of the last 1,500 years, when the community of believers which we call the church has been more critically important to mankind. The breakdown of the natural communal life of people around the whole world has ripped mankind out of the commonality of existence among men with whom and to whom they counted for something, and brusquely dropped them in the rude and rushing crowds where they count for nothing.”[2]




II.      The Church Needs Biblical Counseling

A.  Counseling is merely deliberate discipleship. Colossians 1:28

1.      It flows from the command to make disciples by teaching. Matthew 28:19-20. Therefore, it lies at the heart of the Church’s mission.

2.      The practice of making disciples entails the work of the entire church by means of public worship, public and private instruction, public and private example, encouragement, et cetera. By “counseling” we are referring primarily to private instruction.

3.      The counselor teaches another believer to observe what Christ has commanded: “That is not conversion alone; it is discipleship. If Christ says anything in this passage [Matt. 28:19-20], it is that the church is an educational institution. The church is a school. Students matriculate by baptism (that word means, literally, ‘uniting’ or ‘joining’), learn from Him (Matt. 11:29) from that day on, and are expected to translate His truth into life (‘teaching them to observe’). Converts come into Christ’s school (the church) precisely for this reason: to learn to do ‘all’ that He commanded.”[3]

B.  Such private, deliberate instruction is necessary:

1.      Because it can respond to the particular situation of fellow Christian. 1 Thessalonians 5:14

2.      Particular instruction is modeled and commanded in the NT.

a.   Correcting the doctrine of fellow believers. Acts 18:26; 19:1-7.

b.   Paul exhorts private instruction to resolve a dispute in the congregation at Philippi. Philippians 4:3.

c.   Christians are commanded to exhort/encourage one-another daily. Hebrews 3:12-13.[4]

d.   Christians are commanded to mutually confess sin. James 5:16.

e.   Christians are commanded to find and bring back an erring brother. James 5:19-20. Matthew 18:15.

f.    Each of the NT letters is an example of counseling from a distance to a particular congregation so as to respond to the needs and situation of that particular congregation.

3.      Such private instruction is mandatory for pastors/elders [while I agree with Adams that such instruction is not a matter of choice for the elder/pastor; I want to make plain that the duty to provide such instruction must not be limited to only ordained elders in a congregation. The duty to instruct, at least at some level, is incumbent upon all members of a church.]:

God has given (1) the ordained teaching and ruling officers (2) the task of changing people’s lives (3) through the authoritative ministry of the Word (II Tim. 3:15–17). When that authority is exercised properly (biblically), Christ promises to be “in the midst” giving encouragement, furnishing wisdom and providing strength (cf. Matt. 18:15–20). Both exousia (externally conferred authority) and dunamis (internal power and capability) are granted these officers by virtue of their calling to the work of ministering the Word. The exousia authorizes them to command respect and obedience (I Thess. 5:13; Heb. 13:17); the second empowers them to carry on their work (II Tim. 1:7).

All too few officers—pastors included—recognize and exercise their authority and power (and too often some who do abuse it and, as a result, put it in the wrong light for others). No wonder, then, that counseling limps. Ordination is important because it is the orderly appointment of a man to his office and work; in Christ’s name it grants him the right to authoritatively use the gifts that the Holy Spirit has already given (the recognition of the gifts is one of the bases for ordination). The authority for counseling is granted through Christ’s Church. Ordination brings one’s counseling under the scrutiny and regulation of other elders. He acts under—not apart from—the counsel and admonition of Christ’s divinely instituted order, the church.

When a pastor of a congregation may claim that his ministry keeps him too busy to counsel (as some do), his claim is always false. Surely he could not be busier at the Lord’s work than the Lord Jesus (Who found so much time to counsel individuals) or even the Apostle Paul (who followed his Lord’s example in this—cf. Col. 1:28; Acts 20:31). If the pastor really is too busy (and that claim is not merely an excuse), then something is radically wrong. He must examine his activities to discover what it is that is keeping him so busy, because (surely) it will not be the ministry of the Word.[5]


III.     Biblical Counseling Needs the Church

A.   Why do we think of counseling as something separate from the church?

1.   Our understanding of the church affects the way in which we understand admonition, exhortation and encouragement. The default understanding for many Christians is a church based upon “volunteerism” [being or not being part of a congregation is solely a matter of personal decision and preference.] & consumerism [a church provides services which meet my desires or not’: We begin with an understanding of salvation as a purely individual event, “Me and Jesus Got our Own Thing Going.” The church, rather than being the primary place where God works, becomes a marketplace which is judged on its ability to provide services:

Consequently, the latter [a radical individualism] tends to exchange a covenantal interpretation of the church for a contractual view. To the extent that the relationship of the believer to Christ may be conceived as a contract in which God offers certain benefits in exchange for our making him Savior and Lord, our relationship to the church is simply a matter of personal decision based on the services we think it can provide for us….The personal decision of each person to believe in Christ and to join a church actually constitutes ecclesial existence [that is, a church comes into existence solely upon the individual decisions of people – not the sovereign work of God]. In evangelical contexts, the church is often regarded chiefly as a resource for fellowship and a platform for individuals to serve the body and the world in various ministries….From this perspective, the church has become increasingly to be regarded primarily as a service provider for a personal (unique and individual) relationship with Christ.[6]

2.   Recent history:  A great many things contributed to the Christian church giving up the practice of soul-care. Things which previous Christians considered primarily a matter of being a Christian became seen as purely psychological, emotional, environmental, behavioral, physical concern. Rather than understanding that one’s circumstance, body, training shaped how sin was expressed (for example, no one in 1920 sinned by watching too much television or became “addicted” to internet pornography – because such things did not exist); Christians began to believe to that one’s circumstance, body, psychology, et cetera was the beginning and end of one’s trouble. One was unable to function due to fear, not because they failed to have a sufficient trust in God’s goodness and ability, but because they had been raised by an “alcoholic father”. Rather than see that the world shapes our expression of sin, we came to believe that our troubles were not even in sin at all: we suffered from a neurosis, not sinful fear.

Having taken on the world’s understanding of human trouble, we also came to see the world’s solutions. Psychology and psychiatry deliberately mimicked the role of the pastor giving counsel.  However, the work of the psychologist and psychiatrist was also detached from the community of the Church. It focused on one’s private and personal situation (as opposed to sin and a failure of love/to love). When it comes now to counseling, we have a tendency to look to the psychologist-model of private, personal and isolated counsel to make my life better – rather than the entire church involved in the process of discipleship in love.

B.   Counseling must take place within the context of the church:

1.  Adams writing states, “Counseling may not be set up as a life calling on a free-lance basis; all such counseling ought to be done as a function of the church, utilizing its authority and resources.”[7] This is consonant with the command of Christ: “Go … make disciples … .teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28-19-20). The command to make disciples is the function of the Church.

2.   In the church, God has given gifts to each believer so that they can in turn “build up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-13). The church is the place in which people are trained to present every believer to God “mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). All of the commands given in the New Testament Epistles are written to churches and/or church leaders (for the administration of the church). Even private letter such as 3 John presuppose the existence of the church. The command to instruct one-another was written to believers working together within a local church (Rom. 15:14).

      C. Biblical counseling (as we shall learn) does not seek an improvement of one’s life and “happiness” but rather seeks “renew[al] in knowledge after the image of [our] creator” (Col. 3:10). This transformation takes place by union with Christ in the church:

Eph. 1:22, 23—“the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.” He who is the life of nature and of humanity reveals himself most fully in the great company of those who have joined themselves to him by faith. Union with Christ is the presupposition of the church. This alone transforms the sinner into a Christian, and this alone makes possible that vital and spiritual fellowship between individuals which constitutes the organizing principle of the church. The same divine life which ensures the pardon and the perseverance of the believer unites him to all other believers. The indwelling Christ makes the church superior to and more permanent than all humanitarian organizations; they die, but because Christ lives, the church lives also. Without a proper conception of this sublime relation of the church to Christ, we cannot properly appreciate our dignity as church members, or our high calling as shepherds of the flock. [8]

      D. The church is necessary for the Christian life:

The church then is necessary for several reasons: it is part and parcel of (1) the eternal purpose of God in redeeming fallen human creatures; (2) the Father’s mighty work in regard to the exaltation of his and crucified Son; (3) the eternal divine counsel with regard to the revelation of himself and his ways; and (4) prophetic Scripture that assigns an important role to the church in the outworking of salvation.[9]


IV.    How Does the Matter of Biblical Counseling Relate to the Doctrine of the Church?

A.   In giving instruction, we must understand our purpose. If we have a poor understanding of our purpose, we will have no good basis to judge whether our instruction is appropriate.

1.   When it comes to counseling, the tendency will be relief suffering, ease one’s conscience, make someone “happy”.

2.   However, if the purpose is to make disciples of Jesus, then our counseling means and aims will be different.

B.   If counseling is a basic action of the church, we had best understand what constitutes “the church”.

C. If counseling is a church activity, it will affect how we understand the relationship between a “counselor” and “counselee”.

1.      Do we have separate offices like a psychologist or therapist?

2.      What takes place in counseling?

3.      How does it relate to other actions of the church? Worship? Communion? Discipline?

4.      What is the involvement of other members in the congregation to the process?


D. Counseling is a response to the disintegrating effects of sin coming into the world (both our own, the sin of others against us and the fact of sin generally). A goal of the Christian life is the reversal of that disintegration (Col. 3:10). Therefore, the work of love in a communion of human beings is a necessary aspect of discipleship. The Christian counseling process is not a matter of better communication technique, but rather a question of how one lives with others.

V.     Three Ways to Study and Understand the Church:

A.     In terms of function:

1.   What does the church do?

2.   What are the offices?

3.   What are the ordinances?

4.   What are the responsibilities of the congregation collectively?

5.  What are the responsibilities of the congregants individually?

6.   Since we will not be primarily covering this area, here are some resources for future use:

a.   Theology texts: Erickson, Christian Theology,  2nd, chapters 51-54, 1079-1152; Grudem, Systematic Theology, chapters 45-51, 873-1015.

b.   General works on church function: John MacArthur, The Master’s Plan for the Church; Wayne Mack, Life in the Father’s House; Mark Dever, The Church, the Gospel Made Visible & Deliberate Church.

c.   Church discipline: In Pursuit of Prodigals, Stephen Davey (general introduction); Those Who Must Give an Account, A study in church membership and discipline, Hammett & Merkle, eds. (detailed theological and historical analysis of issue).

d.   CBC sermon series, “You and the Church”, Dr. Jack Hughes, 2007.

e.   Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership; (not exactly function, Agape Leadership, Bite and Devour).

f.   The Shepherd Leader, Timothy Z. Witmer.

f.    Additional resources: 9marks.org

B.     In terms of mission: What must the church do?

1.   What are the potential answers? Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church?

2.   The Great Commission

a.   Proclamation: evangelism, personal and private; missions. Many good books in this area. Two less common resources: Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church; Jerram Barrs, Learning Evangelism from Jesus. Missions, John Piper, Let the Nations be Glad. This last book is a great example how an understanding of what the church is (essence) will affect the church’s understanding of mission and thus of function. The church is doxological: one aspect of the true church is that it gives God glory. Missions exists because God is not being glorified/worshiped somewhere. Thus, a local congregation’s support of missions directly flows from the congregation’s self-understanding as a worshiping body. The September 2013 9 Marks e-journal is on evangelism.

b. Baptism.

c. Teaching them to observe.

i.    A.B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve. Classic study of how Jesus discipled the 12. Very short explanation: It’s all about Jesus.

ii.   Bill Hull, The Disciple Making Pastor, The Disciple Making Church:  The pastor and the entire congregation have a role to play in making disciples. The church needs to have a means to introduce people into a process of deliberate disciple-making. When a new Christian appears at the church, how does he begin to learn, be exhorted and encouraged, watched, minister? The exact structure one uses needs to accord with both the congregation, the environment of the church and the gifts available to the congregation.

iii.  Colin Marshall, Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine. An explanation of how the structures of the congregation can actually inhibit disciple-making by putting emphasize on the trellis (structures) which should be used for the vine (the people).

iv.  There is a tendency to think of discipleship as extending to only “spiritual” matters or perhaps things directly related to the church. F.B. Meyer’s Discipleship does a good job of explaining that if all things must be done to the glory of God, then discipleship must extend to all things.

iv. Biblical counseling would fall within this category, as a species of intensive discipleship.

v.   This is probably where most of the difficulty lies when thinking through the functions of the church. A white board exercise where the church has no structures, no organization: what must happen? The pulpit is the primary means of discipleship. With this would come ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. What then comes next? Where is the emphasis placed?

vi. Examples of teaching goals for discipleship

C.     In terms of essence: What is this thing called the church?

1.  One Holy Catholic Apostolic, Nicene Creed, 381:

a.   One

b.   Holy

c.   Catholic

d.   Apostolic

2.   Allison’s Definition (which we will use as our basis for this class):

a.   The church is the people of God who have been saved through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and have been incorporated into this body through baptism with the Holy Spirit. It consists of two interrelated elements: the universal church is the fellowship of all Christians that extends from the day of Pentecost until the second coming, incorporating both deceased believers who are presently in heaven and the believers from all over the world. The universal church becomes manifested in local churches characterized by being doxological, logocentric, pneumadynamic, covenantal, confessional, missional, and spatio-temporal/ eschatological. Local churches are led by pastors (also called elders) and served by deacons, possess and pursue purity and unity, exercise church discipline, develop strong connections with other churches, and celebrate the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Equipped by the Holy Spirit with spiritual gifts for ministry, these communities regularly gather to worship the triune God, proclaim his Word, engage non-Christians with gospel, discipline their members, care for people through prayer and giving, and stand both for and against the world.[10]

b.   The question of function becomes, in light of the definition, Does function X fulfill the mission of the church and is it in light with the nature of the church?

3.   Most systematic theologies will cover this topic at some length. Horton, Culver & Bray have some of the more thought-provoking discussions on the topic. Calvin’s Institutes (Book IV) gives the classic reformed position on the essence of the church.  Gregg Allison’s Sojourners and Strangers is probably the best one-volume theology on the nature of the church.


[1] Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical (2005; repr., Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publication, 2006), 800.

[2] Culver, 807.

[3] Jay Edward Adams, A Theology of Christian Counseling: More Than Redemption (Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resource Library, 1986), 284. 

[4] This matter of daily exhortation would spare the church extraordinary pain. Many troubles could be more easily resolved if they were dealt with earlier. For example, a marriage does not go “bad” all in an instance. Typically it takes years for a marriage to dissolve into a determination to divorce. Had someone been involved early on, the couple may have been spared years of sin and sorrow.

[5] Jay Edward Adams, A Theology of Christian Counseling: More Than Redemption (Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resource Library, 1986), 278–279.

[6] Horton, The Christian Faith, 837

[7] Jay Edward Adams, A Theology of Christian Counseling: More Than Redemption (Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resource Library, 1986), 276.

[8] Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), 888.

[9] Gregg R. Allison, Strangers and Sojourners: The Doctrine of the Church, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 59.

[10] Allison, Sojourners and Strangers, 29-30.