Christian Ethics and Pastoral Counselling
In situations of pastoral counseling office-bearers can be confronted with ethical questions. There are various typical areas in which these questions arise:
- The marital relationship
- The parental relationship
- Forbidden relationships
- Personal sexual problems
- Family problems
- Interpersonal conflict in the congregation
- Abortion, euthanasia, suicide (in one’s own life or loved ones, friends, neighbors)
- Employment or unemployment
- Environmental questions (general or specific)
- Money management
- Tax issues
- Education for children
First phase: listen
What am I to do and not to do? The first thing is to listen. Try to enter into his/her (their) situation. Try to gauge what personal questions are behind the 'problem.' Feel free to ask questions at various points in order to get a clearer picture. Be careful not to interrupt constantly and get him/her (them) off track. Show you are interested and that you are trying to place yourself in his/her (their) 'shoes.'
May I ask very personal questions of an entirely confidential and private nature? It depends on your motive. If it is because you are simply curious, it is not appropriate. If you feel you need to have more confidential information in order to be able to present an informed opinion, you may ask if it is appropriate for you to raise such a question. Indicate that you are aware that this may be too sensitive an issue and give the person the opportunity to decline a comment. If he/she refuses to do so or says he/she cannot do so, it may be that you feel you cannot be of any further help. Say so honestly, without using this situation to put pressure on him/her. It may also be that you indicate that in view of deficient information your advice can only be provisional.
At any rate, the first phase is to ask the person to clearly define his/her problem and by raising various pertinent questions try to obtain some additional information. It will be helpful to summarize the information to see if he/she agrees. Ask: 'Do I understand this correctly, or are there more angles to it, which I have missed?' A summary should put the problem into focus. Do not exclude the details that qualify the problem substantially. All this should lead to a question, which can be introduced as follows: "Do I understand you well, if I formulate your question in this way? Is this the difficulty you are facing?"
You should not yet suggest an answer at this point. Neither may you over-emphasize just one aspect and under-emphasize another aspect. You are to formulate the problem honestly, as you hear it and as has been clarified by the questions you have raised.
Second phase: listen to the Word and apply the Word
What is now your task in this second phase?
You need to ask, what is God saying in His Word? Indeed, in order to give advice you need to listen to the Word of God. You need to apply Gods Word to this specific case. The important thing here is to take a decision before the face of God. This counsel had a place in Reformed pastoral counseling. When presbyters (elders) were ordained in the early centuries A.D., the church prayed for the gift of the Spirit. It asked for the Spirit of 'grace and counsel,' referring to seventy elders of Israel in Numbers 11. The Form for the Ordination of elders and deacons lists as third duty of the elders that the elders are "to assist the ministers of the Word with good counsel and advice." The elders give this 'counsel' at consistory meetings as well as in personal conversations with the members.
Voetius mentions advice, exhortations, corrections and answers to questions put to the pastors. He distinguishes between public and private preaching and application of the Word. From this we may conclude that Voetius regarded it as part of the pastor's task to provide counsel and considered that task to be a special form of preaching and application of the Word. Note that you are not to express your personal insight into a difficult situation of life. Your life experiences and wisdom are not to be decisive. Rather you must let God's Word speak. It is your task to apply the Word of God to the concrete situation in the form of counsel. This task distinguishes his help from every other form of counsel in psychotherapy, psychology or psychiatry.
In your counsel you are to let the Word of God speak. Counsel also contains an aspect of discipline, that is, discipline in love. We clearly encounter this in the book of Proverbs. "Hear counsel, and receive instruction, that you may be wise in your latter end" (Prov 19:20, cf 1:25, 30 and 15:33). Discipline is implied in counsel, because such counsel proceeds from the Word of God. The Word of God draws in discipline. The German word for discipline is related to the word "to draw" (ziehen). The Word of God draws or seeks to draw man to the LORD. Your task in the second phase of the visit consists in giving counsel as the application of the Word of God in the life of the member of the congregation.
What does that counsel look like? Be sure that you do not take the responsibility for making the decision out of the hands of the member of the congregation. If you would do so, you would no longer be a counselor. In your own personal life you do make those decisions for yourself. It is important to recognize the appropriate boundaries here. The member of the congregation him-/herself continues to be responsible for his/her decision. As office bearer you need to underline this responsibility.
It may be that there is another boundary for the member of the congregation. As office bearer you sometimes can say more clearly how it is not to be than how it is to be. In the apostolic epistles we find that the apostle forbids and warns against certain sins. We also know that eight of the Ten Commandments are formulated negatively or clearly forbid certain sins. That does not mean that the Bible is more negative than positive. It is best to learn to say things both positively and negatively.
It is important to ask yourselves the following three questions:
- What is it that motivates you who are asking for counsel? Is it love for God, the neighbor and then also to yourself? (consider the sequence!)
- What do you have in view? What is it you are after? Do you wish to serve the other in love and deny yourself? Or do you desire control and success?
- By what means do you wish to attain this? Do you also place these means under the authority of the Word?
Prayer is to have a central place in all counseling. The member needs to pray as well as the office bearer with the member of the congregation. We must pray for our love to abound more and more in insight and wisdom in order to be able to discern and approve the "things that are excellent." We must pray that we might "be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God" (Philippians 1:9-11). 'What is it that the Lord will have me to do?' We must ask the Lord for insight and wisdom to make the right decision and to select the right means. Love seeks the fruit of righteousness and the honour of God.
In conclusion, the ethics of pastoral counseling emphasizes dependence upon God and Word. Listening to the Word is as important as listening to the person. Together we must express our dependence on the Holy Spirit to open the Scriptures, to open our heart to the Scriptures, and to give us insight.
Let us take an example. There is a tense situation between husband and wife on account of the place that the mother of the husband continues to occupy. The mother refuses to let go of her son. The wife is not only offended at the attitude of her mother-in-law, but she also feels frustrated by the attitude of her husband. Her husband sincerely loves his wife, but he does not sufficiently see through what troubles his wife. He thinks that his wife wrongly criticizes the combination of love for his wife and 'respect' for his mother. If his wife would only show more respect for his mother, she would feel less neglected.
So here are a husband and a wife, who have each other's welfare at heart but nevertheless have problems with one another. His mother stands between them. To be sure, she does not wish to take them from each other, but she does detract from their marriage happiness.
Right from the start of their relationship, the wife was suspicious of the position of her mother-in-law in her husband's life. Many times she talked about it with him. He tried to hush up her anxiety and irritation by affirming that he was there for her 100%. She took him at his word and expected that things would improve once they were married. Her mother-in-law did not play an outright cruel game, but she did refuse to step back. She did accept the fact that they were married and therefore went their own way, but she did not let go of her son. With subtle interference, she kept her son attached to her strings. He wishes to smooth over matters and maintain his relationship to both women. He seeks the solution of tolerance or synthesis. His wife is headed on a course of collision or antithesis as the only remedy for marital happiness. She seeks all or nothing and even risks a rift with her husband. He wants to hold on to both of them.
He is conscious of the fact that his wife is heading for a split. That makes him critical of her. He calls it an attitude of unchristian intolerance, which troubles him even more than his wife's insistence that he break off the unhealthy relationship with his mother. Unconsciously he criticizes his wife for this in order to continue to have the relationship with his mother. What are you to do as pastor or elder? You have been called into this at a point at which things are not yet hopeless, even though considerable damage has been done. Husband and wife are now opposite to each other, whereas they started our alongside of each other and continued to feel for one another. However, there has come a distance between them, and the harmony is disappearing.
The first phase is to listen. Allow both to express their points of view, experiences and feelings. Soon you realize that the heart of the problem is not that they do not love each other and that they are not ready to work at it. Yet, both encounter an inner impossibility. She finds she cannot go on because her mother-in-law comes between them. She experiences his love as a love that she always has to share with her mother-in-law. He considers the choice between his wife and his mother to be an unreasonable choice. In his mind, both women can keep their place in his life each in their own way.
You keep on asking questions and you come to the conclusion that the husband never truly let go of his mother. He did leave his parental home, and he does cleave to his wife, even sexually, but inwardly he has not left his mother. She retained her place as mother the way she had that place in the years prior to his marriage. You need to realize that at this point you need to speak quite concretely and specifically about love. After all, the husband says that he sincerely loves his wife, but for the wife that means no relationship to a third party. He has to meet her condition of his exclusive choice for her.
You have properly gauged the relationship between them. You can build on a great deal that is proper in the relationship between them. However, one thing needs to be done. That is, the husband has to choose for his wife while (for the time being) letting go of his mother. As pastor or elder you need to expound and apply the three basic verbs in Genesis 2:24: "leave; cleave; be one flesh." The conclusion becomes clear: mother-in-law continues to have too great a role in her son's life.
The son begins to see that, but he does not yet know how to go about it. Your task with regard to his wife is to keep her from triumphantly celebrating her having been right, along these lines: "See? I told you all along. I have been wronged. You have given your mother too significant a place." It may be that you as pastor or elder agree with this conclusion, but you need to prevent her from merely gloating. She needs to show her husband that the claim that mother-in-law makes on her son is wrong. The husband thinks that he needs to keep honouring his mother. This concern covers up his need to be inwardly independent of his mother.
As pastor or elder you need to reject the illegitimate claim in three steps. You need to show that the fifth commandment functions differently in the life of a married son than in the life of an adolescent son. You need to try to lead the husband to the insight that he has continued to depend on his mother. Furthermore, you still need to point out the relationship between depending on mother and wrongly understanding the fifth commandment. A great deal depends on how the wife conducts herself. If she gloats, she may end up being wrong. If she uses it as a weapon against her husband, he will be further alienated. She must resist this temptation, and learn to assist her husband to become independent of his mother.
Patience is necessary. The mother will not easily give up her place. She may use the fifth commandment as a "counteroffensive." You will need quite a few conversations. You too need to be firm. You will need to explain how you look at their relationship. You may not bypass the independence of the husband on his mother. Show what the task of each is and their task together. The first visit may be rather stormy, but you need to shine the light of the Word clearly on the relationship. The first visit may be painful, but it is the only way things will work. The wife must be ready to forgive and to work at renewing the relationship. The husband must begin to see the necessity of a change in how he relates to his wife and mother.
You have a distinct message for both of them. To the husband: your wife has a right to your undivided attention. You may not divide that between your mother and your wife! If you must (for the time being) lose one of the two, then you need to lose your mother, in order to hold on to your wife. You can only have both, if you have given your wife your unconditional allegiance. The message for the wife is: you need to be ready to forgive and ready to help. Do not demand that you receive double for what was kept from you for so long.
This approach should normally bear fruit. It has been painful and hard work. You are privileged to point to the attitude of Christ and so to minister to these persons. Hopefully, the mother-in-law will begin to see that her children's marital happiness is more important that the devotion of her son to her. She was preoccupied with herself, and could not see it. You should pray that this change may come. The change in attitude for the couple can bring with it that they discover other areas in which they kept devotion from the other. This self-examination can lead to a spiritual break-through that goes beyond just the relationship between husband and wife.