Straw Men and the Napalm Polemic

A Review of ‘Counseling One Another: A Theology of Interpersonal Discipleship’ by Paul Tautges
I wish I knew what this book was supposed to achieve. I’ve tried to think of an audience or a situation for whom it would be helpful and I can’t think of one. This is particularly frustrating as I wholeheartedly share the author’s fundamental concerns about counseling in the church, which include the common relegation of Scripture and real discipleship behind secular psychology, felt needs and the pursuit of a humanistic self-esteem.
Judging by both the title and sub-title I had imagined that this book would address the need, opportunity and challenge for Christians to be counseling each other, but those elements are incidental to what is essentially a diatribe against sub-Biblical counseling methods.
In his desire to create an enemy to spend the book attacking, Tautges recognises that he must first create a clear working definition of Christian counseling. He does that early on when he says,
“counseling will be presented as a targeted form of discipleship, an intensely focused and personal ‘one-another’ ministry aimed at the serious development of serious disciples”
Except then he gives David Powlison’s definition of counseling as “intentionally helpful conversations”.
But then he immediately decides that a much longer and different definition is in order:
“The definition that I will develop and defend throughout this book is as follows: Biblical counseling is an intensely focused and personal aspect of the discipleship process, whereby believers come alongside one another for three main purposes: first, to help the other person to consistently apply Scriptural theology to his or her life in order to experience victory over sin through obedience to Christ; second, by warning their spiritual friend, in love, of the consequences of sinful actions; and third, by leading that brother or sister to make consistent progress in the ongoing process of biblical change in order that he or she, too, may become a spiritually reproductive disciple-maker.”
In seeking to add clarity Tautges then states, “we must consciously use the terms ‘counseling’ and ‘discipleship’ interchangeably”…except he quickly contradicts that by saying, “discipleship is at the very core of counseling”. That’s like saying we must use the terms ‘apple core’ and ‘apple’ interchangeably. Maybe one day he’ll ask me for an apple and I’ll oblige by handing him what’s left after I’ve finished mine…
And that’s where he lost me, because his long, working definition of counseling is so narrow – and misleading – as to be scarcely useful. It reduces a counseling to only one thing: the correction of a tolerance of sin in in the life of the believer. If he’d only stuck with his initial definition or Powlison’s and then written from that, but unfortunately the book really is a defense of his longer definition.
He seems to miss the practical details involved in many other counseling situations, such as:
  • ·      Working through grief
  • ·      Dealing with abuse
  • ·      Repairing a marriage broken by adultery
  • ·      Living with AD(H)D
  • ·      Disputes
  • ·      Addiction 
Scripture obviously speaks to ALL of those things and must form the basis of counseling on EVERYTHING, but Tautges is either being simplistic in thinking all you need are the Biblical headlines (e.g. forgive, trust in God’s love, worship God only) or in denial that such matters need help via counseling at all. Part of the art of Christian counseling is the application of godly wisdom to people in various situations – wisdom that doesn’t come via neatly packaged Biblical quotes but uses the principles within Scripture to provide actionable advice in various situations.
Of particular concern, for example, is Tautges’ claim that “Instead of settling for the lesser hope of being a lifelong ‘recovering alcoholic’, the Bible enthusiastically offers the drunkard full deliverance from his or her sinful habit and a completely new life in Christ”. Is Tautges really unaware of the chemical elements of addiction? Does he believe nicotine is addictive or would he anticipate a simple ‘deliverance’ from cigarette smoking too? And what of depression that isn’t based on sadness but is similarly to do with a malfunction of the brain. Are such people simply to be told to cheer up because God is with them?
But having created his straw man, Tautges then spends most of the book dropping napalm on that and a variety of other views that he disagrees with. Even youth work: “The most effective model for youth discipleship is not the modern paradigm of the youth group, which all too often becomes nothing more than a larger gathering of immature fools…” At that point I almost had to laugh because it was clear by then that this was his modus operandi: form a singular generalization, build a straw man with it, and then mercilessly napalm it. No hint of nuance, no thought that perhaps churches try to combine youth work other methods of discipleship.
Why does he do that? A look at Tautges’ blog would seem to indicate he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying here. One blog post of his is entitled, ‘Regular exercise helps fight depression’. In it are zero Bible quotes because, well, the Bible doesn’t say that regular exercise helps fight depression…but it’s true. Which gives the lie to Tautges’ assertion that the words of God are the only thing you need to be of non-medical use in ALL counseling situations.
Later in referencing the parable of the two builders, Tautges points out that some people get it wrong when they say the ‘rock’ on which the house of our life is to be built is Christ, whereas he knows that it’s really obedience to Christ. Except he’s very obviously wrong, because the rock is a static thing onto which the house is to be built, so the rock is either Christ or perhaps the words of Christ, and building on the rock is obedience to the words of Christ.
As a piece of writing, I was left longing for more editorial input. Phrases like, “Please allow me to provide a brief, yet related, aside…”, prefacing most quotes with, “[quoted author] is correct when he says…” and the mountain of quotes underneath which the readability of the book – especially the first half – is crushed.
The need to treat the Bible as God’s infallible Word in a counseling context is very real, and under great threat as the Bible seems to be valued less and less by Christians. The need for Christians to be counseling each other rather than merely standing back and hoping a ‘professional’ intervenes in difficult situations is a worthy cause to write about. But even though I feel like I’m on Tautges’ ‘team’ in this area, I didn’t feel like the book was something that helped confirm those beliefs, nor provide me with a useful tool with which to challenge those who disagree – it’s just too adversarial in tone.
Which takes me back to my original concern: why and who is the book for? Not in a theoretical sense of who can be seen through the scope on Tautges’ theological rifle, but who is supposed to read it? While I doffed my cap to Tautges’ background in pastoral work and counseling, I found myself wishing he’d written a very different book. One that would engage with the people Tautges targets, rather than eviscerate them in front of a friendly audience who could happily make do with a single blog on confirming for them what they…we…already know.

[I was provided with a free copy of the book for the purposes of submitting a review.]

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