Should Biblical Counselors Be Licensed
September 14, 2023
A common concern of those who pursue a Master of Arts in Counseling at Westminster is whether or not the degree program will prepare them for state licensure. We covered this question somewhat in another article, but it’s also important to examine the purpose of licensure and how this may impact your counseling practice. To address this topic we will cover the benefits as well as the challenges of licensure, and provide two perspectives from those with first-hand experiences operating as licensed and unlicensed counselors.
The Purpose of Licensure
The purpose of licensure, even stemming from secular state boards, is to establish training standards and ethical guidelines, to ensure professional competence, protect the public, and so on. These are good aims, but good intentions don’t necessarily mean good effects. The problem lies with secular governing authorities determining what constitutes adherence to these standards. Protecting the public is good until the public is being “protected” from biblical sexual ethics and orthodox theology.
This is not to say that there are no benefits of state licensure. It is, however, to say that any benefits of state licensure should be very carefully weighed against the drawbacks.
Benefits of Licensure
The one benefit that most point to is that licensure grants a sense of legitimacy and trustworthiness to counselees who might be wary of seeing a counselor, and this can grant more missional opportunities, opening doors to counsel non-believers that would otherwise remain closed. In other words, a counselor must meet certain criteria to be considered “qualified” to practice. This requires significant investment to pursue formal training, which tends to weed out people with casual interest in helping others, guaranteeing that a licensed counselor will have met certain standards of training.
There are some additional benefits of licensure as well. Licensure can allow you to work in areas that would otherwise be inaccessible to non-licensed counselors. There are some Christians who are licensed counselors that work in mental health legislation, a clear blessing to the Biblical counseling movement. Additionally, licensure is almost essential for counselors who would work with children or in schools.
In this way, licensure itself is not the problem. For instance, various denominational requirements of pastors, missionaries, and ministers are themselves forms of licensure. It is the strings that are attached to licensure that are often the problem.
Challenges of Licensure
Interestingly, there has been some movement in state licensing bodies towards a greater reception of Christian thought and expression. Seemingly paradoxically, as the state becomes more and more secular, they tend to view Christianity as just another worldview alongside Buddhism, Feminism, Islam, New Age thinkers, and other worldviews. In fact, the American psychological and psychiatric associations have recognized religion and spirituality as having legitimate use in counseling contexts. However, Though the importance of religion is recognized by state licensing bodies, they are still very much against any form of counseling that seeks to confront the live wires of sin and sexuality, labeling such efforts as “gay conversion therapy.” Opposition to the state increasingly carries tangible consequences that could even put some counselors out of business. For example, in 2022, the Biblical counseling center at Faith Church in West Lafayette, Indiana was targeted with legislation that would prohibit “any practices or treatments that seek to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including efforts to change gender expressions or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings towards individuals of the same gender.” The penalty for violations in this situation would be $1,000 per day, even for unlicensed counselors. However, since this legislation targets both licensed and unlicensed counselors, it should be noted that forgoing licensure isn’t a cure-all for the problems of government overreach in the mental health world.
Licensure often comes with strings of compliance attached. The result can be that, in an attempt to maintain licensed status, counselors slowly start to shy away from addressing certain topics from a biblical perspective. Over time, the reticence to confront those topics turns into a habitual reflection of the world and culture as counselors gradually opt for the worldview and secular sensibilities of the licensing bodies. This means that our counselees won’t be getting full and unashamed presentations of the Gospel in the counseling room. This is a huge problem that should be avoided at all costs.
Perspectives from Licensed Biblical Counselors
One can look to the perspectives of Biblical counselors with experience as licensed counselors to further connect with the points in the above sections.
Dr. Ed Welch is a licensed psychologist and faculty member at Christian Counseling & Education Foundation (CCEF), who holds a PhD in counseling (neuropsychology) from the University of Utah, and a MDiv from Biblical Theological Seminary. Welch has also been active in local church ministry for decades.
His experience has led him to point out three tensions that exist in the licensed counselor sphere. The first is that at least some of your educational prerequisites will be done in a secular setting which can skew your perspective and will be at odds with the rest of your counseling education at Westminster. Second, you will need to complete internships and be supervised in a secular setting. This compounds the previous point because these internships and supervision are a form of secular discipleship, turning you, even if subtly, away from the principles of Biblical counseling. Finally, licensure is typically pursued for greater vocational options which typically exist in secular settings or at the very least in settings where your Christian faith will need to be compartmentalized from your religious beliefs.
Welch, as a licensed counselor, then provides three safeguards that he uses to fight those tension points. First, he prioritized a robust theological education as a prerequisite for his licensed counseling ministry. Second, he maintains a vigilant observation as to how Scripture and secular psychotherapies have distinct foundations that are in contradiction to one another. Finally, he chose to work at CCEF, which is an environment where the fullest expression of his faith in the God of the Scriptures is not only encouraged, but required. If you carefully emulate these safeguards, the pitfalls of licensure can be avoided.
Aaron Sironi is also a faculty member at CCEF and a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC), with a master of science in marital and family therapy from Fuller Theological Seminary, and experience counseling in community mental health, psychiatric hospital, and outpatient settings.
He began his counseling ministry as a licensed counselor focusing on family counseling. He tells his story as a journey from a counseling method that sought to “integrate” secular psychology with Christian theology. As he tells the story, he began to struggle in the counseling process because he felt that his graduate education provided little aid to those under his care who were suffering. The licensed counseling ministry that he was engaging in felt restrictive and confining. He says that he felt like bringing change to “complex and intractable” situations with the secular tools at his disposal was impossible. When he learned of Biblical counseling from an elder at his church, things clicked for him. He recounts this turning point in this way, “How could I have gone through four years at a graduate school that was part of seminary never having explored the depths and breadths of the gospel as applied to specific counseling issues?” In Sironi’s situation, licensure was more of a liability than an asset.
Licensure is neither a source of unquestionable legitimacy nor a death knell for Biblical counseling. There are costs and benefits associated with it. If you feel as if you need to pursue licensure, know that you will need additional coursework outside of the MAC at WTS, and that you should pursue licensure with the utmost care. You can also check out our article on what you can do with an MAC to see examples of careers our graduates have pursued. If you have any questions about licensure, or the MAC program specifically, our admissions counselors will be happy to speak with you. You can reach them at email@example.com
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