Editor’s note: The content for this post was taken from our annual conference on Oct. 15, 2015. This post is part of a series about the qualifications of a biblical counselor. See also The importance of discipleship: Qualifications of a Biblical Counselor
The Bible outlines several qualifications for ministry. Below are three qualifications I believe can be specifically applied to counseling ministry.
The first biblical qualification for any ministry is a godly life, like that described in 1 Timothy 4. What I like about this text is you have the apostle Paul, an older godly man, who is shepherding, loving on, encouraging, equipping, exhorting, and spiritually fathering Timothy, a younger man in pastoral ministry.
1 Timothy 4:16, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.”
This verse contains a powerful, weighty truth as Paul talks to his spiritual son in the faith. He tells Timothy to pay special attention to a couple things. The very first thing on that list is not a doctrine, not pastoral education, not how many degrees he owns or how many commentaries he has. The first thing he says is your life — How are you doing? Not as a pastor or a theologian or as a shepherd, but how are you doing as a child of God? (See also Ezra 7:10; 1 Tim 3)
Pay close attention to yourself; watch over your life. This is the issue of character. You must always remember that who you are as a believer in part qualifies you for ministry. It’s not just what you know — it’s not just the skills and gifts and talents you have — but it’s who you are. This is the first application from 1 Timothy 4:16.
I keep a prayer journal, and at the top of the list are these words: “Who I am before the Lord is who I really am.” There is great joy in that because there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. What the Law could not do, weak as it was in the flesh, God did. And so if you’re a Christian you are in Christ today, and his righteousness alone is what qualifies you to come into his presence in prayer each morning. And to know that you are received as all believers are, as a sign to the presence of my heavenly father. Who you are before the Lord is who you really are. That statement also slays me sometimes, because sometimes there is a disconnect between my heart and what’s going on in my life; that verse is there to rebuke me. You may be fooling everybody else, but you’re not fooling the Lord. Pay close attention to your life, pay close attention to yourself.
What I want you to see is that the first thing the Scripture goes to and what it thinks about for qualifications for ministry is character. In any ministry that we’re aspiring to, we ought to be people growing in character. The parallel passage in Titus 1 gives us the same list. Additionally, look at 2 Timothy 2:20-21. Let this verse challenge you and remind you what God thinks about ministry:
“Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.”
God uses all of us in spite of us because none of us is where we need to be in Christ; yet, we’re moving toward Christ likeness in sanctification. Even though that’s true, God says the person he is inclined to use is the person who is growing in Christ. A person who is being sanctified is useful to the Master and prepared for every good work. One of the biggest temptations and challenges in any ministry is to let your own heart grow cold though you continue in active flourishing ministry. And I can’t tell you how dangerous that is. I know that from personal experience, and maybe you can relate to that also.
Character is always on the top of the list in terms of qualifications. Notice what is not there, it’s not giftedness, it’s not talent, it’s not skill. Those are important, but God cares fundamentally about who you are as a believer first and foremost.
The second application from 1 Timothy 4:16 is pay close attention to your teaching. If we are going to open the Word of God and claim to be a biblical counselor where we’re not just giving our own opinion or our own advice, but we are planning to give what God actually thinks and what God actually says on the matter, we better get it right. It is an awesome responsibility to represent the God of the universe. And yet you don’t have to be a pastor, you don’t have to be an elder or missionary, you don’t even have to be a biblical counselor. 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 tells that we are all ambassadors of God; we all represent him with gospel ministry. That is an overwhelming responsibility, which means when we open the Word of God, administering counseling, or teaching — teaching Awana kids or whatever we’re doing — we want to make sure that our doctrine, our theology, our instruction is accurate. When we say this is what God says, we want to have a confidence that it is really what the text says. It’s solid theology that forms the foundation then to application and ministry in that counseling and discipleship. We have got to get our theology right.
The Second thing is perseverance. Pay close attention to yourself; to your teaching. Persevere in these things. Any gospel ministry, including biblical counseling and discipleship, is a marathon not a 100-yard-dash. There is heartbreak, there are long nights, there are times when you are giving every ounce of everything you have into a person who is hurting and needs Jesus. And when you sign up for this, as Paul instructs Timothy here, you’re signing up for the marathon. This is a long haul. You occasionally may meet people that by God’s grace you get a couple sessions with them in the counseling office and then just like that, some people change real quickly. Praise God for that. But most of us change slowly. Most believers change slowly, and that is normal sanctification. Paul was a wise pastor, theologian, apostle, and he knew that Timothy needed not just to watch over his life and his doctrine but also needed perseverance. We see throughout Scripture that faithfulness, perseverance, continuing in the ministry, means leaving the success and fruit up to the Lord. Faithfulness is what God is looking for.
The third thing you need are appropriate skills. When we talk about counseling, we want to add to character, content, commitment, and appropriate skills. You can be a person of character, medically qualified, responsible, know all sorts about how airplane wings work, control services work, and engine management; but that’s very different from getting in your own airplane and taking off by yourself. A pilot can know a lot about things, but he needs skills in order to fly the airplane correctly. The sailor needs skills to move the vessel along and sail correctly. A lot of things require skills to be successful, to be effective, and counseling is one of those disciplines.
Look at 1 Thessalonians 5:14 “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” What do you notice about skills in ministry? You’re assessing the need. We don’t have a one size fits all approach in counseling. There are three types of people that this text gives; this is illustrative rather than exhaustive. There is the unruly literally (the undisciplined), there is the fainthearted, and there is the weak. Notice if a person is undisciplined and unruly, one of the ways you might minister to them is by admonishment and calling them to repentance. Another person maybe fainthearted and they need encouragement. Others may be what we what we deduce as weak and they need help. Notice we would dishonor the Lord if we admonish the fainthearted, we would dishonor the Lord if we encouraged somebody who really needed rebuke. In order to discern which type a person falls under, as I talk with and counsel people, I pray Ephesians 4:29; what is the need of the moment? So you need the skills to determine for example what is necessary. Admonishment, encouragement, help and — I love how Paul throws this in — patience with everybody. So patience is always something we can pursue. But you need to have skills in counseling for discerning what is necessary.
We want to help you with your own walk with God, your life. We want to help you with your doctrine, biblical truths, and theological truths so you are standing on solid theological ground. We want to encourage you in your pursuit of God that you are in this for the long haul. Preserve, commit to the ministry that you see God telling you to do. And we also want to help you to develop the skills that are necessary for effect counseling.
Drawing out the heart, Proverbs 20:5 says, “A plan in the heart of a man is like deep water, But a man of understanding draws it out.” This means we live out of our hearts. The heart is like our mission control center. When you’re ministering to people, there are things going on in their heart, and God does not give us a spiritual MRI machine to be able to see what’s going on in their heart. In order to minister to them, this verse tells us that as you grow in maturity and skills in ministry, you learn the skill of drawing out the issues of the heart. Like a person might drop a pail down a well to bring water up from the well. A man of understanding draws it out and part of the counseling ministry is learning how to do that.
How do you draw out the issues of the heart? By listening. I think a great thing that every Christian should do, and certainly every Christian counselor should do, is ask his or her spouse — or if not married a friend that loves you enough to be honest with you — ask them, “Am I a good listener? Do I make quick judgments about what I think I’m hearing before the person is done speaking?” As a counselor, and as a person growing to be like Christ, we need to learn to listen well.
In biblical counseling, we are also learning the skills of restoring people to a place of spiritual service (see Gal 6:1-2). The picture here is that when a Christian gets caught up in sin, it affects their ministry; it affects their service. Part of helping them with that and leading them to deal with that in a godly way is helping them to be restored to God, to others, and to restore the ministries that have been negatively affected by it.
Those are issues that we need to resolve in our own hearts, character, content, commitment and appropriate skills.
*Check back soon to read the next post in this series.
Dr. Keith Palmer is the associate pastor of Grace Bible Church. He oversees all of the counseling training at Grace Bible Institute, and is the director of Grace’s community counseling ministry, Granbury Biblical Counseling. He is also a Fellow (supervisor), grader, and board member of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC, formerly NANC).
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