One of my jobs is that I am the administrator of a counseling center in the Philippines. My wife is a chaplain and we teach pastoral care/pastoral counseling.
We teach that one does not proselytize in counseling. Or at least if one does proselytize… it is done by permission or request from the person… and never at the beginning of the conversation. There are good reasons for this.
- In many settings, our ability to serve (such as in a hospital, jail, or evacuation center) is dependent on abiding by set policies. Such policies may include no “cold call” evangelizing.
- In times of crisis, encouraging a person to make a major life change can be detrimental (destabilizing an already unstable psychosocial situation). And any positive response (such as saying the sinner’s prayer) is likely to not be a heartfelt response since it was offered at a time of mental chaos.
- It may be interpreted by the client/counselee that the motive of the counseling is not to help but to rack up another score for one’s church.
- It may close down conversation before one has had an opportunity to demonstrate God’s love in a manner that is understandable and recognizable to the counselee. (Front end evangelism may actually reduce the likelihood of conversion/ transformation instead of increasing it.)
There are other reasons… but this is a good, if short, list.
But some say that this is ridiculous. If one is counseling a non-Christian, that person is unregenerate and so one must focus on evangelism first. The argument is:
- Being unregenerate they are unable to make meaningful change without the Holy Spirit indwelling them.
- Salvation is more important than any other problem they may have. (This is the strongest of the three points here.)
- Our call is to share the Gospel. Anything else we do, with regards to the world, is a distraction.
As an Evangelical Christian, from a revivalist tradition, I find these arguments to be relatively strong and logical. Yet, it is not our tradition that should guide us, but God’s Word.
The example of Christ makes it clear that we are to always demonstrate God’s love and message in both word and deed. With Christ, however, God’s love is often demonstrated before the presentation of God’s message of redemption. Further, it seems doubtful, at best, that Jesus limited the rest of his teaching/counsel only to individuals who responded to His message to follow Him. Jesus’ ministry should challenge the view that evangelism must always be the priority in all counseling encounters with non-Christians. But there is still room for differences of opinion.
A difficulty is that there are few examples of long-term counseling between a believer and a non-believer in the Bible. Thankfully, we do have at least one good example. That is Daniel.
Daniel served as a counselor to the rulers of Babylon and Medo-Persia. These were all pagan rulers. There is pretty good parallelism to the situation of many Christian counselors… especially chaplains. Daniel was a follower of the one true God serving as a counselor to unbelievers. Daniel’s role was, in part, because of his spiritual role (he was chosen not simply for being wise, but seen as having access to a god). Additionally, Daniel was under the obligation of the Abrahamic covenant to be a blessing to all nations. As such, a call to repent and turn to God (Yahweh) was certainly a critical (if not THE critical) activity.
But didn’t Daniel share his faith? Absolutely. There is ample evidence of that in the Book of Daniel. But was that all he offered? Nebuchadnezzar appears to have become a follower of God at the end of his life… but for most of the time of the interaction between Daniel and himself, he was not a believer. As far as we know Belteshazzar, Darius, and Cyrus never got further than a pagan’s respect for the god of Judah. It seems quite evident that Daniel did not see his role as a counselor as wasted in guiding pagan rulers.
We know that God’s message to these rulers through Daniel was not limited to proselytization. Even for the conversations that are not recorded in the book of Daniel, one cannot assume that Daniel would have maintained his role as a counselor for many decades if the only real counseling he gave was a call for the rulers to become Jewish proselytes.
I am not downplaying evangelization or proselytization. I am simply questioning the presumption that our role with unbelievers is meaningless unless it starts with classic evangelism and is to be limited to classic evangelism (up until conversion at least).
It seems to me that Daniel does provide a balanced approach.
- He lived a life of integrity and godly witness even in a potentially hostile environment.
- Served faithfully, seeking to meet felt needs of his counselees, while not blind to their actual needs.
- Did not feel limited in sharing the message God had for his counselees… regardless of its nature.