Where Has a Generation of Psychology Based Family and Marriage Ministry Brought Us?

In the early 1970s, revival began to sweep a number of churches from different denominations in central Canada. Known as the Canadian revival, as the Holy Spirit swept through these churches, professed Christians were confessing their sins to God and man and entering into a fresh and revived relationship with God and with each other. Marriage and family reconciliation and renewal was a prominent effect of this revival. One teenager explained it this way: “When we saw our parents getting serious about right with God, we started getting with God ourselves.”

At about the same time, James Dobson started a new ministry called Focus on the Family. His commendable motive was, “Families are hurting.” The son of a Nazarene minister, he included a very definite focus on Biblical teaching and evangelical conversion, but also incorporated a number of aspects of secular psychology from his own background, most notably the self esteem teaching. Though for generations there had always been evangelicals who had degrees in psychology and psychiatry, since psychology itself had been part of the philosophy, religion or theology departments in many universities, the psychological perspective seemed to become a more prominent part of addressing marital and family issues than ever before, especially after the wide circulation of the film series “Focus on the Family” in the late 1970s to the early 1980s.

So, since the late 1970s, it’s seemed like when there are marital and family issues, the pastor, the Bible study leader and the Sunday school teacher have given way to the Christian psychologist – either through quotes, repetition / research  / plagiarism, or the use of media such as films and videos. Every day there are a number of programs on Christian radio stations with Christian counselors and psychologists that deal with Christian and family issues. So how effective have the Christian psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors been in dealing with family disintegration within the evangelical church? Anyone familiar with the occurrence of unreported abortions, unwed pregnancies, divorces and remarriages, affairs and parent/child discipline problems in most churches could say that there have been a number of individual success stories, but that by and large, the people who attend evangelical churches tend to be not very far behind the secular culture. The thing is that while families within our churches are still hurting, probably more of them are hurting now than a generation ago, and the explosion of psychologically oriented family and marriage ministries does not seem to have done that much to stem the tide.

Here’s where I think that we’ve lost something in our ministry to churches and families due to seeing the problems as having solutions that need to come from the psychologists. I think that we’ve lost the realization of what God himself can do by himself through the Holy Spirit in the lives of his people to produce family and marital reconciliation and tried to do more through a psychological orientation than the results overall would warrant. And I think that we’ve taken on far too many formulas based upon human insights – sometimes ultimately from secular sources that have a very different starting point than a Biblical understanding of the world and of God , mankind and sin —  and a direction based on human understanding, motivation and effort toward satisfaction in this life. So the emphasis seems to have shifted away from marital and family issues as being part of trust in and obedience to Christ as Lord, the disciplemaking ministry of the church, and the sanctifying ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Even more, this can take the form in marriages and families of a psychologically based legalism and judgmentalism. This is where spouses, potential spouses and family members make performance based demands and judgments based upon what he or (more likely) she found in the writings or teaching of a Christian psychologist. And often enough, the other person has never had a chance to hear or read, understand or evaluate according to scripture these expectations and judgments of his or her personal failings, and so may be being pressured and browbeaten to behavior which he or she has not subjected the scrutiny of scripture or even his or her own conscience before God. So, in this way the Christian psychology and counseling ‘industry’ may unwittingly be actually instigating further conflict in families and marriages that are already shaky. And those who may have come out of failed marriages may thus be left with a deep bitterness on how the other person has failed him or her based on their lack of performance up to the expectations from the Christian psychology and counseling industry rather than a humble scriptural examination of his or her own failures and responsibilities.

Just as much, this may also form the often unstated goal of a psychologically based personal perfectionism.  Much of the goal of the pop psychology from the 1970s onward seemed to be directed toward the goal of being happy, perfect and complete in this life (see the goals of the California based Human Potential Movement) and pathologizing people who weren’t. So, the tendency is to give people the impression if they weren’t happy, perfect and complete, emotionally expressive and secure by the definitions of the Human Potential Movement there is something wrong with them that can and should be fixed. And often enough, there may be the idea that if someone is going through a difficult time, or even vaguely bored or dissatisfied, that there’s a solution to be found through pop psychology. And certainly the covers of so many books in the field seem to promise exactly that. So, the first thing that needs to be considered critically, in the light of what scripture says about this fallen world and fallen human nature, is whether there is an explicitly stated or heavily implied goal or promise of human perfectibility or being able to achieve a personal utopia in one’s family or personal life through the psychological diagnoses and formulas.

So, following are the ways in which I think that the psychological orientation falls short of what God has done through two millennia by the Word of God through the Holy Spirit.


The psychological orientation lacks the authority of scripture as the basis of change.

The basis of the psychological orientation comes down to research which came from fallible human beings. It may have been done according to the scientific method, but it still required fallible human beings to understand, interpret and pass on the results of this research. But sometimes it does come from other sources such as the southern California Human Potential movement or even Buddhism (Psychology Today magazine has featured the Dalai Lama on its cover before, for instance).

The danger is that this may wander into the error that Paul warned against in Colossians 2:8: “Watch out that no one makes a captive of you through philosophy and empty deceit according to the traditions of other people, according to the basic ideas of the world, and not according to Christ.”  Rather, the authority for the believer is the Word of God, and it is sufficient to make a believer complete in godliness without any support from psychology and psychiatry: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for instruction in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3:16-17).


The psychological orientation lacks the overriding motive of love to Christ as the emotional impetus to change.

Too much of what I’ve heard from psychologically based teaching does not rise above mere human selfishness as a motive to change. The goal too often does not seem to rise above the desire for me to feel good and for me to get what I want out of my life, marriage and family. There is too little mentioned on the scriptural motive to do all this stuff out of love for Christ for the glory of God: “The person who has my commands and keeps the is the one who loves me; and the one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will manifest myself to him . . . If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him. The person who does not love me will not keep my words, and the word you heard is not mine but that of the Father who sent me . . . In this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so shall you be my disciples” (John 14:21, 23-24, 15:8).


The psychological orientation lacks the personal responsibility to Jesus Christ as Lord as the reason for personal responsibility to change.

Again, the tendency of much teaching from the psychological orientation is to furnish material for resentment and blame-shifting in personal relationships. Often, when it hits the natural stubbornness of human nature, the recipient does not apply it to himself or herself, but to others – the focus is not to what I need to do but what someone else needs to do or needed to do. And so, this becomes often enough, picking at the speck in another’s eye: “Why do you say to your brother, ‘Let me pick out the speck in your eye, and, look, there is a plank in your own eye? Hypocrite, first pull out the plank in your own eye, and then you will see clearly to pull out the speck in the eye of your brother” (Matthew 7:4-5).

Ultimately, though, the personal responsibility is rather to Jesus Christ personally, and this will mean taking not a ‘you first’ but a ‘me now’ where there are matters that someone needs to address: “But we all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ , so that each one of us may receive for the deeds done while in the body, whether good or bad” (II Corinthians 5:10).


The psychological orientation lacks the power of the Holy Spirit as the purifying power for change.

Ultimately, the psychological orientation relies upon the power of the fallen human nature to change. This means that it falls into the self effort / human performance trap of Galatians 3:3: “When you began with the Spirit are you now to be made complete by the flesh [the direction and power of fallen human nature]?”: Rather, the need is to find and live in the power of the Spirit of God to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ in our thoughts, motives, intentions, words and deeds: “But we all, reflecting as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (II Corinthians 3:18).

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