Legal and Ethical Issues in Church Counseling: Caring Carefully

Note: You’re reading Part One in a blog mini-series on legal and ethical issues in church counseling. This material is summarized from chapter twelve of Equipping Counselors for Your Church.  

The Elephant in the Room

When I discuss legal and ethical issues in my seminars on Equipping Counselors for Your Church, I show a PowerPoint slide with a picture of an elephant in a living room. No one likes to talk about ethical and legal concerns in church counseling. They are often the unspoken elephants in the room that motivate church leaders to squelch biblical counseling ministries. 

While we cannot allow the unwise and unnecessary fear of man to stop us from serving God, we must take ethical and legal concerns seriously. Even more importantly, we must take seriously God’s law of love that demands that our ministry remain above reproach. 

This blog mini-series explains that by following sound principles of ethical behavior, legal norms, wise practices, and biblical standards churches can confidently launch and lead biblical counseling ministries. The Bible teaches us how to care carefully.     

Caring Carefully

In my consulting, I have found that it is easy for churches to cascade into polar extremes regarding biblical counseling and the law. One extreme causes churches to retreat in paranoia because of the fear of lawsuits. In response, they decline to launch church counseling ministries and refer everyone to outside help. In the other extreme response, churches ignore legal issues and place at risk their church, their counseling ministry, and the people to whom they minister. 

We overcome our extreme reactions to legal requirements (either fearing them or ignoring them) by understanding that they are a mere shadow of the far higher ethical standards of God’s law. We must obey the law of God and the law of the land in the fear of God and not the fear of man.

The Law of Love

 Paul taught us to submit ourselves to God-established authorities—the law of the land (Romans 13:1-7). In the very next breath, Paul writes about the law of God—the law of love. “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). Paul then explains that “whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:9b-10). 

The precept, “First, do no harm,” is not simply a principle of medical ethics. It is a foundational principle of Christian life and ministry. Jesus reserves His most scathing judgment for ministers who abuse their power by abusing those to whom they minister. His list of woes to unethical, unloving shepherds in Matthew 23:1-39 should cure every ministry leader of a lax attitude toward ministry relational standards. Jesus warns of certain and severe judgment for anyone who mistreats the little child (Matthew 18:1-9) or fails to minister to the little lost sheep (Matthew 18:10-14). 

Jesus and Paul contrast the hireling and the true shepherd, the savage wolves and the good shepherds, the true apostle and the false apostle (John 10:1-21; Acts 20:13-38; 2 Corinthians 10:1-12:21). Paul and Peter, in outlining the requirements of God’s shepherds, highlight godly character and ethical conduct (1 Timothy 3:1-16; 1 Peter 5:1-5). 

These specific law-of-love requirements flow from the most foundational requirement of God. “And what does the LORDrequire of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). 

Even more importantly, all ethical ministry behavior flows ultimately from the very character of God. “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16). This God-like holiness has specific life, ministry, and relationship application. In the same text, Peter writes, “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22).

I do not pen this blog mini-series in a spirit of “legalese.” Practicing ethical and legal wisdom in ministry is nothing less than being Christ-like in how we practice biblical counseling. It is nothing less than assuring that every possible safeguard is in place so that the hurting people we minister to are helped and not harmed. It is nothing less than overseeing that our biblical counseling ministry fulfills God’s law of love. When we do that, then fulfilling the law of the land, while still necessary, will be undemanding in comparison

So, as you read this mini-series, suppress the thought, “Ugh, not legal stuff!” Emphasize the thought, “I can’t wait to learn more about how to oversee that our biblical counseling ministry cares carefully by loving biblically!” 

The Rest of the Story

Return for Part Two where we’ll gain a “lay of the land” by talking about The Law and Church Counseling

Join the Conversation

When you think about legal and ethical issues, which extreme do you tend toward: fearing them or ignoring them? Why? 

How could you apply the big picture of this post? Obey the law of God and the law of the land in the fear of God and not the fear of man.

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