Counseling and the Early Church

What is counseling? For the purpose of this summary, I am considering counseling a subset of shepherding.  The Greek word translated “pastor” (ποιμήν) is the common word for “shepherd.”  Pastors are to “shepherd” the people of God in the same way that shepherds care for their flocks.  I’m regarding “counseling” as the more individually-oriented aspects of shepherding, especially the fourth and fifth aspects of shepherding mentioned in the chart below.  Counseling would also include ministering to non-believers who are hurting and sinning with the goal of leading them to salvation.

Shepherd of sheep Shepherd of men & women
1) feeding & watering[1] 1) public & private teaching
2) leading & guiding[2] 2) leading the church and pursuing individuals who are straying
3) protecting from dangerous animals[3] 3) protecting from false teaching and teachers
4) tending to the sick & injured & weak[4] 4) admonishing, encouraging, or comforting hurting or sinning individuals
5) judging between the sheep[5] 5) resolving relational disputes between church members

The goal of shepherding & counseling is the salvation of the people of God, by which is meant their safety, growth, prosperity, harmony, success, and transformation into Christlike character.  Salvation is obtained by hoping in, loving, trusting, and obeying God and by loving and serving others. Pastors are to be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood (Acts 20:28).  In other words, pastors are responsible to lead, love, and care for people who are very special to God.

The processes of shepherding and counseling in the early church included the following:

  1. They told people about the good news of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 1:5).
  2. They gathered those who believed together for regular public teaching, admonition, encouragement, fellowship, prayer, worship, and mutual ministry (Acts 2:42).
  3. They gathered believers together in smaller groups in their homes for encouragement, prayer, and worship (Acts 2:46).
  4. They modeled Christ and His love in attitude, word, and deed.  (Philippians 3:17).
  5. Shepherding involved tender love, like that of a nursing mother, and firm love, like that of an exhorting father (1 Thessalonians 2).
  6. They were on guard for false doctrines and vigorously and publicly refuted them (Galatians 1-2).
  7. They gave special attention to troubled individuals by admonishing the unruly, encouraging the fainthearted, and helping the weak (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
  8. They protected the purity of the church and maintained righteous social pressure by excluding those who would not repent of flagrant sin (1 Corinthians 5).
  9. By word and example they taught believers to train themselves in the disciplines leading to godliness, including meditating on the Word, prayer, fasting, and periods of solitude and reflection (1 Timothy 4:7-8).
  10. By word and example they taught people to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.
  11. They sought to resolve conflicts between believers (Philippians 4:2).

How our culture’s view of counseling differs.

  1. Secular counseling has a different and inadequate view of salvation.  It tends not to include God or the devil or the afterlife and is inadequate for the human need and condition.
  2. Secular counseling does not have a complete or true view of reality.  Again, God and the spiritual responsibilities and privileges of man are left out.
  3. Some Christian counseling has accepted some of the faulty or inadequate concepts of secular counseling.
  4. The popular definition of counseling is different than the one I have adopted and leaves out most of the shepherding components, focusing on life-dominating problems and sins, often in isolated ways that are not as holistic.
  5. Modern counseling adopts a professional approach that tends to diminish the opportunity for the counselee to observe the model of the counselor’s life.  It also tends to isolate the counselee from the counselor’s social and spiritual support network and from other forms of shepherding.
  6. No church discipline
  7. No social pressure, positive peer pressure, group wisdom.  When the counselor is wrong there is no one else to correct him.  Other group members have wisdom that an individual counselor may not have.
  8. We aren’t designed to operate as independent individuals.

[1] I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. (Ezekiel 34:14, NIV)

[2] Hear us, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock; you who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth (Psalm 80:1, NIV)

I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. (Ezekiel 34:16, NIV)

[3] “As I live,” declares the Lord God, “surely because My flock has become a prey, My flock has even become food for all the beasts of the field for lack of a shepherd, and My shepherds did not search for My flock, but rather the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock; (Ezekiel 34:8, NASB95)

[4] Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them. (Ezekiel 34:4, NASB95)

[5] I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. (Ezekiel 34:22, NIV)


3 responses to “Counseling and the Early Church”

  1. Hi Dave, would you happen to be taking or have taken Antioch School courses at some point? Your article on shepherding and counseling is good, and I found it when researching the Internet before taking the Antioch course myself. Let me know if this article is from your own research, and your opinion of the Antioch school course if you have taken it. Thanks brother. -Jeff Pankratz, Lake Community Church, Alexandria MN

    1. Jeff: I have taken the Antioch School course on Shepherding and Counseling, not as an Antioch student, but as a BILD class hosted by our church. The course was a good introduction to the subject but felt that it was weak in depth and breadth compared to other BILD courses I have taken. This was four our five years ago, so perhaps they have improved it since then. We have fairly extensive expertise in care giving in our church and were able to supplement the course with other content.

  2. Is this from your study in the Antioch school courses?

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