Elders and counseling

God has ordained elders for their place in the church, and God has worked in them spiritually in their upbringing in their homes, in catechism and in the preaching, to prepare them for the work they will need to do in their office. But this training is not sufficient for all the help some saints need. This contribution is not to criticize the work of our minsters and elders, but to make everyone more aware of some of the great and difficult needs of hurting saints, which the ministers and elders alone are not able to meet.

(Read Prof. B. Gritters’ articles on depression in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal Volumes 51 and 52, found at prcts.org/journal, in which he writes of the additional care that is sometimes necessary.)

When elders enter the office, God does not automat­ically endow them with knowledge for every need He gives His sheep. Their knowledge of the Word of God gives them the ability to help and counsel saints in many areas, and leaning upon God’s grace, they will capably use that knowledge with wisdom, love, and strength to guide the saints in those spiritual needs, needs of soul, mind, and spirit. But there are physical and mental needs of the sheep that go beyond the knowledge and ability of the ministers and elders. These needs vary greatly.

First, there are sheep who live in sin, and reap all the consequences of that sin, whom the ministers and elders need to deal with from God’s Word to convict them of their sin and lead them to repentance and turning, and aid them in that turning. The intense follow-up and the continual daily help needed in some cases is not something ministers and elders can do. Then there are the sheep who are depressed and experience the heavy weight in body, mind, and soul that that depression brings. When those sheep go to their pastor or elder, it is in their hands to begin to help those sheep, but where do they begin? How do they know how to find the cause of their depression? The possibilities are many. Do they begin by telling the sheep that depression is sin, and that they must look for that sin and repent? Do they begin by asking the sheep if they are reading their Bibles and praying? What if the saint says, “I do but it doesn’t help?” What if the sheep say they cannot pray? Does the pastor or elder tell those sheep to go home and try harder? Perhaps the answers to these questions is yes, but do they also ask the saint if they have seen their physician? Do they also ask the sheep if they have been sinned against?

Every need is at bottom, a spiritual need, and the work of the minister or elder in every need is necessary and not to be disregarded or overlooked. But beyond the spiri­tual aspect of the need, God has given skills to medical doctors for physical needs and mental institutions and psychologists for the severely abused and traumatized in brain by sexual abuse or spousal abuse, so that they may once again be able to read and pray, and be able to be helped by their pastor and elders. May our ministers and elders always be careful out of love for the hurting to see when their work alone might not be sufficient.

At times our churches have dealt with saints with de­pression and trauma with great wisdom, and at other times with less discernment. For the sake of every sheep to whom God has given heavy afflictions, and in obedi­ence to God’s command to care for His sheep, may we become more educated and zealous to be actively help­ing those hurting sheep in every area of need.

There are many great resources available that teach the truth about trauma; what it is and what it does. There are books and speeches on the Internet by Christians with decades of experience in this field. It would be profitable to research these resources.

In God’s great wisdom He has given members of our immediate family to experience three different types of needs. In and through experience only we have come to see how each need (trapped in sin, biological depression, and depression brought on by another’s sin of abuse), must be met entirely differently, and how each needed help beyond the wonderful help given by their pastors and elders.

One need involved living in the sin of misuse of alco­hol for many years. By the mighty grace of God our son was brought to repentance. He spent hours and days rejoicing in God’s Word and his pastor worked closely with him, and saw it wise to make him accountable dai­ly, and gave him a connection to a qualified saint with whom he daily corresponded by email, to keep him in the Word, and keep him accountable. A few times the guidance given was not Reformed, but our son was not led astray because God preserves His saints in the faith they learned from their youth, and our son recognized the errors. Here we began to see that the great work the pastor does along with the necessary help from outside of our churches were both needed and used in God’s gracious healing.

Another need involved a child who became severely depressed. After many months of desperately searching Scripture and prayers of anguish to God, not only was there no relief, but only added despair and doubt. Her pastor told her to see her doctor, but she did not want to for fear of becoming addicted to pills. When she called her pastor one evening in despair, he told her to read her Bible. He knew she was, and it had not been helping. He told her to read more. She tried, and it left her in despair and hopelessness. With wisdom and love he called her first thing the next morning and firmly encouraged her to call her doctor. She was diagnosed with post-partum de­pression, and with the help of medication she was again able to read Scripture with joy and understanding and belief. In time she was relieved of her depression.

A third need arose when a child of ours was sexually abused as an early teenager, and silently suffered the effects of that abuse for decades before telling anyone. When it became obvious that she was not safe and was unable to function, with the wise guidance of her pas­tor, she was admitted to a mental institution. This institution referred her to a psychologist, a godly woman, educated in the science of how to work with abuse brain trauma. God worked mightily through the means of this doctor to begin the long, slow process of healing. All this time, her pastor and elders were by her side with their loving care.

By God’s grace, our family’s ministers and elders under­stood that their help alone was not sufficient. Just as an elder cannot set a broken bone, so they are unable to heal an abused brain. The help of an experienced counsellor, a medical doctor, and a Christian psychologist all provided help the elders and ministers alone could not give. Each was necessary for the healing of these sheep. And they were never neglected by their ministers and elders.

Another area in which additional help is needed is the area of spousal abuse. It is extremely necessary here too to seek help for the abused and the abuser that the min­ister and elder alone might not be able to give. Abuse is never a two-way street. Not in sexual abuse and not in spousal abuse. Spousal abuse is not a marriage prob­lem. Yes, both spouses come into the marriage as sin­ners, but the word abuse means to use wrongly, to ex­ploit, or take advantage of. The abuse comes out of the heart of the abuser, not as a reaction to the sin of anoth­er. The abuser uses power to control, manipulate, and intimidate, for his (or her) own satisfaction. This power of abuse becomes a pattern and shows itself in different ways—yes physical, but also emotional, spiritual, finan­cial, and verbal. God’s Word tells us of the power of the tongue in Proverbs 18:21, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.” The tongue kills. The abused spouse experiences in some ways, similar trauma to the sexu­ally abused—undeserved shame, grief, guilt, and fear. Sometimes ministers and elders do not recognize the extreme ability all abusers have to manipulate and lie, and therefore much of the blame gets put on the abused, who is then asked what they did to provoke this abuse, and who is told to go home and be much in prayer and try harder to please and glorify God in their submission (or leadership), only adding more guilt to the abused. A large part of this abuse is the manipulation in the often repeated “I’m sorry” by the abuser. And forgiveness is demanded before repentance is proven.

We are well aware that not all of the hurting sheep in our churches have received the wise care our family has. This grieves us. We write so that all may understand the wisdom needed by each of our ministers and elders in seeking help beyond that which they are able to give when necessary. May God graciously give that necessary understanding, for the healing of His hurting sheep.

We may not hide our heads in the sand. These sins are found in our churches. They have been in the past and they are now. And many sheep continue to suf­fer. They do not all speak up. They are hesitant to re­veal what has been done to them because of undeserved shame, guilt, and fear, and because they are re-traumatized in the telling. May we endeavor to help the abused and to work to bring the abuser to repentance by disci­pline and guidance.

We may not forget God’s warnings concerning these sins:

“But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matt. 18:6)

“And oppress not the widow, nor the fatherless, the stranger, nor the poor; and let none of you imagine evil against his brother in your heart.” (Zech. 7:10)

And may we remember Jesus’ words of blessing to those who stand with and help the needy: “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:40)

An excellent book to learn more concerning these needs is: Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trau­ma Destroys and Christ Restores (New Growth Press, 2015), by Diane Langberg, a Christian psychologist for over 45 years. Her godly, Christ-centered approach to helping abuse trauma sufferers is evident in her writing. Her videos are also very helpful:

And lastly a book on childhood sexual abuse: Rid of My Disgrace by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb (Crossway, 2011).

—Parents in the Protestant Reformed Churches