Explaining the difference between nouthetic and biblical counseling is a bit like asking whether a coin is heads or tails. A coin is both heads and tails. In talking about the heads side or the tails side of the coin, we are merely emphasizing different surfaces of one thing.

Such is the case with the today’s conservative, Bible-based counseling movement. The language of “nouthetic” or “biblical” serves to emphasize different streams inside one, larger movement. First, I will explain why nouthetic and biblical counseling are two sides of the same coin, and then I will explain the differences that each side emphasizes.

One Coin

Whether you use the term “nouthetic” or “biblical” counseling, Jay Adams was the man who got the whole project started with his first book on counseling, Competent to Counsel: Introduction to Nouthetic Counseling. The word nouthetic in the title comes from a Greek word meaning to confront or admonish. When Adams applied this language to counseling he argued that it included three elements:

  1. confrontation happening in a face-to-face manner;
  2. confrontation done out of loving concern for the counselee; and
  3. confrontation done with the purpose of bringing about change that God desires.

In that book, which introduced evangelicalism to his nouthetic model, the very first time he refers to his project in the early pages, he calls it “biblical counseling.” That was more than 40 years ago, but even today on his own website at the Institute for Nouthetic Studies, Adams says that nouthetic counseling “is biblical counseling.”

In a 1976 book, What About Nouthetic Counseling, Adams said he actually preferred the title “biblical counseling.” He has continued to use the “nouthetic” label to keep his project separate from approaches to counseling that are unfaithful to the Scriptures but increasingly apply the “biblical counseling” label to their work. For Adams, there is nothing sacred about a label. What matters is whether the Bible drives understanding of people as well as the counseling task.

The next big leader in Adams’s counseling movement was David Powlison, who succeeded Adams as the editor of The Journal of Pastoral Practice and immediately renamed it The Journal of Biblical Counseling (a decision Adams himself approved). Powlison is more responsible than anyone else for bringing biblical counseling into the mainstream of evangelicalism. Even Powlison, however, has not been hung up on a “biblical” counseling label, but has at times referred to the movement as biblical-nouthetic counseling and serves on the board of the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC). For Powlison, like Adams, the defining mark of faithfulness in counseling is whether it conforms to the Scriptures, not what one calls it.

Beyond these two giants in the field, examples could be multiplied. Ed Welch, another key leader, has in the past referred to the movement as biblical-nouthetic counseling. NANC, perhaps the largest organization in the movement, defines their purpose as pursuing excellence in biblical counseling. There are no massive fault lines in the movement between “biblical” and “nouthetic” labels. Regardless of the name a person uses, the people in the movement are committed to using the Scriptures as the source of wisdom that drives the change process in conversational ministry.

Two Sides

Great cohesion does not eliminate distinction between the two strands in the movement. There is one coin, but it has two sides. Today, “biblical counseling” is the popular and default label. When people in the counseling movement, however, intentionally choose to identify themselves in a distinctive way as either “biblical” or “nouthetic,” I think they are referring to two different kinds of distinctions. The first distinction is historical, and the second is dispositional.

Concerning the historical distinction, nouthetic counselors identify with the founding generation of biblical-nouthetic counseling and leaders in the movement like Jay Adams, Ed Bulkley, and Wayne Mack. Biblical counselors identify with second-generation leaders like David Powlison, Ed Welch, and Paul Tripp. But these historical distinctions do not always amount to institutional distinctions. A few smaller organizations like the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF) and the Institute for Nouthetic Studies (INS) are purely one or the other. But large organizations like The Association of Biblical Counselors (ABC), The International Association of Biblical Counselors (IABC), and NANC have diverse memberships that identify with each generation.

An historical identification with one generation of leaders over another leads to dispositional differences as leaders in varied ministry contexts emphasize different things. The “nouthetic” and “biblical” streams within this one movement have four dispositional distinctions on their respective sides of the counseling coin. These distinctions are generalized with exceptions, but they are still helpful in organizing our thinking.

First, there are dispositional differences with regard to doing and believing. In their counseling theory and practice, nouthetic counselors pay particular attention to behavioral change. Biblical counselors focus on the patterns of belief or unbelief that motivate behavior. True change is not merely behavioral but generates from deep within the heart.

Second, there are dispositional differences with regard to sinning and suffering. Nouthetic counselors have a reputation for skillfully engaging patterns of sinfulness. While not ignoring suffering, they believe that effective counseling leads struggling persons to encounter the living God through repentant faith. Biblical counselors tend to emphasize skillful engagement with struggling persons concerning the areas of suffering. They seek to augment a perceived lack in attention to suffering from other biblical-nouthetic counselors.

Third, there are dispositional differences with regard to the counseling relationship. Biblical counselors believe in the importance of befriending those they counsel and adopt an informal approach that focuses on mutuality. They believe an approach that focuses on kindness and compassion is most conducive to the change being pursued in the counseling relationship. Nouthetic counselors focus on an approach that is more formal and focused on engaging issues. They believe that the most kind, compassionate, and effective approach to care is to engage problems as quickly as possible, allowing the counselee to experience progress as rapidly as possible.

Fourth, there are dispositional differences with regard to contending against unbiblical approaches to counseling. As previously mentioned, both biblical and nouthetic counselors believe the Bible is God’s source of wisdom that should inform and direct all counseling. But each side of the counseling coin emphasizes different interests in contending for that truth. Biblical counselors are concerned about an unfortunate reputation for rancor in the counseling debates of the past. Though biblical counselors believe in sufficiency, they tend to devote less time to contending for it out of a desire to be irenic. Nouthetic counselors tend to believe that sufficiency is always at risk from competing counseling philosophies and so are more interested contending for it against unbiblical counseling approaches.

It Takes Two Sides to Make One Coin

Concerning coins, I suppose some people prefer heads, and some prefer tails. People like to pick sides. That is fine so long as we avoid an “I follow Apollos” mentality. It is important to remember that just like a coin needs both sides, so counseling needs its “nouthetic” and “biblical” streams. I am convinced that each side represents a sort of conscience to the other. They each emphasize truth on different ends of a spectrum. The Bible teaches believing and doing; sin and suffering; loving interaction and truthful instruction; the need to contend and the need to care for those with whom we disagree.

Many of us have learned a great deal from both sides. The biblical-nouthetic counseling movement is stronger for its corresponding emphases. Like a coin, the diversity complements rather than conflicts with the fundamental unity.