in counseling at last
Reading Time: 8 minutes (Nik Shuliahin.)
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Recently, I ran into this old column on Crosswalk. It’s by David Hawkins, who styles himself as a ‘sound, Biblically-based’ advice-giver to men going through marital troubles. What’s wild is that the advice itself is actually quite good. However, it is given through — and received by — men wearing patented evangelical reality-distortion goggles. Today, let me show you how good advice goes bad in the cargo cult of evangelical marriage counseling.

in counseling at last
(Nik Shuliahin.)

(Jesus Power is my nickname for the magic that evangelicals believe fills them when they’re “all prayed up” and “right with God.” It allows them to perform miracles. If they try to perform a miracle but fail, then obviously they were Jesus-ing incorrectly somehow, and thus they weren’t full enough of Jesus Power.)

Cargo Cults, in General.

cargo cult is a group of people who perform rituals that imitate another culture’s behavior, in hopes that the target culture will deliver them things they want. The rituals are a poor imitation at best, done with no real understanding of those other people’s behavior or why they do what they do. The goal of cargo cultists isn’t mastery of the behavior or even understanding it. It’s gaining the benefits they see arising from the behavior.

Similarly, for a long time now, we’ve been noticing around here that evangelicals like to ape popular culture. To do it, they substitute their own homebrews for anything popular. These homebrew creations are nowhere near as objectively good or effective as their real-world counterparts, but the tribe insists that they’re even better. After all, their creations have 127% more Jesus Power in them! The tribe embraces these homebrews and insists stoutly, up and down, that they’re far superior to anything out in the world.

(The world is Christianese for anything that contains way too little Jesus Power for the judging Christian’s taste. Woe betide the Christian who gets lumped in with the world by a judgey peer!)

So to me, these homebrews seem like cargo cult substitutes. They contain none of the elements that make the real things successful, but the evangelicals creating and consuming them insist that they do.

Any time evangelicals feel kinda threatened or challenged by anything in the world, it’s usually because the real thing doesn’t confirm their biases and opinions.

Thus, we may count on them to create a homebrew substitute for it that plays along with their rules and can be controlled more easily.

Creating a Cargo Cult Substitute.

Counseling definitely fits into this category of challenging real-world things that evangelicals don’t like and can’t control.

Real counseling doesn’t require any gods at all to work, and it’s suspiciously client-focused. Plus, the people offering it don’t usually bend knee to the evangelical worldview.

Thus, real counseling feels downright dangerous to evangelicals.

I don’t know who’s surprised that they created a cargo-cult alternative, which they call “Biblical counseling.”

Biblical counseling is stuffed full of Jesus blahblah. Often, clients must perform busy-work using evangelical methods (like we saw aplenty in The Love Dare).

The people offering this ersatz counseling consider themselves to be strong Christians who believe all the correct nonsense. Their first priority is rooting out sin in their clients. After all, they take for granted that sin — offenses against Jesus — is all that causes trouble in people’s lives (and in society!). Once clients Jesus correctly, then obviously their problems will dissipate.

Biblical counseling categorically doesn’t work for any but the easiest of cases, however. Ah well. You can’t have everything. This substitute is stuffed full of Jesus Power, and that’s all that matters to evangelicals.

A Cargo-Cult Counselor Finds His Audience.

David Hawkins’ essay begins with a scenario that many evangelical men will find uncomfortably familiar:

Your wife has left. She told you she’s not sure how she feels about you. She loves you but is not “in love with you.” Your mind is racing as you struggle to make sense of the whole mess.

He proceeds from there to describe how most evangelical men deal with the departure of the person they mistakenly thought they 100% controlled:

“How could this possibly happen?”

“We’re Christians, and Christians should never separate or divorce.”

“I haven’t done anything that bad.” [<— Remember these three statements, please.]

As the days turn into weeks, you move gradually through some of the recognized stages of denial—this truly is happening; begging her to stay (bargaining) hasn’t worked; outbursts of anger and attempts to control her have failed; you slip into depression and perhaps even a bit of acceptance.

Still, you have one lingering, nagging thought:

“How can I show her that I’ve changed?”

I don’t know about you, but these reactions sound painfully familiar to me! From what I’ve heard evangelical men saying, too, it captures how they overwhelmingly tend to react.

Now David Hawkins is going to tell us how evangelical men should react in this scenario.

WTF: This is Good Counseling Advice, Actually.

And surprisingly, his advice sounds excellent in the main.

First, he gets his clients to see that though they think they’ve massively changed in a very short time, they can’t possibly have done so. They must also hold off on trying to grab control back of their departed mate, though they will really, really, rillyrilly want to try to do exactly that.

Then, he gives them a listicle of advice points, which I’ll quote here:

First, calm down.

Second, get into counseling.

Third, you must let go of trying to make your mate see anything.

Fourth, focus on your issues that led up to the separation.

Fifth, meet your mate at their point of need.

Sixth, relax in the knowledge that your mate will see changes AS THEY ARE MADE.

Finally, let go and let God.

If we view these through an entirely secular lens, this is actually good advice for newly-dumped spouses — of any gender. Heckies, I wish Biff had been able to do any of that!

But.

But.

We must view this advice through a very special lens.

This listicle does not offer just anybody advice. Nor does it offer secular counseling advice.

This is Biblical counseling advice. And its author specifically directs it toward evangelical men, who are overwhelmingly complementarian

Counseling Evangelicals: Complementarianism.

Complementarianism is the surprisingly-modern doctrine proclaiming men and women separate but equal. (Yes, because that’s always worked so well for any group trying it.) Evangelicals think Jesus himself wanted couples to live this way. Thus, anything else becomes sin.

Basically, evangelical couples seek to play-act a 1950s-TV-sitcom-style, upper-middle-class opposite-sex marriage. In this style of marriage, husbands work outside the home at a job that can support a wife and brood of children. Meanwhile, wives stay home and take care of the house and aforementioned brood of children — and obey their husbands’ every whim.

Officially, evangelical men use their unilateral, unearned power only for good. If wives complain about being mistreated, they get counseled to Jesus harder and obey more. That’s supposed to “convict” their husbands into treating them better.

It really doesn’t, in all but a fraction of cases. Either way, that’s literally all the recourse evangelical wives have. Evangelicals’ entire culture is built around complementarianism. So, if a marriage isn’t harmonious and smooth and happy, then the spouses in it are the problem, not the unworkable instruction-set they tried to follow.

In fact, in David Hawkins’ essay, we see many signs of him being a complementarian and addressing fellow complementarians. The three reaction statements he offers at the beginning mirror complementarian men’s ideas about marriage!

Be aware that any advice runs through the lens of complementarianism. Evangelical counselors cannot approach marriage counseling in any other way.

How Good Counseling Advice Turns Tragically Bad.

I wrote a lot about evangelical complementarian men in our series review of If Only He Knew, a horrific Biblical marriage counseling book.

As a result of that review, we learned there’s really only two kinds of men within complementarianism:

  • Men who revel in that kind of unilateral, unearned power over women.
  • Men who feel extremely uncomfortable with that power and sense that it is intrinsically unfair (and also that it is distinctly un-Jesus-y).

Almost all evangelical men fall into the first category, alas. And that first category of men are hardcore authoritarians.

Authoritarians hate to admit they’re wrong or to change, and they really really really do not want to let go of even a speck of power that evangelicalism has granted them just for being men. Really, in the heart of their bottoms, they know themselves as weak — but blustering belligerence and oppressing others lets them feel strong for at least a little while.

So as we consider these steps, be thinking about how evangelical men distort each one and try to find quick ways to accomplish them in the letter of the law, not the spirit of each suggestion.

The Goal of Cargo Cult Counseling.

In short, newly-estranged evangelical husbands seek to get their victims back under control again. Once she’s back and firmly re-ensconced in the family home, then they can revert back to normal again.

Because they will, usually quite quickly in fact.

Maybe, in the heat of the moment, they even mean it when they claim that they want to change to preserve their marriage. Even then, it won’t last. It can’t. At heart, the evangelical men in that first category really like being exactly who they are: misogynists who revel in total control over their wives.

Of course, their wives’ patience with each reversion to the norm will shorten with each reconciliation. Eventually, they’ll realize their husbands won’t ever change for good. Those men’s authoritarianism, that unearned power flexed constantly at wives’ expense, matters more to them than their marriage. Than their wives’ love and respect. Than anything.

Once evangelical wives figure that out, they will leave for good. No pretense of their husbands, no promises, will matter anymore.

But that merry-go-round, too, is just part of the complementarian game. 

Reading Between the Lines of Biblical Counseling Advice.

Notice that David Hawkins takes for granted that these women are leaving what even he calls “dysfunctional marriages?” That he assumes and takes for granted that the husbands did indeed spark the breakup?

And did you notice, too, that he must repeatedly tell his clients not to be too overtly controlling in these delicate days after estrangement?

(As always, it just amazes me that self-proclaimed TRUE CHRISTIANS™ constantly claim to be infused and possessed by the spirit of a real live god who is both the source and the epitome of love, justice, and mercy. And yet their leaders must constantly lecture and remind them to behave like decent human beings.)

All Hawkins is trying to do is bring about that tearful, joyous reconciliation I mentioned. That’s it. He can offer nothing past that. His entire listicle is about tricking wives into thinking real change has occurred, because he knows — as do the men he addresses — that they now lack any means of coercing their wives into reconciliation.

It’s interesting to me that Hawkins can neither promise a reconciliation nor offer any advice about how to maintain any of these big huge changes he promises his clients can and will make. Even if he has the very best motivations at heart in writing his essay, he clearly knows his audience.

Biblical Counseling Reinforces Evangelicals’ Toxic Worldview.

The counseling evangelicals have created can’t create real change in evangelical men. Evangelical men enjoy unilateral power that they didn’t have to earn. They’re answerable to nobody, really, except men higher up the ladder of power than they are. And those men are as invested in enjoying unilateral power as their underlings, so they won’t interfere much unless abuse is happening (and even then, that’s not assured).

Authoritarians see forced change as a burden and imposition, even if it’s all that’ll save their marriages. They hate it. They won’t do it on their own, only if they must, and they’ll be looking the whole time for an opportunity to revert back to their old habits. Reversion means taking control back of a relationship, which is the goal all along here.

Accordingly, every step Hawkins offers is engineered to create surface-level changes. Even that impresses evangelical wives, sure. They might even mistake these slight temporary shifts for the real work of changing one’s entire personality.

They won’t realize that if the worldview remains the same, so will the personality, and thus so will the behavior that made those wives leave in the first place. At least, they won’t realize it for a while.

In short, there’s a reason why evangelical divorce rates continue to wreck their witness. Authoritarian marriages don’t tend to be happy or work well, and ‘Biblical counseling’ isn’t allowed to deviate from that dynamic. So evangelicals mangle even the very best advice as they try to warp it to fit their extremely toxic culture.

NEXT UP: The three stages of evangelical prayers about COVID. See you tomorrow!


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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...