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Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and Biblical Counseling: Similarities and Differences Chad J. Ressler Liberty University

REBT AND BIBLICAL COUNSELING Abstract There are many schools of thought and theories within the field of counseling. However, one particular theory stands out as powerful. Albert Ellis Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy has proven to be a successful and potent vehicle for change in the lives of many individuals. This approach has been utilized since the mid 1950s and has met with much success. The field of Christian counseling also developed around this time, and is quite young and evolving in its approach. However, with Biblical values and Christian presuppositions it has also proven to be effective and life changing for clients. One question that arises for Christian counselors is whether or not REBT is compatible with the Christian worldview, and, if so, how would it look and be implemented. An examination of the similarities and differences of REBT and Christian counseling is necessary if one desires to use an approach which is largely secular based in order to ensure that Gods glory is not diminished. Christian counselors must first and foremost presuppose the epistemic Lordship of Christ and abandon that which is not compatible. What

follows is an examination of the similarities and differences between REBT and Biblically based counseling.


Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and Biblical Counseling: Similarities and Differences The field of psychology and counseling is rich with many and varied theories designed to help people live happier and fuller lives. Throughout history there have been influential individuals who have developed different therapeutic approaches that developed into schools of thought. One of these individuals was Albert Ellis who created what is known today as Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Currently, REBT is one of the most influential therapeutic approaches to psychotherapy (Murdock, 2009). As such, for the Christian who seeks to become an effective counselor, REBT provides a very powerful approach to helping people. The question then becomes, is REBT compatible with the Christian worldview? This paper will examine REBT and Biblical counseling by exploring some of the similarities and differences between the two approaches. Brief History and Development Albert Ellis was born in 1913 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but was raised in New York City by an absentee father and a mother who was not interested in parenting. Ellis was a sickly child, often hospitalized for various ailments. Due to extended periods of recover, Ellis was a voracious reader, devouring works of philosophy and psychology. He received his bachelors degree in business administration and sought to be published as a writer. Ellis did not meet with much success in getting published, and subsequently entered Columbia University where he trained as a marriage, sex, and family counselor. He earned both a Masters and a PhD. in clinical psychology (Murdock, 2009). Earlier in his career he became dissatisfied with the methods he was taught and began training in psychoanalysis. Thinking this training would result in greater success in helping his clients, Ellis soon tired of the slow process of psychoanalysis and its seeming lack of efficacy. In

REBT AND BIBLICAL COUNSELING Ellis own words, Even though many of my clients would feel better after the sessions, they were rarely getting better in the sense of steadily experiencing less of the unhealthy emotions,

such as anxiety, depression, or rage, nor did they know how they could prevent themselves from getting such disturbances (Ellis & Ellis, 2011, p.9). As a result of this, Ellis proceeded to work out a blending of his psychoanalytic training with behavior therapy, and by 1955 he was practicing what was then called Rational Therapy. Though his theory met with little acceptance by his colleagues, by 1959 he had established the Institute for Rational-Emotive Therapy and by 1985 was awarded the APAs award for distinguished professional contribution to knowledge (Murdock, 2009). His work and REBT continue to be one of the dominant approaches in psychology today, and Ellis left behind over 800 articles and 70 books. His work continues at the Albert Ellis Institute (Murdock, 2009). Biblical or Christian counseling is a relatively new approach to psychotherapy. Several different approaches are undertaken by psychologists and theologians attempting to blend the two together. Differences in worldviews and approaches often motivated Christians to seek out Christian counselors rather than their secular counterparts. This is understandable in light of the necessity of Christians to operate from presuppositions that often run antithetical to secular counselors. Around the same time that Ellis was developing REBT, Christian counseling was beginning with the establishment of the National Catholic Guidance Conference and then expanded to include other denominations of Christianity1. The development of Christian counseling was, in part, influenced by three things: a reaction to the social changes of the 1960s, the result of religious revival in the United States, and the deterioration of the nuclear family (Carter, 1999). In the late 1980s two organizations formed to bring together psychology

This author is not making an assertion with respect to whether or not Catholics are Christian, rather the terms are used for the sake of simplicity.

REBT AND BIBLICAL COUNSELING and Christian values. The Association of Christian Therapists (Roman Catholic) and the

American Association of Christian Counselors (conservative Protestant) brought together various members of the counseling profession under these two umbrella groups (Carter, 1999). Christian counseling is a fusion of theological and psychological concepts, and is concerned with how a persons Christianity impacts ones life. Christian counselors are very much concerned with family due to the importance the Bible places on the traditional family. The uniqueness of Christian counseling is found in four basic assumptions. The first is accommodation where it is believed that incorporating the clients values in therapy results in greater therapeutic gain. Second, there is the assumption of hope whereby the hope of recovery serves as a powerful motivator. Third, and perhaps most powerfully, there is the assumption that Christian counseling mixed with psychotherapy offers an approach that provides a divinely inspired standard of conduct. Lastly, Christian counseling assumes the work of a divine agent in the counseling process (Carter, 1999). Importance to the Field of Counseling The ability to blend the principles and theory of REBT and Biblical Counseling is, in this writers opinion, of utmost importance to counseling professionals as well as potential clients. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, in itself, has been demonstrated to be extremely effective in helping people to overcome a wide range of psychological disorders. When REBT is combined with Biblical Counseling complete with orthodox Christian presuppositions, one now has a powerful vehicle with which to affect change. This assertion can be supported by empirical research conducted by W. Brad Johnson and Charles Ridley in 1992. In this particular study, Johnson and Ridley conducted both REBT and Christian REBT with clients suffering from depression. One of the hypotheses of this study was that Christian REBT would produce greater

REBT AND BIBLICAL COUNSELING reductions in depression, automatic negative thoughts, and irrational beliefs of Christian clients than secular REBT. The participants in the study were administered the Beck Depression Inventory, the Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire, the Ellis Irrational Values Scale, and the Counselor Rating Form-Short Version. Score were obtained and then participants were

randomly assigned to one of two groups: Christian REBT and Secular REBT. Those participants were then administered 6 therapy sessions lasting 50 minutes, twice a week. The same counselor was used for both treatment groups. Secular REBT consisted of standard REBT therapy and procedures recommended by Ellis. Christian REBT followed the same REBT process as the secular group; however, Christian components were added. Participants in the Christian REBT group were also taught to view the Bible as ultimate truth, use Biblical truth to dispute Irrational Beliefs, and were taught Biblical counter challenges with respect to the disputation process. Prayer and Christian content was also emphasized in homework assignments, and a short prayer was offered at the end of each session (Johnson & Ridley, 1992). With respect to their second hypothesis, results demonstrated that the secular REBT group showed significant improvement on the BDI (p <.03) and the ATQ-30 (p <.03). The Christian REBT group also showed significant improvement on the BDI (p < .02) and the ATQ30 (p < .02). The findings of this study demonstrate the clear effectiveness of combining REBT with Christian principles. While these findings are encouraging, the researchers did note some limitations of the study. One was the small sample size (N=17) as well as the fact that one counselor was used in the study, and so, counselor effects could come into play as well (Johnson & Ridley, 1992). Despite these limitations, this study provides empirical evidence that the combination of REBT with Biblical counseling is effective in producing significant change in the lives of individuals.

REBT AND BIBLICAL COUNSELING Relevant Major Themes Difference in Worldview

The founder of REBT, Albert Ellis, was an atheist and so REBT functions from a secular humanist worldview. In fact, Ellis wrote Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) is one of the main humanistic psychotherapies (Ellis, 1996, p.1). Secular humanism is characterized by its lack of reference to God or religion, and a worldview that is characterized by a focus on the natural rather than the supernatural (Gill, 2001). Among the ranks of secular humanism are generally skeptics and relativists. For Christians, secular humanism is seen as one of the greatest enemies with its vehement antagonism toward God. The secular humanist makes man the focal point of life, rather than God. Ellis himself believed that people had the ability to imagine, fantasize, and strongly believe in a myriad of supernatural deities, and that unless these deities were empirically falsifiable that anyone could invent any number of them (Ellis, 1996). Though in his early writings Ellis was hostile to the notion of mixing religion with REBT, his ideas changed somewhat later in his life. Ellis earlier believed that due to the secular humanist nature of REBT that it would possibly be compatible with liberal and non-absolutistic religions. However, after a thorough literature review of Christian counselors who used REBT, Ellis stated that REBT could be compatible with some forms of absolutistic and devout religiosity (Ellis, 1996, p. 30). For the Christian, his or her worldview is rooted by the ultimate truth of Scripture. Gods Word is taken as the final authority in all matters. A Christian worldview holds that answers to certain metaphysical questions are answered through an understanding of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation (Entwistle, 2010). Holding to a Biblical understanding of Creation allows one to understand who he or she is. A Biblical understanding of Creation shows

REBT AND BIBLICAL COUNSELING how all human beings are made in the image of God and that He gave us purpose. Though one

affirms the goodness of Gods creation, one must also recognize how the Fall affected humanity. Adams decision to be disobedient to the will of God resulted in the entrance of sin into the world, thus separating humanity from God. As a result of Adams disobedience, those born after him inherit that sin as Adam is our federal head. Human beings are born into sin and sin affects ones entire being from the moment of birth2. The concept of Redemption demonstrates the love of God in that He would send His only Son to die on our behalf in order to bridge the separation. Aside from just individual salvation, the concept of Redemption demonstrates how the entire created order was affected by the fall. Human experience will end with the Consummation. This is the promise to the believer that struggles with sin and suffering will one day end as Christ returns (Entwistle, 2010). ABC Model and Scriptural Compatibility The ABC Model serves as the focal point of REBT theory and is compatible with Scripture. The ABC model is as follows. A is an activating event in the life of a person. It can be the existence of a fact, an event, or a behavior. C is the consequence of that reaction which is either appropriate or not. However, A does not cause C; rather it is the individuals belief about A, the B, which largely determines their reaction. For example, a person who fears failing, may fail an exam and believe that he is totally worthless, thus becoming depressed. It is not the failing of the exam that causes the depression, but rather his irrational belief that he must pass or else he is worthless. What Ellis believed was that, largely, we will feel the way we think. Disturbances are the result of self-defeating belief systems based on irrational ideas that people invented (Corey, 1996). In order to combat this, one must engage in actively disputing the irrational belief at B in order to come to a more appropriate reaction. With respect to irrational

In Reformed or Calvinistic theology, this is known as Total Depravity.


beliefs, Ellis & Ellis (2011) wrote that we must forcefully and persistently act against them (p. 24). The ABC model is in accord with what Scripture teaches. Paul, in the New Testament, teaches that the believer is a new creation in Christ, and therefore must adopt a new philosophy (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:16-17, Ephesians 4:22-24). Pauls letter to the Ephesians in chapter 4 talks of how one is to be made new in the attitude of the mind and how one is to put on the new self and be like God. Furthermore, in Philippians 4:8 the Christian is told to think on whatever is right, noble, pure, lovely, and admirable. One is to think on these things. Scripture itself emphasizes the importance of belief and of adopting new ways of thinking in order to counter disturbance (Johnson, 2006). There are some that would assert that certain Christian beliefs run counter to REBT. One main example is when those who are undergoing a crisis assert that it is Gods will for them to undergo this (Johnson, 2006). Thus, their misery is inescapable and God ordained for which no amount of psychotherapy will help. A proper understanding of theology will quickly dispel this notion. It is certainly true, as the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches, that all events are ordained by God from eternity (Eph. 1:11; Rom 11:33; Heb. 6:17). However, the Confession states with respect to God ordaining events and the will of man that nor is violence offered to the will of creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established (Williamson, 2004, p. 39). One cannot assert that human liberty is taken away by the foreordination of events by God. As long as man acts without restraint and according to his free choice with the decree being extrinsic to the mind, then this is sufficient for rational beings to act freely (Shaw, 2008). Understanding the how of the interplay between sovereignty and free will is unnecessary. This demonstrates that human beings still have a responsibility at B to



actively and vigorously dispute irrational beliefs, and maintain psychological health even if the event is God ordained. One maintains the free will to live in happiness or misery with ones circumstances. View of Human Nature REBT and Scripture have different views of human nature. As a secular humanist, Ellis removed God from the equation and believed that human beings are essentially good by nature. He eschewed the idea of sin as well. Human beings are important simply because they are alive. As a result, the purpose of therapy is to aid people in living a happier, more self-actualizing life (Ellis, 1996). In fact, Ellis (1996) stated that REBT squarely places humans in the center of the universe and of their own emotional fate... (p. 8). Scripture, on the other hand, has a very different view of human nature. The Bible teaches that since the fall all human beings are born with a sin nature, and our acts flow out of this sin nature. Sin affects every aspect of our being from our body to our mind and will. This is known as the doctrine of total depravity. A historical examination of Christianity reveals that a biblical view of the fall requires affirmation of the concept of original sin (Sproul, 1997). We sin because of our corrupt and fallen nature. Ellis believed that clients needed to be taught to dismiss their ideas about sin. However, the Christian counselor must take sin seriously as well as understanding the concept of original sin. One cannot deny the power that sin has over a fallen individual, and when counselors confront the idea of sin they cannot do it by shaming the client. A proper understanding of human nature when combining REBT and Biblical counseling is necessary. To understand and confront sin properly, counselors can engage in empathic confrontation whereby the significance of sin is not minimized, but a safe and accepting environment is provided for the client to engage in honest self-exploration (McMinn, 2011).

REBT AND BIBLICAL COUNSELING Client-Therapist Relationship


One main difference between REBT and Biblical counseling is the value it places on the relationship between therapist and client. REBT does not regard as important personal warmth and empathic understanding because too much of either may be counterproductive. Too much of either can create a sense of dependence for approval from the counselor (Corey, 1996). Therapists are able to accept their clients for who they are3 without attending to much personal warmth. The REBT therapist can remain effective by employing a number of impersonal techniques such as teaching, behavior modification, homework exercises, etc. (Corey, 1996). Christian counseling, however, places a higher premium on the client-therapist relationship and encourages empathic understanding. The reason for this is that empathy enhances the counselors ability to really understand the client from the clients perspective. For the counselor, empathy is the gateway into the clients world in order to understand their feelings and be able to reflect that perspective back to the client (Clinton & Ohlschlager, 2002). REBT appears to be more what Clinton & Ohlschlager (2002) would term loving with the head (p. 107). This can often come off as being too objective, where empathy provides for loving with both the head and the heart (Clinton & Ohlschlager, 2002). Rejection of Medical Model of Assessment Both REBT and Christian counseling share a philosophy where a simple medical model is used during assessment. REBT sees assessment as a continuing process throughout as people are ever changing. REBT does use standard assessment tools, but this is not the sole focus. Despite the lack of focus on the therapist-client relationship in REBT, it is still asserted that the first task is the formation of the therapist-client relationship, not diagnosis. This is compatible with Christian counselors in that a medical model alone lacks the tools necessary for effective

This is because REBT teaches the principle of Unconditional Other Acceptance.

REBT AND BIBLICAL COUNSELING counseling. The formation of the client-therapist relationship is of utmost importance, and one must take into account psychological, social, biological, and spiritual factors when assessing


clients. A strict medical-model, DSM style assessment has been criticized for being too limited and individualistic, as well as, too political (Clinton & Ohlschlager, 2002). Important Elements of Counselor Function, Identity, and Ethics When combining REBT and Christian counseling, one problem that may arise is when the Christian counselor is confronted with a client who does not share the counselors worldview. The client may be an atheist, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim. At this point it would be unethical to impose ones own values on the client during therapy. A counselor may still employ a spiritually oriented REBT without committing any ethical violations. It can be the case that sometimes ones God image, whatever their religion, is the source of some of their disturbance. Furthermore, oftentimes when attacking irrational beliefs a counselor may challenge how a client views God. There are two tools that a counselor can use when confronted with various clients. The first is to engage in what is called a General Disputation (Johnson, 2007). This is where the counselor challenges demanding beliefs without challenging the specific content of the clients specific worldview. This type of dispute can take a more Socratic form. Secondly, the therapist can employ a Specialized Disputation where specific religious beliefs and practices are challenged as sources of irrational beliefs (Johnson, 2007). It is this type of disputation that Christian counselors may use with Christian clients. A therapist may also use this type of disputation if they are competently trained in the religious tradition of the client. At no point should a therapist attempt a specialized disputation when only a cursory knowledge of the clients religion is possessed. One cannot attack core beliefs of clients without a specific knowledge of those beliefs.

REBT AND BIBLICAL COUNSELING Biblical Values and Insights


REBTs basic premise is biblical and is described in Proverbs 23:7 As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he (King James Version). Emotions and behaviors do not materialize out of nowhere but are a result of the beliefs we hold. Our cognitions and how we think about certain situations result in our emotional states. The goals of REBT are to leave the client with a minimum of anxiety and hostility at the end of treatment and to provide a method of selfobservation and assessment that will endure in the client long after their therapy has ended (Lawrence and Huber, 1982). Ellis originally listed 11 main irrational ideas that people hold. A sample of these and their respective Biblical answers demonstrate how Scripture can be properly used with REBT principles. The first main irrational idea is that one must have love and approval from people who one finds significant. This irrational belief can be disputed by reading Psalm 118:6 The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me? (KJV). Another irrational belief is that we must always be competent, adequate, and achieving. The Bible tells us, however, in Isaiah 45:24 that In the Lord I have righteousness and strength (KJV). A third irrational belief is that when people treat us badly and unfairly that we should see them as bad and damn them. Scripture disputes this irrational belief in Romans 13:9, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself (KJV). Scripture also teaches us that we are all created in the image of God and so unbelievers who hurt us still possess some of Gods attributes within them. The simple act of grace is what separates believing from unbelieving, and so we should not be quick to damn others when they injure us (Lawrence and Huber, 1982). Ellis himself, writing later in life, cited Christian Scriptures in support of his idea of unconditional acceptance of others. He wrote that the New Testament offered several verses that supported his idea such as, Matthew 19:19, Luke 6:27, and Luke 6:36 (Ellis, 2000).



For me, REBT is a powerful tool for change. Combining Scripture with REBT principles only strengthens this approach leading to better outcomes for clients. This particular style of therapy resonates well with the type of person I am, and will work well with the population of clients I wish to serve. Having suffered with anxiety for many years, using REBT on myself has begun to help and ease my anxiety by vigorously challenging my irrational beliefs. Though my faith is weakened and almost non-existent, once I find my way back to Christ, this approach will become even more powerful. In the future, I wish to specialize in treating various anxiety and mood disorders. I can empathize well with clients who suffer from this, and by employing REBT principles in my own life, I will be able to competently teach these principles to clients while also engaging in a warm and empathic relationship. REBT is also a theory that has significant empirical support within the counseling field, and in this paper, we have seen empirical evidence that Christian REBT produces significant results in the lives of clients who suffer from mood disorders. It is my intention to become more competent with respect to the theory and practice of REBT (without ignoring other approaches), and then to combine that with faith in order to provide future clients with an approach that will lead them to happier lives and more self-fulfillment.



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