Understanding the Need for Culturally Aware Biblical Counseling

Dr. Tim AllchinFor Those Giving Help2 Comments

The southern preacher powerfully concluded his sermon on marriage, “Nearly every marriage problem I see in my office is a failure of married couples to ‘leave and cleave’ – and ignoring this biblical principle simply ends in disaster.”

It shook up my counselee because he listened carefully and took complete notes. The preacher even created a “warning checklist” – “living with your parents” or “having your parents pay your bills” were definite warning signs of a failure to “leave and cleave.” He wanted to know my opinion because it was concerning to him that he was disobedient to God’s Word.

Twenty years earlier, this man had come to the United States with a dream to become an engineer and eventually bring his parents to enjoy a better life with his family. After a decade of hard work as a software engineer, he and his wife built a house for his family with an in-law suite. His parents helped pay a few bills, prepared meals, and cared for his children before and after school.

For generations, their family had taken great pride in the younger generations caring for the older. His parents could afford their own apartment, but he wondered if that was necessary or honoring to them to ask them to move out.

While this article will not dive into the best applications of the concept of “leave and cleave,” the advice they got from their pastor’s sermon created a real bind for them. In this case, a rigid, ethnocentric interpretation of the “leave and cleave” principle imposed burdens on this couple that went beyond the purpose of the text. Leaving and cleaving is more of a mindset shift, but it has some flexibility built into the application.

How should a biblical counselor approach a topic like culture?

Some Christians assume that cultural understandings matter little because they just seek to always be biblical. This article makes the case that we must be culturally aware in our approach to counseling.

So, what do we mean when we say “culturally aware?”

First, we must affirm the Bible’s teachings in order to develop this conversation within biblical counseling. The Bible is God’s revealed truth to all of humanity. It was written in vastly different cultures, locations, and languages by a diverse team of authors working to reveal the Creator God.

In interpreting the Bible, we must examine the original context to fully understand the mandates and principles. We derive the main interpretive principles from careful study.

  1. The Bible presents biblical mandates that are binding to every culture.
  2. The Bible presents biblical principles to be applied wisely in specific cultures.

When we say “culturally aware,” we mean studying the Bible’s context to understand the teaching’s intent within its original culture.

Further, we determine whether the intent of a story, teaching, or passage was to develop a specific mandate that all people and every culture are to follow or a principle that a particular context would wisely apply to distinguish biblically faithful living versus the values and living of unbelievers.

For instance, in the New Testament and Old Testament passages on divorce, the requirement to present a “certificate of divorce” when pursuing a divorce is stated. The biblical mandate is to honor your vows and keep your word to your spouse.

However, several examples of divorce seem to be allowed within Scripture as long as a written “certificate of divorce” is provided. If someone were to take that literally, they could go to a graphic designer and create a divorce certificate to present. However, the wise application in most countries is to file an official divorce with the state and clarify that the marriage covenant is abandoned and no longer in force. Yet, the wise application could be different in countries where no such specific records are kept. The principle is integrity, honesty, and the protection of the innocent.

Being culturally aware as biblical counselors means we seek to understand the difference between how we apply biblical mandates and biblical principles.

Not every passage of Scripture applies to every person in the same way. On an individual level, this is more noticeably true. Every person we counsel has different skills, resources, and opportunities.

Take two men who come for counseling and describe being “dissatisfied and bored” with their current career. You may challenge a 26-year-old young adult to “take a risk and pursue your dreams” with great energy and confidence while simultaneously challenging a 62-year-old, nearly-retired man to “pursue greater contentment” within the flexibility and safety net his job affords. Both men are called to manage their gifting, but how they do that and what a wise application of Scripture is may be different for both of them.

Here are three mindsets we must strive for as culturally aware biblical counselors.

Mindset #1 – Be humble in how we approach Scripture.

The Bible doesn’t change from culture to culture, but the wise applications of its principles will. How we “speak the truth in love” may not sound the same in every culture.

What sounds angry and aggressive in one culture might be interpreted quite differently in another. How an individual honors their parents carries quite a different set of expectations in some cultures than others. Financial provision differs from culture to culture and during different seasons of life.

Biblical counselors must carefully study to differentiate between mandates and principles given to us in the Bible. Simply taking a verse outside its original context or counseling how you have always applied a verse in your own context can end up hurting or frustrating individuals seeking counseling.

Humility does not mean that we embrace uncertainty as if no applications can be formed and no conclusions can be reached. However, humble biblical counselors exercise caution to differentiate between cultural practice and biblical mandates.

On issues where God has clearly spoken, we must speak clearly. However, the Bible is not a one-size-fits-all handbook for living. Humility allows us to hear the concerns of other cultures regarding how we might best apply a principle to their everyday lives.

Mindset #2 – Be attentive in how we understand our neighbors.

Among the common criticisms of biblical counseling is that biblical counselors can’t handle complex cases. However, the Bible doesn’t give simplistic answers to complex cultural problems (even though some biblical counselors have at times over-simplified and misapplied passages).

Culture is complicated, and no earthly culture perfectly aligns with God’s heart and values. Every culture reflects the brokenness of this world, but every culture also contains shadows of the image of God in some aspects.

Culture on a Personal Level

A personal culture reflects how we view ourselves in the world and our various identities. One psychologist concluded that every person could have more than 1,000 personal descriptors that might describe who they are. Even within broader cultures, we have a personal culture shaped by experiences, family upbringing, theological beliefs, and broader systemic cultures where one lives.

Culture on a Systemic Level

The same can be said of cultural systems and how they self-identify and view themselves and their roles in the world. Effective biblical counselors will seek to understand the systems of culture in those they counsel and seek to bridge their counsel and experience into the wisest application with the lived culture of the person they are counseling.

Culture on a Theological Level

One of the most significant advantages of biblical counseling is that we base our counsel on the most profound book about humans, their potential, and their problems that has ever been written. Every personal and systemic culture has beliefs about the nature of man, morality, and the purpose for living. However, biblical wisdom accurately applies to any culture and can lead anyone to a path of redemptive living and wise practices. Every cultural problem of living can be defined as a theological problem, and every problem of living requires a theological answer for a solution. That’s not to say that we don’t need physical, medical, or even systemic answers too, but no problem of life can be fully resolved while ignoring God’s intended purposes for man.

If there are 1,000 ways someone or some culture could describe themselves, we must embrace a mindset that seeks to know others personally, cultures generally, and humanity theologically. It’s a tall task, but one that counselors can grow in. This requires us to understand not only our Bible but also our neighbor and their culture.

Mindset #3 – Be respectful in how we engage our counselee’s backgrounds.

Many words have been written in recent years about how various cultures relate to one another, oppress one another, and even benefit one another. Within the conversations about counseling theory, particular emphasis has been placed on finding counselors who understand and embrace your cultural values.

Finding a counselor that embraces your cultural values when it comes to race, politics, sexual identity, and other cultural issues is often seen as necessary if you are going to establish a relationship with a counselor. However, both the Bible and recent studies also warn us against our tendency to seek counsel from those who tell us what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear.

Consider how the following principles might shape how you seek a counselor to interact with your particular background.

We learn from those who have walked a common path.

As biblical counselors, we embrace the mindset that wisdom is transferred as mature believers invest relationally in those who need help. Those who have experienced grief, relational heartache, poverty, and emotional pain are often best equipped to help others who walk behind them on similar paths that God has led them through.

We are all told to “Comfort others with the comfort we have received ourselves from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). However, we know that we don’t have the answers, but God and His Word do. The path of pain often drives the best counselors. They want to redemptively help others grow stronger while walking through the same trials God brought them through.

We learn from those who have walked a different path.

Do you need a counselor of similar ethnic, socio-economic, and sexual identity to benefit from them? If you read much of current psychology literature about the subject, you might conclude that you do.

However, the Bible paints a different picture of how diversity benefits us and teaches us through our differences. We often learn more from those who do things differently than us.

If we assume our own culture is supreme, we miss out on the opportunity to learn from those who demonstrate faithfulness by applying biblical principles within their own culture.

We learn from those who have walked a wise path.

While we do have counselors from various ethnicities, ages, and cultures, we don’t feel pressure to match counselees by ethnicity, age, or culture.

If your goal is to learn how to walk wisely in this fallen world, wouldn’t it make sense to find someone who has lived a life of wisdom? How can a counselor take you where they aren’t going themselves? Interestingly, this is one of the strongest arguments for counseling to be sought and offered by local churches because a counselee can learn about their counselor’s personal convictions and reputation.

Slick marketing and pre-populated websites can make nearly any young counselor look competent, but sadly, their counselees find out that experience matters more than website design.

We aren’t arguing that diversity of viewpoints doesn’t matter. Instead, a wise counselor can speak wisdom into almost any culture, and an unwise counselor is unhelpful to all cultures.


Culture is always a consideration in the counseling that we give. We must strive to be culturally aware counselors because we want to understand and guide people effectively. Further, many cultural applications are not moral considerations but fall under the preferences category.

God gave His Word so that all cultures could glorify and honor Him with their lives. A culturally aware biblical counselor makes this their ultimate goal.

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2 Comments on “Understanding the Need for Culturally Aware Biblical Counseling”

  1. This is a great article for helping us to give wise counsel to all cultures and ethnic groups. We counsel based on the Truth of God’s Word presented in love and patience for all!

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