The Association of Certified Biblical Counselors has removed Bill Shannon, women’s pastor and counseling pastor at John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church, from their approved counselors list due to credible allegations of protecting abusers and harming women.
The accusations were cosigned in September by Hohn Cho, a lawyer and former GCC elder who was tasked by GCC to investigate but then was told to resign after he wouldn’t go along with MacArthur’s command to “forget it.”
“I sadly came to believe beyond any personal doubt that GCC congregants who we still love could effectively be playing Russian roulette if they ever needed counseling at GCC, especially anything involving the care of women or children,” he told Christianity Today in February.
The accusations against Shannon include:
- Instructing a woman to cosign a $50,000 loan for her husband without knowing what it was for.
- Refusing to believe the woman’s claim of her husband’s adultery despite her presenting credible evidence.
- Reprimanding the woman for attempting to remove her husband’s parental authority by wanting to call the police after he stuffed their children’s mouths with tissues to a degree that hindered their breathing.
- Refusing to assist the woman after her husband left her to live in a home she didn’t know he had.
- Threatening church discipline on the woman after she filed for divorce.
In addition to these accusations, another GCC woman claimed in February that MacArthur and GCC elders publicly disciplined her due to her decision not to reconcile with her husband, who eventually was convicted of child molestation and abuse.
While it is good to know the ACBC has removed Shannon from its approved list of counselors and from speaking at its annual conference they hosted in October, the practice of scapegoating one person while still celebrating the underlying theological causes of that person’s harm is a pattern we’ve seen from conservative evangelicals this year.
Unfortunately, the ACBC continues to promote Grace Community Church as an approved counseling training institution. So rather than analyzing why Shannon should be removed, the larger question is how he has been enabled and entitled to harm women and children as he has.
Grace Community Church’s theology of power
“Authority and submission pervade the whole universe,” MacArthur claims. “In the relationship between man and man, there is authority and submission. In the relationship with man and God, there is authority and submission. In the relationship between God and God, there is authority and submission. The entire universe is pervaded by this concept. And what is new here is not that the wife is to be subject to her husband. That isn’t new, because the Old Testament taught that. What is new is the vastness, the scope of this principle. That it absolutely pervades everything.”
“A woman, whether she is married or single, must recognize the fact that in general, as a woman, she must have a spirit of submission to all men.”
For GCC elders, the universal nature of authority and submission naturally includes single women as well. MacArthur says: “It’s clear, as you study the Bible, that God has a divine order in society related to man and woman. And, of course, that is manifest in marriage, it’s manifest in the church, and it’s manifest in every dimension of human life. And God’s basic pattern is there are two factors in society: authority and submission. And God has designed that men be given the position of authority, and women the position of submission. … A woman, whether she is married or single, must recognize the fact that in general, as a woman, she must have a spirit of submission to all men.”
The height of power on the earth peaks at MacArthur’s position as a pastor. When MacArthur told Beth Moore to “Go home,” he said of female preachers, “They want power, not equality. … This is the highest location they can ascend to — that power in the evangelical church.”
This is why, when his elders released a statement explaining their decision to defy the government’s ban on large gatherings during the COVID-19 crisis, they used the word “authority” 31 times, “right” 13 times and some form of “head,” “subject,” “command,” “rule,” at least another 70 times. It’s also why MacArthur calls slavery “the perfect scenario.”
According to GCC’s theology, the entire universe reveals their elder board is at the height of power, accountable to no one other than God, as interpreted by them.
Grace Community Church’s refusal to listen
The problem with GCC’s interpretation of the Bible, of course, is that everything is crystal clear to them despite their unwillingness to listen to those who would challenge their assumptions. And this extends to the way they refuse to listen to women.
If a woman at GCC gets harmed by the men in GCC’s hierarchy, she has no recourse. According to MacArthur, “When someone comes to bring a formal public accusation against an elder or a pastor, we are not to listen to that. We are not to entertain that. We are not to investigate that.”
“When someone comes to bring a formal public accusation against an elder or a pastor, we are not to listen to that.”
This echoes GCC’s response to Cho’s allegations in February, where they wrote: “Grace Church’s elders do not publicly discuss details arising from counseling and discipline cases — especially on social media.”
Then they added, “Nor do we litigate disputes about such matters in online forums. Grace Church deals with accusations personally and privately in accordance with biblical principles. We do not respond to attacks, lies, misrepresentations and anonymous accusations.”
It’s interesting how they claim not to respond, but then call the accusations “attacks, lies, misrepresentations and anonymous accusations.” It’s almost as if they’re so used to not listening to others that they won’t even listen to themselves.
Perhaps this also is why so many of these conservative men across the nation have so universally condemned Andy Stanley for listening to LGBTQ people despite his disagreements with LGBTQ people. It’s a problem that goes far beyond simply the theology and ethics of GCC.
The Association of Certified Biblical Counselors
Despite the fact that I spent two decades leading worship in conservative evangelical churches while wanting to become an elder, I never pursued eldership because I didn’t believe I was competent enough to sit in front of people 20 years older than me who were facing life’s most complex difficulties and explain all the answers to them.
The elders I looked up to during these years, however, believed they were that competent. The reason they felt that way was due to their theology of the Bible and the gospel, which was shaped by the teachings of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors.
The ACBC began in 1976 when Jay Adams and the board of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation sought to provide a certification process for “biblical counselors.” The organization’s original name was the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors and has grown to become “the oldest and largest biblical counseling certifying organization in the world.”
A movement of self-certified, uneducated counselors
The ACBC claims to be an academic, research-based institution. In addition to publishing academic essays, they also have developed relationships with fundamentalist schools like Bob Jones Seminary and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“Despite their veneer of academia, their leaders are largely uneducated outside the world of conservative evangelical theology.”
But despite their veneer of academia, their leaders are largely uneducated outside the world of conservative evangelical theology. Heath Lambert, pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., and considered “arguably the most important person in bringing ACBC to the fore and, especially, in tying it to SBTS,” doesn’t have any medical or psychological training at all. Instead, all his training has been theology degrees from Gordon College and Southern Seminary.
ACBC’s refusal to listen
Like the all-male board of elders at GCC, the all-male board of trustees at ACBC also refuses to listen to those outside their echo chamber.
Their membership covenant claims: “We deny that the findings of secular psychology make any essential contribution to biblical counseling. God’s goodness allows that secular psychology may provide accurate research and make observations that are helpful in understanding counseling issues. Because unbelievers suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness, the efforts of secular psychology at interpreting these observations lead to misunderstanding. Because their observations are distorted by a secular apprehension of life, their efforts at counseling ministry will be in competition with biblical counseling. They cannot be integrated with the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”
Of course, they try to cover their tracks by saying medical questions should be asked of a medical doctor. But as Dee Parsons of The Wartburg Watch asks: “How do they know what is and is not a medical problem? How do they even know how to ask the question? Even more difficult, how do they know if the physician is practicing *biblical counseling malpractice* by diagnosing something that is a *no-no* in ACBC’s rather bizarre spiritual world? … How do they know the difference between real postpartum depression which has a physiological component, postpartum psychosis which is an emergency, and simple * baby blues?* Then, let’s say the consulted (if they had enough knowledge to do so which they don’t) OB/GYN has concerns, refers the patient to psychiatry to figure out what meds might work for a rapidly developing psychosis and the patient returns with meds and follow-up with a trained psychiatrist? Does the ill-trained counselor tell the patient to stop the meds, ignore psychiatry and just *buck up?*”
Psychiatrists are trained through years of medical study with clinical experience. They might have something worth listening to. But according to the ACBC, they must be ignored due to being unbelievers who “suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness.”
In contrast, ACBC counselors such as Brad Brandt, pastor of Wheelersburg Baptist Church, think they’re qualified to counsel the most vulnerable people among us because he took a “12-week course in biblical counseling” and then “went through the rigorous yet valuable process of becoming certified with what is now the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors.”
Harming the most vulnerable among us
One of the scenarios I felt unqualified to become an elder over was the potential of dealing with people who have schizophrenia. But in a conversation about the topic, ACBC Executive Director Dale Johnson and The Master’s Seminary professor of biblical counseling John Street claim to know how to respond.
“The overwhelming number of schizophrenics may say that they’re Christian, but they are really not believers.”
“Counselees with schizophrenic characteristics are … oftentimes closed or guarded because they’re accustomed to hiding from the criticism of other people — and especially sometimes other Christians — because of their bizarre behavior,” they say. “You’ve got to begin with the gospel. You really do, because that’s the most loving thing that can be done, and it’s the most hopeful thing that can be done. You begin with the gospel, no matter how well you think you know the person that you’re counseling. Because the overwhelming number of schizophrenics may say that they’re Christian, but they are really not believers. God’s Word must determine their view of reality — not their voices or not what they see in their visions. It’s God’s Word that’s got to determine that, and the only way that’s going to happen is if they become a believer, they trust what the Word of God says. The Word of God’s got to frame their reality for them.”
According to these men, Christians would appear to be immune from schizophrenia, while those who have schizophrenia hide from criticism. In reality, these men are endangering the most vulnerable people among us, and they are the ones who hide from criticism so they can have the power to frame everyone’s reality for them.
Framing reality and defining love as your submission to their power
Given their reliance on themselves and their refusal to listen to medical professionals, it is no surprise that ACBC counselors have been accused of the same disregard for the suffering of women as GCC elders.
In an attempt to address these accusations, Lambert admitted ACBC’s founder Jay Adams often connected the Greek word for “nouthetic” with the idea of confrontation. But Lambert claims “Adams never intended it to have ‘harsh’ connotations.” Instead, he quoted Adams as being “motivated by love and deep concern, in which clients are counseled and corrected by verbal means for their good, ultimately, of course, that God may be glorified.”
And that’s why none of the accusations against Shannon of GCC should be any surprise. To these men, reality is a hierarchy based on God’s glory at the top being maximized through the authority of men over the submission of women below.
Consider these similar words from Adams throughout the years:
- “Did the daughter participate willingly in the sin and did she entice her father?”
- “Abuse is not among the legitimate reasons for divorce found in the Bible; and separation is never an option.”
- “A depressed person is useless in the kingdom of God.”
- “In suicidal cases, when a client has such a low opinion of himself that he thinks the world would be better off without him, it only hurts to deny that his low self-esteem is valid. Counselors should acknowledge that he is probably right about the present worthlessness of his life and should attempt to discover how bad he has been.”
What is clear here is that the scandal that led to Bill Shannon being removed from the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors needs to be addressed at a far more systemic degree than conservative evangelicals are willing to do.
Entire schools and thousands of ministries are based on the framing of reality and defining of love as submission to absolute male power. And it’s all fueled by conservative evangelical complementarian theology.
Simple adjustments will not suffice. MacArthur himself says it “absolutely pervades everything.” Let’s take him at his word. His entire tower needs to be deconstructed.
Rick Pidcock is a 2004 graduate of Bob Jones University, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Bible. He’s a freelance writer based in South Carolina and a former Clemons Fellow with BNG. He recently completed a Master of Arts degree in worship from Northern Seminary. He is a stay-at-home father of five children and produces music under the artist name Provoke Wonder. Follow his blog at www.rickpidcock.com.