Core Message

Discipleship Counseling


Dr. Neil T. Anderson

In 1982 I began my tenure as a seminary professor knowing that there were people in the churches I had pastored who had problems that I didn’t have answers for. I believed that Christ was the answer and that truth would set people free, but I really didn’t see significant changes in the lives of the parishioners, even though I taught the Bible and prayed with people the best I knew how.

I was searching for answers myself when I offered a Masters of Theology elective that nearly doubled in attendance every year. I was starting to see the lives of the students change for the better. During those ten years at Talbot School of Theology I personally went through some major paradigm shifts in my thinking.

 A Shift in Theology

 The first major perceptual change came when I began to realize that every defeated Christian I was trying to help had one thing in common. None of them knew who they were in Christ, nor did they understand what it really meant to be a child of God. They were ignorant of their spiritual heritage, and that is still the case all around the world. If the Holy Spirit is bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Rom.8:16), why weren’t they sensing it? The truth that people are perishing for lack of knowledge (Hosea 4:6) is one obvious reason. The truth can’t set you free if you don’t know it. However, just teaching the truth didn’t produce the results that our ministry now sees routinely. Lack of genuine repentance is another reason that God’s children are not experiencing their freedom in Christ.

Understanding the reality of the spiritual world and how believers should interact with it was another major paradigm shift. Looking back I can see how western rationalism and naturalism had influenced my thinking. On the positive side believers are to be filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph.5:18). “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God” (Rom.8:14). Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (Jn.10:27). Being a child of God and being lead by the Holy Spirit are essential prerequisites for effective ministry. That is also true for our own personal victory over sin and for those we are trying to help as Paul explains in Gal.5:16, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh.”

Satan, however, stands in opposition to all we are trying to accomplish. Jesus referred to him as the god or ruler of this world. John wrote “that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (I Jn.5:19) and believers are admonished to “Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly realm” (Eph.6:11, 12).

The Apostle Paul wrote, “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). This is presently happening all over the world, but in the western church it is often explained as a flesh pattern (by pastors) or chemical imbalance (by psychiatrists and psychologists). How can a chemical imbalance produce a personality or mental thought? How can neurotransmitters randomly produce thoughts that people are opposed to thinking, and why are those “random” thoughts or voices almost always blasphemous, deceiving, tempting, and accusing? The problem couldn’t be just the flesh, because the voices and condemning thoughts are gone after we successfully help someone submit to God and resist the devil, even though the flesh patterns remain.

Trying to find a balanced biblical answer led to my second doctoral dissertation, which resulted in, The Bondage Breaker (Harvest House Publishers). I was troubled by simple deliverance ministries that saw the problem as only spiritual. Such “power encounters” didn’t seem to last and the problem as well as the answer was never wholistic. What seemed to be needed was a “truth encounter” that deals with the whole person and takes into account all reality.

A professional counselor attended my class and told me that he hasn’t seen any evidence of the demonic in fifteen years of counseling, but he wanted to be prepared just in case it ever happened. He wrote me a letter a month later and said that every one of his clients was being deceived and so was he. Why didn’t he see it before? The same reason many pastors never see it. If all you are doing is listening, explaining and helping people cope with their difficulties you will never see it. If all pastors ever do is teach, and preach they will not likely see it either. Opposition only surfaces when you seek to resolve personal and spiritual conflicts.

A Shift in Methodology

 Many Christians are left on their own to resolve their personal and spiritual conflicts through repentance and faith in God, and the vast majority don’t have a clue how to do that, and I didn’t either during those early years of pastoring and teaching at Talbot. I was troubled by Paul’s warning in Col. 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” It seemed to me that most of the “Christian” counseling theories and practices at the time were being significantly influenced by the world, and how was the presence of God being incorporated into a truly Christian methodology?

When we attempt to help another person there are not just two parties present. God is also present all the time, and there is a role that God and only God can play in our lives and of those we are trying to help. Only God can set captives free and bind up their broken hearts. If I try to play the role of God in someone else’s life, I will misdirect their battle with God unto myself. If I leave God out, nothing of lasting consequence will happen. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). That being the case, who is responsible for what?

A lot of psychological literature discusses the role relationship between the counselor and counselee. Most professional counselors have been trained not to be rescuers, or enablers, or co-dependents, and they have learned how to set boundaries in the counselor/counselee relationship. Many, however, have not been trained to include God in the counseling process. Keep in mind that we don’t have to invoke God’s presence, because He is omnipresent, but we do need to be consciously aware of His presence and what He has promised to do. Every counseling session has three participants as illustrated below:


Encourager                    Inquirer

Hopefully there is an intimate relationship between the encourager and God. What remains to be established is a right relationship between the encourager and the inquirer as well a right relationship between the inquirer and their Heavenly Father. All three have an important role to play that cannot be played by either of the other two without hindering the process. First, let’s consider the sovereign role of God, which I often explain to those I am tying to help. In the course of living there is a precise line between God’s sovereignty and mankind’s responsibility as shown below:

                                    God’s sovereignty                                  Our responsibility

We may draw the line further to the left or right according to our theology, but most agree that God’s sovereignty and mankind’s responsibility are both taught in Scripture. Everything on the left side of the line is God’s responsibility. If we try to do what only God can do we will be frustrated and fail in our efforts. We are not the Creator, we can’t save ourselves, we shouldn’t try to be someone else’s conscience, and we can’t change another person. We can count on the fact that God will always be faithful to His word, and His covenant relationship with us.

The key to successful ministry is to know God and understand His ways. “This is what the Lord says; ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth for in these I delight’” (Jeremiah 9:23,24). Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). There is no other way, there is no other truth, and no one else can give us eternal life.

 The Creator designed us to live a certain way. When we rebel against God and live another way it ends in defeat for Christians and death for non-Christians. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs14:12). To proclaim only “one way” invites scorn from non-Christians and pricks the pride of the self-sufficient.

Perhaps an analogy will illustrate why there can be only one way and why the concept is not just related to Christianity. Suppose you just purchased a new computer which is formatted differently from your old one. You want so badly to use this new computer in the same way you used your old one, but you can’t. To be effective you would have to learn a whole new way. The manufacturer designed that computer to work “one way.” If you ignore the instruction book, you will be able to do very little with your computer, but if you master the manufacture’s handbook, you will be able to accomplish a lot with your computer. For the believer, God is the manufacturer and the Bible is the manufacturer’s handbook, and if we study and apply it we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

 Human Responsibility

The other side of the line is our responsibility, which has been revealed in Scripture. God will not do for us what He has instructed us to do. In fact, He cannot. God can only do that which is consistent with His nature and His word. For example, God cannot lie and He will not deviate from His Word or His ways. “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8). The truth that God is immutable is what gives us consistency in life. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). It would do no good to pray and ask God to think for us, when He instructed us to think (1 Corinthians14:20; Philippians 4:8). He will not believe for us, repent for us, forgive others for us, etc., but He will enable us to do all that He has commanded us to do.

The devil has a field day when we don’t understand this simple truth. We expect God to act a certain way and when He doesn’t we are disappointed with Him. Or we pray and nothing happens. Chances are, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives” (James 4:3). Not knowing who is responsible for what is even more devastating when it comes to spiritual conflicts. Suppose a boy suddenly becomes aware of a spiritual presence in his room and he pulls the covers over his head and cries out, “God, do something!” God doesn’t seem to do anything. So he questions, “Why don’t you do something God? You are all powerful. You can make it go away. Maybe You don’t care, or maybe I’m not a Christian. Maybe that is why You won’t help me!”

When they seek help for these kinds of struggles, they are questioning God and their salvation. Why didn’t God do anything? He did. He defeated the devil and positioned the church with His authority over the kingdom of darkness. Whose responsibility is it to resist the devil, put on the armor of God, and take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ? What if you don’t do those things? Will God do them for you? I have counseled many defeated Christians who have asked God to assume their responsibility for them in many subtle ways. Some have even hoped He would change or alter His ways just this one time in order to accommodate them. If He did, He would no longer be God. God will always stay true to His character and will always keep His word. Therefore we can claim His promises and rest in the finished work of Christ.

 The Inquirer’s Responsibility  

To my knowledge there is only one place in Scripture that explains what the sick or suffering are supposed to do. James 5: 13-16 (NASB) reads:  

Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.

The focus of this passage is usually on the role of the elders, but what is most often overlooked is the role and responsibility of the suffering and the sick. Our prayers for others will not be very effective if the following three principles are overlooked.

First, we cannot do another person’s praying for them. Initially the one who is suffering is the one who should be praying. I believe in intercessory prayer, but not for the purpose of replacing another person’s responsibility to pray. The point is I cannot do your praying for you.

In those early days of learning I would get stuck with most of the people that I was trying to help, so I would stop and ask God for wisdom (James 1:5). I was hoping God would give me the answer so I could share it with the other person I was trying to help. I began to realize that would make me a medium? Paul wrote, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Rather than me pray for them, I started to have them pray and I underwent a radical shift in methodology.

To illustrate suppose you have two sons and the younger brother is always asking his older brother to talk to you for him. Would you accept that as a parent? Can you have a second hand relationship with one of your children? Can we with God? This paradigm shift resulted in the Steps to Freedom in Christ where the counselee verbally prays and responds to God.

Most counselees will present problems that are often symptoms of much deeper issues that need to be resolved, which God obviously knows. In the past I would have tried to help them resolve the problems they presented. Now I listen to their story and ask if they would like to seek resolution with God’s help. They always say yes, and I take them through the Steps to Freedom with their permission. When they pray, many other issues will surface that are critical in terms of their relationship with God, which will never show up with traditional methods of counseling. They may tell you about the one or two people they are struggling with, but when they pray and ask God to reveal to their minds who they need to forgive, many more names will come out. Have you helped them be fully reconciled to God if you dealt with only the one or two names or issues they volunteered? I doubt it.

This is especially true for sexual problems. Romans chapter six explains our position in Christ and teaches that we should consider ourselves to be alive in Christ and dead to sin (vs. 11). Verse twelve explains that it is our responsibility to not let sin reign in our mortal bodies. The next verse teaches how we can avoid that. We are not to use our bodies as instruments of unrighteousness, but instead present ourselves to God as those alive from the dead and our bodies as instruments of righteousness.

Given that understanding, we have the inquirers pray and ask the Lord to reveal to their minds every sexual use of their bodies as instruments of unrighteousness and God does. They may volunteer some information about sexual abuse or promiscuity, but including God in the process surfaces all the other experiences. Additionally 1 Corinthians chapter six teaches that our bodies are temples of God and we are not to join ourselves sexually with a harlot or we will become one flesh. Such bonding needs to be resolved. As God brings sexual experiences to their minds we have them renounce each sexual experience and ask God to break the “one flesh” bond that may exist between them and their other partners. They conclude by presenting their bodies to God as a living sacrifice (Rom.12:1), which makes possible the process of renewing their minds (Rom.12:2).

A pastor brought a young man to my office who was hearing voices. Three hours later the young man left with a clear mind and the pastor was amazed; not with the results, because he trusted me and what I was doing. He was just unfamiliar with the process. “What a trap I have gotten myself into,” proclaimed the pastor. “People come to me all the time and ask me to pray for them. Of course I do, but never once have I shown them how to pray for themselves and I have seen little if no results of doing their praying for them.” Nor has any other pastor or counselor.

The only effective prayer at this stage is the prayer of a repentant heart. Chances are their own attempts at prayer have not been effective and the psalmist explains why, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Ps. 66:18 KJV). The answer is to deal with the iniquity, not ask someone else to do your praying for you. Expecting the counselor or pastor to petition God for us is abdicating our responsibility and it will not be as effective.

After I spoke in a Christian recovery conference, a licensed therapist asked me for help. Three hours later she was experiencing her freedom in Christ. At the door she paused and said, “I always thought someone else had to pray for me.” That belief is commonly held by many pastors and counselors as well as those they are trying to help. We have learned to put that responsibility back where it belongs, on the inquirer. Conviction of sin and divine guidance comes directly from God to all His children. In the discipleship counseling process, the inquirer prays and God responds to them.

The second principle we can draw from the James passage is related to individual responsibility. Who does God hold responsible for taking the initiative to call the elders of the church? Christians will never experience wholeness, victory, mental, emotional and spiritual health until they assume their own responsibility for it. No person can be healthy for someone else. Good health is not contagious, only sickness is. Nobody can eat right, get enough rest and exercise for another person.

The same truth holds for spiritual maturity and victory in Christ. No person can practice Christian disciplines for another person. Some people ask for help with the attitude, “Fix me!” If you loved them, you would help them understand that you can’t. Only God can change who they are and if any lasting change is going to take place in their lives it will be directly related to what they have chosen to believe and do.

When I conducted a conference at a local church, I was greeted by the pastor who said, “I have fifty lay prayer counselors to help you.” They were wonderful intercessors who were taught to pray for others. People were invited to come forward for prayer every service and they did, with all kinds of requests. The prayer counselors would anoint them with oil and intercede on their behalf. The church also had a professional counseling center located in the church building, and they were the ones who had invited me to come. When I met with the professional counselors I asked, “Given what you do in the church service, does that create problems for you in counseling?” They all agreed that people from their own church were the hardest to counsel. Why?

There is nothing wrong with praying for people’s needs. That is commendable. The problem is the subtle message being conveyed to the congregation. If their problems were going to be solved, God would have to do something in response to their prayers.

 When members of that congregation came to the church for personal counseling, they were expecting the counselor to anoint them with oil and pray over them. What was being overlooked was their responsibility. What more does God need to do in order for us to live a victorious life in Christ? He defeated the devil, forgave our sins, set us free from our past, made us new creations in Christ, empowered us with His Holy Spirit, and gave us the rule book for life and told us to repent and walk by faith according to what He says is true. The missing ingredient is our response to Him in repentance and faith.

The third principle has to do with the order of Scripture. “Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (5:16). Confession is honest and open agreement with God and that has to come before healing. If there is any one principle which is uniformly believed in the field of recovery (secular or Christian), it is the need to get out of denial and start facing the truth. Confession comes before healing.

Suppose you have a very rebellious son who has a strained relationship with you. You told him to mow the lawn, but he didn’t. Then he comes to you with a request. “Dad, I have a hot date tonight, I need the keys to the car and twenty dollars.” Would you give it to him? Would God? I don’t think so. I believe our righteous Heavenly Father would say, “Son you have many unresolved issues in your life that are seriously affecting your relationship with me. Why don’t you seek reconciliation with Me, and then we will see if the money and car are really what is best for you.”

Church elders are being called to pray for sick people only to discover later that they were living in bondage to sin, bitterness, pride, and rebellion. Most of these people are probably sick for psychosomatic reasons. If you loved them you would help them resolve their personal and spiritual conflicts first. If the sick and the suffering are truly repentant, then the prayers of a righteous man will be very effective. Since healing follows confession in the James passage, one could conclude that he is addressing those people who are sick because they are living outside of God’s will.

 The Encourager’s Responsibility

 The encourager’s responsibility is summarized in (2 Tim. 2:24-26), “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.” First, what God is looking for is pastors and counselors who are dependent upon Him. Second, encouragers need to have godly character and knowledge of the truth that sets people free. People are not in bondage to past traumas, they are in bondage to the lies they believed because of the abuse.

Encouragers facilitate the process of removing the barriers to intimacy with God. Discipleship Counseling is a ministry of reconciliation. They never have to point out sin in the lives of inquirers, because God is the One who convicts all of us of our sins. They don’t seek to pull information out of inquirers, because God is the One who grants repentance. Encouragers don’t seek to explain, they seek resolution as God reveals. I have never shared this with anyone before, is the most common statement I hear. Inquirers don’t share such intimate information with me because I am a good pastor or counselor. They are sharing it for the purpose of resolution, because God has led them to do so, and they leave experiencing their freedom in Christ.

   Starting a Freedom Ministry in your Church

I am aware that most Christians and seekers are coming to our churches with a lot of baggage and we need to help them resolve their personal and spiritual conflicts through genuine repentance and faith in God so they can be established alive and free in Christ. But where do we start? That is the most common response we get from church leaders.

Freedom in Christ Ministries began with my books and a Living Free in Christ conference, which included training for Discipleship Counseling. The Living Free in Christ conference is now available as a curriculum for Sunday Schools, small groups, home Bible studies, etc. The course is entitled, Beta, The Next Step in Discipleship. In the United Kingdom it is entitled The Freedom in Christ Discipleship Course. The course includes a DVD with 30 minute messages for each lesson, a teachers’ guide that has all the messages written out. The leaders can choose to give the message themselves or play the DVD. The Learner’s Guide includes the Steps to Freedom in Christ. Each participant should have a copy of the Learner’s Guide.

The Beta course is the entry point for churches, but it is not an end. For some it will be a new beginning on their journey to freedom and wholeness. If there are no additional issues to be resolved the Daily Discipler (Regal Books) is written to give them a practical theology that can be digested five days a week for a year. There will be some who need additional help for sexual addiction, chemical addiction, anger, fear, anxiety, depression and reconciliation with others. Freedom in Christ Ministries has resources for all those, which will be explained later.

  • The next step is to help marriage partners become one in Christ. The book for that is Experiencing Christ Together (Regal Books), which has “Steps for Beginning Your Marriage Free” and “Steps for Setting Your Marriage Free.” The book and the “Steps for Beginning Your Marriage Free” are intended for Pre-Marital counseling. Experiencing Christ Together and the “Steps for Setting Your Marriage Free” are for Sunday school classes, small and home group studies. There are modified Steps available when only one partner will try. All three tools can be purchases from the Freedom in Christ Ministries office.
  • These marriage steps follow the same reasoning as the individual Steps to Freedom , i.e. Christ must be included in the process, and usually take a full day to process. We recommend that the book be read and taught first and then a retreat scheduled in the church on a weekend or somewhere else. It is a powerful process that helps couples resolve their conflicts by the grace of God.
  • The final step is for the official board of the church and the ministerial staff to resolve the church’s conflicts and set the church or ministry free. The book for that is Extreme Church Makeover (Regal Books) which explains servant leadership and explains the process for corporate conflict resolution. The “Steps to Setting Your Church Free” is a process that the board and staff work through, and that usually requires a day and an evening to process.

Both the marriage and church steps cannot be processed without individual freedom being established first. That is why the Beta/Discipleship course must be where a church begins for individuals, couples and leaders. If you have a church full of people in bondage to sex, alcohol, drugs, bitterness, gambling, legalism, etc., you have a church in bondage. If you have a church full of bad marriages, you have a bad church. The whole cannot be greater than the sum of its parts.

I have written a book entitled, Restored (e3 Resources) which is an expansion upon the Steps to Freedom in Christ. This is a book that Christians can work through on their own and facilitate their own repentance. That is possible since God is the one who grants repentance and the only one who can bind up the broken hearted and set the captives free.

 Discipleship Counseling Training

 From years of experience I estimate that about 85% of the participants in a Living Free in Christ Conference or Beta Course can work through the Steps to Freedom on their own. The book Restored may facilitate that process resulting in a higher percentage. For those who can’t work through the process on their own we offer comprehensive training through books, tapes and study guides. It is our prayer that those who use our material offer this training on a continuous basis.

The material for training encouragers includes books, study guides (which greatly increases the learning process by helping people personalize and internalize the message) and several series of video and audiotapes (each series comes with a corresponding syllabus). Trainees receive the most thorough training when they watch the videos, read the books and complete the study guides. We recommend two hours per week for sixteen weeks. The material should be presented in the order listed:  

Basic Training

Sessions 1-4

Video/audio:                              “Victory Over the Darkness”

Reading:                                  Victory Over the Darkness and Study Guide

Sessions 5-8

Video/audio:                              “The Bondage Breaker”

Reading:                                  The Bondage Breaker and Study Guide

Sessions 9-16

Video/audio:                              “Discipleship Counseling” and “Helping Others Find Freedom in Christ Video Training Program”

Reading:                                  Discipleship Counseling and Released From Bondage


Books for Advanced Training

Overcoming a Negative Self-Image

Overcoming Addictive Behavior

Overcoming Doubt

Overcoming Depression

Finding Freedom in a Sex-Obsessed World

Freedom From Fear

Christ Centered Therapy (Geared more toward the professional counselor)

Getting Anger Under Control

A Biblical Guide to Alternative Medicine

Breaking the Bondage of Legalism

Praying By the Power of the Spirit


The book, Discipleship Counseling (Regal Books) has further instructions for how to set up a Discipleship Counseling Ministry in your church. I don’t want to add to the work load of any pastoral staff, and I firmly believe that Discipleship Counseling has the potential to greatly reduce their load and equip the lay person to do the work of ministry.

There have been several exploratory studies that have shown promising results regarding the effectiveness of Discipleship Counseling conducted by well trained lay people, which we call encouragers. Judith King, a Christian therapist, did several pilot studies in 1996. All three of these studies were performed on participants who attended a Living Free in Christ conference and received the Steps to Freedom in Christ during the conference. The first study involved 30 participants who took a 10-item questionnaire before completing the steps. The questionnaire was re-administered 3 months after their participation. The questionnaire assessed for levels of depression, anxiety, inner conflict, tormenting thoughts, and addictive behaviors. The second study involved 55 participants who took a 12-item questionnaire before completing the steps and then re-administered 3 months later. The third pilot study involved 21 participants who also took a 12-item questionnaire before receiving the steps and then again 3 months afterwards. The following table illustrates the percentage of improvement for each category. 

  Depression Anxiety Inner






Pilot Study 1 64% 58% 63% 82% 52%
Pilot Study 2 47% 44% 51% 58% 43%
Pilot Study 3 52% 47% 48% 57% 39%

 Research was also conducted by doctoral students atRegentUniversityunder the supervision of Dr. Fernando Garzon (Doctor of Psychology) on the message and method of Freedom in Christ Ministries. Dr. Garzon can be reached atLibertyUniversitywhere he now teaches. As mentioned earlier, most people attending a “Living free in Christ” conference, or Beta Course can work through the repentance process on their own using the “Steps to Freedom In Christ.” In our experience about 15% can’t, because of difficulties they have experienced. In the following two studies a personal session was offered them with a trained lay encourager. They were given a pre-test before a Step session and a post-test three months later with the following results given in percentage of improvement:

                                               Oklahoma City,OK                 Tyler,TX

Depression                                      44%                              57%

Anxiety                                           45%                              54%

Fear                                                48%                              49%

Anger                                              36%                              55%

Tormenting Thoughts                        51%                              50%

Negative Habits                                48%                              53%

Sense of Self-Worth                         52%                              56%