As a Christian who teaches at a Christian university, there is one discussion that I can predict will occur numerous times throughout coursework for both undergraduates and graduates. This discussion centers on a Christian response to homosexuality. Over the past few months this question has also made headlines due to two recent court cases involving students who see accepting client’s values that differ from their own as an impossible bridge to cross. These students felt they would be in denial of their deeply held faith beliefs if they were to acquiesce to a position of neutrality during sessions with clients who held divergent positions. Both of these legal cases centered on whether counselor education students must counsel clients who are homosexual. These students felt that counseling homosexuals would be seen as an acceptance of homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle.
I’m sure I may have already lost some readers who saw the word Christian and decided to read no further. I do understand that reaction. There are times I find myself in disagreement with the dominant ‘Christian’ position. I’ve lost count of the number of cringe-worthy moments when fellow Christians said or did something that I felt was in complete opposition to my understanding of how the Bible details people deserve to be treated. There is no one single Christian position on this issue. This blog post is my Christian response and I speak for no one but myself.
My guiding principle for the treatment of others is that all people are worthy of dignity and respect because they are created in God’s image. My scriptural support for this position is the often referenced John 3:16. This dignity and respect does not rest on my agreement with personal choices or values, on religious or political views, or upon life choices. My treatment of others is built on the basic belief that people deserve dignity and respect. Period. I believe my job as a professional counselor entails treating people according to the Golden Rule. I do unto others as I would like done unto me. I want to be listened to without judgment. I want to be able to explore options first and then review them according to my values. The key word is my values rather than anyone else’s values. I want to make decisions that reflect my core beliefs. Therefore when I am in the client chair I do not want a counselor who is going to tell me what to do according to their values.
I work to create a therapeutic environment which allows the depth of exploration that brings people to counseling in the first place. If I reserve this respect for only those with whom I am in agreement then few would qualify. My experience has been that often people come to counseling precisely because they have been treated conditionally and they desire a space where they can be valued without conditions. I simply cannot allow my beliefs to be the determining qualification for the treatment of others, either in the professional or personal realm. While I do understand the struggle articulated in the recent court cases, my conclusion for these students is that they have failed to understand two points. The first point is what professional counseling is all about. As I read various text books and review the ethics codes, the foundational principle I see reiterated time and again is that counseling is a process that empowers a client to grow in the direction of their choice. My job in this process is to articulate alternatives, identify potential obstacles and support the client to accept responsibility for their choices. Nowhere in this process do I see that these choices must align with my values. The second point that I think has been overlooked deals with my responsibility as a Christian.
In Scripture Peter exhorts us to always be ready with a gentle answer as to what we believe and to do this with gentleness and respect. For me this means providing a safe place for people to explore their issues. Gentility speaks of grace to me and not of drawing a proverbial line in the sand. It means being soft on people and giving them space to do what they need to do. As a professional counselor I know that acceptance of a client creates an environment where a healing process can occur. As a Christian I know that acceptance of a client creates an environment where I have the opportunity to demonstrate faith qualities such as kindness, patience, warmth, and acceptance. As I see it the bottom line of this issue is twofold. The first is that in counseling clients must be able to openly explore, decide, and live life according to their values. The second is that as a counselor I can work according to my professional and personal values and beliefs without sacrificing or denying either because I am not there to judge. I am there to treat.
Patricia Myers is a counselor, an associate professor of counselor education, and doctoral student.