Over the last several years, there has been growing recognition of the body in Christian circles, which is greatly needed. My PhD work focused on systematic theology with a minor in biblical counseling. In my dissertation, I devised a theology of the body (TOB) that I used to create a framework for understanding body image. Compared to other doctrinal topics, there were few resources on a TOB and even less on body image within biblical counseling. This disparity shows that the church still has a ways to go to think rightly about the body.
In the biblical counseling world, take the phrase soul care (or care of souls) for example. While I don’t disagree with the statement, I find it unhelpful. This phrase inherently communicates value to the soul, while disconnecting that same value and care for the body. It portrays the soul as the consequential aspect of humanity and negates the physical realities that also contribute to counseling issues.
Not only do we need to recover a biblical understanding of the body, but we also need the ability to articulate a pro-body view from Scripture. This ability is even more important for those who seek to help others walk through difficulties that impact them as embodied beings. (Embodied reality involves the constitution of a unified person who is distinctly immaterial soul and material body.)
Just as counselors encourage their counselees to love God with their whole selves, so counsel must be given with the whole person in mind. Not to mention, God created his image-bearers with psychosomatic (mind and body) interaction, a connection that enhances our experience as embodied beings who live in a created world and are made to commune with their Creator. This reality is why biblical counselors need a theology of the body.
While the following is not a comprehensive list, it does present a biblical argument for valuing physical existence and designating the body with the same dignity and distinction of bearing God’s image as the soul.
Still, despite these truths, sometimes Christians retain a low view of the body. By low, I mean a view that devalues the body or lacks a biblical understanding on the body altogether. There are several reasons why this is the case, and these reasons can affect all believers, even biblical counselors. The following statements suggest why Christians might be confused about the body.
Scripture never deconstructs the imago Dei and applies only to the soul. God created us as embodied beings, who are unified yet distinct immaterial and material, soul and body men and women.
Viewing the body as the source of sin, it receives sole blame for inconsistent obedience and implies that the sinless soul is weighed down and hampered by it. This mindset has numerous consequences in the church today.
If we aren’t mindful of our body’s future, we likely won’t acknowledge or value it in the present. Instead, we hope in the coming New Heavens and New Earth, which we will inhabit as gloriously resurrected, re-embodied men and women who will need physical bodies to exist in a recreated, physical world.
In doing so, we disassociate the significance of Christ’s bodily existence from our own. But this reality ensures the promise that our lowly or perishable bodies will be transformed like his glorious or imperishable body.
The “flesh” is often used by the apostle Paul in the New Testament, which he frequently employs when discussing sin nature, or our natural propensity to disobey God. When we associate the negative connotation of sinful flesh to our physical body, we might come to believe the body is the sole source of evil that corrupts the soul.
Inherent in Paul’s statement are two admonitions. The first is not to prioritize physical fitness over a pursuit of godliness, which is idolatrous. The second is to consider the pursuit of physical health as an impediment to godliness, which is shortsighted. Taking Paul’s statement as a negative comment about exercise comes from a deeper belief that one’s body, and specifically physical health, does not matter. Instead, Paul’s statement to Timothy reveals the reality of both spiritual and physical health where bodily training is of value when it is pursued to fuel a life of godliness.
While he did lament his body of death in Romans 7:24 (a body that is impacted by sin and will die), we forget the preceding chapter where he wrote for believers to use their bodies (and themselves) as instruments of righteousness (6:13) and the subsequent chapter where he promised the redemption of our bodies (8:23). This example is one of many. Paul was extremely pro-body.
Upon receiving salvation in faith alone through Christ alone, we’re instantly justified but not instantly glorified. While counted righteous as embodied beings, we remain vulnerable to sin both spiritually and physically. Christ died in our place and saved us from a second, spiritual death. Still, believers face a first, physical death, which is the wages of sin. Logically, we must die physically and cannot die spiritually, as this is the fate from which we are saved. Because of the fall, we must be temporarily disembodied at death, soul with the Lord and body in decay. Although the soul is fully restored first while the body awaits full restoration in the resurrection, this necessary, sequential separation does not mean the soul is of higher worth than the body.
The hedonist thinks, the body doesn’t matter so I can do what I want with it, which creates licentious living. The Gnostic thinks God would never have anything to do with the material realm, which spawned Christological heresies. The ascetic thinks true piety entails separation from lowly, physical realities, which leads to isolation from others and separation from the world. Whether or not we actively realize it, we might operate by one of these mentalities or a related variation of them.
Christians must be able to recognize and guard against misconceptions like these that devalue the body. And for biblical counselors, it’s even more critical that they do not perpetuate such misconceptions, as they might confound or exacerbate bodily issues in their counselee.
In the case of a counselee who engages in self-harming behaviors, the counselor must be ready with Scripture to provide motivation for treating the body in God-honoring ways.
If the counselee exhibits physical manifestations of chronic stress, will the counselor recognize them as indicators of internal emotional, mental, and/or spiritual struggles?
If the counselee sees himself or his identity as separate from his body, how can the counselor counter that mindset if he also holds a hierarchical view of soul over body?
When counseling someone with a porn addiction, a counselor must present a convincing case from Scripture that God cares about what we do with our bodies.
How will a counselee’s efforts to fight an eating disorder be sustained if the counselor fails to connect bodily care to glorifying God with the body?
When a counselee dismisses the connection between lacking spiritual disciplines and apathy towards physical disciplines, the counselor needs to give a biblical understanding of our psychosomatic connection as embodied beings.
For a counselee with PTSD whose traumatic experiences impacted the brain and damaged both mind and body, it is imperative the counselor help them address those effects as an embodied being.
Biblical counselors will handle many situations that make a TOB necessary, but gender dysphoria may be the most critical. If biblical counselors devalue the body, how can they treat their counselees who are simultaneously anti-body albeit for different reasons? If they lack a biblical understanding of the body and already struggle with a biblical response to transgenderism, how will they be able to help those who detransition?
Plainly, biblical counselors need a framework for soul care that understands and incorporates body care as well. If you, as an embodied being counsel another embodied being, you can’t look at their issues in isolation. They may come to you with problems relating to their spiritual life, but those issues materialize through their physical life. Or they may come to you for struggles that manifest in external harm, but those struggles indicate internal turmoil. The whole person matters.
As biblical counselors, a theology of the body will help you confidently stand on a biblical worldview that doesn’t demean or distort physical realities. This stance completely contradicts our culture, which means the truth claims at the outset of this post are exactly what your counselee needs in such confusing, physical-reality-denying times. For when both soul and body are understood as critical aspects of your counselee’s personhood, your care will be enhanced; the whole person will be treated, and the gospel will fully impact your counselee who bears God’s image as an embodied being.