How Should David Powlison of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation Be Remembered?

David Powlison of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF) died on Friday June 7, 2019 in Glenside, Pennsylvania. David Powlison was a giant in the Biblical Counseling movement. His organization worked closely with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors and influenced evangelical thought on counseling.  In addition CCEF supported and worked closely with Sovereign Grace Ministries. This blog wrote about how CCEF turned away an alleged domestic abuse victim who was allegedly almost killed in a domestic abuse situation from a corrupt Evangelical Free Church in Pennsylvania. In the end when you see what David Powlison supported and the corrupt ministries he championed its this blog’s contention that David Powlison is a solid example of what a wasted life looks like.

 “I tell you what a tragedy is. I’ll read to you from Reader’s Digest what a tragedy is. “Bob and Penny . . . took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their thirty foot trawler, playing softball and collecting shells.”

That’s a tragedy. And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream. And I get forty minutes to plead with you: don’t buy it. With all my heart I plead with you: don’t buy that dream. The American Dream: a nice house, a nice car, a nice job, a nice family, a nice retirement, collecting shells as the last chapter before you stand before the Creator of the universe to give an account of what you did: “Here it is Lord — my shell collection! And I’ve got a nice swing, and look at my boat!”

Don’t waste your life; don’t waste it.”

John Piper on a wasted life. Does this apply to David Powlison in light of the corrupt ministries he supported in his existence? 

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

Colossians 2:6-7 NIV

Yosemite National Park 

David Powlison who led the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation died on Friday June 7, 2019. He passed away in his home in Glenside, Pennsylvania and was suffering from pancreatic cancer. In the Biblical counseling movement David is well known. And as the Neo-Calvinists shower him with praise and point to the “Gospel-Centered” life that he lived I want to take a different look at David Powlison. However, I also want to present the other side and I would ask you to read some of the following articles about David Powlison.

 

Brief Overview of David Powlison 

David Powlison was born on December 14, 1949 in Honolulu, Hawaii. He grew up in Hawaii and his family attended a liberal mainline Protestant Church. According to Justin Taylor of The Gospel Coalition David went on a soul-searching journey. Powlison wrote the following about his grandfather after he suffered a stroke. “And I sat at my grandfather’s bedside after he had a serious stroke. He was rummaging through his achievements, relationships, aspirations, and travels. He was searching for something that retained meaning, something he could hold on to, something that he could tell me mattered in life. But everything he mentioned seemed to crumble before his eyes as he spoke. In the end, all he could say was that life is more than money, and all he could do was break down and weep. After saying goodbye, I sat on the steps outside the hospital and wept too.” He attended Harvard and was on the swim team, which is where he excelled. While at Harvard he had a difficult time and experimented with drugs, faced rejection by some friends and more. He went from a math and science major to a psychology and social science studies before arriving at literature and the arts. Reading Dostoevsky and T. S. Eliot helped point him toward Christianity. During a turbulent period Powlison also was involved in protesting the Vietnam war and participated in the Students for a Democratic Society at Harvard. While working at McLean Psychiatric Hospiital in Belmont, Massachusetts he converted to Christianity.  His roommate Bob Kramer and him had fierce debates about Christianity. Here is how David wrote about a conversation that happened on August 31, 1975.


But that night Bob got very personal with him.

David, Diane and I really love you.

I respect you as much as anyone I know . . .

But what you believe . . . and how you are living . . .

You are destroying yourself.

David recounts what happened next:

I knew he was right. The Holy Spirit used his words as an armor-piercing shell. I came under comprehensive and specific conviction of my sinfulness, uncleanness, unbelief, and unacceptability before Christ. It was a my-whole-life-passing-before-my-eyes moment. I felt the weight of many sins. The two that cut me the deepest were not on the popular list of heinous transgressions.

As a man with an existentialist streak, I had believed that despair, not joy, got last say.

And as someone who wanted to run my own life, I had not believed the love of God in Jesus Christ, but relentlessly rejected him.

I realized my wrong on both counts.

When I responded (one minute later? Ten minutes?), I asked, “How do I become a Christian?”

Bob shared with him Ezekiel 36:25–27, a promise from the God of hope:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezek. 36:25–27)

David continues:

Bob invited me to ask God for mercy. I beseeched God for mercy. God was merciful. Promises from eons ago proved true— God willingly saves, forgives sins, creates a new life, gives his own Spirit, promises great help to obey. He did all this. He found me and led me home. I was surprised by joy and by the love of Jesus.

David didn’t “ask Jesus into his heart.” Rather, he cried out to be rescued: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

In 1975 David met Nancy Gardner and then the following year he enrolled in Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pennsylvania. After marrying Nancy, or Nan Gardner the Powlisons had three children. Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF) was founded in 1968 and he became a counselor there, and became the most influential individual at CCEF.   David Powlison was known for writing about Jay Adams and the nouthetic counseling movement. From my research he pointed out the problems with the movement but later on embraced much of it when it made a resurgence in the 1990’s. In fundamentalist Neo-Calvinist theology, David Powlison made CCEF a giant. David published a number of books and pamphlets. Some of those writings that he penned include, “Good and Angry: Redeeming Anger, Irritation, Complaining, and Bitterness “, “God’s Grace in Your Suffering” , “Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture (Resources for Changing Lives)” , “Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually Broken” , “How Does Sanctification Work?” , “Speaking Truth In Love” , and “The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context.” Even when David Powlison was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer he worked part time at CCEF up to the end. 

 

Remembering CCEF in the Community Evangelical Free Story of Elverson, Pennsylvania and Sovereign Grace Ministries Scandals 

One of the darker scandals this blog wrote about CCEF involved Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson, Pennsylvania. Steve Estes who is the Senior Pastor was extremely close to David Powlison. Steve Estes will no doubt be attending the funeral service of David Powlison. What had happened at Steve Estes church is that his son, Brock Estes had allegedly raped his wife, and on another occasion allegedly pointed a loaded gun at her. After she filed for divorce Steve Estes guided a church through the excommunication of his former daughter-in-law. In a way to avoid church discipline and excommunication the church encouraged Hurit (her pseudonym name at The Wondering Eagle) to seek counseling at CCEF in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. What happened next is that CCEF deliberately turned away an alleged domestic abuse victim who was almost killed. Did CCEF do this to cooperate with a corrupt Evangelical Free church and allow for the chruch discipline to continue? Was CCEF backing away from the situation to turn away from the alleged illegalities that took place? Steve Estes after all was quite close to David Powlison. How close? Steve Estes used to pass out David Powlison’s personal cell phone number to members of his congregation at Community Evangelical Free Church.  Both of them allegedly referred business to each other and helped each other out financially. If you want to read the longer version of what happened, you can do so in, “Steve Estes and Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson, Pennsylvania: A Painful Story of Domestic Abuse, Inappropriate Church Discipline, and Failed EFCA Polity.” And then after everything happened David Powlison would fund raise in such a corrupt church. You can see the fundraising letter up above. It leaves me to ask the following question, does David Powlison have any integrity? You can read more in, “Community Evangelical Free Church Update: Should Christians Respond to David Powlison’s Fundraising Campaign in Light of how CCEF Treated an Alleged Domestic Abuse Victim? Plus a Congregation Meeting and Brock Estes Proudly Displays his Gun Collection on Facebook.” 

There is another situation that is deeply disturbing. David Powlison was also allegedly close to C.J. Mahaney. And from what this blog has learned in the past there was allegedly a close business relationship between CCEF and Sovereign Grace Ministries. Sovereign Grace hemorrhaged stories about child sex abuse and more. They were dark, disturbing  and sadly also common. You can read more about it in this Washingtonian article. Sovereign Grace churches used and pushed David Powlison’s material  in their congregations. Their books were used, promoted, utilized in Bible studies and counseling situations as well. Now in all likelihood due to how closely CCEF and Sovereign Grace functioned there must have been a memorandum of understanding that was signed between the two organizations. After all CCEF is a business as is Sovereign Grace. They both existed for the purpose of making money that was done under the guise of Biblical counseling. 

 

Deep Concerns About Biblical Counseling 

This blog takes a very pejorative view on the topic of Biblical Counseling because of the harm that it has done in many people’s lives. David Powlison was one of the key leaders in the movement and CCEF played a major role. In October of 2013 the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors changed its name to the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). The organization that Jay Adams founded in 1976 had changed its name. CCEF was to be the organization that empowered ACBC by being the training arm of the movement. CCEF published and pushed a lot of material that found its ways into many churches across the United States. The agenda that CCEF and ACBC had is that sufficiency of scripture was the key factor. People were discouraged from seeing psychologists or psychiatrists. The problem was sin and people were instructed to read their Bible, process Christian counseling material and to avoid programs that were secular. Many Biblical counselors were poorly trained or not trained at all. 

This blog is deeply concerned about Biblical counseling because of the harm that it has done to many people. Biblical counseling is a way for people to white wash allegations of criminal activity in a church. A child could be raped but don’t go to the police see your local Biblical counselor. Since many Biblical counselors are not certified they are not bound by many of the same ethics beliefs and laws that are the conformity for many psychologists and mental health professionals. Many Biblical counselors are not certified by the state that they reside and they as such can get away with much more. Biblical counseling is a shady profession and one that is fraught with problems and issues. People have had mental health issues become worse. Individuals who suffer from mental illness can be denied the treatment they need. In other cases people are discouraged from taking medicine for such mental health issues like depression, ADHD, bi-polar, anxiety and many other conditions. So the question that needs to be asked is how many lives were destroyed over the years? How many people that had depression committed suicide because they were discouraged from having qualified mental health counselor who was licensed treat and help them? How many people needlessly suffered anxiety, bi-polar or other conditions that could have learned how to manage the situation through medical treatment. These questions are legitimate and need to be asked in many ways. 

 

The Tragic Irony of the Wasted Life of David Powlison 

So here is the situation, some people may ask me why I am I writing such a hard hitting post in light of someone’s death? Afterall the memorial service isn’t even planned. Well the reality is that in the days to come many people in the Neo-Calvinist movement will shower David Powlison with praise. They will claim what a godly man he was. How he honored and served the Lord. How he was faithful to scripture and stood up for the Bible. You will hear all this and more from the likes of Matt Chandler, Kevin DeYoung, Ray Outland, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Owen Strachan and many other like minded individuals. And despite the problems that existed in the ministries that David Powlison promoted and supported – no one will say a word about that the other issues. 

Let me put it to you in another way. Do you remember when Jerry Falwell died in May of 2007? So when Falwell died many people praised that such a man lived. You could watch a video on CNN or another journalistic source and you would watch Falwell blaming the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 on feminists, gays, liberals and the ACLU. Then you would hear people praising Falwell and his moral integrity and love and you were left scratching your head. Did these people hear the same Jerry Falwell that I did? The situation with David Powlison will be similar but in a different manner. He will be showered with tributes, affection and people will talk about how the Kingdom is better because such a man lived. But in reality I look at the scandals in ministries like Sovereign Grace and think of how David Powlison helped to support and prop them up. So here is the supreme irony as I reflect on this situation. David Powlison in his life talked about his conversion to Christ and how he wanted a life of meaning. A life that was purpose filled and honoring to God. Now at the end of his life can we say that happened? In light of John Piper and the famous seashell example of a wasted life, can you imagine David Powlison saying, “Look Lord look at these ministries that I helped to support! Look at Sovereign Grace and more!” And that is among all the child sex abuse, domestic abuse victims and the destroyed and shattered lives who  were harmed by fundamentalism. If David Powlison isn’t an example of a wasted life than I don’t know what is.  The fact of the matter is that he could have taken a lot of action and pushed back. He could have blown the whistle on the issues in Sovereign Grace. Instead he put his own financial interest ahead of all these stories. Sovereign Grace benefited financially from CCEF and David Powlison made his share of his finances through a corrupt financial racket. That is something I don’t think one should be proud of and in the end it also is a sad legacy. David Powlison’s life was a waste because he dedicated himself to supporting corrupt ministries and organizations. May that be remembered and in his death may this cause many people to wonder and contemplate what organizations they are supporting. 

9 thoughts on “How Should David Powlison of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation Be Remembered?

  1. …shower David Powlison with praise. They will claim what a godly man he was. How he honored and served the Lord. How he was faithful to scripture and stood up for the Bible.

    Considering you’ve got Christians saying the same about Donald Trump, that’s not that credible an endorsement.

    Though after a skim of the top (especially Powlson’s conversion story), I wonder if one of the dynamics in play with Powlson was “It Worked for Me, It WILL Work for Everybody!”. It’s a common tendency, but it leads to square peg, round hole, and one-size-fits-all sledgehammer:
    “YOU’LL FIT!”
    SMASH!
    “YOU’LL FIT!”
    SMASH!!!
    “YOU’LL FIT!”
    SMASH!!!!!
    (Especially when you factor in the Army proverb: “If at first you don’t succeed, GET A BIGGER HAMMER.”)

    And the blogs are full of Biblical Counseling casualties who were on the receiving end of That Bigger Hammer.

    Like

      • When the alternative is the Great White Throne as drawn by Jack Chick…
        “BEGONE FROM ME, YE CURSED, INTO EVERLASTING FIRE! JOIN THE DEVIL AND HIS ANGELS!”

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Endorsements from 9Marx, TGC, the Pious Piper…
    I don’t know if I’d want to be connected to and eulogized by such a rogues’ gallery of Christian Leaders(TM) whose names pop up in spiritual abuse blog after church corruption whistleblower blog.

    Oh, and Wenatchee the Hatchet coined a term recently which fits Biblical Counseling(TM):
    BIBLE SOAKING.
    Gotta remember that one.

    Like

      • And we’ve both been on the receiving end of those beatdowns. Has quite an effect on your attitude, though you had a more intense but shorter duration “Take Your God and Shove It!” reaction than I did.

        When you look at it from the outside, it’s just another manifestation of Christianese One-Upmanship and Virtue Signalling “I Am Holier/More Devout/More Christian Than Thou”.

        Liked by 1 person

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