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Carl Rogers –

Father of the Emergent Culture

By Sarah H. Leslie*

[NOTE: This article was originally published in 1993. It was rediscovered recently while sorting old papers. It is timely and applicable to the current series Herescope has been running on the early history of the Emergent/Emerging church movement. The context of the early Emerging Church culture was Humanistic psychology with all of its tenets and practices, which were being imported into the evangelical and Protestant churches indiscriminately and wholeheartedly at the time.]

Dr. Carl Rogers is the founder of what is termed client-centered or person-centered therapy. It is difficult to distinguish his impact upon the field of psychotherapy from his overall impact upon American society. Enormous transitions were made in the 1960s when Rogers, among others, pioneered the advance of psychotherapeutic techniques and philosophies into schools and society. Rogers propelled his methods and ideas outside of the stifling confines of the authoritarian counseling office, which was still largely functioning in a Freudian mold at the time. He was at the forefront of the immensely popular encounter group movement, which rapidly transformed churches, schools, businesses and personal lives. His use of language, his style, and his ideas have so thoroughly permeated the culture, that it is now difficult to distinguish them.

It is important to understand Rogers from a Christian perspective. The task is arduous, and one risks oversimplifying and overgeneralizing the issues. The sheer volume of published works by Rogers, his critics, and researchers, as well as his continuous revisions and updating, force one to carefully narrow the focus of any analysis. This post will attempt to focus on some of Rogers’ basic underlying premises and compare and contrast them with Scripture. Because his ideas have penetrated the culture so thoroughly, it is difficult, if not impossible, to unravel them. Yet the basic, foundational ideology is preserved in Rogers’ counseling theory and practice, from which all other ideas and techniques emerged.

In order to understand Dr. Rogers, it is essential to go back to his basic counseling theory. It is here that one will find detailed accounts of his view of the basic nature of man. Rogers’ background plays no small role in this, for he broke psychological and religious ties with his family to come to his own beliefs. He was influenced by the views of John Dewey, Sigmund Freud and Soren Kierkegaard. One can clearly see the influence of both modern Humanism and Existentialism upon Rogers. Further, his view of man is based, in part, upon Phenomenology, which uses personal, subjective knowledge as the foundation for an abstract, “scientific” psychology of human beings.

At its core, Rogers viewed the nature of man as intrinsically good, trustworthy, and rational. It is from this foundation that Rogers built his entire premise: that man has an inherent tendency toward actualization, growth, health, adjustment, independence, and autonomy. Each aspect of Rogers’ philosophical and practical counseling system is based upon the view that man is progressing towards self-actualization. When this is thwarted, man develops mechanisms to cope, which ultimately result in the need for counseling. Everyone has their “actualizing tendency” thwarted, especially in early life, especially by their parents; therefore, everyone is a potential candidate for therapy. This explains the nearly institutionalized societal belief that “everyone needs counseling.”

The theory that one is damaged when their actualizing potential is stifled explains the rapid rise of preventative measures and self-esteem programs that intervene early in a child’s life, or during periods of crisis. Rogers’ views have significantly impacted child-raising theories and practices, and have provided fertile ground for social reformers. According to Rogers, parents impose boundaries on behaviors that the child finds satisfying or pleasurable, thus forcing the child to become untrue to themselves. The imposition of parental values upon the child is viewed by Rogers as a negative; it can cause the child to develop a self-concept that is incongruent with many organismic experiences based upon his/her actualizing tendency. An experience that the child thought was satisfying then becomes associated with loss of love and a diminished self-esteem. This creates what Rogers terms incongruence, resulting in anxiety, and sets defensive mechanisms in operation.

These ideas about self-esteem, promulgated by Dr. Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow (in his well-known “Hierarchy of Needs”), have so thoroughly penetrated both secular and Christian society that they are rarely called into question or challenged. They became part of the popular culture’s worldview, and were subsequently mainstreamed into churches via revised Sunday School curricula, bestselling books, and other religious media. In the wider culture, Rogers’ basic ideas gave rise to the self-centered, self-focused, self-gratifying “Me Generation,” which quickly degenerated into utter hedonism.

The Christian view of the nature of man directly contradicts the Rogerian belief in the natural goodness of man. The Bible teaches, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:22) Man is not innately good, but rather his nature has been altered irreparably by the Fall. His condition is irredeemable, except for God’s provision of His Son, Jesus Christ, and His finished work on the Cross. Man cannot overcome his basic fallen nature. His ultimate problem is not his early life, or his past, or the thwarting of his actualizing potential. Man’s problem is sin, and he cannot save himself.

In the Scripture there are only two conditions of man, saved and lost. All are sons of Adam and are affected physically, emotionally and spiritually by the Fall. Man is guilty. When that guilt is assuaged at the Cross by the shed blood of Christ, man is profoundly changed. “I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the So of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20) Redeemed man, then, has a reference point for his guilt. “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.” (Romans 6:6) Regenerate man is much more than a formerly guilt-ridden personality; he is a new creature. “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) Unredeemed man is guilty. Scriptures make is abundantly clear: the only way to overcome guilt is through repentance and confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Regenerate man is then indwelt by the Holy Spirit, a fact that means nothing to Humanists. It is the indwelling Holy Spirit that enables a man to change his thoughts and behaviors. “For is ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” (Romans 8:13) The daily, moment-by-moment process of sanctification is what transforms the Christian into the likeness of Christ. This process includes the mind: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” (Romans 12:2)

The Great Permissiveness

Man, in both moral and mortal dilemma about his basic condition of sin, encounters a permissive Carl Rogers who believes in no absolutes. Moral behavior is defined without parameters because of Rogers’ inherent belief in the basic goodness of man. Rogers believes that man will always hearken to congruence, to the good, to the best for Self, to the actualizing tendency. Therefore, the typical, traditional Rogerian counseling session has no external regulations because Self is seen as the center, the regulator, the final criteria for behavior. Self will find a way.

Behavior that is inconsistent with self-concept is categorized as “incongruence” or “dissociation” according to Rogers. The self-concept is always fundamentally good, but one’s life experiences can alter one’s perception of Self. If the Self is not valued and given consistent unconditional positive regard, then this creates anxiety. Counseling is the process whereby the behavior becomes congruent with the self-concept, thus relieving anxiety. (Note that the behavior does not become congruent with the external criteria of Scripture.) Therefore, the role of the counselor is to be the permissive, empathetic, compassionate assuager who allows the authentic Self to begin to actualize. Self is catered to and Self thrives. Ideal relationships, then, optimize self-concepts and do nothing to thwart the actualizing tendency by putting up barriers.

The Scriptures, however, make it clear that man is in need of barriers. Man must resist sins and the temptation to sin. “Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.” (Romans 6:13) Ten essential barriers are spelled out in the Ten Commandments. The Scriptures make it abundantly evident that sin starts in the heart: “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) Man’s proclivity to commit sin is a key Christian doctrine which flies in the face of the “actualizing tendency” doctrine of Carl Rogers. Removing barriers and restraints upon human behavior only serves to increase the likelihood that man will engage in sin.

If one rejects Rogers’ underlying premise that man is inherently good, then it follows that one must also question the rest of Rogers’ foundation. Clearly, Self is not to be catered to. Self is supposed to die! “Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.” (2 Corinthians 4:10) And, again: “Therefore we are buried with Him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4)

Self-esteem teaching and preaching fails to take Self up Calvary road to the Cross. It allows “wiggle room” for sin, just like Rogers’ permissiveness. God’s grace is not to be confused with permissiveness. “Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:11) Permitting sin ushered in a new era of tolerance. The church eventually adopted a hybrid of Rogers’ self-esteem gospel, teaching that man is basically good, but in need of a bit of tweaking, revamping, gentle prodding, technical assistance and wooing.

Scripture teaches that man is created in the image of God. Man bears that image and it was not eradicated by the Fall. Man occupies a unique position in creation, and in the heart and mind of God. Man has worth because God has imputes him worth. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) The Existential and Humanist views of man, which influenced Carl Rogers, create a void which denies the special nature of the creation of man. Scripture repeatedly demonstrates that there is a profound and unique difference between man and other creatures. This Existential void was easily and rapidly filled by Eastern mystics, who see man as indistinct from the rest of creation. Christian theology, influenced by Eastern mysticism, then gives rise to the belief that man’s only uniqueness is one of role – that he is merely a “steward” over the rest of creation. And in this context, a heresy rapidly gained ground teaches that man is self-actualizing into an image-bearer, a co-creator, approaching godhood.

The Nondirective Church

Rogers’ feelings-oriented ideas and practices quickly filled a vacuum in the impersonal, unresponsive Protestant churches of the 1960s. Rogerian techniques profoundly and rapidly influenced pastoral counseling across the entire theological spectrum, and appeared to create a real breakthrough in ministering to people’s needs.

The focus shifted to “meeting my needs” and exploring feelings.

Feelings quickly took precedence over facts. Feelings reigned supreme, and biblical doctrine was the baby thrown out with the bathwater.

Christian leaders embraced these techniques indiscriminately, without recognizing or acknowledging the underlying foundation which denies absolutes. But, Rogers’ insistence on the counseling practices that use compassion, empathy, genuineness and openness, arose out of a very different theological construct than Christianity. Rogers’ use of these techniques evolved out of his belief in man’s need for unconditional positive regard and his belief that man is his own ultimate moral authority. Rogers advocated for a controversial morally neutral position. In his world there were no sinful behaviors in need of rebuke (see Titus 1:13, e.g.).

But Scripture makes it clear that ministering is far more than simply exhibiting compassion and empathy. For example, “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient with all men.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14) In fact, the case could be made that one should avoid too much empathy and openness: “but yet I would have you wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil.” (Romans 16:19)

Another Rogerian technique, nondirectiveness, also substantially altered Christian ministry. Rogers’ use of nondirectiveness in counseling was founded on his belief that man is inner-directed. He conceived the therapist’s role in nondirectiveness as eliminating barriers to actualizing and allowing the client the freedom to explore new boundaries of self expression and awareness. A popular corollary to this is the assumption that the client will not “open up” unless there is a climate of acceptance and tolerance.

Non-directive counseling eliminates traditional authoritarian structures. It creates an artificial climate of acceptance which fails to account for the very real barriers imposed by Scripture. Nondirectiveness is accepting, warm, compassionate, but non-confrontive and never controversial. Nondirectiveness substantially fails to warn, admonish, and exhort. It fails to hold one accountable for sinful behaviors. It fails to direct one’s focus to the Cross and repentance. “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10) Nondirectiveness is glorified passivity. At its worst, it permits a person to do unthinkable deeds, or roam into gross error or terrible danger without warning. Nondirectiveness is the prophetic trumpet giving an uncertain sound (1 Corinthians 14:8).

Rogers can be credited with breaking societal barriers and redefining what constitutes a “normal” individual. The definitions of mental health were utterly changed. The path to self-actualization superseded rationality. Societal mores and codes of personal conduct were turned upside down. In this sense, Rogers was wildly successful in setting up a competing system to that which had previously governed society. Man had been governed, in the first half of the 20th century, (for the most part) by societal norms and rules of conduct that were heavily influenced by the Christian ethic. Carl Rogers, and an entire movement that erupted after him, left society and the Church dangling precipitously on some new affective ropes. Moral, rational man was “out.” “Getting in touch with myself” was “in.” Moral decency and codes of conduct went by the wayside. The touchy-feely “self-esteem” rhetoric quickly manifested itself in a huge glut of educational tools, popular media entertainment, self-help books and government-sponsored social programs.

In the church, a profound shift took out solid biblical exegesis and foundational knowledge about the Scriptures. The void in biblical understanding was filled by “how to cope” and “self-esteem” materials. Nowadays Rogers’ beliefs are intertwined like tentacles around traditional Christian doctrines. This is due to the fact that most seminarians never received solid training on the dangers of intermingling values and beliefs with Humanist psychological leaders such as Rogers. Rather, by the mid 1980s most seminaries had set up counseling and psychology programs of study which variously incorporated Humanistic foundations into Scripture, resulting in a mishmash that was, at its core, still Humanism.

Humanism then rapidly gave way to the modern mysticism that is so prevalent today. If one is on a search for more self-fulfillment, in the context of no boundaries, and in a permissive atmosphere of nondirectiveness, it is only logical that the spiritual lusts will then rise up and seek self-actualization and fulfillment. In Scriptures this is known as spiritual adultery and idolatry.

Since the 1960s, vast amounts of books and literature, and massive national Christian ministries have been built on Carl Rogers’ foundations. The modern church is only vaguely aware of the impact his ideas have had on their faith, their use of language and terminology, their view of Scripture, and their ideas about the basic nature of man. It is claimed that many people have been helped. But, at what cost? And where did it lead? Rogers’ shifting anchor of Self pulled many away from the Solid Rock that is Jesus Christ.

Rogers’ foundation, once laid, set the stage for the total “transformation” of the evangelical church.

The Truth:

“Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14)

*Sarah Leslie received an M.S. in counseling where she was trained in Rogerian psychology and counseling techniques (which she repudiated by God’s grace). The original version of this article was published in the Free World Research Report, January 1994, p. 9. For more information on this topic. see all of the many books and articles available from PsychoHeresy Awareness Ministries. For further interesting reading on this topic, see the article “Third Force Psychology in the Classroom.”