In determining whether a Christian should “trust” psychology, it’s necessary to know what psychology is—and what it’s not. Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behavior. The study includes topics such as intelligence, marriage and parenting, leadership, morality, art, psychological disorders, sleep, personality, discrimination, religiosity, and much more. Literally everything that involves humans (or even animals) is studied by psychologists. Therapy is only a small part of the field of psychology.
Psychology is a science, which means that psychological theories or ideas are tested in controlled and systematic ways by lots of different people. Psychology is not based on psychologists sitting around thinking about their own opinions or experiences and applying them to others. That is largely what Freud did, but little of what he said is accepted by modern psychologists who test their ideas.
The results of psychological experiments are shared and critiqued in peer-reviewed journals just as in the other sciences. The peer-review process allows experts in the field (usually three) to critique a study before it is published and vote on whether it should be published in that particular journal (there are many journals and many different reviewers). It is not a perfect process, but it does help prevent low-quality work and false or overstated claims from getting published.
With this basic understanding of psychology, we can now answer the question of should a Christian trust psychology? Much depends on what we are trusting psychology for. For the vast majority of what is taught in psychology courses, Christians should have no reservations about trusting it. Because psychology is so wide-ranging, we find in it useful descriptions and helpful suggestions for just about everything we do in life. Want to learn how to study more effectively, improve your marriage, raise children who will internalize your religious beliefs, or be more persuasive? Psychology can help with all those things and more.
What should we not trust psychology for? As a science, psychology can only tell us how people are and perhaps give some insights about why we are the way we are. It cannot tell us how people should be. That is, psychology has the same limitations as other sciences: it cannot opine on what is moral, who God is, or how to have everlasting life.
Psychology can give us tips on how to attain desired outcomes in this life, but it cannot tell us what leads to eternal life. Psychology can help us understand the factors that influence our desires and the likely consequences of acting on them, but it cannot tell us whether it is right to act on those desires. Psychology can describe interpersonal interactions and provide us with insight into managing our relationships, but it cannot change our hearts to love as God loves.
When it comes to trusting psychology, the Christian’s biggest concern comes down to the psychologists themselves. The field of psychology is composed of a diverse group of people with varying levels of education, different worldviews or religious beliefs, and unique areas of specialization. No psychologist can base 100 percent of his or her views on scientific evidence, and the gaps end up being filled in with the psychologist’s worldview. All people do this in some manner, and it is a necessary part of life, but when scientists do it, they are moving away from science into the realm of philosophy or theology. This holds true even when the view is shared by a large group of psychologists.
Christians often do not trust psychology when psychologists make philosophical statements about what is right and wrong or good and evil. Many psychologists, for example, argue that same-sex attraction is good and should be affirmed. They cite research showing that attempts to change sexual attraction are not very effective and that people experiencing same-sex attraction are better off when affirmed than when not affirmed. Christians have no reason to doubt the general accuracy of the data in this research; however, the moral conclusions are beyond science.
Whether same-sex attraction is morally good simply cannot be answered by science. Everything that psychologists study has positive and negative outcomes. Affirming homosexuality may have some benefits, but it also likely has negative outcomes, too. Unfortunately, the research on affirming homosexuality is very limited right now. It doesn’t usually make distinctions between affirming sexual orientation and being a supportive person, doesn’t usually look for negative effects of affirming, and has not tested wide-range outcomes such as the long-term effects, how it affects faith, and so on. Moreover, even if people are happier doing a certain thing, that doesn’t make the behavior right, and it doesn’t mean the happiness will last or lead to everlasting life. When psychologists make philosophical jumps from the “what is” to the “what should be,” often without realizing it, they go beyond psychological science and are no more trustworthy in their conclusions than anyone else.
Another area where psychology is potentially in conflict with Christianity is in therapy, which is just the practical part of what was discussed above. In most cases, both Christian and non-Christian psychologists will conduct therapy in a similar way and have similar outcomes. If you seek therapy for a phobia, both will use exposure therapy, and your chances of getting over the phobia will be the same with either therapist.
However, as issues get more complex, the views of the therapist might matter more. If you seek therapy for depression, a Christian and non-Christian therapist will likely treat you the same way, but in some cases they may differ on the cause and how they treat that cause. The difficulty here is that, in some cases, the Christian is more trustworthy, but in other cases, the Christian is less trustworthy. A Christian therapist who incorporates theology (not all Christian therapists do this, at least not directly) might be more likely to see sinful behaviors or wrong theological beliefs as a cause of depression. That conclusion might be right, but it could also be wrong. On the other hand, a non-Christian therapist might be more likely to attribute the depression to all or mostly biology and simply prescribe medication without doing therapy.
Again, as topics become more closely related to theological or moral topics, then the potential for conflict increases. If you (or your child) are experiencing same-sex attraction, a non-Christian therapist will likely affirm the attraction and help you come to terms with being gay. This will likely affect the rest of your life and identity in a way that opposes biblical teaching. Depending on their theological views, some Christian therapists will do the same, but most will likely help you to live well with same-sex attraction. Some will also try to change it, although such attempts are becoming increasingly rare.
For these reasons, it’s probably better to seek therapy from a licensed Christian psychologist with the best credentials you can find—someone with an APA- or CACREP-accredited degree. For more day-to-day issues, a pastor is a great resource, but if the issue is more severe, seeking licensed professional help can be beneficial.
You don’t have to see a Christian counselor to get good therapy. Depending on your reason to seek counseling, any psychologist will likely give you similar advice and treatments, although bias and worldview are more likely to play a role when a moral issue is involved. When choosing a therapist, don’t be afraid to ask questions about methods or theological beliefs before beginning care. This holds true even with Christian therapists.
In the end, Christians can usually trust psychology when it comes to descriptive claims about the way people typically think and act. However, when psychologists make philosophical claims about how things should be, then we should be less trusting. Describing cognition and behavior is often relevant to morality, but they are categorically different things, so we should be careful not to confuse these areas.
In all cases, study the Scriptures, learn theology, and test everything (1 Thessalonians 5:21), regardless of where it comes from.