Psychological Savior: An Examination of the Teachings of Dr. James Dobson

By Martin & Deidre Bobgan

 [The following consists of extracts from the book by Martin and Deidre Bobgan--Prophets of Psychoheresy II, available from Eastgate Publishers, 4137 Primavera Road, Santa Barbara, Calif. 93110. This 310-page book critiques the teaching of James Dobson. All notes and references have been omitted from this article; for these we refer our readers to the book. We fear that New Evangelical ministries such as Dobson's are one of the greatest dangers to fundamental churches today. Through these psychology ministries New Evangelical thought and compromise is getting its head into the tent of fundamentalism.

 [We don't deny that Dobson has done much good. But that a ministry does good is no excuse for ignoring the error it promotes. We must remember that the great error with New Evangelicalism is not so much what it preaches, but what it DOES NOT preach. New Evangelical leaders will preach Christ crucified and will preach many sound Bible doctrines, but they WILL NOT preach against wickedness such as Romanism, and they WILL NOT separate from error. Brethren, if something is contrary to the Word of God, do not excuse it and apologize for it; reject it!]

 Dr. James C. Dobson is one of the most influential spokespersons in the evangelical spectrum of Christianity. Millions of Christians have listened to his daily Focus on the Family broadcast, and over fifty million people have viewed his Focus on the Family film series. Dobson's books are not only best sellers, but remain on the best-seller lists for years.

 His Focus on the Family magazine and church-bulletin-inserts supply weekly and monthly fare along with his books. His organization continues to expand its borders with over 700 employees. Dr. Dobson may indeed be the best-known and most respected man in twentieth-century American Christendom!

 An astounding number of Christians look to Dr. Dobson as an authority. His opinions and advice about children, the family, marriage, and society are held in high esteem. In fact, they are hardly considered opinions. They are received as authoritative truth, because of the current faith in psychology, especially when it is psychology practised by a professing Christian.

 While in past centuries such a revered position of authority among Christians would no doubt have been held by a theologian or pastor, Dobson came into this position through secular education.

 He holds the now-coveted title of "psychologist" rather than "theologian," although he was actually trained in education. He earned a Ph.D. in Education with a major in Child Development from the University of Southern California. According to the State of California Psychology Examining Committee, Dr. Dobson holds a general license. He chose "educational psychology" as his area of competency when he completed his oral examination in 1968. Under the license requirements he has the right to use the title "licensed psychologist" in California.


 Countless Christians look to Dobson as an authority on all matters of life and conduct because he carries both titles: "psychologist" and "Christian."

 Dr. Dobson uses the story-telling mode, which not only keeps his readers interested but gives a seeming reality to everything he says. Rather than relying on research, which may actually prove just the opposite of some of his conclusions, he uses case histories which emphasize and especially dramatize the points he wants to make. By avoiding certain theological doctrines and questions, he has made himself welcome in a great variety of religious settings.

 Dobson's first book, Dare to Discipline, was a breath of fresh air to Christian parents who were lost in the fog of permissiveness as promoted by secular psychologists and educators. He rightly criticized the proponents of permissiveness and their humanistic philosophy which allowed a child to do almost whatever it wanted with the idea that eventually it would respond positively to the parents' tolerance, patience, and permissiveness.

 Christians who were familiar with child-rearing admonitions in Scripture were uncomfortable with the teachings of permissiveness. They were relieved to find a readable book by a Christian educator and psychologist who seemed to teach biblical methods of child-rearing. Here was a licensed psychologist confirming what conservative Christian parents believed to be right.

 Dobson was not just some "lowly" pastor teaching about raising children from a biblical perspective. He was a "psychologist" who could give authoritative, pragmatic, psychological reasons and methods for disciplining children. He was a psychologist who could stand up to those other psychologists who had been preaching the permissive way.

 Dobson quickly endeared himself to mothers and fathers all over the nation. Dare to Discipline gave Christian parents the courage to discipline with spanking. It gave them a psychological rationale for a biblical method of child training.

Dr. Dobson's teaching also presents a strong emotional appeal to women. He encourages mothers who elect to stay at home with their young children instead of being pressured to have another career. He takes a strong stand on the importance of the parent-child relationship.

 In a superbly-folksy, down-home manner he gives assurance and counsel to wifes and mothers, endearing himself to them with remarks such as these: "To the exhausted and harassed new mother, let me say, `Hang tough! You are doing the most important job in the universe!' ... I am especially sympathetic with the mother who is raising a toddler or two and an infant at the same time. There is no more difficult assignment on the face of the earth."


 Here is a man who appears to understand the trials and tribulations of womanhood. And, here is a man who attempted to assist women by writing the book, What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew about Women.

 Dr. Dobson also engenders just enough fear to make women insecure about rearing children without his psychological understanding and teaching. One of his methods is through telling horror stories. He dramatizes the story of Lee Harvey Oswald's life to illustrate his point that inferiority and low self-esteem lead to disaster.

 Such stories of extreme situations of parental failure and childhood disaster capture attention. They also create fear that if parents don't do everything right [according to Christian psychology's methodology], their children may have similar catastrophes.

 After listing ways by which a child's self-esteem can be damaged, Dobson says: "...whereas a child can lose self-esteem in a thousand ways, the careful reconstruction of his personal worth is usually a slow, difficult process."

 Even his choice of words, such as "irreparable damage," "there is no escape," and the "damaged" child can engender fear in the heart of every caring parent.

 Psychological counselors who are also professing Christians contend that the Bible does not speak to every situation and therefore needs certain supplementation or integration with so-called psychological truths. There is an assumption that psychological theories contain truths that the Bible somehow missed.


 Dr. Dobson's faith in psychology can be seen throughout his books. He quotes numerous psychologists as authorities and recommends their books. Among the psychologists he cites authoritatively are Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, E.L. Thorndike, William Glasser, and Stanley Coopersmith.

 Throughout his books he recommends professional counseling. Moreover, Focus on the Family has become a vast referral system for Christians to be therapized by professional, psychologically-trained counselors. The staff at Focus on the Family refer those seeking a counselor to licensed therapists only. This excludes pastoral counselors who do not hold those degrees and licenses which require extensive course work in psychology.

 Our culture has come to view problems of living psychologically. Rather than looking at problems from a biblical viewpoint, many Christians have also come to perceive problems from a psychological perspective.

 A good example of this is the opening illustration of Dobson's book Hide or Seek: How to Build Self-Esteem in Your Child. In his graphic story-telling mode, Dobson says:

 "He began his life with all the classic handicaps and disadvantages. His mother was a powerfully built, dominating woman who found it difficult to love anyone."

 He then proceeds to tell about this mother's lack of affection, love, and discipline, and then of the rejection the young man experienced throughout his life. He tells about the boy's school failures, how he was laughed at and ridiculed in the Marines, how he therefore resisted authority, and how he was dishonorably discharged. Dobson continues the pathetic story of this supposed victim of circumstances with "no sense of worthiness."

 Then, after describing the man's bad marriage, Dobson writes: "No one wanted him. No one had ever wanted him. He was perhaps the most rejected man of our time. His ego lay shattered in a fragmented dust!"

 Near the end of the story, the man's identity is revealed. He was President Kennedy's assassin. Dobson concludes:

 "Lee Harvey Oswald, the rejected, unlovable failure, killed the man who, more than any other man on earth, embodied all the success, beauty, wealth, and family affection which he lacked. In firing that rifle, he utilized the one skill he had learned in his entire, miserable lifetime."

 Dobson wrote the story of Lee Harvey Oswald to make a strong point concerning feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem that Dobson believes are rampant among youth. He concludes the story with these words:

 "Thus, much of the rebellion, discontent, and hostility of the teenage years emanates from overwhelming, uncontrollable feelings of inferiority and inadequacy which rarely find verbal expression."

 Dobson's description of Oswald's life reveals a psychological viewpoint influenced by underlying ideologies of the Freudian unconscious Adlerian inferiority, and the humanistic belief in the intrinsic goodness of man and the universal victimization of the individual by parents and society.

 The culprit is society (mainly parents) and the diagnosis is low self- esteem with feelings of inferiority and inadequacy. In fact, those feelings are presented as overwhelming and uncontrollable and thus causing rebellion. Therefore the universal solution to personal problems, rebellion, unhappiness, and hostility presented throughout Dobson's books is raising self-esteem.

 While Dobson is careful to say that Oswald must still be held responsible for his criminal behavior, the thrust of the story emphasizes a kind of psychic determinism which led to his horrendous crime. In other words, Oswald is seen as a victim of circumstances and society.


 The primary point Dobson dramatizes is that if a person develops feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem he will have a miserable life which could lead in the same disastrous direction as Oswald's. He says:

 "The greater tragedy is that Lee Harvey Oswald's plight is not unusual in America today. While others may respond less aggressively, this same consuming awareness of inadequacy can be seen in every avenue of life."

 Therefore, the preventive medicine for society which Dobson presents throughout Hide or Seek is strategies for developing self-esteem and self- worth.


 Psychological solutions often seem to make sense when the problem is presented from a psychological viewpoint. However, is there possibly another way for Christians to look at such a life of misery and violence? What if the story had been written from a biblical, Christian perspective?

 One might say that the boy was born to a godless woman who neither cared for God nor for His gift of a child, a woman who exhibited the fruit of the flesh, who herself had either never heard of or else rebelled against the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Who was her only hope of salvation.

 Thus she brought up her son in the same sinful manner in which she herself lived, rather than in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Rather than teaching him the love of God through words and actions, she taught him her own evil ways of rebellion, blame, frustration, despair, and hopelessness.

 One might conclude that since she did not know the Savior, she was her own god, pursuing her own will and not caring a whit for others. Does not the Bible tell us about such a life lived according to the sin nature? (See, for example, Romans 1:21-32 and Ephesians 4:17-19.)

 Then as Oswald continued his life in this world, he also depended upon his own flesh. Evidently at no time in his life did he believe the Gospel and receive new life, for true faith in Jesus does transform a person's life from darkness into light, from despair to hope, from alienation into a love relationship that surpasses even the best that parents can give.

 If the story is told in the context of Scripture, both the analysis and the answers will come from an understanding of the law of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In short, the sin nature and its results are seen as the problem.

 If most Christians truly believed this, they would double their efforts toward evangelism and discipleship, of which biblical counseling is a small part. More would reach out to those who have been going the way of the world, the flesh and the devil with both the Truth of God and the mercy of God. More would be on fire for the Gospel. Instead, however, too many have been enticed by many other gospels offered by psychology and by those professing Christians who promote the psychological way.

 Unfortunately, however, these essential truths have become relegated to the "of course we all know that but..." category. They are looked upon as old- fashioned thinking and old-fashioned terminology.

 Dobson, however, views problems of living from a psychological perspective. In fact he contends that both Oswald and the other Kennedy assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, followed these steps to destruction:

 "(1) they experienced deep-seated feelings of inferiority; (2) they sought to cope by withdrawal and surrender; (3) their vain attempts to achieve adequacy were miserable failures; and (4) they exploded in violence."


 Again, this is a combination of Alfred Adler's theories about inferiority, Sigmund Freud's unconscious defense mechanisms, and the defunct "hydraulic model of energy" theory. Dobson calls this last theory a "psychological law." He says,

 "Remember this psychological law: any anxiety-producing thought or condition which cannot be expressed is almost certain to generate inner pressure and stress."

 In his book Emotions: Can You Trust Them? Dobson dramatically asserts:

 "When any powerful emotion is forced from conscious thought while it is raging full strength, it has the potential of ripping and tearing us from within. The process by which we cram a strong feeling into the unconscious mind is called `repression,' and it is psychologically hazardous. The pressure that it generates will usually appear elsewhere in the form of depression, anxiety, tension, or in an entire range of physical disorders."

 Researchers refer to this particular notion as the hydraulic model of emotions. The model says simply that if emotional energy is blocked in one place it must be released elsewhere. However, this is only an opinion. It is not a "psychological law" or a psychological fact.

 Dr. Carol Tavris says, "Today the hydraulic model of energy has been scientifically discredited." Nevertheless, many psychologists tend to expand the hydraulic idea to all emotions in spite of the opposing research. Therefore Dobson's "psychological law" is merely his Freudian opinion, which has anyway been scientifically discredited.

 Will we analyze problems according to ideologies behind secular psychologies, or will we analyze the problem according to God's Word? Will our solutions and goals be based upon psychological theories and the so- called hierarchy of needs (including the need for self-esteem), or will our solutions and goals be biblical?

 Will we look to human strategies for overcoming the problems identified by Dobson as low self-esteem and inferiority? Or will we trust God's ways of transforming sinners into saints through His Word and His Spirit, thereby enabling Christians to walk according to the Spirit rather than the flesh?

 Dr. Dobson's counsel is seldom based on the simple fact that God commands something. More usually, his counsel is pragmatic. It is based on the premise that something which works which is good for someone must be approved of.

 Dobson's pragmatic appeal can be seen throughout his work. His apparent reason for teaching parents to discipline their children is that it works. He quotes Jack London's words: "The best measurement of anything should be: does it work?" The reason is pragmatism. And, although he brings God into the picture by saying that properly applied discipline will help teach out children about God, he does not give God's will as the primary reason for disciplining children.

 Elsewhere he says: "The most magnificent theory ever devised for the control of behavior is called the `Law of Reinforcement,' formulated many years ago by the first educational psychologist, E.L. Thorndike. This is magnificent because it works!" (Emphasis added.) He says, "Good discipline is brought about by the intelligent application of this principle of reinforcement."

 Dobson has great confidence in the Thorndike Law of Reinforcement, which he quotes: "Behavior which achieves desirable consequences will recur."

 To illustrate the usefulness of reinforcement, Dobson tells how marvelously well this Law of Reinforcement worked on his dog, and that makes sense, because E.L. Thorndike was an animal psychologist, best known for his work in animal learning. He developed the "law of effect" and is in the same tradition as behaviorists Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson. Such behaviorism views humans as highly evolved animals. (The book Theories of Personality refers to Thorndike's law of effect as a "hedonistic formulation.")


 Dobson evidently believes that what works with dogs will work with human beings. In other words, he is recommending that, when it comes to training and discipline, parents should treat their children like animals. Dobson declares: "Rewards are not only useful in shaping animal behavior; they succeed even better with humans." He comes to his conclusions regarding rewards from animal psychology rather than from the Bible.

Dobson then presents this psychological theory as fact. He says, "It is an absolute fact that unreinforced behavior will eventually disappear. This process, called extinction by psychologists, can be very useful to parents and teachers who want to alter the characteristics of children."

 While this may be true of animals it is not always true of people. Because of the complexity of sinful humanity, and because other factors enter in, one cannot say categorically, "It is an absolute fact that..." In reality, many people remain entrenched in unproductive activities that continue in spite of adverse results.

 It is true that Dr. Dobson opposes the teachings of certain psychologists in his own field. Because every psychologist must choose from the various conflicting theories available to him, each one inevitably ends up, as Dobson does, disagreeing with other psychologists. Dobson rightly criticizes his colleagues who promote permissiveness. He declares that permissiveness is based upon the presuppositions (a) that people are born good, and (b) that if they are allowed to develop with as little interference as possible they will become wonderful people.


 But even though Dobson objects to these presuppositions of secular humanism, his own promotion of self-esteem comes from the same source--from humanistic psychologists who presuppose that people are born good, and that when their needs for self-worth, self-esteem, and self-actualization are met they will be good people. Dobson picks from the same tree as the promoters of permissiveness and offers the fruit to fellow Christians.

 Dr. Dobson, however, claims a biblical source for his teaching. He says:

 "How do my writings differ from the unsupported recommendations of those whom I have criticized? The distinction lies in the source of the views being presented. The underlying principles expressed herein are not my own innovative insights which would be forgotten in a brief season or two. Instead, they originated with the inspired biblical writers who gave us the foundation for all relationships in the home."

 This is an extremely important point which requires examination. We know that Dobson thinks that his source is the Bible, and yet the Bible does not teach a number of the concepts that he teaches, including the so-called needs for self-esteem, self-worth, and self-confidence.

 [The above report is from O Timothy magazine, Volume 8, Issue 8, 1991. O Timothy is a monthly magazine. David W. Cloud, Editor. All rights reserved. Annual subscription is US$20 FOR THE UNITED STATES. Send to Way of Life Literature, Bible Baptist Church, 1219 N. Harns Road, Oak Harbor, Washington 98277. FOR CANADA the subscription is $20 Canadian. Send to Bethel Baptist Church, P.O. Box 9075, London, Ontario N6E 1V0.]

[O Timothy Editor: The Holy Scriptures are sufficient for faith and practice, able to "make the man of God perfect, throughly furnished until all good works" (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Everything is to be brought to with the touchstone of the Word of God, and that which is contrary is to be rejected. This applies equally to false doctrine taught by a cults such as Mormonism or Romanism, or to New Evangelical ministries such as Focus on the Family. Beware of error which is clothed in the appearance of Bible- believing piety and wholesomeness.]