Rebellion and Stubbornness

by Matthew Raley We've been seeing that the sin of rebellion is, at its core, a refusal to deal with reality.

Moses' description of Israel in Deuteronomy 31-32 shows a nation unwilling to worship the real God, serving only their imagined deities. They were unwilling to face the real past and present truthfully, but fabricated bitter histories. And they were unwilling to face life with humility, preserving a deluded superiority with scoffing.

The fourth characteristic of rebellion in Deuteronomy is foolish obstinacy. Repeated experience of reality will not turn Israel from folly.

Moses calls the people “stubborn” (31:27), noting that their rebellion during his life will only intensify after his death. In his song, he dramatizes their refusal to listen, calling them “foolish and senseless,” and pleading (32:6-7), “[A]sk you father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you.”

Yet again, this is a quality all too familiar in the nation’s history.

The Lord called the people “stiff-necked” after they made the golden calf (Exodus 32:9). Nothing had changed by Ezekiel’s time. The Lord warned him (Ezekiel 3:7), “But the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me. Because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart.”

Again, the logic of rebellion dictates this attitude. No rebel can admit having learned from anyone except himself. To learn from experience would be to admit that he was wrong. To listen to others would be to admit that their priorities matter. To be taught, by definition, is to be turned from one’s own way. None of these things are tolerable.

The rebel would rather self-destruct than submit.

Now, there is an important consideration for a parent in this regard. I worry about a child who has no fight.

One of the biggest reasons I am against authoritarian parenting systems that emphasize compliance -- systems like Michael Pearl's, for example -- is that they are designed to break a child's will. Not soften. Break. That is why Pearl describes his system in terms of conditioning animals.

It doesn't take too much acquaintance with life to realize that a child is going to need his or her will to be strong. Adults have to make decisions, and make their decisions stick. Christ calls us to persevere against the world's constant wickedness. A Christian's duty is frequently to stand alone.

In light of this, I am not raising compliant boys. I am fortifying their wills for the days ahead, when they will need every last bit of resolution for godliness.

Is there a difference between resolution and obstinacy?

I believe there is. I've noticed that resolute people are able to persist in moving toward their goals because they adapt. They are profound learners, and quick listeners. That is, they do not ignore reality, but find real ways around real barriers.

A resolute leader such as Lincoln offers a good example. He refused to consider any outcome of the Civil War but restoring the Union. But in his drive toward that goal, he adapted to circumstances constantly. He changed his generals, maintained political coalitions, and managed the timing of such pronouncements as the Emancipation Proclamation. He adapted.

So how do we foster a resolve that is tempered by a willingness to learn?

Teaching a high view of God is the answer once again. When our children are taught to listen to him, to learn his ways, and to pursue his goals, they inherit a balance of traits than can only come from reverence. Our awe of God teaches us both what is yet to be learned and what must never be compromised.

Next week, we'll discover from Deuteronomy what may be the most important point of all about rebellion.

The R-Word

by Matthew Raley

I have found myself writing on parenting lately. The cloud that has settled in recent weeks over Michael Pearl's dangerous parenting system is one reason. Another reason is that I am working on a book about how God passes his fatherly virtues to men, and makes them sources of vitality for their families.

In developing this book, I've been interviewing my dad. I'm grateful for my parents and their firm, grace-filled love. So Dad and I have been talking about the trials of men in general, and how Christ transformed him through his struggles.

One of the issues that comes up repeatedly is Dad's colorful past as a rebel. In his youth, he rebelled against the Baptists -- a common enough target. But in the midst of his career among hippies, he realized that their counter-culture was just fundamentalist legalism on acid. He still had to look right and talk right and have acceptable opinions. So he rebelled against hippies too. After he began following Christ, he rebelled (in no particular order here) against contemporary worship songs, Arminianism, and Christian parenting books (irony duly noted).

He came by his rebellious tendencies honestly. His father was a professional baritone who seems to have fired a succession of voice coaches. Dad's mother found ways around church rules against playing cards and wine. His grandmother was shunned by the Amish for wearing straw hats. So the Raleys have a soft spot for rebels.

However, Dad told me in our interviews that his goal as a father was to lead my brother and me away from rebellion. He had two important intuitions. First, he saw that a father's role is to help each of his children form unique identities. But, second, he saw that all human identity has to be formed in response to God's authority. Rebellion perverts identity.

Dad recognized what most evangelicals have forgotten: rebellion is a sin.

Most evangelicals now think of it as a stage. Rebelling against authority is a necessary part of growing up. After the 1960s, many Christian parents feared they would make rebellion worse with too many rules, some almost abdicating their parental role when their kids turned 13. (12? 10?) To most evangelicals, the concept of rebellion as a sin is unmentionable -- as if it were uncouth to bring up the r-word in sophisticated company.

The Bible is clear on this subject. Samuel says (1 Samuel 15.23), "For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry."

Two fascinating things about this verse. First, the parallelism compares rebellion with presumption or insubordination as synonyms. Rebellion is the disregard or overthrow of authority. Second, Samuel compares rebellion with occult worship -- that is, with the attempt to control things that are only controlled by God. He is saying that a rebel strives through perverse means to gain power.

Rebellion in a child is no phase. It confuses personal identity with control. It is lawlessness animated by wounded pride.

There has been a change in parenting attitudes over the last couple of decades. A growing minority of young families are reasserting parental authority and influence. The increasing use of home schooling, and the rising popularity of replacing dating with courtship are evidence of this shift.

So are Michael Pearl's sales figures.

Parents who believe they should use the legitimate authority God has given them to nurture their children are absolutely right. Children need strong parents. Tools like home schooling can serve this aspiration well.

But parenting systems that employ behavior modification and promise total compliance are not the answer. Identity formation is a God-ordained process of maturing into adulthood. It is not rebellion. Parents need to recognize this process as a normal part of growth, and should not fear it or try to dominate it. There are profound differences between using authority and becoming an authoritarian -- differences of tone, methods, and goals.

We need to restore the r-word to our vocabulary because it clarifies many of these issues. The restoration needs to start with an examination of the sin of rebellion biblically -- what rebellion is, and what it is not. I will use the next several weeks here to lay out the case.

The Behavior Modification Gospel

by Matthew Raley

So, I'm watching the ads on "mute" and I notice the repetitive cycling of images. One public service spot against smoking goes like this: parent takes a drag from a cigarette, kid puffs on his asthma inhaler, parent with smoke, kid with inhaler, smoke, inhaler, smoke, inhaler.

Soon, I'm fighting for breath myself.

This is the state of California spending yet more money it doesn't have to change the behavior of its citizenry, and using the time-honored marketing tactic of repetition. It will probably work. I feel guilty by the end it and I've never smoked a cigarette.

Our society is mad about behavior modification. It works.

B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) became one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century by applying a simple discovery. He observed that, if you wanted a rat to press a bar, prodding him with stimuli was less effective than rewarding him after he pressed it. Skinner taught how positive and negative reinforcement could change behavior.

The applications go well beyond marketing and management.

On June 25, 2006, the New York Times published an article called, "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage." Author Amy Sutherland related that, in the course of researching a book about animal trainers, she had an epiphany. "I listened, rapt, as professional trainers explained how they taught dolphins to flip and elephants to paint. Eventually it hit me that the same techniques might work on that stubborn but lovable species, the American husband."

Could she get her husband to pick his dirty shirts off the floor and put them in the hamper? By rewarding small steps toward the desired outcome, she found that, lo, she could.

Her article was on the most-emailed list for a long while.

Evangelical parents are keen to train their kids in the right behaviors, and their focus is overwhelmingly on  modification strategies. Here is some advice on how to deal "creatively" with lying:

Draw up a contract with your child. After everyone agrees that lying, for example, is a cause for correction, establish and transcribe a reasonable punishment. Have you and your child sign and date the document. Then, whenever a situation comes up that would invite lying, gently remind him about the contract. Knowing that you will follow through on the penalty may be the extra incentive your child needs to choose to tell the truth.

Notice that the decision about lying is incentivized. The child makes a voluntary agreement about the punishment, and is reminded of it under temptation. If this scheme works, the child is not being taught to tell the truth, but to negotiate and weigh consequences. If I wanted to nurture a little pragmatist, this is exactly what I would do.

More from the same article:

Last week we ran into a few "heart" issues with Haven. It all came to a head when we caught her lying. Her correction has been to listen to the New Testament on tape. She usually gets to listen to an Adventures in Odyssey tape, but for the next 20 nights she will be filling her heart with the Truth.

Not the New Testament, Mom! Anything but that! Sentimentalizing the consequence with the words "filling her heart with Truth" doesn't cover up the fact that the Bible is being used as negative reinforcement.

Locally, we are dealing with the dark side of behavior modification in the killing of a 7-year-old girl. Michael Pearl's teaching on parenting is now under deserved scrutiny, not because he advocates child abuse (which he does not) but because of his extreme views about training children.

Pearl repeatedly compares children with animals, and uses the words training and conditioning interchangeably, as here (To Train Up a Child, p 12):

If the dog learns through conditioning (consistent behavior on the part of the trainer) that he will never be allowed to violate his master's command, he will always obey. If parents carefully and consistently train up a child, his or her performance will be as consistently satisfying as that rendered by a well trained seeing-eye dog.

"Performance." "Consistently satisfying." Even if that expansive claim were true, I wouldn't want my sons to obey like dogs. I want them to obey as respectful human beings.

Pearl makes an easy target, with this kind of irresponsible comparison and with his outlandish doctrine. But our culture as a whole is fixated on behavior modification. From marketing to management to relationships, we are profoundly manipulative. And evangelical Christians are little different.

I believe Christian parenting can demonstrate the power of Jesus Christ. Christ does not condition children for performance; he raises them up in new life. A parent's job is to guide a unique little person, made in the image of God, to his or her Savior.

This starts with recognizing that the child's soul and conscience are able to relate to God directly, apart from our control (Luke 1.39-45; Matthew 18.1-4; Mark 10.13-16). Further, a wise parent does not frame behavioral issues in terms of giving a satisfactory performance, but in terms of the new life Christ gives (Colossians 3.1-17).

Our parenting should be about Christ, not about us.

It's time to reject the degrading puppetry of behavior modification, regardless of whether the puppeteer is a fundamentalist or a psychologist. We need to engage firmly, humbly, and humanely with children's souls.

Excellent Resource For Questions About the Pearls

by Matthew Raley I just found this post by Rey Reynoso on Theologica. It is a thorough treatment of what Michael and Debi Pearl teach from a theological and exegetical perspective. Reynoso's discussion of the Pearls' use of Proverbs is particularly insightful.

For those who accept at face value the Pearls' claims to be biblical, this is a post to spend time on.

Pearl Of Too Great a Price

by Matthew Raley

After I criticized Michael Pearl's teaching on parenting last week (here and here), I've heard a recurring question. Should we throw out a teaching that has helped so many struggling parents just because some points of doctrine are wrong?

Christian parents today are indeed struggling, often desperate to prevent their children's falling away from Christ. Especially in the last twenty years, many have heeded the claims that righteousness is a matter of training. They want a system that yields results.

Please read this opening sentence from A. W. Tozer's The Root of the Righteous with care:

One marked difference between the faith of our fathers as conceived by the fathers and the same faith as understood and lived by their children is that the fathers were concerned with the root of the matter, while their present-day descendants seem concerned only with the fruit.

In the criticism of Pearl's teaching over the last several weeks, there has been a focus on the fruits of his system. But there has been a dearth of pastoral leadership calling believers back to the root of the matter.

I want to appeal to those parents who say they've seen fruit in applying Pearl's teaching. I understand that you don't want to throw the baby out with the bath. But you can't ignore the connection between Pearl's doctrine and practice.

A child cannot relate to God, he says. Before the "age of accountability," a child is "too young to fathom God," and needs a "surrogate god" in the form of a parent "until he is old enough to submit himself to The Eternal God."

The parent, as God's "surrogate," purifies a child's guilt through spanking. Pearl teaches this point in detail under the heading, "The rod purges the soul of guilt," in his "Defense of Biblical Chastisement, Part 1." Pearl states, "The properly administered rod is restorative as nothing else can be. It is indispensable to the removal of guilt in your child. His very conscience (nature) demands punishment, and the rod supplies the needs of his soul, releasing him from his guilt and self-condemnation."

In this section specifically devoted to the nature of guilt and its remedy, Pearl does not mention anything about the cross of Jesus Christ. Not a single word. He says nothing about Christ purging our sin and cleansing our conscience, finally and eternally.

If you admire Pearl's fruit, I need to ask you, "How do you believe your child is saved from sin? Can your child, right now, approach the Eternal God's throne blameless by faith in Jesus Christ, the high priest? Or are you responsible before that throne for driving sin out of your child and making him or her righteous through training?"

To spank rightly in practice, you have to reject this teaching. If there is a baby in Pearl's bath, she has drowned.

I also feel the need to appeal to other parents -- a growing chorus -- who are shocked by Pearl's fruit.

Some of the fruit is indeed shocking. The killing of a child by people who apparently took the teaching to a logical extreme is a horror.

But what if Pearl's fruit did not appear so vile? What if Pearl's adherents all stayed perfectly within his stated limits for spanking? What if their fruit consisted solely of compliant, pleasant children who were helpful and never got in anyone's way? What would we say then?

I would say this.

Those most resistant to the gospel of forgiveness by faith alone in Christ alone are the compliant people whose childhood guilt was purged by many spankings, and who never depart in adulthood from the way in which they were trained up. As Pearl himself says (in the same section cited above), a child relates "to his parents in the same manner that he will later relate to God." Just try convincing a man trained this way that he needs, or could ever have, a Savior.

I urge my fellow critics of Pearl's teaching to talk about the Gospel. This is the moment to contrast Pharisaical legalism with the power of Jesus Christ.

I waited too long to research Michael Pearl. I'm grieved that I reacted to fruit instead of studying more deeply. Pastors, it's time for us to declare ourselves on the root of the matter. Our numbers are too small today (cf. this list). Join us!

Here is the root question I believe we have to raise with our congregations: "Is there any training that replaces Christ's all-sufficient righteousness?"

Our people need to see the great price of following Pearl.

Michael Pearl's Response To Critics

by Matthew Raley Here is Michael Pearl's response to those who have been warning about his teachings: laughter. You'd never know from his post that a girl had been killed. This is all about him, apparently.

By the way, what's up with this "our children" thing? Does he think he has millions of children?

You can read a devastating take-down of Pearl's statement to the Paradise Post at TulipGirl, who has been doing serious work on this issue.

Is Michael Pearl Responsible For a Girl's Death?

by Matthew Raley A few weeks ago, a prayer request went out at church for a family whose child had died suddenly. We later learned that the unnamed family was that of Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz, now charged with the torture and murder of their 7-year-old adopted daughter Lydia.

The couple will enter pleas on March 18th.

Many of our people know the Schatzes personally through home school groups, so the story has already hit them hard. Could the couple really have done this? What could have motivated them?

But Butte County D.A. Mike Ramsey asserts a "direct connection" between Lydia's killing and the teachings of Michael Pearl, raising the killing to another level. The story has been picked up by Salon, which had already run a critical examination of Michael and Debi Pearl in 2006.

Many of our people read the Pearls. Privately, I have been asked several times over the years about the Pearls' teachings, and my answer has always been, "They're authoritarians. Run away." I give the same answer about Bill Gothard and Gary Ezzo, other child-rearing gurus. Since Lydia's death, however, I have been looking more closely at the Pearls' teaching, and I need to make my views public.

Before doing so, I want to be specific about where I think Michael Pearl's responsibility lies in relation to Lydia's death. Local law enforcement investigators and national journalists have not accused the Pearls of advocating child abuse, being careful to quote Pearl's warnings against doing physical harm to children.

These critics are making a different argument, namely that Michael Pearl irresponsibly encourages abusers, even if the encouragement is unintentional.

I agree, and I want to show you that the encouragement toward abuse is in Pearl's theology. His false gospel imposes mandates on parents that go far beyond what God requires.

1. Michael Pearl does not believe in the imputation of Adam's sin to all human beings.

He writes, "When a descendent of Adam reaches a level of moral understanding (sometime in his youth) he becomes fully, personally accountable to God and has sin imputed to him, resulting in the peril of eternal damnation." Pearl adds, "When man reaches his state of moral accountability, and, by virtue of his personal transgression, becomes blameworthy, his only hope is a work of grace by God alone."

This seems like a minor quibble, but it is profound. The Bible's teaching that all human beings have an inherited sin nature means that no human institution has the ability to purge sin and do away with guilt. Only Christ can change our nature. Throughout history, teachers consistently attack this doctrine in order to tell their followers, "If you put yourselves under my authority, you can learn the secret to getting rid of your sins."

Pearl imposes on parents the mandate to form godliness in a child before the "age of accountability." Pearl believes that parents have a direct role in saving children. The "hope" he offers in "a work of grace by God alone" is for those whose parents failed.

2. Michael Pearl believes that spanking delivers a child from guilt.

Because Pearl does not believe you inherit a sin nature, he articulates a new doctrine of salvation that is dependent on a parent's will. In his article, "In Defense of Biblical Chastisement", he writes,

When a child is bound in self-blame and low self-esteem, parents are not helpless. God has given them the gift of the rod. The rod can bring repentance, but it goes much deeper than that. The rod in the hands of a righteous authority will supply the child’s soul with that moment of judgment that he feels he so deserves. Properly applied, with instruction, it will absolve the child of guilt, cleanse his soul, and give him a fresh start through a confidence that all indebtedness is paid [my italics].

That simply annuls the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Notice that forgiveness is granted only on the basis of the punishment of the sinner, and that a human "righteous authority" is the source of this "gift." "All indebtedness is paid," Pearl says, not by Christ, but by the rod. No parent can believe this statement without also believing that he or she has the authority to cleanse a child of guilt.

Pearl goes much further:

To the child, a righteous parent is a surrogate god, representing the rule of law and the bar of justice. When the child is yet too young to fathom God, he is nonetheless able to relate to his parents in the same manner that he will later relate to God. The properly administered rod is restorative as nothing else can be. It is indispensable to the removal of guilt in your child. His very conscience (nature) demands punishment, and the rod supplies the needs of his soul, releasing him from his guilt and self-condemnation. It is the ultimate enforcer, preserving the child in authority and discipline until he is old enough to submit himself to The Eternal God.

These statements are the logical and inevitable application of his semi-Pelagian view of sin. Before the age of accountability, O parent, thou art a god.

(For another detailed treatment of Pearl's teachings, cf this analysis.)

To spank a child as a reasoned limitation on his or her behavior is one thing. But to imagine that you are purging the child of the guilt of sin, and that the pain is psychologically purifying, is to cross into another rationale entirely. In the wrong mind, it forms the imperative to "give" more and more pain. Such a mind would ignore Pearl's warnings against abuse, to be sure, but not necessarily his logic.

The news accounts of "quarter-inch plumbing supply line" sold by Pearl are chilling, but nowhere near as disturbing as the doctrine he sells.