Legalism and the Christian School Movement, Part 2

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Note: Reading Part 1 of this series is recommended before reading Part 2.

Background

In the introductory article to this series, I suggested that Christ’s confrontations with the Pharisees are a valid source for determining whether or not we are practicing legalism. I was not writing at all from the “all Fundies are Pharisees” perspective so frequently employed against Fundamentalists. I assume that the prominent place the Pharisees have, and that our Lord’s rebukes of them have, in the Gospels suggests that our Lord is broadly concerned with such legalism. I believe these texts serve as a warning to all of us because legalism is entrenched deep in the fallen human heart and easily expresses itself in the lives of the redeemed unless we are very careful.

Thesis

In the first article, I admitted there are many fine Christian schools which do not operate in a legalistic fashion. But I believe that the majority of Christian schools operate with three fallacious legalistic premises prominent in their thinking.

  1. Man-made rules that prevent violations of God’s rules have inherent spiritual value (discussed in Part 1).
  2. Rules promote godliness, in that behavior change leads to heart change (dealt with here).
  3. Enforcement of righteousness is valid and valuable as a first step to sanctification (the subject of Part 3).

False Premise 2: Rules promote godliness, in that behavior change leads to heart change.

In Matthew 23:25-26 and related passages, the clear emphasis of Christ is that heart change (inward spiritual transformation) is the basis of all true transformation, whereas external transformation without inward spiritual transformation as its basis only invites ongoing inward corruption.

A bit of theological care is needed here. It would be too easy to argue that the mission should have been to persuade the young man in question of the dangers of the prom rather than merely forbid him (my personal position) but this solution is not the primary thrust of the passage.

The inward spiritual transformation that is needed as the basis of all external change begins, at least, with the coming of the Holy Spirit in salvation. The thrust of Christ’s condemnation of the Pharisees was that they thought their conformity to rules was sufficient. One of the purposes of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt, 5, 6, and 7) was to persuade a people immersed in this Pharisaical mindset that mere external rules were not enough. The following examples illustrate the pattern.

  • You’ve heard don’t kill. I say don’t hate.
  • You’ve heard don’t commit adultery. I say don’t lust.
  • You’ve heard don’t break a vow. I say just keep your word—vowed or not.
  • You’ve heard love your neighbor. I say love your enemy also.

The effect of these was to awaken the people to a higher spiritual need than mere conformity. Christ wanted them to understand the real depth of their need. In that sense, the Sermon on the Mount is a fine “pre-Gospel” message (though it is much more than just that).

The coming of the Holy Spirit to provide the power for inward transformation is a beginning that leads to a chance at real sanctification—not a mere veneer of holiness based on external compliance. The real sanctification process must never be presented to the student—whether in teaching or by example—as being a mere exercise in conformity to established norms of Christian behavior.

Having said this, it’s important to ask ourselves what message do we send by creating a rules-based system in our schools—particularly with rules that are associated so closely in the minds of our students with what it means to be righteous?

  • For too many administrators and teachers, the process of promoting righteousness is simplified to a matter of compliance to rules.
  • For too many students, compliance generates a faulty assurance, a self-righteousness that is the reverse of the kind of brokenness we need before God.
  • For too many parents and leaders in our movement, there is an arrogance about lifestyle—an ugly arrogance that is anything but Christian.

Rules too easily become a substitute for true Spirit-empowered change. While this is not an inherent condemnation of rules, it provides us with a motivation for great caution.

Rules must never become the end in themselves. Counseling, discipleship, mutual challenges to righteousness, and confrontations that unmask hidden motives, reveal secret sins, and expose prideful attitudes must be the nursery in which a true spirituality is nurtured. Too often, rules become the easy but far less effective substitute.

Practically speaking, I recognize that rules may inhibit a student from experimenting with certain sins during a period of rebellion and thus limit damage later in life when the heart is turned toward Christ. Even extra-biblical rules may do so. Even extra-biblical rules may do so. This is one of the common justifications for such rule structures being in place. But it’s important to remember that many times parents of students are not in agreement with the school’s rules. Sometimes, they are not in agreement with the spiritual intent behind those rules. In such cases, who will teach discernment? I would not put such rules in place at all. I think they tend toward legalism. But those who disagree and do use such rules must couple them with a very careful program to disciple and teach why they exist, what they mean, and the fact that they are the product of a discernment process that is similar to the kind of processes the student will need to exercise in adulthood. The discernment process should dominate in any discussion of extra-biblical spiritual standards, so that there is no confusion between explicit statements of God and the conclusions of man, and so that discernment skills can be sharpened (Heb. 5:14).


Mike Durning has been the pastor at Mt. Pleasant Bible Church in Goodells, MI for 15 years. He attended Hyles-Anderson College, Midwestern Baptist Bible College and Bob Jones University over 8 years and somehow emerged with a mere bachelor’s degree. Despite this defective planning, he somehow believes himself to be informed enough to have something to say to others. He lives in Goodells with his wife Terri and 18 year old son, Ryan, dog Lindsey, and about 12 chickens that have wandered into his yard and like it better than the neighbor’s yard. Mike is flattered if you call him a “young fundamentalist,” since he is 46 and is prone to self-deception on such issues. If you see someone on the street who looks like the picture of Mike, but with gray hair, it probably is Mike.

 

One crazy parent :)

I have tremendously enjoyed and thoroughly agreed with Parts 1 and 2 on this issue. Keep 'em coming.

As I've pondered this topic much over the years, what always comes to mind is that so much of the question of Christian education involves the nurturing and discipleship of children. This IMO should be framing every aspect of this discussion, because in Scripture the primary responsibility for child-rearing is given to the parent. I think it is important to ask to what degree parents can or should delegate their parenting tasks to others, and how responsive those delegates are to the needs and desires of the families they serve.

The question of schools acting en loco parentis was brought up http://sharperiron.org/article/legalism-and-christian-school-movement-pa... ]in the other thread , and while some don't really have a problem with in the en loco part, I do. If I delegate some aspect of parenting to someone else, I am still responsible for how that person/institution affects my child. IOW, the parent is not a servant to the school- the school should be a servant to the parent and supportive of the goals of the families it is assisting.

The Christian School Handbook enters stage left- and I would like to point out that I have no objections whatsoever to rules and policies that schools put in place to keep order on campus. But when that rulebook dictates to the family where they can go, what they can wear, and how they are to spend their time, then Houston, I think we have a problem. What happens, in my experience, is that most parents don't believe that a school should be dictating their off-campus conduct, but they do want their child to have a 'Christian education'. So they sign off on the handbook, agree to the school's policies, write a check for the tuition, and then encourage their child to obey the rules while at school- but once they are home, all bets are off.

This is one of the problems with rules of this nature, and the result is that kids are being taught Hypocrisy 101 by their parents. It isn't just the school's overreaching policies, but the parent's equivocation that is at fault here. That's why my opinion of Promgate was that the parent should never EVER agree to regulations to which they have no intention of adhering. We can't blame schools for being legalistic when parents are signing papers that say they will abide by the rules, knowing that they won't.

Education is not the sterile transmission of facts in a moral vacuum, but I do believe that most spiritual nurturing and character building should take place in the home, and not at school, and that is where these 'legalistic' policies come into play, because they are an attempt to build character and encourage spirituality, but definitely in a cart-before-the-horse kind of way. Good character is not the absence of bad behavior, but the exercise of Godly virtues. Strict adherence to rules makes it possible for people to assume they are of good character simply because they have avoided some sinful actions.

Every man has three characters -- that which he exhibits, that which he has, and that which he thinks he has. ~ Alphonse Karr

Various thoughts

As a former Christian school teacher and administrator, I found several obstacles that faculty and staff had to overcome multiple times each day in attempting to implement a proper understanding and application of the school rules.
1. Time - Properly explaining the purpose of rules takes time. I was blessed to teach the Bible classes and spent weeks explaining convictions and standards to students. (I did NOT do this in order to manipulate compliance. Standards are a part of life and Christians need to understand thoroughly this part of the Christian walk. God put two rather lengthy passages-Rom 14-15; 1 Cor 8-into Scripture about this.)

Properly administering discipline so that it is discipling r/th punitive takes an incredible amount of time, and time is always at a premium. It is almost always best to address discipline issues as soon after the offense as possible, but it wasn't always possible to immediately drop everything else and give an hour or two to that problem.

2. Students - Students fluctuated among several groups: Those who were compliant and really didn't consider why. Those who wanted to know why the rules were what they were. Those who could care less and were going to go their own way as often as possible.

The vast majority of the students I dealt with fell into the second category. These students were great to teach because they pummeled teachers (me!) with questions. Sometimes students ask/challenge in a rather abrasive manner; they are after all immature). But most students were very willing to consider thoughtfully the teaching and proper application of Scripture.

3. Parents and school rules - These were occasional problems as explained by Susan R. Most parents supported even the school rules with which they disagreed. Those who didn't almost always produced the students in the third group above.

I want to emphasize that these are OBSTACLES not EXCUSES. Everything worthwhile is difficult.

To be sure, some rules are inane, overreaching, ect, but most of the time the rules are not the problem. Everyone has 'fences' around God's laws. That is what the application of the law is. Institutions need fences. How they explain them and apply them are key to a smooth running school, as well as training students in this important spiritual discipline.

The more I study Scripture and compared God's laws to man's rules, the more amazed I become at God's wisdom. Everyone of man's laws has built in flaws: limited in scope or length of usefulness, narrowly targeted, etc. God's laws fit all people for all time. Even the OT laws that no longer apply teach principles of God's heart.

Balance

Mike, thanks for your article. I have read it with sincere interest. I have a school and a handbook. Yes, we have rules. Yes, we do regulate conduct even outside the school. The issue is to what extent should one regulate conduct and second what is the emphasis in the chapel and Bible class. I whole heartedly agree that the emphasis must be that which you have suggested. I also agree that rule keeping can easily become a form of self-sanctification. My understanding of Matt 5--7 is that Christ wants us all to look behind the commandments of God to their motivating spiritual quality; however, I don't believe that abrogates the moral commands such as "don't steal", "don't swear", "don't murder", "don't commit adultery", etc. I am sure you would agree. We have to balance both command and the belief system, including motive, that makes the fulfilling of the command an act of faith. A great challenge. I am not going to throw out our school handbook; however, I am going to renew my commitment to a proper emphasis where we avoid legalism and antinomianism.

By the way, most good parents have rules for their children. If rules are bad for a school that has 300 children, perhaps they are bad for a home with 3 children.

Pastor Mike Harding

Home vs school

Mike Harding wrote:
Yes, we do regulate conduct even outside the school.

What kind of conduct do you regulate outside of school, if you don't mind my askin'? And when you say 'outside of school', do you mean in public or at home as well?

To explain- my Christian school had a rule against wearing pants at school or to school functions, but if you were a cheerleader, you could not wear them PERIOD. But because the school didn't have hidden cameras in people's homes, most girls wore pants at home and when they were out of town when they wouldn't be seen. Also, these girls' moms wore pants whenever they wanted, as the school didn't attempt to control the behavior of the parents- just of the child. Ditto movies. Parents subscribed to HBO and Cinemax because the school had a rule about going to movies.

Quote:
By the way, most good parents have rules for their children. If rules are bad for a school that has 300 children, perhaps they are bad for a home with 3 children.

I'm not sure what you mean by this, but on the surface, I have to say I don't agree. Biblical guidelines for parents are very clear, and a school is not a home, nor are the teachers equal to the parents. While teaching takes place in the home, the purpose of school is never to 'parent' the child. And IMO the judgment of the administration and teachers should never take the place of the judgment of the parents. If there are major issues in the home that are affecting the student, then the problems need to be dealt with in the home, not at the school.

David King wrote:
Properly explaining the purpose of rules takes time. I was blessed to teach the Bible classes and spent weeks explaining convictions and standards to students.
This made me wonder what schools are doing to make sure the parents understand convictions and standards. IOW, are schools requiring parents to attend orientation or something along those lines? Does the school frequently encourage parents to teach the same principles at home as are taught at school?

And what does it mean when a parent takes home the school handbook and says "We don't agree with Rule A or G, but this is a good school, and we want you to go to this school, so in the interest of being able to attend this school, we are going to comply." Remember, these rules are being presented as essential based on Scripture, so I am concerned about the contradictions we are setting up in a child's mind.

Wow

Susan, the school really had a rule against girls wearing pants AT HOME?

I continue to be amazed at how my experience in fundamentalism differs from so many (and thank God for that!).

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

You heard right

Greg Long wrote:
Susan, the school really had a rule against girls wearing pants AT HOME?

I continue to be amazed at how my experience in fundamentalism differs from so many (and thank God for that!).


If you were a cheerleader or played on a school sports team, then the school handbook applied to your personal life, not just your dress and conduct on campus. Kids who played sports or were cheerleaders were viewed as more representative of the school than the average student. Of course, abiding by the rules didn't stop girls from getting pregnant and/or having abortions, nor did it have any effect on who was smoking pot and getting drunk on the weekends.

As you'd expect, it was 'understood' that you weren't to wear pants in public, but that the school would not do anything if you wore them at home or on vacation. That's the problem I'm pointing out with rules that enter into personal family life as opposed to on-campus rules. And these are the parents I was talking about- those who 'kept the letter of the law' because they wanted their kids to go to a good Christian school, but they themselves did not believe in the Biblical veracity of those standards, convictions, or preferences.

IMO, an on campus code of conduct, including a dress code/uniforms is normal- even the grocery store expects you to wear shoes and a shirt. But you get into all sorts of weirdness if you try to dictate your student's home life. Of course, we aren't talking about people making meth in their basement or texting porn- but I've seen schools and churches that have dress codes and other restrictions (mixed swimming, movies and music come to mind) that apply off campus, and since people's homes are off campus, I'm assuming that these rules apply to people's homes as well, and not just what they do at the Mall or on the beach.

My experiences may not have been 'the norm', but I know from talking to dozens of other graduates of Christian schools that they aren't unique. And that explains why I'm shoutin' Glory Hallelujah while reading this series.

Greg Long wrote: I continue

Greg Long wrote:
I continue to be amazed at how my experience in fundamentalism differs from so many (and thank God for that!).

Maybe that's why this issue resonates more with some than others.

As for myself, I had no problem with the rules at any of my schools or colleges. The meaning given to them by some of my fellow students sickened me. And the value still given to them by some staff members terrifies me.

Meaning of Rules

Mike Durning wrote:

As for myself, I had no problem with the rules at any of my schools or colleges. The meaning given to them by some of my fellow students sickened me. And the value still given to them by some staff members terrifies me.

It's interesting to hear you say this. Your age is the same as mine, which means that even given your "extended 8-year plan," the years you were at BJ were probably close to when I was there. Like you, I was mostly OK with BJ's rules while I was there, and I was prepared to abide by them whether I agreed or not. However, running into others who felt that conformity with the rules was not good enough and that I should make all of them my personal standards all the time started some interesting conversations, to say the least. I also found a somewhat hostile environment for asking questions about the rules and the reasoning behind them. While I'm sure the faculty and staff hear this *every* year from new students, it would still behoove them to have some kind of way for open discussion (with good attitudes, of course) to take place about the spiritual value of those rules, how they are applied, what they represent, etc. Stonewalling and questioning a student's spirituality because they want to have understanding is NOT the way to go, but unfortunately are the main reactions that I personally experienced. The worst part was then even when I did get an answer of some sort it was usually of the form "you should know better." Hopefully a lot has changed in the past 24 years.

Dave Barnhart

Susan,As far as regulation

Susan,

As far as regulation of behavior outside of school, we restrict such regulation to moral areas. In other words, oustide of school kids cannot engage in alcohol, drugs, sexual behavior, criminal behavior, sinful entertainment. The school dress code only applies to school activities.

Pastor Mike Harding

dcbii wrote:Mike Durning

dcbii wrote:
Mike Durning wrote:

As for myself, I had no problem with the rules at any of my schools or colleges. The meaning given to them by some of my fellow students sickened me. And the value still given to them by some staff members terrifies me.

It's interesting to hear you say this. Your age is the same as mine, which means that even given your "extended 8-year plan," the years you were at BJ were probably close to when I was there. Like you, I was mostly OK with BJ's rules while I was there, and I was prepared to abide by them whether I agreed or not. However, running into others who felt that conformity with the rules was not good enough and that I should make all of them my personal standards all the time started some interesting conversations, to say the least. I also found a somewhat hostile environment for asking questions about the rules and the reasoning behind them. While I'm sure the faculty and staff hear this *every* year from new students, it would still behoove them to have some kind of way for open discussion (with good attitudes, of course) to take place about the spiritual value of those rules, how they are applied, what they represent, etc. Stonewalling and questioning a student's spirituality because they want to have understanding is NOT the way to go, but unfortunately are the main reactions that I personally experienced. The worst part was then even when I did get an answer of some sort it was usually of the form "you should know better." Hopefully a lot has changed in the past 24 years.

Dear DCBII,

I was at BJU from 1983 - 1986 as a student, and then a little longer on Weekly Staff. I know there were some people there who had the attidues you say, though I must say I can never think of anything the faculty and staff did to promote this. Which is exactly my point. It's not enough to have rules that are inter-twined with Bible principle and not say anything to lead people into thinking that conformity equals spirituality. For some, in a rules-laden environment, they will need to hear explicit denials in order to keep the right mind-set.

An emphasis on grace as the vehicle of sanctification must exist or the implicit assumption will be that "Rules rule!"

Mike

Perhaps a stupid question

Perhaps a stupid question .... don't have kids in the Christian school movement so I am not close to the situation but would this work?

  • Have rules at school (on the campus) - the handbook applies!
  • Out of school (off campus and on breaks) let the church covenant apply

About "the handbook": Review with a PTO kind of organization for at least feedback

Promised

In my comments on Part 1 I promised a somewhat lengthy reply here on part 2... well, let's say I "expressed an intention" eh? Anyway, I've decided that dumping a thousand words in the thread would not be a good idea... and when I wrote my thousand, I found that i had a thousand more.
So I'm going to do some case-making for a different take on rules on Mo or Tu in article form. Though my take does not differ from MD's on every point... (or even from Joel Tetreau's on every point..)
But one huge difference: I actually think that a generation of legalistic zombies who believe that having their hair never touch the tops of their ears is the epitome of righteousness should be the true goal of every Christian school. OK... no, that wasn't it. I know there was something I passionately disagreed about though.

[br ]Edit: Jim, I like your idea but it wd be much more practical for a one-church school. My own HS was multi-church board. But even then--though a bit cumbersome--it could have worked. In fact, I think by default that's close to how things functioned. I say by default because I don't remember there being many rules that extended beyond school property. There probably were some, but since my own family had a boatload of rules of its own (which I do not resent in the least), I seldom noticed the school's.

[br ]Edit 2: Pastor Harding, thanks for stopping by! I have some vaguely fond memories of beating your school's team when ours played them in soccer... or was it your team beating ours. Details.


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