Legalism and the Christian School Movement, Part 3

Note: Reading Part 1 and Part 2 of this series is recommended before reading Part 3.


In the introductory article to this series, I suggested that Christ’s confrontations with the Pharisees are a great source for determining whether or not we are practicing legalism.

This was not at all from the “all Fundies are Pharisees” perspective so frequently hurled in accusation against Fundamentalists. In fact, I assume that the prominent place the Pharisees and our Lord’s rebukes of them have in the gospel suggest that our Lord is broadly concerned with such legalism. I believe that such texts serve as a warning to all of us who are religious (in the nicest sense of the word). Legalism is entrenched deep in the fallen human heart, and easily expresses itself in the lives of the redeemed unless we are very careful.


There are doubtless 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 (dealt with in Part 1).
  2. Rules promote godliness, in that behavior change leads to heart change (dealt with in Part 2).
  3. Enforcement of righteousness is valid and valuable as a first step to sanctification (the topic here).


False Premise 3: Enforcement of righteousness is valid and valuable as a first step to sanctification.

The organization/organism established by Christ as His instrument for advancing His purposes on the earth is the church—at least in this era. In particular, it is the local church that is called the “pillar and ground of the truth” in I Timothy 3:15. I conclude this because local church polity and procedure are the entirety of what is in view leading up to verse 15.

The only enforcement tool placed in the hands of the church is the final stage of church discipline (called excommunication in some groups). It is at least removal from membership, though I Corinthians 5 certainly indicates a more profound spiritual event than mere erasure from a list. The end in view is always restoration. Failing that, at least purity is maintained.

Expanding from this, the instrument by which we encourage, provoke one another to good works, edify one another, and aid in the production of sanctification in each other within the church is largely a process of education and persuasion, bathed in prayer. Only in the ultimate extremity, in which an unrepentant spirit continues through a reasonable time period sufficient for confrontations, is an enforcement tool given to Christ’s church—and that tool is such excommunication.

It seems reasonable to assume that this plan of our Lord’s is the one most likely to produce the fruit of righteousness and sanctification in believers. If this is not acknowledged, it can at least be argued that no other enforcement authority is given since the passing of the apostles.

Of course it is reasonable that certain groups are held to higher standards. Pastor/elder and deacon must live to a higher standard and are disciplined as well to a higher standard. But the challenge and discipline process is basically unchanged.

For far too many schools and colleges in Fundamentalism, there is an entirely separate system of discipleship, discipline, and enforcement. The least negative thing we can observe is that such rule-structures function off the Biblical road-map given for ministry. They create rules that go beyond Scripture to produce at least external conformity. Some seem to believe they produce actual sanctification. The structure is enforced with penalties outside the biblical model. Penalties are almost self-enforced according to a handbook that defines their implementation without reference to whether the student is repentant. Enforcements can tend to be functional events rather than spiritual events.

Please be assured that I do not confuse the church and school paradigm. My concerns are two-fold. I am first concerned about authority, and then about effect. I wonder whether we have the authority as spiritual leaders to spin off from the local church such ministries that work so entirely outside the biblical discipleship process that we ignore the Bible-authorized Scriptural discipline process in those ministries. A sin that is an automatic expulsion offense in the Christian school is punished beyond the church and in excess of the church’s authority. It is the first recourse rather than the final, reluctant step. The student’s state of mind, expressions of repentance, and willingness to get aid and counsel are all irrelevant in many such schools. I am also concerned about the effect of creating such structures, because they so closely mimic the Pharisaic system strongly condemned by Christ.

  • Many of the rules are beyond Scripture.
  • These are treated as of equal importance to Scripture because they are logically derivative—“fencing” a forbidden area.
  • They are enforced as being equal to sins in Scripture.
  • They are enforced in a manner that is beyond the loving discipline system given to the church.
  • They produce expulsion (effectively, shunning) without any hope of restoration—at least until the next school year.

It is true that legalism properly resides in the heart of an individual, so calling the principal of such a Christian school a legalist may be reaching. But if we implement a system that fits the Pharisaic system in many ways, why are we surprised that the result is legalism in hearts, with similar instances of hidden internal corruption as were observed in the Pharisees by our Lord?

I propose that any Christian school or college built on these false premises is on an unsound spiritual base, is far less helpful than they think, and is at least ascriptural if not unscriptural. I believe it to be effectively legalistic regardless of the hearts and intentions of the administrators.

I propose that more schools need to demonstrate a different model of discipleship in the context of Christian Schools, proving that the biblical model for the local church extends to all subordinate ministries of the church. This model needs to be thoroughly biblical, and grounded in a discipleship process similar to that established in the church.

A word about submission and rebellion

Many times the mantra of the Christian school is “authority and submission.” The rebellious attitudes of the student are frequently the lament.

In our secular society, rebellion is viewed as at least a right, if not a responsibility. Such a viewpoint contradicts Scripture, and is the antithesis of the fruit we desire in our students. But despite all the lip-service given to submission, I fear that the way we do rules in many Christian schools and colleges promotes rebellion in subtle ways. In fact, it is my belief that legalistic attitudes in leaders actually promote the very rebellion they are trying to defeat.

Authority is layered. I am in authority because I am a man under authority (I have a pastor’s authority under God’s authority to enforce His authority to the limits He places on me). It is vital that spiritual authorities in the church and school not be power-hungry or tyrannical. I fear that placing rules on people without Scriptural back-support, enforcing them beyond Scriptural limits, and then crying “rebellion” every time somebody questions them gives the appearance of tyranny. While a case could still be made that submission to the leader is required in such instances, I’m not entirely sure. I think when authorities exceed their authorization from higher authority, the demand for submission becomes rather shaky. Great examples can be found throughout Scripture, but one of the more compelling is in 3 John, where Diotrephes’ abusive and excessive hunger for authority is rebuked. Having the position does not necessarily mean unlimited power. Our authority must be grounded in God’s Word.

We invite rebellion when we reach beyond legitimate bounds with our authority. No amount of hiding behind our “authority” or behind the requirement that they must submit to it can erase the stain of responsibility that falls on those who exceed their God-given authorization and drive some toward rebellion. The rebel is responsible for his sin, but the leader is still responsible for any excesses that made the sin-choice easy.


My background extends from the most extreme forms of Fundamentalism known in the early 80’s to where I am today—which after this article, a few of you might consider outside Fundamentalism entirely, though I dispute the point.

My experiences strongly suggest to me that the more rules-based the School or college, the more the fruit of legalism (see Luke 11:37-54) is seen in the student body and the associated church. At the furthest extremes, rules are confused with sanctification, and the fully developed and ripened fruit of legalism is seen. At that point, things only worsen over time.

Final Challenge

It is interesting to note the development of Sabbath regulation among Orthodox Jews. In the time of Christ the boundaries of “home” became the ultimate arbiter of whether you were working or not. Things were not work in the home that were considered work outside of the home. Traveling beyond a certain distance from home became work.

Add nearly 2,000 years of speculation, and we have “eruv boundaries” in every major city in America with any sizable population. A simple fish-line, strung around town on poles, creates a zone that you can call “home” for purposes of Sabbath. Recently, in Los Angeles, the eruv boundary was extended to include the beaches of Santa Monica and Marina Del Rey. Now the faithful can go to the beach and frolic without violating the Sabbath.

Behold the result of unbounded legalism! Go beyond God’s Word with your rules. Emphasize rules about the Word instead of God’s real Word. Ignore the real condition of the human heart. Add a few hundred years, and the result looks nothing like the beginning. Fundamentalists should be warned that they can easily build a future for Fundamentalism that is entirely divorced from the Word they seek to lift up.

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.
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There are 7 Comments

David King's picture

"Please be assured that I do not confuse the church and school paradigm. My concerns are two-fold. I am first concerned about authority, and then about effect. I wonder whether we have the authority as spiritual leaders to spin off from the local church such ministries that work so entirely outside the biblical discipleship process that we ignore the Bible-authorized Scriptural discipline process in those ministries."

This comment highlights an assumption of the traditional Christian school movement, and I would point to the assumption with this question: According to the Bible, who has the primary responsibility for child-training?

When a God-given institution begins to operate outside its sphere, it runs into numerous unintended and problematic consequences.

Now, this does not alleviate the various difficulties of discipline in a Christian school, but a proper understanding of sphere sovereignty will orient better the thinking of all involved in the school.

Aaron Blumer's picture

One of the things that amazed me constantly when I was teaching (3 yrs Christian school in GA), was the wide variety of parental attitudes. I shouldn't have been surprised I guess, but my point is that schools have a difficult challenge here because a--sadly--large percentage of parents take virtually no interest at all in their child's behavior at school or what the are learning... and in many cases (apparently) teach them virtually nothing at home either.
So schools find themselves having to develop procedures and rules to handle the lowest common denominator at home. Sometimes that ends up looking like an insult to solid, competent, involved parents. And sometimes it looks like overreaching.
(And sometimes it is overreaching, yes)
School administrators often wish things were more cut and dried between school and home but there's no getting around the fact that what goes on off school property affects what goes on on school property--sometimes a great deal.

Susan R's picture

At what point, Biblically, is it acceptable for a person or institution to become a surrogate parent? Does it edify the home for people with good intentions to in essence 'take over' the nurturing and training of the child when we think the parents aren't doing a 'good enough' job?

Aaron Blumer's picture

I don't have an answer that... there has to be a line somewhere. Yet "rescuing" children who are in bad environments through no fault of their own seems like good work as well. Somewhere on the right side of the line you have what I'll call "compensating" for poor parenting, then much closer to the line (wherever it is) you have "surrogate parent." And in many situations, taking on the "surrogate" role is over the line.
Scripture does encourage us to be mindful of the plight of orphans. And spiritual orphans isn't a really big stretch from there, I don't think.
(Deut 14.27-28, James 1:27)

We're probably a little off topic though. On the whole "submission to authority" issue, I wonder if some of the downplaying of the value of submission isn't a byproduct of the populism of our times. Looking at Scripture itself, how much value does it attach to submission to legit. authority? And what role does it suggest rebellion has in the sinful condition? I have opinions on this, but for now I'll just recommend a survey of the biblical data.

Duane Braswell's picture

Susan R wrote:
At what point, Biblically, is it acceptable for a person or institution to become a surrogate parent? Does it edify the home for people with good intentions to in essence 'take over' the nurturing and training of the child when we think the parents aren't doing a 'good enough' job?

I do not see any point in Scripture where a person 'takes over' for the parent. But... I do see many others taking on the role of spiritual mentor that the father/mother ought to be fulfilling. 2 kings 12:2 Jehoiada instructed Jehoash. 2 kings 23:24 shows Josiah listening to the high priest and doing well. In the new testament we both Peter and Barnabas strengthening John Mark, a task Paul saw as a need but apparently he had no heart for the work. He did greatly 'adopt' Timothy and Titus, with Timothy apparently lacking a father figure.

Galatians 6:1 and quite likely the following verse seems to make it the responsibility of the mature to take a personal stake in others lives.

The warning not to be a busy body, 1 Tim 5:13 (and if any decide the men are not included James 3:1) should warn us off from being too quick to decide that they know better than the parents child.

Might I also add to the seemingly apparent lack of 'biblical mandate' for education by the church, how is it that the Pastor is not suppose to teach also the children? Equiping the saints is a mandate, that a pastor might get all of the saints for 8 hours a day, what a difference in the world that might make! I do not find it 'required' that there be a Christian day school, but where there is a need, what pastor should be faulted for trying to fill it.

I understand fully that many of the schools have had less than stellar principals, teachers, and even pastors heading them up and that many have handled the children with less than perfect actions and with less than perfect results. But he tried! Perhaps a stone should be thrown at the direction of whoever it is that is at fault that we can not hire and retain the best of the best in teachers due to salary. (Please, Christian school teachers, this is not a dig at your credentials rather see it as a plea for decent wages.) If we want the very best schools it would help if we paid the very best, as a pastor the only individuals I know who make less than me are the Christian school teachers. I understand that they do it 'as a ministry' but that does not seem to excuse any 'imperfection' people seem to find.

eh, how did that soap box get under my feet? maybe that is why my brother in the east valley writes from his lawn chair.

He who created us without our help will not save us without our consent. - Augustine

Susan R's picture

I agree with your post- really, I do- but the focus here isn't about the role of pastors/teachers in teaching and mentoring or the existence of Christian schools, but about the multiplicity of rules, many that extend beyond campus into the home, that are present in many Christian schools, and the fact that adhering to a strict set of rules is often equated with spirituality and sanctification. That's what I am referring to when I say 'surrogate parent', because I've had heard these rules supported by the idea that the parents aren't teaching their kids the right standards, so the school needs these all these rules to point the kids on the straight and narrow.

A factor IMO that is often glossed over is that many, if not most kids in Christian schools are not Christians. Their parents might be, but in my experience there is often the assumption that a child is regenerate and understands the supposed Biblical support and reasoning behind many of the rules, and they in fact do not understand anything of the kind. They can spend years obeying and giving mental assent without actually becoming believers. Been there, done that- all the way through Bible college and into the ministry. It gives me the heebie-jeebies sometimes to think of all the people I may have influenced wrongly due to the fact that I was completely ignorant of my own lost condition for so long, and due in part to the fact that I was a 'good kid' who kept the rules... as far as anyone knew. Wink

Edited to fix formatting.

Aaron Blumer's picture

Because we school-hopped alot growing up--and then I taught at a Christian school also (and briefly in on student teaching before that), I got to know five Christian schools pretty well.. and a sixth not quite so well. Throw in the two my wife attended growing up-- still not a statistically significant cross section, but maybe enough first-hand to be meaningful.
My wife's experience: one school, very legalistic, very hollow (not much spiritual life from her POV at leadership level and on down), and I think she'd say most of the kids were not saved. [Edit: forgot to point out that the other was quite the opposite... maybe a tad "legalistic" about some things but a healthy place over all ]
In my own experience, that would only describe one school in six I was involved in. Where I student taught, it's hard to form much of an opinion but given the level of interest students had in learning the Bible (A key indicator I think. I taught Bible), I'd venture that well over half of them were believers.

Where I taught full time, I'd hazard that a strong majority of them were believers also, but many were not from homes where they believed in applying Scripture in the form of a "separated" lifestyle. I believe in these cases, a school does them a valuable service even if all they do is provide a decent education and keep them mostly out of trouble for a few years. I don't think that does an unbeliever a whole lot of good (though, hey, less trouble is still less trouble), but I'm convinced that believers who get a taste of cleaner living remember it and are drawn to it.

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