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.