Pearl Of Too Great a Price

by Matthew Raley

"Roots of the Strangler Fig Tree," Eliot Porter, 1954, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.


14 thoughts on “Pearl Of Too Great a Price

Add yours

  1. Amen! When I read the mocking response of Mr. Pearl to his critics, I could not help but be reminded of Jesus’ story of the tax collector and the Pharisee praying in the temple. And His statement that it is the sick who are in need of a physician. Those who are not keenly aware of their need will never seek Him.

    The grace and mercy of Christ is our only hope. This is the message our children need to learn from us. No amount of physical punishment can ever cleanse us from sin, nor are we capable of perfect obedience while we remain in the flesh. We must accept the imputed righteousness of Christ – His obedience on our behalf.

    “…by works of the law no one will be justified…if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose…For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse, for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law and do them.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’ But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.'” (All from Gal, 2&3)

    And I can’t help but think of Paul’s own testimony of perfect obedience and blamelessness according to the Law as nothing but rubbish to be thrown away!
    “as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—” Phil. 3:6-9

    Thank you so much for standing up for the Gospel.

  2. While I may have found a few practical tips in Pearl that are helpful, I would agree that his doctrinal base is off. I found Shepherding a Child’s Heart, by Tedd Tripp, to be much better. That is a book I can recommend with no reserve whatsoever. There is a wonderful balance of using the rod and rich communication, the goal being to teach the child the perfect nature of the law and its demands, for the purpose of driving him to the Cross.

  3. I find this to be very clear and to the point. The question stated, “Is there any training that replaces Christ’s all sufficient rightouesness?” is definitely a question we should constantly be asking ourselves, for how quickly do we seek to attain our own righteousness or our children’s righteousness through some other means than the work of Christ on the cross. Thank-you for preaching Christ and none other.

  4. Yet. . . even Tripp’s book has elements which are theologically questionable. He posits that when a child disobeys they have moved “outside the circle” of the covenant — and that the actions of PARENTS will restore them. This disturbs me, because it once again forgets the very real, very immediate application and centrality of the Gospel in our family lives.

    And. . . this isn’t about spanking or not spanking. But it is elevating the actions of a parent (in what Tripp teaches, though not as blatant as what Pearl teaches) to almost a level of a means of grace — a level I don’t see in Scripture.

  5. I agree wholeheartedly with your post, and the point that the biggest question is concerning the Gospel–and this is the place to argue that the Pearls are false teachers who must be shunned. This is a summation from my own blog that echoes your sentiments entirely, earlier I have gone into greater detail where the Pearls deviate from the truth:

    “The Pearls have become a cult, and one with particularly dangerous teachings. They are straying more and more from the truth once delivered to the saints, and are well on their way to preaching another gospel. It is not okay to say that they are legitimate teachers anymore, and that there is good in what they do. Children do not need to be relieved of the guilt of their sin by the atoning stripes of the rod–they must be shown the Cross. Women can and should separate from their abusive husbands. The Lydia Schatz tragedy is a logical extension of Michael Pearl’s instructions that the parent should not stop “chastising” until the kid cries uncle–no, that is inaccurate, he teaches the child should not have any breath left in him to cry at anything, there should not be “breath left in them to complain.” The Pearls are false teachers who must be shunned, and publicly.

    Everyone will point out pragmatically that the system works and the kids are all Eagle Scouts and Rhodes Scholars. I too thought that the rod of correction was a magic wand, and would transform my toddler into a model of submissiveness. I tried it as best I could, believing I was a bad parent if I didn’t–but I must have done something wrong…”

    You can

    I appreciate your cogent arguments here. You are a light in the darkness.

  6. Karen, weren’t Pharisees the Eagle Scouts and Rhodes Scholars of the Jews in Jesus’ day? He saw through their outward behavior and knew that underneath lie corrupted hearts (white-washed tombs and a cup that was clean on the outside dirty on the inside). When people point to the accomplishments of these children, they are getting sucked into a performance mentality that results from behaviorist manipulations? Is my son any less a person because he is not an Eagle Scout? Is my adult autistic daughter any less a person because she has the intellectual capacity of a 5th-6th grader?

    Only Jesus can see into the hearts of these children, now grown up. But, we can look at the rotten fruit that results from the root cause of faulty theology: dead children! I believe the Pearls are false teachers of legalism. It is an unhealthy focus on outward behavior, not relationship and what is in the heart. It is turning oneself into an idolater (I, the parent, can save my child). It is failure to teach children about the reckless, extravagant grace of God, which is the balance to the harsh truth about sin.

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