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.