Back when I was Christian, there was one Bible verse considered to be the ultimate Christian parenting guide–one that, by itself, was all anybody needed to know when it came to raising children. I bet you already know which one I’m talking about! But it’s also one of the Bible’s many false promises. Today we’ll touch on the way this verse has changed meaning over the years, as well as why it gives Christians unnecessary frustration–and unwarranted confidence–in their future.
And along the way, we’ll marvel together that it is one of Christianity’s big names who is giving us this insight today!
Evolution of a Bible Verse.
Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
— Proverbs 22:6
I suspect this verse has always been popular among Christians for a variety of reasons. It forms, first and foremost, a distinct and unequivocal promise to Christians. It also provides very clear instructions to people, or at least what fundagelicals think are very clear instructions (this is a mistake they make in a lot of other ways, unsurprisingly). And it forms the backbone of a narrative about belief that has informed Christian culture for many decades–until recently.
The old wisdom was that Christian kids would become adults, then sow their wild oats. They’d see the big bad world, maybe have unapproved sex or dabble in substance abuse, and eventually realize just how shallow and empty “the world” really was. Then they’d come back to church with their tails between their legs and progress along the life script their elders had determined was “godly:” a Happy Christian Marriage, parenthood, gracious aging and eventual death in the traces as a hallowed saint.
Nobody questioned this wisdom–at first. When I heard about young people who’d stopped attending church, I remember more than once a minister or older Christian saying, with a rueful smile, “They’ll be back.” Sometimes they’d express sadness that the young person “had to experiment,” when all of these more experienced Christians could easily tell them what the world looked like outside the church’s bubble.
Such young people weren’t considered as having “departed,” not really; they were just dabbling a little in the illicit pleasures of the outside world. Their upbringing as Christians was considered to be enough to make them want to return to
Jesus church before “the world” had done too much damage. Parents who modeled the right kind of Christianity and made sure their kids got enough indoctrination could be assured that they had done their duty by their children and by Jesus. Nobody was really getting fussy about what kind of indoctrination it was or how “sense-led” versus hard-theology it was.
Now those folks are panicking because obviously something happened, and all they can figure is that it’s all the fault of the kids’ Sunday School teachers!
The Blame Game, Again.
For a while, Christian leaders could discount the growing numbers of young people who were leaving and not returning to the fold after a suitable period of time. I remember hearing Christians hotly retort that why no, no indeed, Christianity wasn’t losing members–it was growing! Indeed, some of them still talk this way, though they are referring to conversions in third-world countries stricken by poverty, religious zealotry, ignorance, conflict, and natural disasters galore. As far back as 2002, as that link reveals, a few Christians were noting that their religion’s demographics were shifting at a very deep level. But most of them were and are locked in a triumphalist view of their religion, a view that made them sure that “Jesus” would give them total dominance over the whole world. This view has no room in it for Christianity to diminish in power.
The next generation got religious training in church at least once or twice a week, plus whatever Christians could sneak into schools on the sly. And none of it seems to be reversing the movement of people out of churches.
At the same time, the verse itself that older Christians had found so comforting began to morph and shift in meaning. Now it’s less about general indoctrination and more about general parenting.
Though some Christians still think it means basic religious indoctrination, the phrase has taken on new life in the authoritarian-parenting movement. Libby Anne has done a truly epochal takedown of that second, newer meaning here, if you needed a good reason to get pissed off today. I’m not sure exactly when a particular subset of Christians began thinking this verse was telling them to beat the shit out of their kids, terrorize them, and destroy their spirits. But I can tell you that this trend got popular at a very important time in the development of modern evangelicalism.
Nothing in Christianity seems to happen in a vacuum, and Christians’ attitudes toward the indoctrination of children fits very well into the other stuff going on in that end of the religion around that time.
The online source that Libby Anne gives for To Train Up a Child, the seminal child-abuse-as-legitimate-parenting instruction manual for bug-eyed Christian zealots the world over, as well as the Wiki link about co-author Michael Pearl himself, indicates that the book came out in 1994, which is right about when I deconverted. I Kissed Dating Goodbye, the fundagelical “courtship” screed that was later mostly-disavowed by its author (who’d only been 21 years old at the time it was published) came out in 1997. Left Behind was first published in 1995. NARTH, a pseudo-science-promoting group that smears gay people (and has leaders who like rent-boys), was founded in 1992, and by 1998 various groups were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to push “reparative therapy.” Prosperity Gospel became widespread in the late 1990s as part of a “Neo-Pentecostal” mini-revival sweeping the country. And Troy Newman, the extremist who now heads the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, took over the organization in 1999.
By 1999, Christians were starting to become dangerously radicalized in a way that, looking back, we should have guessed as a society would lead to exactly what we’re seeing today, both good and bad, in the trends around Christianity.
They were starting to clamp down as hard as they could on ideologies like the Purity Myth and Creationism. They were starting to solidify their culture wars against abortion and equal marriage. And they were starting down that path of whiny self-pity, entitlement, judgmentalism, control-lust, bigotry, hypocrisy and ignorance glorification, greed, overreach, and persecution fantasizing that many people identify most strongly with evangelicalism nowadays, all of it bizarrely juxtaposed with their constant emotional jerk-off sessions centering around the revenge they’re sure their enemies will almost certainly face for refusing to fall into line. The middle ground between denominations is vanishing as surely as the middle class in America.
This radicalization and polarization, having no tangible or objectively-true tethers preventing believers from getting too out of hand, affected almost every branch of Protestantism, resulting in the bizarre situation we have nowadays in which the “moderates” of today would have been considered wild-eyed extremists a generation ago. I barely even recognize the people in the same exact denomination I left 25 years ago; they have hardened, become more rules-oriented, more misogynistic, more hateful, more bigoted, more of everything, really, except more loving.
That, they became way less of.
And now they are simply SHOCKED, YES SHOCKED THEY ARE, that Christianity is becoming seriously diminished in civilized countries–and that their own children are saying “Bye, Felicia!” the second they’re able to get free of the control of their parents.
One almost hears them crying aloud, “Who wouldn’t want to remain a member of a religion full of people like us?” And they’re not asking sarcastically!
Nothing is happening the way their ideology says it should be happening, and nowhere is that stark truth more apparent than in what’s happening in their own families.
To Every Season, Churn, Churn, Churn.
As Christian leaders continue to become vaguely, dimly aware that their various groups are hemorrhaging members, they’re starting to get desperate. I’m not sure they’re even really focusing anymore on trying to convert non-believers; their emphasis now appears to be on retaining whatever number of young people they can possibly manage to keep.
I don’t disagree with the strategy in general–I’ve been saying for years that they’re losing a lot more people from their own ranks than they could ever hope to evangelize from other tribes–but the phenomenon does demonstrate one gaping hole in their ideology: the completely erroneous idea that children who get a thorough indoctrination pounded into them and are controlled 100% in every single way, not allowed to have any thoughts or opinions that differ from those of their parents, and are brutally punished for any transgressions will grow up as firm, loving, evangelism-minded Christians for life.
The other day, I read something Al Mohler, a big name in the Southern Baptist Convention, said a year ago about how he blamed youth pastors for this hemorrhage of young Christians because they aren’t doing enough to indoctrinate their charges into the religion.
The SBC has been blaming ministers for years for not doing enough of a variety of different things (and don’t think they aren’t eyeing laypeople for blame as well!), but this newest attempt to shift responsibility from message to messenger really took the cake for me–and got me thinking about why fundagelicals might try to be trying to lay blame in this manner.
Writing about two young men who grew up evangelical but later became ministers in other denominations (Catholicism and Anglicanism, which to an SBC leader might as well be Satanism, it seems), Mr. Mohler writes that though he can’t tell what “specific failing” their home church might have committed, clearly they did something wrong because anybody who is taught “a theological understanding grounded in the explicit teachings of Scripture” will almost never leave what he views as the One True Christianity.
Aaaaaaaaand this is where a bunch of y’all just began gigglesnorting to yourselves.
Let it all out.
Al Mohler and the Courtier’s Reply.
In a podcast, Mr. Mohler declared that:
[a] failure to ground children in Christian doctrine leaves them vulnerable “to be led by their senses” rather than “a theological understanding grounded in the explicit teachings of Scripture.”
“When these two boys, identical twins, were asking deep theological questions, who was there to help them?” Mohler asked. “Who was there to guide them? Who was there as an evangelical thinker, apologist, theologian, friend, pastor and guide to help them to understand these questions?”
Goodness, someone get that poor fellow some smelling salts!
He goes on to say that someone had obviously “missed the opportunity and failed in the responsibility to ground these young boys as they were then in the Christian faith,” because not only do well-indoctrinated kids almost never leave, but he thinks that poorly-indoctrinated kids are almost certain to do so! In his words, “It’s not just a possibility, it’s a probability.”
See how he laid that blame? Any time he runs across someone who left his religion, he can blame their defection on them not having been taught doctrines and theology well and thoroughly enough.
Yes, because anybody who’s ever done time around a fundagelical youth group OR adult church services knows all about how they spend all their time talking about “theological understanding” and eschewing all that sense-driven rah-rah.
“Being led by their senses” is a pretty good summation of a typical fundagelical church experience. Though some youth ministers do care very much about teaching doctrine and theology to their young charges, and larger churches do require all of their ministers to be qualified to teach religious lessons to children and teens, smaller churches entrust their children to “youth pastors” who don’t have a lot of qualifications because they simply lack funds or desire enough to hire someone better to do the job. And that goes for the SBC too–I attended a large and well-regarded one for a little while as a teen, and can tell you for a dead certainty that I did not come out of it a Biblical scholar!
But if Al Mohler thinks an adult’s experience looks any different from that of a younger person, he’s only fooling himself, because every single fundagelical sermon I’ve ever heard was an absolute mess of emotional appeals and psychological manipulation from start to finish.
It gets worse for Mr. Mohler, though.
Not only is he self-deluded about why people are leaving his religion, he isn’t even accurately or honestly representing his own faith system here.
Fundagelical conversions of any age are triumphs of emotional marketing over intellectual reasoning. Even Christians who think they’ve rationally considered “all the evidence” (oh, they love that phrase!) reveal, in their testimonies, that no, they were driven by fear and greed just like all their less-rational peers have been since the dawn of the religion, and that no, they don’t have the faintest idea what actually constitutes evidence in the real world any more than those other Christians do.
The one thing you can’t say about most ex-Christians is that they’re poorly-educated about the Bible, Christianity’s history, or the various doctrines that various groups have held dear or rejected over time. Non-Christians are more knowledgeable about Christianity than the vast majority of those bright-eyed, evangelism-minded Christians who keep trying to proselytize them!*
Really, if you want to see a group that is abysmally ignorant about all of those topics, all you have to do is visit just about any Cracker Barrel or buffet restaurant around 1:00 p.m. on a Sunday. Make sure you wear protective footwear because it’ll be crowded.
As for emotionalism and being “led by [one’s] senses,” as Al Mohler put it, I don’t know of a single fundagelical church that would turn down a conversion that happened on those terms. Moreover, I don’t know of any group that markets itself in any other way, beyond an opening salvo or two about “evidence that demands a verdict” or whatever else they think sounds intellectual and trendy enough to appeal to younger ears. It seems clear that his denomination is fine with emotionalism and being led by one’s senses, as long as they like the direction it’s going.
In the same way, fundagelicals despise and hate genuine intellectualism–until someone leaves the religion, at which point, as Al Mohler himself has indicated, they become Ivy League scholars and insist that the departing person clearly left because they hadn’t done enough studying and hadn’t been well-enough or thoroughly-enough taught the correct things about his religion, and all we hear out of the Christians remaining behind are lofty proclamations about how that person just didn’t understand their denomination’s doctrines well enough, so obviously they flitted off the first time something fancy and shiny caught their eye!
This bizarre about-face is sometimes called “the Courtier’s Reply,” incidentally, and most ex-Christians experience it at one point or another–usually when well-meaning ministers or loved ones demand that we read yet another boring apologetics book or go to a pastoral counseling session “to be sure you really understand what you’re doing here.” It’s presumptuous and arrogant, but most of all it’s dishonest.
Can’t win for losing, can you, with this lot? I’m glad to be out of the religion; this kind of intellectual dishonesty bothered me a lot while I was Christian, when I began noticing it, and I never could reconcile the idea of Christianity being a totally 100% for realsies true religion with its heavy reliance on dishonest tactics like the ones Al Mohler advocates.
Nothing is going according to plan for him. And groups like the SBC can’t even begin to diagnose the problem, because they don’t actually understand that their message itself is what is causing these mass defections.
When I hear Christians talk about the people leaving their tribe, sometimes it feels like they’re not actually even looking through a View-Master at the same general reality the rest of us experience. But worse is how they sound when they talk about what they think will keep people in their tribe.
Because whaddya know? No matter how hard they try to “train up a child,” when that child becomes an adult they are increasingly leaving Christianity anyway! Whoops!
We’re going to talk next time a little more about the idea of indoctrination preventing deconversion–and it should be a doozy, because most of us know very well what a silly idea that is! Have a great weekend!
* People in non-privileged groups tend to know much more about the privileged group’s culture and opinions than those folks in privileged groups ever know about them.