The abusive teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl hurt both women and children

Today you can catch our dear friend Elizabeth Esther on Anderson Cooper’s daytime show bravely confronting the abusive teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl. (Check  your local listings for times.)  Elizabeth grew up in a cult-like religious environment in which these teachings were implemented, so it was quite an act of courage for her to face this man on TV. But she did so in hopes that speaking out will stop the abusive tactics that have already killed three children, and for that she is a true woman of valor.Eshet chayil! 

 Through their “No Greater Joy Ministries,” Michael and Debi Pearl teach a method of child discipline that centers around “breaking a child’s will.” The Pearls advocate using switches on babies and young as six months, and spanking older children with belts and plumbing tubes. Their book, To Train Up a Child has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and, under the guise of “biblical discipline,” encourages parents to beat their children into submission, withhold food, and hose them down outside when they soil themselves. 

Here’s a quote from to give you an idea of their approach: 

Never reward delayed obedience by reversing the sentence. And, unless all else fails, don’t drag him to the place of cleansing. Part of his training is to come submissively. However, if you are just beginning to institute training on an already rebellious child, who runs from discipline and is too incoherent to listen, then use whatever force is necessary to bring him to bay. If you have to sit on him to spank him then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he is surrendered. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring and are unmoved by his wailing. Defeat him totally. Accept no conditions for surrender. No compromise. You are to rule over him as a benevolent sovereign. Your word is final.

The Pearls’ teachings have been linked to the deaths of Sean Paddock, Lydia Schatz, and Hana Grace-Rose Williams. 

But it’s not just children who suffer from “No Greater Joys” ministries. When I was conducting research for “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” I read Debi Pearl’s popular book, Created to Be His Helpmeet…which I threw across the room a total of seven times. 

The writing is awful, the biblical exegesis deplorable, but what troubles me the most is that the book reads like a manual for developing abused wife syndrome. Citing New Testament passages that instruct wives to submit to their husbands, Pearl advocates a system in which godly wives live as complete subordinates to their husbands, with no “equal rights.” 

At one point, Pearl encourages a young mother whose husband routinely beat her and threatened to kill her with a kitchen knife to stop “blabbing about his sins” and win him back by showing him more respect

Sudden aggressive outbursts are part of what it means to be a man, according to Pearl. “The wisest way to handle the aggressive husband is by not taking personal offense,” she advises. “Avoid provoking him.” 

In an appendix at the end of the book, Michael Pearl weighs in and writes: 

“Has your husband reviled you and threatened you? You are exhorted to respond as Jesus did. When he was reviled and threatened, he suffered by committing himself to a higher judge who is righteous. You must commit yourself to the one who placed you under your husband’s command. Your husband will answer to God, and you must answer to God for how you respond to your husband, even when he causes you to suffer.Just as we are to obey government in every ordinance, and servants are to obey their masters, even the ones who are abusive and surly, ‘likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands’…You can freely call your husband ‘lord’ when you know that you are addressing the one who put him in charge and asked you to suffer at your husband’s hands just as our Lord suffered at the hands of unjust authorities…When you endure evil and railing without returning it, you receive a blessing, not just as a martyr, but as one who worships God.”  

It seems the Pearls believe that a wife should submit to her husband, even if it means her death…and presumably, the death of her children. 

Why bring this to your attention? Because the Pearls are inexplicably popular in certain Christian circles, and abuse in the name of God must be spoken against.

If your church is considering using books by the Pearls as part of its curriculum, please say something. If you see friends or family employing their tactics, confront them. This is not simply a matter of different parenting methods or relationship styles—like Sears vs. Ezzo, or cloth diapers vs. disposable diapers, or complementarianism vs. egalitarianism—it’s a matter of abuse. 

 There can be no more beatings, no more deaths…especially not in the name of Christ. 

Please, speak up on behalf of the defenseless and speak out against Michael and Debi Pearl. 


(And, if you think of it, shoot Elizabeth Esther a message of encouragement today. What she did was very brave.)


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Books, Branding, and the Dangers of Building an Empire on One Idea

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."- Upton Sinclair

I was really pleased to hear from a representative from Answers in Genesis yesterday who in response to Friday’s post graciously invited me to visit the creation museum in Cincinnati and maybe even speak with Ken Ham himself. I’m not sure if this counts as a truce, but I’m happy that the AIG folks are willing to talk. I plan to take them up on the offer next time we visit family in the area.  

As my exchange with Ham has circulated around the blogosphere, I’ve heard from a lot of people eager to remind me that Ham has a lot invested in his particular interpretation of Genesis. He’s built an empire on it—complete with curriculum, conferences, a magazine, and a museum. Expecting him to embrace an interpretation of Genesis more in line with biblical scholars like John Walton or Bruce Waltke would be a bit like expecting Donald Trump to become a socialist! There’s just too much at stake. 

While I’m not inclined to ascribe motive in this case and prefer to give Ham the benefit of the doubt that he holds his position because his conscience demands it, I think these folks bring up a good point about how we can become so heavily invested in a certain ideology that change comes at enormous cost. 

Dan reminds me of this when I get frustrated after conversations with Presbyterian pastors about Calvinism. “Is it fair for you to expect them to change their minds when they’ve built their entire life’s work on this particular theology?” he asks with that grin that always reminds me of why I married him. “Is there a chance you may be overestimating your own persuasive capabilities just a bit?” 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I anticipate signing a contract with a Christian publisher for Book #2. With the first book, I was just so mystified and thankful that anyone wanted to print what I had to say, I didn’t spend much time considering branding, positioning and the long-term effects of having my views (at age 27!) forever recorded for posterity. 

But this next book is more experimental and requires quite a commitment on my part, so I expect I’ll be spending the next two years focusing intently on its subject. Publishers and publicists want to know what my message is. Is it calling a truce on the culture wars? Is it giving young Christians permission to ask tough questions? Is it deconstructing the evangelical approach to things like evolution, women’s roles in the church, and religious pluralism? Upon what idea do I want to build my brand? 

Perhaps the one thing I fear more than completely failing to make an impact in this industry is making such an impact that I become a slave to my own little empire. In some ways I am afraid of rebuilding my faith and my identity because I don’t want to make the same mistakes again and build upon false fundamentals. I want to leave myself enough room to change. 

This is not a struggle unique to Christian authors or pastors or activists. Most of us live in such a way that our most important relationships, lifestyle decisions, and assumptions are dependent upon certain ideologies.  This is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, it is probably a necessary thing. But it can turn into self-delusion when it keeps us from being honest with ourselves about uncomfortable truths that might compel us to change. 

So how do we pursue our passions and stand by our convictions without building unassailable empires in our own image?


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Are you a fundamentalist?

Brian McLaren asks that question on his blog today, and frames it like this:


When I am presented with a new idea or proposal, my first question is more likely to be ...

___A. Is it acceptable to my religious/ideological community or belief system?
___B. Is it possibly true, valuable, and worth exploring?

According to McLaren, if your answer is ‘A,’ you are a fundamentalist, and if your answer is ‘B’ then you are curious.

McLaren draws his inspiration from Seth Godin’s definitions for fundamentalism and curiosity. In his excellent book, Tribes, Godin writes:

A fundamentalist is a person who considers whether a fact is acceptable to his religion before he explores it.  As opposed to a curious person who explores first and then considers whether or not he wants to accept the ramifications.  A curious person embraces the tension between his religion and something new, wrestles with it and through it, and then decides whether to embrace the new idea or reject it.

When I first encountered the quiz, my reaction was, Why of course I’m not a fundamentalist! At least not anymore. I approach every new idea with an open mind and a willingness to embrace the truth no matter the consequences. I’ve voluntarily studied the science behind evolution, despite being told my whole life that it’s incompatible with my faith. I’ve read Richard Dawkins, Thich Nhat Hahn, and Friedrich Nietzsche. I’ve re-evaluated my position on politics, on homosexuality, on biblical inerrancy, on religious pluralism, and on church. I may be a person of faith, but I’m no fundamentalist!

But upon further reflection, I realized that if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that my first question when encountering a new idea is almost always, Does this fit with my faith?  It’s my default—perhaps out of habit, perhaps out of fear, perhaps because it’s part of the human condition to be wary of anything that might upset one’s current paradigm.

In fact, I have the same initial reaction when I am presented with a new perspective on politics or theology. My first question is almost always, Does this fit with what I already believe?  I hate to admit it, but my enthusiasm for exploring a subject is directly proportional to the degree to which I want to change my mind.

The difference, I suppose, is that over the past few years I’ve learned that my faith is strong enough to withstand new ideas and hard questions. I no longer let the question Does this fit with my faith? stop me from exploring. If all truth is God’s truth, then I figure I’ve got nothing to be afraid of.

I love Godin's perspective on fundamentalism and curiosity, and I'd like to think that I’m the kind of person who “embraces the tension between [her] religion and something new, wrestles with it and through it, and then decides whether to embrace the new idea or reject it.”

But this is a learned response for me, not a natural one. I’m afraid that my gut reaction will always be A, not B. I'm afraid that, deep down, I'm a fundamentalist at heart.

What about you? Based on this quiz, are you a fundamentalist?


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Living in a Construction Zone

As you might have noticed, I often compare the adaptive qualities and ever-changing nature of faith to that of evolutionary biology. This is one of my favorite metaphors, in part because it is provocative, controversial, and delightfully ironic given my location, but also because few comparisons are as colorful or as spot-on.

I was reminded of the similarities the other day when I happened upon biologist Jerry A. Coyne’s observation that “evolution is like an architect who cannot design a building from scratch, but must build every new structure by adapting a preexisting building, keeping the structure habitable all the while.” (Why Evolution is True, page 12)

You could say the same thing about vibrant faith, which survives change (be it cultural or experiential) by continually reassessing, reforming, and rebuilding upon its current structure. In fact, if I had a second favorite metaphor to describe what my faith journey has been like over the past few years, it would probably have something to do with a construction zone. Theologically, I’ve been tearing down walls and putting up new ones, rerouting plumbing  and rewiring electricity, tossing out blueprints and sketching plans out in the dirt.  

We touched on this a little bit Friday, when several of you encouraged me to focus less attention on deconstructing fundamentalism and more attention on moving forward in the reconstruction process—good suggestions for bringing more life and focus to the blog.

Truth be told, the defensive part of me wanted to respond, “But I am rebuilding! Haven’t you noticed? I’ve written posts about moving from absolutism to openness, from eschatological escapism to kingdom-building, from propositions as fundamental to love as fundamental. I’ve written a whole book about embracing change and learning from doubt. I’ve reviewed N.T. Wright and linked to Scot McKnight.”

But as I reflected on your comments and on my own insecurities and fears, I realized that what you’re really asking for (and what I really need) is not an end to the theological construction zone, but rather the assurance that the structure remains habitable, that life can go on in the midst of all the drilling and sawing and hammering.

You see, sometimes I get so consumed with the remodeling process that I neglect to actually live in the house and make it home. I forget to invite people in, to prepare and share food, to rest, to take shelter, to beautify, to do the laundry, to wash the dishes, to throw parties, to play music, and to take off my shoes. I guess I just assume that I can finish all the construction first and start living like Jesus once I know exactly what that means.

But this is misguided. Imagine what the world would be like if Jesus had waited for his disciples to figure everything out before using them to launch the Kingdom!

So what does living amidst a construction zone look like?

I’m pretty sure that a few things are about to force me to figure that out:

1. The first is the possibility of partnering with some old friends to start a new church in Dayton. (I should note that this is not a for sure thing, but rather an idea still getting tossed around.) So far, the time I’ve spent talking with Dan and others about our visions for what a church should look like in this community has been invigorating, inspiring, and absolutely terrifying. If anything is going to force me to put my crazy ideas into practice, it’s this project. As we talk together about caring for the poor, loving our neighbors, following Jesus, and living in community, I am confronted with the fact that it’s easier to hang out alone in the construction zone when you’ve got a living room full of broken people with all kinds of different opinions and ideas and needs inviting you to join them in conversation and service. Something tells me that the next few months and years are going to be beautifully uncomfortable and life-changing.

2. The second is the increased exposure that the publication of Evolving in Monkey Town will certainly bring. As I contemplate speaking topics, article ideas, and future book projects, I am continually reminded of the importance of a) providing people with practical ideas for how to respond to my calls to action, and b) practicing what I preach by responding to my own calls to action!

3. The third is the possibility of starting a family. Seeing as we are both approaching 30, Dan and I know that children are in the not-too-distant future. According to our friends, kids force you to get practical. I think we’ve finally let go of the idea that we need to figure everything out ahead of time before we raise kids of faith. But kids will undoubtedly change the nature of how we go about our faith construction, because they will require a safe and secure home.

What about you? What does it mean for you to live in a construction zone? In what ways have you learned to love and follow Jesus in the midst of theological change?


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Confessions of the Local Heretic

I used to care a lot about what people thought of me.  Like, a whole lot.

I used to make decisions based on how family and friends would respond. I used to champion causes that I knew were already popular. I used to live with a paralyzing fear of criticism and an addiction to affirmation.  I used to use other people’s eyes as my mirrors.

When you live in a small, Southern town, you develop a reputation that likes to follows you around like one of Philip Pullman’s daemons. For most of my time here in Dayton, I was known as a smart and pious conservative Christian with a passion for Jesus, a talent for writing, and the tendency to overachieve. People always said to my parents, “You must be so proud!”

That all started to change about five years ago, when I went through a long and difficult period of religious doubt. Once the young apologist, I suddenly found myself wrestling with the notion that most of my fellow human beings would suffer eternal damnation in hell for being born at the wrong place and the wrong time. Once the cheerleader for young earth creationism, I grew fascinated with the science behind evolutionary theory. Once a hard-core Republican who wanted to “take America back for God,” I became disenchanted with the Bush administration, conservative politics, and the evangelical preoccupation with the culture wars. Once an advocate for unwavering certainty and a commitment to absolute truth, I watched in confusion as all the black and white in my life slowly bled into shades of gray.

The worst part of this struggle with doubt was that it caused me to lose some of my closest friends. They told me that they didn’t see the same light in my eyes, that they didn’t like the questions I was asking, and that they felt I was a bad influence. And so they distanced themselves.

I miss them still, and I pray almost every day for reconciliation.

By the grace of God, I managed to get through the doubts, but as I began to put the pieces of my Christianity back together again (with the help of theologians like NT Wright, Greg Boyd, Scot McKnight, and Clark Pinnock as well as “emerging” voices like Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne, and Rob Bell), I quickly came to realize that, in the opinion of a lot of folks from this community, I wasn’t doing it right.

People began to talk. 

Some of the rumors were true (“I heard she voted for Barack Obama!”); others were not so true (“I heard she was a Buddhist!”); others were a weird mixture of truth and fiction that either oversimplified or mischaracterized my positions on things (“I heard she doesn’t even believe in the eternal damnation of Muslims!” “I heard she doesn’t go to church!” “I heard she’s writing a book that makes Dayton look bad!”)

Those of you who followed the comments from Friday’s post caught a little glimpse of how talk like this can come back to me. For someone who used to care so much about what other people think, this has been tough, but it’s been one of the greatest learning experiences of my life.

With Dan’s help, I’ve learned that confronting difficult issues publically is healthier than wrestling with them secretly. I’ve learned that being a writer means being misinterpreted, and that if I want to avoid criticism my whole life, I’ve chosen the wrong profession! I’ve learned that my parents are more supportive and understanding than I used to give them credit for. I’ve learned that true friends stick around for the good times and the bad, and tolerate one another’s idiosyncrasies.

I’ve learned that the criticisms that hurt me the most are not the ones that have no relation to reality, but the ones that, deep down, I desperately fear are true (“you don’t have any fruit in your life,” “you rebel for the sake of rebelling,” “you don’t care if you destroy other people’s faith”). I’ve learned that there’s something to be learned from every criticism, but that the opinions of others need not define me. I’ve learned that the decision to focus on the negative or the positive resides within me and is within my control.  I’ve learned that some of the best, more rewarding positions to take are the ones that are not popular, but that I truly believe are just and right.

In fact, now that I’ve had some time to think about it, becoming the town heretic was one of the best things that ever happened to me!  It’s made my faith stronger, my relationships healthier, and my sense of self more secure. I guess being a heretic has its perks.

I wonder how THAT will get spun in the rumor mill! :-)

Have you ever been the subject of gossip and scrutiny? What did you learn from that experience?

Also, if you are a local who has heard rumors about me (or my book) that you aren't sure are true, I want to give you the opportunity to ask me about them directly - either in the comment section or through thecontact page. Ask me anything!


Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.