The abusive teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
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This is the tenth post of our weeklong series, Into the Light: A Series on Abuse and the Church, which features the stories of abuse survivors, along with insights from professional counselors, legal experts, and church leaders about how to better prepare Christians to prevent and respond to abuse.  Through the course of the series, we will be discussing child abuse, spiritual abuse, sexual violence and abuse,  domestic violence, and bullying. Check out the previous posts here

Before we conclude the series tomorrow morning with a list of resources and some final thoughts, I wanted to share a previous post of mine in which I issue a warning about the abusive teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl. I think it's important to speak bluntly and directly about this because the Pearl books remain inexplicably popular within many evangelical churches, but their teachings are incredibly damaging. So if your church is considering doing a study around Debi Pearl's Created to Be His Helpmeet or any of the Pearls' "No Greater Joy" material, please consider passing this post along to the leadership.

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Lydia Schatz was seven years old when her parents beat her to death with a quarter-inch plastic  tubing for apparently mispronouncing a word. The couple, who were later prosecuted, claimed to be following the “biblical” parenting techniques advocated by Michael and Debi Pearl.

Lydia is one of three children whose death has been linked to the teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl. 

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. 

My dear friend, and brave woman of valor, Elizabeth Esther has written extensively about the Pearls' abusive tactics. 

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. 

[The narrative of the "enduring wife" shows up in other Christian literature in more subtle ways. I wish I'd had the time to write more about this. Perhaps at a later time.]

This is wrong. I cannot state it strongly enough: No act of abuse is justified by God, and no one is called to endure abuse out of a commitment to the Bible or to Jesus.

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. 

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Be sure to check out Elizabeth Esther's blog for more on this topic. See also "Why Not Train a Child?" and Libby Anne's excellent series on "Created to Be His Helpmeet." And check out my thoughts on submission in context as part of our Mutuality series. 

Tomorrow morning we will wrap up the series with a list of resources and some final thoughts. 

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