Breaking Fences, Take 2

“The more commitments you make, the more mature you will be.”

After reading my last post (click here) a friend sent me actual photographic evidence that people really do think that “building fences” will protect you from sinning.

This page is from a “counseling” conference for students (about age 16 to young 20s) held in 2000. The bullet point listed here is just one of probably six or seven; these conferences deluged the attendees with information. It was hard to take it all in, much less judge each point’s validity — even if you had some frame of reference that let you see the problems in the first place.

This was written by the same teacher who wrote this helpful self-motivation checklist right here.*

Counseling1

Let’s take a look at this bit by bit, how about?

CounselingPt1

Oddly, when I went to my (highly effective) counseling sessions, what I most appreciated was how my counselor listened to me. She occasionally asked questions or suggested a different way to understand God or my past. No explaining or urging took place.

Counseling sessions are very individualized, so I imagine that sometimes a counselor might take a different tack that would look more like explaining and urging. But this teaching seems to assume that if people have problems, those people need to be “fixed.” They need to keep behind the fences and follow the rules. That way God will bless them again.

CounselingPt2

Two Bible verses! The first one is pretty solid. The second one is from a Psalm, which is poetry, not exactly cause-and-effect promises. And then, in a giant leap for logickind, he explains and urges that in order to get God’s blessings, you have to make commitments to do good things.

Just in case we might think he made up this theology, he gives us proof: an unverifiable story about anonymous people.

(If you’re thinking, “How could people believe this?”, then you don’t understand the force of a leader’s personality, the high-pressure atmosphere, and the reinforcement from the group where everyone else seems to agree without reservation. You should read my novel, The Fellowship.)

CounselingPt2

I don’t even have to point out what’s wrong with this “example.” But I will anyway.

The story assumes that if the young woman had committed to telling young men to approach her father first, she would be spared Bad Things. We also “know” that she’d be more mature if she made this commitment.

This is one point where he and I agree: this woman was not mature enough to handle a relationship. But turning it over to her dad wouldn’t have helped her in the long run.

After all, she thinks that since she accepted a date in surprise, it’s a binding promise. No, honey. If you’re uncertain about it, email him to say that the day you agreed on wouldn’t work out after all, and you’d really like to think about his offer a little longer. Then, after you’ve thought about it, call him and explain that you have a conflict of faith and you really don’t think it’s a good idea. It will be awkward and he might end up feeling hurt. That’s grown-up life.

But, no, since Daddy isn’t there to rescue her, she goes out with the guy after all and… violates her moral purity? There’s no knowing what that really means in this context. This phrase could refer sex — and if she had sex on the first date despite her conscience, she’s got really serious issues. It could also mean they kissed. Or maybe she wore a low-cut blouse and he complimented her figure. No telling which fence got breached, since breaking any of them counts as sin.

(It’s even possible that it means he forced sexual contact without her consent; since she dated a guy who didn’t have her father’s approval, she’s partly guilty for whatever he did to her. I don’t have the evidence of this logic right here, but it’s definitely part of the thinking.)

The story serves only one purpose: to create fear among his followers so they’ll accept his word as their means of security.

CounselingPt3

Well, yes, Daniel did. But that showed his strength of character. He knew his own mind. He didn’t need to prop up his sagging judgment with “commitments.”

This whole bullet point (and the rest of the material) is flavored with the pungent stench of Bible verses ripped out of context. Teachers like this demonstrate over and over that their concern isn’t what the Bible says or what God is really like. It’s to reinforce their own authority as teachers of truth, as they trap their followers behind miles of fences that God never created.

Amid all that talk of God and Biblical principles and Bible verses, though, this teacher — like most teachers like him — forgot to add a key verse. I’ll do it for him.

“Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.” Nehemiah 6:8

*The teacher is Bill Gothard of the Institute in Basic Life Principles/Advanced Training Institute. I have no qualms about calling him out by name. But although his material is what I use for my examples, I don’t want to focus solely on him and his teachings. He’s just one of many teachers who peddle legalism, and they all use the same methods.

Breaking Fences

“Why won’t legalists have sex? Because somebody might see them and think they’re dancing.”

While you’re still dying of laughter over that one…

Rules protect us from sinning. That’s the whole spirit behind legalism. Rules about what you wear, what you watch, how you dress, what you eat, where you go — they’re all designed to keep you from ever getting close enough to a sin to commit it. They “fence off” the sin so you can’t get to it. Want to avoid sexual sin? Probably best not to go dancing.

That way, you can be sure that God will bless you instead of punishing you.

The problem is… actually, there are a lot of problems with living life this way. One of the problems is that there are never enough fences. Legalism creates row after row of fences, trying to block off any avenue to that sin. That includes even the good parts of our human nature that might lead us too close to that sin.

And eventually, breaking the “fences” becomes just as great an offense as the sin itself.

These rules vary from one subculture to another. In my own “Fellowship,”  (Bill Gothard’s homeschooling program) girls could wear makeup and earrings, but it was a big deal not to listen to “rock” music (which was almost any music other than hymns or classical). In the church my husband grew up in, the music rules were less stringent, but women weren’t allowed to have pierced ears or cut their hair. I read about other cults where members weren’t allowed to attend other churches, or had to log a certain number of hours in prayer every week, or weren’t allowed to eat marshmallows.

And it never works. We still mess up. Legalism just gives us hundreds of extra ways to mess up, without the remedy of God’s grace and mercy to restore us.

It’s a heavy burden of guilt to be credited for a sin you never committed.

In my world, the “fence” progression looked something like this:

Sin: sexual sin

Rule 1: To avoid sexual sin, don’t date until you’re ready for marriage.

New sin: dating

Rule 2: To avoid dating, commit to “courtship” in which the parents make the decision that you’re ready.

New sin: violating courtship commitment

Rule 3: To avoid violating your courtship commitment, don’t let yourself fall in love with someone your parents haven’t approved.

New sin: falling in love

Rule 4: To avoid falling in love, don’t let yourself have crushes.

New sin: crushes

Rule 5: To avoid crushes, don’t interact with the opposite sex on a casual basis.

Therefore:

Interacting with and enjoying the attention of the opposite sex is, in effect, sexual sin.

So back away from the fence and behave. That’s what God said, after all.

Are You a Failure? Y/N

The thing about cults and cult-like systems is that, for the most part, they’re really boring.

Most of the indoctrination takes place day by day, through sermons that carefully redefine Scripture, through lectures that reinforce the group’s beliefs, and through long, dull sessions of filling in blanks and regurgitating the right answers.

The question-and-answer exercises are very simplistic, and all designed to condition you to doubt yourself and feel like a failure. You learn to look to your leader for answers, and you’re afraid to leave the group because you know you’ll crash and burn on your own.

A friend from my own Fellowship* recently shared a snapshot of a worksheet we had to fill out as students in the early 90s. As 14 – 18 year olds, we were separated from our parents at weeks-long conferences, awakened early and kept up late, and bombarded all day with lectures and conditioned group responses. Somewhere in the middle of this exhausting, bewildering, and exhilarating experience, they dropped things like this in our laps:

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1. Do you get up early in the morning?

2. Do you get out of bed when you wake up?

3. Are you an “energy-giver” when you get up?

4. Do you decide the night before what to wear the next day?

5. Do you consistently honor a day of rest?

6. Do you make your bed as soon as you get up?

7. Do you have everything in its rightful place?

8. Do you keep your room neat?

9. Are you consistent in your daily Bible reading?

10. Do you have a regular prayer time?

11. Do you regularly memorize Scripture?

12. Do you always wash your hands before meals?

13. Do you practice proper etiquette?

14. Do you sit near the front during a meeting?

15. Do you stand up for your elders?

16. Do you take notes during messages?

17. Do you know how to detect the five types of fools?

18. Do your parents approve of all your friends?

19. Do you fulfill all the promises you make?

20. Do you put yourself to sleep with meditation on Scripture?

*

An outsider could glance over it and say, “Well, there are a lot of great ideas here. Except what does washing your hands have  to do with self-motivation? Just take what’s good and leave the rest.”

An insider knew much better than that.  “No” is not an acceptable answer to any of these questions. Notice that”Sometimes” isn’t even an option. We couldn’t take-and-leave. This wasn’t a mere list of ideas. This was a test, and we were set up to fail it.

Unless you’re educated in the culture that it comes from, you probably still miss how loaded some of these questions are. I could spend a dozen blog posts unpacking these questions.

For instance, “Do you get up early in the morning?” Early rising was a mark of Godliness; sleeping late was, therefore, sinful. The next question, “Do you get out of bed when you wake up?” reinforces the idea that staying in bed is a sign of slothfulness. And there was an entire booklet about the dangers of being slothful. So if you answered “no” to questions 1 & 2, you’re already spiritually defective.

Or how about #14? Sitting in the back of a meeting demonstrated apathy (a sin) or rebelliousness (a major sin).

In order to answer #17, you had to remember the extensivelesson on the Five Types of Fools; so that question actually covered an entirely separate session in itself.

Question #18 weighed about a ton. Your parents had the power of God’s disapproval in your life. If they didn’t like a friend of yours, no matter the reason, the only obedient course of action was to get rid of that friend. Also, “friend” here could stand for “friend of the opposite sex” — someone you liked despite the fact that God expected you to keep your emotions pure until He brought you the one you were to marry. It was a reminder that even your emotions were subject to God/your parents.

The entire list, by the way, is pretty easy to master if you happen to be someone exactly like the Venerated Leader who wrote it — a man who didn’t need much sleep, was an extrovert, found memorization easy, didn’t have any real friends, wore basically the same thing every day, and spent thirty years sexually harassing young women that he invited to work for him. Oh, wait, he forgot to add that item, didn’t he?

Twenty years later, when many of us saw the picture of this list, we felt that same oppression we’d lived under as teenagers. “No wonder,” we said. “No wonder I always felt like a failure. No wonder I worked myself into chronic fatigue. No wonder I broke down at age 20.” This list was just one of many others like it. This was how we knew to please God.

This was our spiritual life, one in which choosing your clothes the night before is just as important as keeping the Sabbath (one of the Ten Commandments). No room for mistakes or personality. Just keep your head down, obey, and pretend you aren’t the complete failure you know you are.

And for the record, I have no idea how washing your hands before every meal made it on this list. That’s stupid.

If you need me, I’ll be lying in bed in my comfortably cluttered room, with no memory of the five types of fools, and resting in the grace of God.

*Bill Gothard, IBLP/ATI