does your philosophy of education include rules?

An astonishing discussion is happening here, here, and here concerning Christian schools and rules. Dave Doran comments on it here and offers a two part article on legalism as a partial response. The article is well worth reading (follow the links at Dave’s site), although I don’t entirely accept his conclusions about Pharisaism at the end of the article. The bulk of the argument against the verbal hand grenade, ‘legalism’, is excellent.

The author of the SI articles sums up his thesis this way:

While there are doubtless many fine Christian schools which do not operate in a legalistic fashion, I believe the majority of Christian schools operate with these three fallacious legalistic premises prominent in their thinking.

  1. Man-made rules that prevent violations of God’s rules have inherent spiritual value (which I will address here in Part 1).
  2. Rules promote godliness, in that behavior change leads to heart change.
  3. Enforcement of righteousness is valid and valuable as a first step to sanctification.

This thesis can be summed up like this: The majority of Christian schools use rules illegitimately as a means for achieving the spiritual goal of sanctification.

Is this true? Is sanctification the rationale behind the ‘code of conduct’ in any school? Should it be?

While it is possible that someone can find an exception, it seems to me that strict codes of conduct are intended for a much different purpose than sanctification.

Consider the military academies, West Point, the Air Force Academy, Navy, etc. Do they have codes of conduct? I am under the impression they do. Consider military basic training. Codes of conduct? Yes. Why do these institutions employ such codes?

For the purposes of sanctification, to be sure! No, that can’t be it. If it is their purpose at all, they are largely failing!

In fact, the military schools, the military itself, and educational academies on a military model instill codes of conduct (including many ‘stupid rules’) for the purpose of building character and molding military men who function well in battle.

Schools come with all kinds of different educational philosophies. Those that emphasize character development often have a fairly strict code to follow, including codes of conduct on campus and off campus. Education in such schools is seen as a privilege, not a right, and the students are expected to comply with the structure put in place in order to form their characters.

I would argue that individuals need to submit to rules that have no rational purpose in order to best form their character. (That doesn’t mean that I think every rule should be irrational!) It is not very helpful to character formation if all the rules are perfectly reasonable and understandable by the one who has to comply. What benefit is there in a code of rules that all make sense and don’t make the sinner chafe? Character is formed in the crucible of conflict. How much better is it to have it formed in home and school by presenting difficult demands to developing young people than to let “the cold wet dish-rag of reality slap them upside the head” when they are out in the cold, cruel world.

Helen Keller is quoted as saying:

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.

In 2001, the state of North Carolina passed an act requiring the development of character in its schools, saying that “the development of character in our children is the cornerstone of education.”

A Catholic priest offers this advice on training character in children:

Nor is it difficult to arouse children’s enthusiasm for such little acts of self-denial. Some children may whine at first, especially if they are just beginning to form good habits, but, as the principle of doing not what they like but what is right begins to sink in, they will soon take interest in doing these little"acts of heroism" as beneficial to their own character development. Self-control should therefore be represented to them as an act of growth, of strength, of freedom; it must be made evident that the apparent repression is only a step towards a higher life. They should be shown how a gradual process of practice on the smallest things builds up willpower, and how every act of self-conquest in one sphere of life makes the battle easier in all the other spheres. In the work of self-discipline and the war for the control of our emotional nature the offensive is the best defense of the higher nature.

I certainly wouldn’t endorse the priest or his church, but he does make sense in this article.

When I was a student at BJU, character development was the main focus of the rule system. I can’t count how many times I heard the phrase “it builds character.” I recall one occasion (in grad school) where I was rushing from work in the Print Shop to a class somewhere. This was back in the day when we had to wear ties in the morning to class (that rule may have been relaxed somewhat now). I was grousing about it as I tied my uncooperative neck ornament before rushing out. One of my supervisors heard me and uttered those well used words, “it builds character”. I didn’t really want to hear those words at that time, but my supervisor was right.

Christian schools have in general been set up for much more than mere academics or Christian spiritual development. They have also been set up as character molding institutions. It may be that some confuse the development of character with sanctification. That confusion doesn’t diminish the real purpose of codes of conduct.

In my opinion, the Christian schools of today are softening up way too much. I don’t know how they can put the genie back in the bottle, but I would like to see them actually increase the discipline a bit, instead of steadily eroding it.



  1. Keith says:

    Come on Don. Seriously, you think that someone lacking in “character” as you stipulate it was viewed as “sanctified” at BJU? I’m betting that to be “sanctified” required “character” which required the “discipline” of the rules therefore embracing and keeping the rules was necessary for sanctification. Weren’t those that failed to keep the rules (or kept them but failed to honor/respect them) often called “repros”? Is a reprobate someone lacking “character” or “sanctification”?

    • Hi Keith,

      The person who continually bucked the rules or displayed an attitude on the edge of the rules would be displaying an unsanctified spirit, but the purpose of the rules was first of all about character formation, not spiritual development, per se.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  2. Don,

    It is not possible for an unregenerate person to have godly character. Placed in a Christian environment regulated by a rule book, an unregenerate person will at best conform outwardly to the rules. You seem to imply that this conformity builds character, regardless of the spiritual condition of the person. It produces chameleons.

    I believe that the purpose of Christian education is more than learning to respond a certain way in a particular environment because the environment requires it.

    I am not against rules. I am against having rules that seem to have no purpose other than causing those under them to “chafe.”


    • Hi Jim,

      I didn’t say anything about godly character in my piece, did I? Dr. Bob used to say he would rather see a man with bad character than a man with no character. A man with bad character (like pre-conversion Saul) will make a Christian of good character, if he will be converted. A man with no character remains a man of no character regardless, unless he submits himself to rigorous discipline.

      To the attitude that is against ‘chafing rules’, I say, baloney. It is precisely how you handle those types of rules that develops and demonstrates the strength of an individuals character. There is a reason military institutions have insane rules. They intend to develop character. It displays a weakness in society and a weakness of character when all the clamour is against authority, against discipline, and against character building.

      Tom Brokaw wrote a book called The Greatest Generation. The people of that generation, on average, had far more character than the people of this generation. Can you imagine the young people of today actually accomplishing what the WWII generation did? Perhaps they might if they endured a fiery trial, but they would have to develop some character right quick. I don’t think that the present generation, in its present state of ease, could stand up to a Hitler any time soon. It would be a great thing for our generation if they could develop some character by parental and pedagogical discipline while in their most formative years.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  3. Don,

    i know you didn’t mention “godly” character. That was my point. The development of godly character through sanctification should be a main difference between education that is “Christian” and good private education.

    A lot depends on what you think the goal of Christian education is. I think it is to assist me in bringing my children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The rules that a Christian school has should function to that end.


  4. Don, I am in total agreement with you here. My son, as you know, is at West Point, which has more rules than a Christian college, and is far more strict. And they are wanting to develop character. Being on time is good, for instance. Getting your work in on time is good. Order is good. Respect for authority is good. Being able to follow orders is good. Neatness is good.

    We have people unable to discern today what is true and good and beautiful, because of the moral relativity that abounds. Having high standards results in things being better. Why? Those objectively higher standards reflect the nature of God. That might not be why everyone does it, but it is still better than low standards. I’m guessing some of your readers are legalists at the restaurant, because they have expectations of the cook and the waiter.

  5. Don,

    If rules, regulations, and rigor are the means good character formation, then the NFL should be a showcase of character.

    Don’t get me wrong, Don. I believe good character is more valuable than gold. But it seems to me pressure, rules, and discipline more often than not reveal (and don’t form) charcter.

    I think rules are just that . . . rules. They are necessary for the orderly administration of anything, especially schools. But their value as a means of character building is limited.

    Have a good one!


    • To all

      I think what we are seeing here is a real philosophical divide. That is why we are seeing a reaction here and a flurry of activity at SI over it. Perhaps a certain someone could give us a label for what the philosophy is. In any case, my philosophy of education (parental as well as scholastic) includes heavy doses of discipline as a major component. Check out my sermons last spring on child-rearing. You can find them at my church site under “Ephesians”.

      I think a lot of people have adopted a much more lenient philosophy. I think the result is very often character weakness in young people, and I think part of the divide we are seeing with the so-called YFs is that they are coming out of the heavily indulged Nintendo generation.

      Last, to Jim, I agree that we want godly character, but that involves Christian discipleship, not physical discipline only. Obviously, Christian schools and homes have an interest in discipleship. I believe that you will not produce disciples without discipline, but when it comes to the discussion of scholastic rules, I think it is a mistake to assume that the first purpose of them is for sanctification. The first purpose is for character development which provides conditions conducive to discipleship/sanctification, but not the discipleship/sanctification itself.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  6. Keith says:


    Don’t take what I’m writing as an argument against institutional rules. As tjp says, you can’t have an institution without them.

    The question is — what rules should you have and how should they be explained and understood within the community.

    Mouthing the words, “These rules aren’t about your sanctification or your standing with God,” and actually having that believed within a community/institution are totally different things. Of course, no protestant (or baptist for those of you baptists who don’t think you’re protestants) school is going to say, these rules are what makes you holy and earn you God’s favor. Everybody knows that flies in the face of formalized doctrinal statements. The question is — what is the functional belief. What is really believed in the life of the institution.

    If the rules don’t play a part in my sanctification, then I ought to be able to have whatever attitude I want about them without my spiritual condition coming into question. To use your example, I ought to be able to say, “I’m wearing this necktie because I have committed to submit to this institution, but this is the stupidest practice I’ve yet encountered. Furthermore, I won’t wear one when I am not here.”

    If it really is all about character — like the military — that should be ok. Nobody in the military is expected to follow military dress protocol when they are no longer in the military. Was that kind of attitude ok?

    Furthermore, you say, “There is a reason military institutions have insane rules. They intend to develop character.” Are you sure that is the primary reason? In all parts of the military? Do they really want enlisted men to have “character” or do they want them to conform and obey in order to be a part of a well functioning machine? Is basic training primarily trying to instill character, or is it trying to breakdown individuality?

    As far as the “Greatest Generation” thing goes, I don’t buy it for a minute. That greatest generation is who gave us the mess we have now. They produced the kids of the 60s. Their discipline was all about personal peace and affluence and it has made a mess. Thank goodness that they stood up to Hitler. They deserve much praise. But they were just as fallen as a group as any other.

    Finally, if a school is serving in loco parentis (in the place of the parent), then it must listen to Scriptures advice to parents that they NOT provoke or frustrate their children.

    • Keith, you make some good points in your last post.

      A few counters, however…

      I don’t know anyone who thought wearing ties would make them more holy. I don’t know anyone who thought that they somehow had to follow the “code of ties” when they were no longer under the BJU code. But there remains an impression upon character that continues long after the fact – when I rarely where ties – that can be attributed to that and many other rules I had to submit to at BJU (and earlier in my parents home, though certainly not as strict as BJU).

      I agree that the military is attempting to breakdown individuality, but is that so bad a thing? Wouldn’t it help the church for us to “be not many masters”?

      I agree that the ‘greatest generation’ dropped the ball in raising their own children, but that doesn’t mean they were bereft of personal character. I think they were tired of the fight and the sacrifice of the Depression and then the War, and wanted things to be better for their kids. And so they indulged them, instead of maintaining discipline to some extent.

      Of course, we are speaking in generalities.

      On your last point, you should listen to my messages. Not provoking your children doesn’t mean don’t discipline them. The general understanding of Eph 6.4 is a great misunderstanding.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  7. Don,

    I have not argued against rules, order, or discipline, but against rules that serve no real pedagogical, institutional, or spiritual purpose.

    I contend that rules in a Christian educational setting should should have a Biblical warrant. If you want to have the students cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in their lives (after they have been converted), base your rules on the Bible and clear applications of its principles.


    • Hi Jim,

      Like I said, dueling philosophies. Some rules in a Christian educational system will have a biblical warrant, but others will not. I doubt if there really is any home where all the rules have much more of a biblical warrant than “dad said so”. I contend that to the extent an educational institution has authority, it has the authority to make rules as it sees fit. And if the individuals who attend wish to continue the privilege of attending, they have the responsibility to follow the rules regardless of what they think the quality of the rule might be.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  8. Can anyone here name a rule that you have experienced in a Christian setting that has no biblical basis? I can’t think of one and I went to Christian college when the rules were more strict. I understood there to be principles from scripture that guided all of the rules we had.

    Getting a pass to go off campus. Signing out. Making my bed. Emptying the trash. Having my hair cut. Wearing a tie. Attending class. Not being tardy. Not touching girls. Not being alone with a girl. Having a one inch margin. Type written papers. Attending church. My name at the top right hand corner. No alcohol. Staying awake during chapel. Lights out.

    I could give you a scriptural basis for every one of the above written rules. Could someone give me a rule that had no biblical basis to it?

    • Hi Kent,

      Yes, but the avante garde want explicit statements from the Bible, don’t you know? So regardless of your basis and principles, they want the verse that says, “Thou shalt…” or “Thou shalt not…” None of your study, understanding, and application of Biblical principles, eh?

      And, to quote Dr P, “I speak as a fool.”

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  9. Kent,

    Since you asked, I ‘ll give you a few examples, each from a different Christian educational setting I am familiar with.

    A Christian school I attended for elementary and junior high maintained that blue denim jeans were not allowed to be worn by the guys, but green, or any other color, was OK.

    Also, a school where my wife taught had a rule that boys must wear ties and the girls dresses (instead of skirts), but only on Wednesday.

    Finally, consider the infamous, now-repealed no “interracial dating” rule at BJU. I submit that it had no Biblical basis. That, however, did not remove my obligation to obey it. It was a rule put in place over me by my authority, so I obeyed it and the myriad other rules there. I either had to obey or leave. As pointed out by the BJU Dean of Students, Jim Berg, the viable options when in disagreement with one’s authority are to get the authority to change or to remove myself from under that authority. I stayed because I chose to abide by the rules.

    In the process, I learned much, and yes, Don, my character increased, I believe. However, I attribute that more to God’s working in my life during the time I was in college to increase my faith and dependence on Him. The rules really weren’t an issue for me, but they were part of the environment God used.

    Again, I have no problem with rules that have a scriptural basis.


    • Jim, I would agree with you that the rule about blue jeans as opposed to other jeans is arbitrary and seems capricious. But I don’t agree that it is beyond the bounds of a school to set such a rule. I am not sure I would put my kids in a school that had too many rules like that, but I certainly could live with it if I chose to put myself in that situation. And complying with it would build character, especially if I responded with a sweet spirit in the inner man to it.

      The same goes for the “Wednesday only” ties and dresses rule, although I could see a biblical rationale for encouraging a higher standard of dressing at least once a week. If I was the administrator, the choice would be 1) have the rule for every day or 2) don’t have the rule at all. But I don’t particularly have a problem with the rule as it is stated.

      I agree that the BJU interracial dating rule was founded on poor Biblical reasoning, but it wasn’t sufficient for me to take myself elsewhere either.

      I think that character formation forms through godly responses to trying circumstances. That is why I advocate requiring much of young people (rules) and teaching them that they need to respond properly in the spirit of the inner man (the fruit of the Spirit) to those rules. It is putting an artificial rigour in place in order to develop character before children grow up and face the cruelties of this world. Then the rigour isn’t artificial at all. Those with strong characters already in place will have less difficulty later on.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  10. Jim,

    I didn’t have the exact rules you mentioned at any place I was associated with, but they didn’t seem that foreign to some of the rules we did have. Let me give it a shot for you, OK?

    Your first one—“A Christian school I attended for elementary and junior high maintained that blue denim jeans were not allowed to be worn by the guys, but green, or any other color, was OK.”

    They thought that blue jeans at the time had a different association than what they wanted for school. Blue jeans were play clothes. The green differentiated the school time, the academic setting, from a less intellectually serious environment. There is a scriptural basis for associations and symbols and appropriateness in dress all over the place. Love does not behave unbecomingly or inappropriately. “Modest” apparel is appropriate apparel or clothes in fitting with a designated purpose.

    Your second example—“Also, a school where my wife taught had a rule that boys must wear ties and the girls dresses (instead of skirts), but only on Wednesday.”

    I went to a Christian school that wore ties only on Friday, because it was a chapel day. They sanctified the chapel period, set apart a special time of worship with dress appropriate to that activity. This principle too is in scripture. They also may have been attempting to make it easier for parents who had children who attended services on Wednesday, so were attempting to encourage Wed eve Bible study and prayer.

    Your Third Example—“Finally, consider the infamous, now-repealed no “interracial dating” rule at BJU. I submit that it had no Biblical basis. That, however, did not remove my obligation to obey it. It was a rule put in place over me by my authority, so I obeyed it and the myriad other rules there. I either had to obey or leave. As pointed out by the BJU Dean of Students, Jim Berg, the viable options when in disagreement with one’s authority are to get the authority to change or to remove myself from under that authority. I stayed because I chose to abide by the rules.”

    Dr. Cedarholm almost once a year preached a sermon against inter-racial dating and marriage. He always had scriptural reasons. I may think that he didn’t prove it, but it wasn’t unusual exegesis for the point he was making. The lack of expository preaching may have been the bigger weakness here.

    Just because we don’t agree with the scriptural premise for the rules doesn’t mean that there is not a scriptural reason.

    Thanks Jim.

  11. Kent B,

    I understand your contention that there may be a Scriptural basis for a rule banning blue jeans but allowing black ones. I might argue with you that the Bible declares one color good and another bad, but let’s concede that point for the moment. I think the bigger question is this: was that rule (and others like it) formed because of a Scriptural basis, or because a principal, teacher, pastor etc. just didn’t like blue jeans?

    My dad was on the school board by virtue of being a deacon when they started the Christian school I attended. The draft rule book had a 5 demerit penalty for chewing gum…and a 5 demerit penalty for cheating on a test…until he pointed out the incongruity. There was certainly not much attention being paid there (at one of the flagship schools in the Christian ed movement in our state) to Scriptural foundations for rules; they were just making things up as they went along.

    I think a school should adopt whatever rules it feels will best order the learning environment, but it should not argue that those rules are drawn from Scripture unless they truly are.