Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Discipline and Repentance: A New Paradigm for the Dorms?

Just the good ole boys.
Never meanin' no harm.
Beats all you never saw,
Been in trouble with the law,
Since the day they was born.

Straight'nin' the curve,
Flat'nin' the hills.
Someday the moutain might get 'em, but the law never will.

Makin' their way,
The only way they know how,
That's just a little bit more than the law will allow.

Just the good ol' boys,
Wouldn't change if they could,
Fightin' the system like a true modern day Robin Hood.
Admit it. You watched the Dukes of Hazzard when you were a kid. At least when your parents weren't around. The song was pretty catchy. Never lived it out much myself in high school. As far as college goes, let's just say that I knew plenty of people who did. Were they rebels, or just mischievous juveniles who got a little squirrely about Bible Conference time?

Well, long about two years after I left the university I wound up on "the other side of the law" as a dorm supervisor in a Bible college. I hope that anyone who has ever served in a position responsible for meting out discipline for walking on the grass shares my distaste for that aspect of the job. But what's the alternative? Surely college kids aren't prepared for an environment of complete freedom without restriction, right? Drop the demerits and surely a recapitulation of the Book of Judges would not be far behind.

Now cross those thoughts with your theology of church discipline. All the listening and reading I've been doing the past week or so related to my polity blogging has caused me to do just that. The cornerstone is that I believe most everyone would agree that the objective of church discipline is restoration. For that reason, we impose discipline for the failure to repent, not for the sin itself.

What would our Christian schools and colleges look like if they used that approach, as well?

I can hear the thousands of you who read this blog crying as one, "Impossible! No way that would ever work." You might be right. It might not work. We might have to rename our guys' dorm "Sons of Belial" and the ladies' "Daughters of Lot."

But did we ever think to try it? What would it take to give it a chance to work?

Step One: We'd have to be prepared not to kick out immediately every kid who goes out drinking, cheats on a final, sneaks off campus with his girlfriend, or even worse. That's a major paradigm shift, and it would have its drawbacks. But think about it in conjunction with step two.

Step Two: We'd have to make a major commitment to accountability and counseling. We'd have to make the dorm sups and RA's responsible for much more than making sure kids shut their lights out at 11:00. They would need to be capable and equipped to counsel heart issues, not just pin a demerit slip on someone's door. We would have to be prepared to make an investment in young people's lives to the point that we are willing to confront rule-breaking with a loving understanding of progressive sanctification and a perceptive nose for a rebellious spirit. That investment would have to go far beyond a one-time confrontation with the ultimate objective of fostering a pastoral relationship.

Step Three: We'd have to be willing to ask not to return those students who don't demonstrate genuine repentance over time. This may be the really tough part. It's easy to want the rebel to be gone. It's fairly simple (if you catch them) to kick someone out for violating one of the big rules. It's much harder to decide which of those little straws of rebellion is the one that ought to be the last one. It's downright frightening to think of trying to differentiate between the immature believer and the scorner of Proverbs.

I've not said all that needs to be said, probably because I didn't think of it. But right now I simply can't escape the possibility that if it's the way we need to be building up disciples in our churches, then maybe it's also the way we should be discipling in our schools.

I'm willing to be wrong on this one. Fire away.


Donald C S Johnson said...

Here's why it wouldn't work. A college is not a church.

Well... maybe PCC is? Or is it the other way around? ... but I digress...

Seriously, though, I don't think your idea works at all if you subscribe to the notion that a Christian college is more than simply a Christian curriculum at a college level. If that's all you want out of a Christian college, there are a ton of them out there. Wheaton, for example, and a host of others.

But I guarantee you I would never send my kids to such a college. I want the college to not only give academics but to help build character as well. I wouldn't support a college that failed to meet my expectations in this area. If none were available, I would keep my kids home and let them take their academics from local secular colleges or universities.

That's my take anyway.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ben said...


I'm not surprised that this objection was raised. I disagree that these principles would fail to work simply because a Christian school or college is not a church. I'm not suggesting that a three-step process of college discipline should culminate in the vote of the student body. And you've grossly misinterpreted me if you think that Wheaton is my utopia.

What I am suggesting is that the cause of discipleship might be advanced if we thought about making discipleship the primary emphasis, not maintaining order.

I'm also not suggesting that schools and colleges should abandon their rules and discipline systems. On the other hand, can we honestly say that we're dealing effectively with heart issues by means of a demerit slip? Those heart issues are the root issues--the diseases that cause the symptoms.

Dealing with those heart issues is what builds character. Dealing with external issues simply modifies behavior.

Certainly many Christian colleges are taking steps to emphasize these heart issues. I'm simply wondering aloud if disciplining for failure to genuinely repent might not be another good step in this direction.

Bo Jo no mo said...

Christian character is not developed by rules and standards. No matter the environment (Church, college, or family), discipleship occurs within the context of relationships. Think about your most influential mentors in school. Were they the ones that held your feet to the letter of the rule book or were they the ones that stayed up with you after light bell to discusss what God had been teaching them? I learned about personal discipline from the former, but about God from the ladder. Discipleship is not a formula that comes from a rulebook.

Matthew 18 occured before Pentecost. Do you think that it didn't apply before Acts 1 (i.e. this is only for the Church)? If so then why was Christ concerned about teaching this truth at this time. He could easily have had Paul include it in one of the Corinthians letters. I think it is too narrow to limit this principle to the context of the church. Obviously, when sin occurs it is our responsibility to confront it and deal with the source, the heart. Demerits are not the most effective way to do this. However, they do make a good Pharisee.

Having said that, rules are necessary and maybe even demerits, but they are not the answer to the sinful heart. They do not build character... God does! It is our response to truth that grows us not a hall leader passing out pink and white slips of paper.

PS - Don, respectfully, no one cares about your expectations for colleges. We want Scripture!

Ben said...

After scanning my post and the responses again, this comment from Donald stood out to me:

"I don't think your idea works at all if you subscribe to the notion that a Christian college is more than simply a Christian curriculum at a college level. If that's all you want out of a Christian college, there are a ton of them out there."

Perhaps my initial post wasn't clear enough. I am absolutely not suggesting that we lower the bar in any area. Let's assume for the sake of argument the existence of a school whose only distinctively Christian characteristic is a curriculum with a biblical worldview. Nothing more--no rules, no discipleship. Anyone who reads the words of my post objectively can see that I'm not arguing for this.

My post is differentiating between two other models. One is a school that has a Christian curriculum and a detailed discipline system designed to maintain order. I am suggesting that we move toward the third model, that contains Christian curriculum, a healthy discipline system, AND a strong discipleship emphasis.

I realize that the choice between the latter two models is not binary. Probably all the schools we're familiar with are somewhere along a continuum between the two. My argument is simply that fostering discipleship is not nearly as high a priority as it ought to be.

Discipline isn't fun, but it's relatively easy if the will exists to make it happen. Discipleship is hard under the best of circumstances, whether it's in the context of a church, a Christian day school or a college. It takes precious resources--time and manpower--which ultimately means money. Even more precious is the spiritual and emotional investment (i.e. love) that is demanded of the discipler.

So let it not be said that I'm suggesting we lower the bar. Quite the contrary.

Donald C S Johnson said...

"My argument is simply that fostering discipleship is not nearly as high a priority as it ought to be."

Well, I do agree with that. I have a friend who is a retired faculty member at BJU. He commented something to the same effect to me. Perhaps one of the problems is having graduate students as dorm supervisors. They have plenty of work to do in their classes and not enough time (perhaps) to really disciple the students. (Of course, I am mostly thinking of the men's dorms, not having any experience on the other side!! and I am also thinking about how things were when I was a student... Lo those many years ago...)

Way back when, we did have a dorm supe who was assistant dean of men, was not a grad student, but was involved with the students all day long every day. I was never in his dorm, but the guys who were had a great deal of loyalty to him.

Perhaps something along those lines would go a long way to fostering the kind of atmosphere you describe.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ben said...


Great to see we can find some common ground.

Your suggestion could very well be part of the solution. I still think there would need to be some structural change. There are already enough built-in walls to overcome when we try to get people to be honest about their spiritual struggles. It seems that schools need to find a way to provide spiritual help to students who want to change without the menacing threat of punishment even when they demonstrate repentance.

sardonic beholder said...

Perhaps it seems to me that we are looking to the wrong institution for character building. I agree with Mr. Johnson usually when I read his thoughts, but isn't character building the family's job, not some man-made institution of higher learning? [no, i'm not for abolishing all rules, I'm thankful for most all rules at schools like BJU] While I may be wrong, if we have to find a college to instill character, aren't we a little late?

Donald C S Johnson said...

Hi guys...

I appreciate your comments. As the father of two currently at BJU (three more on the way, Lord willing) and a lifer in the Alumni Assoc, I am one who has bought the philosophy, especially as I knew it in my student days. I watch the current scene with interest. Some of the changes have been for the good, some not, and some inevitable, including some of the changes that are not so good IMO.

However, to the question of "sardonic beholder" -- "isn't it too late to instill character at college?" Answer: not in my experience. I will grant you that some are incorrigible! But most of the graduates I know from my era at BJU (I graduated in 1979) are stronger, more disciplined, and more successful in their fields than average. This does not necessarily mean they are more spiritual, a lot of them are not. But clearly their character was shaped by the discipline they experienced.

So, in short, no, I don't believe college is too late for forming character.

However, in a way, I look to Christian college as a for Christian young people to "finish" their character, to put a polish on it. This kind of finishing may be impossible at home, but a Christian college dedicated to educating the whole man, not just the academics, can do this.

paleo said: "It seems that schools need to find a way to provide spiritual help to students who want to change without the menacing threat of punishment even when they demonstrate repentance."

Ok, I can accept this if the student truly demonstrates repentance. But a disciplinary structure (like the demerit system at BJU) can provide a means for this. I am sure that there are times when a student appears properly contrite where the "legislated" amount of demerits applied are reduced, or some other means is used in order to keep the repentant kid in school. Perhaps more could be developed in this area, and perhaps this is what you are driving at. (I am also sure that a kid that demonstrates false repentance by repeated offense will find himself "leaving on a jet plane" as we used to say. I had a roommate like that.)

Good discussion. Thanks for the opportunity...

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ben said...


I never thought I would agree with you as much as I do now. ;-)

Michael said...

Interesting post. I've been giving a lot of thought recently to how our colleges can prioritize discipleship. I've got more thoughts than I can post here, but here is one question I have been struggling with. How can we better help students understand the various reasons for rules--moral issues, logistics, the weaker brother, discipline-building, etc.?

For instance, I applaud schools that don't allow TVs in the dorm. I would go further even to say that I wish schools would consider banning video games (maybe just for under-classmen?). In both examples the issue is not purely moral or logistical. One function of the TV ban is to show students that it is possible to live without a TV and to help them focus on what should be important during college. The school is protecting students from themselves and hopefully helping them establish good habits for life. (I have seen kids fail classes because they couldn't discipline their use of computer games, and I can only imagine what TV access would do.)

So...with these and other character-building issues, how do we deal with them appropriately in a discipleship context? The policies aren't purely spiritual. But there is also an unhealthy tendency, even among college students that love God, to entirely discount the importance of discipline-building policies as though that was something for the last generation. I'm trying to understand how we could fit those policies into the framework proposed here. To be really ridiculous, if someone sleeps through a class and then repents should we give less demerits? :-) PLEASE understand that I am not equating discipline-building policies with discipleship in what I am saying.

Quote: "I am sure that there are times when a student appears properly contrite where the "legislated" amount of demerits applied are reduced, or some other means is used in order to keep the repentant kid in school."

BJU has generous policies for students who confess a problem and seek help. I don't know the ins and outs of it, but Dr. Bob has said in chapel several times that if a student confesses a problem and makes the appropriate steps for restoration, he will not get the demerits. BJU will provide some sort accountability to help that person gain victory over the problem.

Kevin T. Bauder said...


What you are suggesting is not new. It comes close to describing the Bible College that I attended during the 1970s -- and, I might add, the stance of most mainstream fundamentalist institutions of that epoch.

It also describes the philsophy of the fundamentalist seminary that I attended during the 1980s. The board and administration loathed demerit systems as subversive of true piety.

I tend to agree with them. The evils of demerit systems can be mitigated (and often are), but they nevertheless tend towards a philosophy of "spirituality by regulation."

Of course, you can do that even without a demerit system.

What is often called "character" is simply another name for conformity to the rules. What discipleship requires is the development of sensitive consciences. This is never--NEVER--done by bureaucracy.

None of this negates the importance of teaching students the difference between right and wrong. It does not imply that no rules are necessary. It does not even negate the value of discipline (without which discipleship is impossible). But it has everything to do with how the rules are presented and enforced (as if enforcement could lead to spirituality). It permits us to distinguish power from leadership.

What you are calling for is not something new, but a return to something old. And it is something good.

Kevin T. Bauder

Michael said...

While we're at it, I've run across several people on discussion boards who believe that schools are wrong to use the demerit system without any form of merit system or some way to erase demerits. What are your thoughts?

My initial impression is that this is a bad way to try to fix some of the problems inherent in a demerit system. I guess my reaction is a gut-level protestant instinct, but I do realize that the demerit system is not necessarily a picture of the gospel. A merit system might lead to new highs in self-righteousness, while a system where demerits could be erased could promote an Tetzelian economic/budgeting mindset that would be unhealthy. Am I offbase?

Donald C S Johnson said...

Merit system??? Must be Arminians!!!

Seriously, I would be sceptical of such a system. The law is made for sinners to be a schoolmaster...

I think a merit system would create more legalism!

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Esther said...

Well first of all, I think I should probablly get an award for being the youngest person to enter into this debate. or discussion. or whatever. :)
But maybe a different point of view is good.?
I'm not in college yet. But I will be next fall. I'm really really likeing what's-his-face posted originally. I know SO many kids my age (17) who are looking for college as an opportunity to escape their parents, to escape the "rules", to just ESCAPE! to run away from everything, even God. My own brother can be used as an example. We all thought he was a christian, and he wanted to go to bob jones, and he went, got in with the wrong group of kids, dropped out, dated an unsaved girl, got into drugs, drinking, you name it. He recently got saved and is living at home and will be attending Georgia Baptist College this fall, with his girlfriend, who got saved too. Praise God.
But, my point is that, he personally felt like he was just a number. That they didn't care what was on the inside, just if his hair was cut, if he wore the right things, and didn't hold his girlfriends hand.
I don't know if thats true, i'm sure some of it is, because its hard to avoid at a college pushing 6,000 students. It just isn't possible to keep track of EACH student on a spritual level.
As far as the video game thing and tv thing are concerned I so agree with not having them at college, I just know from a personal experience that it is VERY easy to get involved with it and neglecting more important things. Such as missing out on a good wholesome time with God, cutting things short that shouldn't be cut short. I didn't realize how much I was watching tv till Mom and Dad got rid of it all together! I mean we still have a tv, just not cable. It's just rediculous! such a waste of time. I'm not saying I don't like movies, I do, (especially the village, as the themes in that movie are incredibly good, and have awesome messages...)
But whether we want to face it or not, tv is a stumbling block. And maybe, there's a kid coming into a college who allows it, and he had major issues with it before coming to college and he's finally having the ability to overcome it, when all his friends have it. Talk about stumbling blocks.
I was recently having this discussion with my bro's Girlfriend, because she's not quite understanding why she can't wear skirts above the knee at Georgia. (she's seeing it now)
But all this to say, that when i go to college next fall, (praying about Northland baptist in Wisconsin)
I'm looking for something. I'm looking for a college that cares enough to lay down the law. Just like my parents did growing up. I hated some of the rule my parents came up with. like not being allowed to ride my bike past the second row of trees on the driveway. yeah and maybe sometimes i broke that rule. but at least my parents cared enough about me to be worried if i got kidnapped or hit by a car. I knew a lot of kids whose parents didn't.
my parents cared enough to say that i couldn't go over to so and so's house because they believed more liberally than our church, and they knew it would effect me.
they recently let me go to her youth group a couple months ago and spend the night, and i hated it. it was painful. they watered down the truth.

i want the college i go to, to care. to care whether i believe or not. to care whether i can tell the difference bewteen right or wrong. to care that i may not be saved. to care that i have issues with authority, and if my parents didn't teach me about submission, to teach me.
thats all i have to say. :>)

Ben said...


I think a fine system ($$) might actually fit the Tetzelian model better. That would have it's own weaknesses. But I'm not convinced that fines are worse than traditional demerit system. But the merit/demerit system sounds more like plain old works salvation.

It may sound crazy, but I don't think we should underestimate how much our discipline systems form the theological belief systems of our young people. I know they had that impact on me. That reaches back to my point. Although I didn't use the word "grace," I think it is implicit in the model I described that emphasizes discipleship and repentance over law, conformity, and penalties.


Glad to have you here. May God grant you wisdom as you face some important decisions in the coming months.