Kevin Bauder on Institutional Lifestyle Rules

by Nov 22, 2013ChurchLife

I have often thought that an incisive mind could come up with a genuinely helpful, edifying, and (I see now) “critically collaborative” take on the lifestyle rules at the various Christian schools I’ve attended.

Why do those rules seem to help some Christian students but confuse and/or puff up the pride of others? I think I’d put myself in the first category, without denying that the second may have been true of me at times, too. My numerous infractions my sophomore year of college led to a loss of many privileges, a loss which was genuinely helpful in my spiritual life. The residence hall supervisor who had to lower the boom on me (no more leadership roles, no more newspaper staff) clearly communicated with words and demeanor that his goal was not punitive but restorative. Hebrews 12 ran through my mind over and over that year; I felt loved by God precisely because I got caught in my various cheats. God wasn’t going to let me get away with things that would harm me. That, Hebrews 12 says, is how a father deals with his kids.

But some of the kids who sat next to me in 10th grade or in college-level English did not have a good experience with the rules, and Kevin Bauder tells why more incisively than anyone else I’ve read:

Like institutions of all sorts, Christian ministries have rules. Some rules are biblical requirements. Other rules are simply matters of household decorum. In educational institutions, a third set of rules imposes personal disciplines. These disciplines are meant to bring order to the lives of young men and women who have often been reared in a culture that celebrates disorder.

It is possible for these three categories to become confused in the minds of those who are under them. Sometimes the confusion even occurs in the minds of those who enforce them. An infraction of a curfew, for example, might be treated more severely than a violation of an actual biblical precept (as when a student engages in gossip or abusive speech, for example). When this confusion occurs, any list of regulations begins to appear arbitrary. Charges of legalism will soon be heard—often from people who have no idea what legalism really is.

Certain circumstances can make this tendency even worse. Occasionally an institution may have a rule that actually runs contrary to Scripture or natural law. Sometimes rules are grounded in the dysfunctions or idiosyncrasies of a subculture. At times, a rule may be picayune or it may be enforced in ways that are out of proportion to its real importance. These things happen, and when they do, students often begin to express resentment. They may also seek ways to circumvent the offending rule. In fact, their respect for other, more necessary rules may also diminish.

The easiest reaction for the administration is to crack down and rigorously to enforce all rules. Students who question any of the rules are seen as rebels. They are told that they had a choice to enroll and that if they do not like the rules, they should go elsewhere.

If only it were that simple. Young people who grow up in conservative Christian homes may be given little say in where they go to school. As college students, they may not have the power to choose another school and can feel trapped if the enforcement of institutional standards seems oppressive to them. When such students finally graduate, they often turn into haters, opponents, and self-identified “survivors” of the school that (as they see it) oppressed them.

Of course, some students respond with surliness whenever their wills are crossed. They reject even moderate levels of household decorum and imposed discipline. One species of professing Christian actually celebrates the world and the flesh—and some of these partiers end up as students in Christian colleges, seminaries, and universities.

Their response to regulations is to rebel. The opposite response is for students to capitulate, to “go native,” so to speak. They may even come to perceive institutional rules as moral mandates. If these students find their way onto discipline committees, they sometimes present recommendations that are more draconian than the administration’s. When spirituality comes to be defined by performance, these students are the star performers.

Both rebellion and capitulation are immature reactions. A more adult response is what might be called critical collaboration. Those who take this approach are critical in the sense that they think, analyze, and form judgments. They recognize idiosyncrasies and injustices for what they are. Because they believe in collaboration, however, their goal is to work in ways that strengthen their institution rather than either subverting order or perpetuating injustice. They submit to the rules—even the silly ones—because they are willing to endure temporary inconveniences in order to achieve more important goals. Nevertheless, they do not justify the silliness, and they employ legitimate means to work toward necessary changes. They appeal to both the rebels and the sycophants to redefine their perspectives according to the greater good to be accomplished. They see in that good a telos or goal worthy of uniting the various factions.


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