by John Ellis
Spelling is not a forte of mine. As a writer, red squiggly lines are my friend. Words like “Wednesday,” “indubitably,” and “cornucopia” are beyond my ability to remember how to spell correctly. One word I’ll never misspell, though, is obedience. The spelling of that word was drilled into me via multiple performances at both my church and school of the Patch the Pirate song titled “Obedience.”
The chorus includes a chant of the word’s spelling – “O-B-E-D-I-E-N-C-E” followed by the lyrics, “obedience is the very best way to show that you believe.” Is the song wrong? Not necessarily. Was it used as a part of a larger program of a Christian version of B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism? Sort of. Enough to be problematic, but not so much as to stray into the often-ill-defined borders of heresy.
In terms of my larger story, I’m incredibly thankful for the faithful gospel witness my parents, teachers, and other authority figures consistently poured into my life. I shudder to think where I’d be without their love, prayers, and ministry (if you doubt me, read this). That being said, this side of the eschaton, nobody and no system is perfect, and while they had the best of intentions, much of my upbringing was bracketed, at least in part, by what’s now referred to as moralistic therapeutic deism. Obeying certain rules, looking a certain way, and refraining from a long list of “don’ts” was the secret to a successful, happy Christian life.
Shamefully, for me and most of my friends, living a successful, happy Christian life was not a priority. Living a life of self-service was our goal and our god. The rules, while often an impediment to the worship of our god of self, were usually easily usurped. One year, though, stands out as a shameful example of a complete and successful coup of the authority figures. And that year is 1987/88, my sixth-grade year.
The thing about my sixth-grade class is that it was an E.R. year. By that, I mean that my sixth-grade year was so jam-packed full of over-the-top rebellion as to be unbelievable. Medical professionals often comment that TV shows like E.R. are realistic, but only to a point. While crazy things happen in hospitals, they don’t happen nearly as often as Hollywood likes to portray them. Likewise, while rebellious things happen in Christian schools, they don’t generally happen at the pace and level as they did that year.
The year started innocuously enough. A new year, a new teacher, same good friends. Except, trouble was bubbling from the beginning. Our new teacher was old. And by old, I mean retirement age. And my friends and I were finally the top-dogs in the elementary grades. Having suffered through a year of torment and near constant bullying at the hands of the previous year’s degenerate sixth-grade class filled with kids several years older than us due to their having flunked previous grades, we were ready to feel our oats. Young rebels versus old, inattentive teacher.
The first mistake Mrs. Cole, our teacher, made was sitting me and my best buddies, Brad, Billy, and Mark right in a row. The second mistake was the goldfish tank in the back of the room.
After years of a Christian form of behaviorism, we were ready to fight back. Or, rather, as Paul explains in his letter to the Galatian Christians, sin increases under law. In fact, Paul makes the astonishing claim in Galatians 3:22, “But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”
That’s a complicated verse in a complicated Bible passage connected to other complicated Bible passages like Romans 11:32 that theologians love to expound on in commentaries because it helps them reach the word count their editors require. For me, as a storyteller and not a theologian, I’m not interested in getting into the theological weeds here. To that end, I’m going to allow Thomas Schreiner, one of my favorite theologians, to provide a brief summary of the passage.
In his highly readable commentary on Galatians, Dr. Schreiner writes of 3:22, “Those who live ‘under law’ (the old era of redemptive history) are also under the dominion and power of sin, whereas those who live in the new age inaugurated by Christ are ‘under grace,’ and the tyranny of sin has been defeated.”
After an individual repents and believes in Jesus, they are fully justified before God and adopted into His family. One of the most important benefits of faith in Christ is Holy Spirit wrought sanctification. As Paul says in Romans 8:29, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” Our election includes sanctification. It’s a package deal.
While it might not feel like it at times, Christians have been set free from the slavery of sin. And we are set free to pursue holiness for God’s glory. Availing ourselves of the ordinary means of grace (read your Bible and pray every day, and you’ll grow, grow, grow, along with submitting to the preaching of the Word at a local gospel-believing/preaching church that rightly practices the Sacraments) reveals idols in our heart and empowers us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to cast down those idols. Sanctification is the process by which we become more like Jesus by making Jesus our all and all. This is why Paul commands Believers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” in Philippians 2:13 and, thankfully, also adds “for it is God who works in you, both to will and work for his good pleasure.”
Christians have the confidence to do the hard work of mortifying sin because God has promised to sanctify us and make us more like Christ. Through faith, the Christian’s pursuit of holiness will not be in vain. Unbelievers, on the other hand, are trapped by sin under the law.
With good motives, to be sure, the fundamentalist system I was raised in made the same mistake that Philip Ryken warns about in his commentary on Galatians. “We forget that Christianity is a form of liberty, and not slavery,” Ryken cautions. “We reduce faith in Christ to a list of rules or traditions. We evaluate our spiritual standing by what we do for God, rather than by what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. In truth, we are all recovering Pharisees, in constant danger of forgetting to live only by faith and choosing instead to go right back under law.”
You see, the fundamentalism I was raised in rejected sanctification as I explained it above in favor of a form of Keswickian Higher Life Theology. What Andy Naselli, describing it as “Chaferian Sanctification,” says is rooted in the belief that “Believers are in one of two distinct categories: (1) those who are not Spirit-filled and (2) those who are Spirit-filled.” Many Believers know those distinctions as carnal Christians and spiritual Christians.
To move from being a carnal Christian to a spiritual Christian requires a cognitive dedication and surrender to Christ (separate from “asking Jesus into your heart”) and a willful and intentional obedience. Rules served two main purposes in the fundamentalism I grew up in: 1. Because of a bad interpretation of Jesus’ Parable of the Soils, it was believed, in part, that adherence to the rules would restrain the flesh. My authority figures believed that their job was to keep the soil of our heart free from weeds and thorns. Rock music, movies, clothes, etc. were all considered weeds and thorns that would choke out the desire to commit and surrender, preventing us from moving from a carnal Christian to a spiritual Christian. 2. The rules served to provide us a roadmap to being a spiritual Christian.
However, as John MacArthur confessed in the afterword to Naselli’s book, “keeping external rules for the sake of appearance cannot restrain the flesh.”
Wrapped up in my authority figures’ rules-centered system was the even more tragic fact that they failed to account for the fact that they were dealing with a bunch of heathens and not Believers freed from the slavery of sin. Due to the embrace of the notion of “carnal Christian,” since we had all repeated prayers when were four and five-years old (if not younger), we were considered “saved by the skin of our teeth” and needed to make the willful move into “spiritual Christian.” Except we grated against the rules as ones still under the law because most of us had not tasted of God’s saving grace found through faith in Jesus.
Most of the time, our overt rebellion was kept in check through the efforts of intimidating adults who were smarter, savvier, and more determined than we were. During that 6th grade year, though, the power dynamics were inverted after we realized that we controlled the classroom. That realization came thanks to those stupid goldfish sitting on the back counter.
One day not long into the school year, to Mrs. Cole’s dismay, the goldfish were discovered floating belly-up, the victims of pencil-lead poisoning.
The meandering and unfocused eyes of Mrs. Cole combined with her unrelenting prattling on and on about why we were all doomed to failure because of demonically tinged things like motorcycles, beheaded hooligans, and Coca-Cola products had become too much. Those bubbling fish and their demise were a tipping point, of sorts, that set the tone for the rest of the year.
We knew that the authorities would be unable to finger the exact culprits, but we were still expecting a general dressing down and collective punishment. To our astonishment, Mrs. Cole attributed the deaths of her fish to natural causes. No punishment forthcoming. That was when we realized that we held all the power. From that point on, the classroom was ours.
School days became an exercise in exploiting Mrs. Cole’s age and general lack of awareness. Rules forbidding talking and requiring us to stay in our seat were run roughshod over. Whenever she would wonder aloud where her glasses were, when they were usually perched on top of her head, we would lie and say, “You left them in the lunchroom.” It didn’t matter whom she chose to go fetch her glasses, my buddies and I all went. Same with her keys. Same with her purse. Same with whatever object she thought she had misplaced when she hadn’t actually misplaced them. During Mrs. Cole’s short stint as a teacher, we spent more time “searching” for her stuff than we did with a book open on our desk.
To her credit, Mrs. Cole attempted to do fun experiments to help us engage with what she was teaching us. Those experiments always went awry due to “unknown” variables being introduced whenever it tickled the fancy of us nasty little brutes. One such thwarted experiment involved a chicken bone in a jar of Coca-Cola.
Attempting to impress on us the dangers of soft drinks, the experiment was intended to show coke’s effect on a chicken bone. We never got to find out because that chicken bone mysteriously broke in two. She tried it again. Same thing happened. Puzzled, poor Mrs. Cole scratched her head and said, “I don’t understand. This has never happened before.”
My friends and I smirked and chortled with dismissive glee.
True to form, Mrs. Cole raged at the other side of the room who protested that they weren’t the ones laughing. As she turned her anger onto the actual culprits, to our delight, the other side of the room erupted in jeers. We protested, Mrs. Cole changed directions again, and the whole thing started back up. Like a group of evil hellions using a musical round to torture a sweet soul.
Due to the growing expressions of our rebellion, the school days became increasingly unproductive. Unable to corral us, Mrs. Cole resorted to begging and pleading. The elementary principal, a lady we all liked and feared, began popping unannounced into our classroom with an increasing frequency. In the chaos of our classroom, we quickly learned to have a lookout so that by the time the principal made an appearance, she would be unable to single anyone out. The school was left with doling out universal punishments, which, by definition, proved ineffective since those types of punishments generally earned us what we wanted anyway – getting us out of our desk but still leaving us with plausible deniability that we personally deserved punishment if and when our parents got wind of what was going on.
I can’t overstate this, that year we collectively acted in a diabolical and organized manner with the purpose of disrupting our classroom and undermining our teacher’s authority.
Being a sixth grader and unaware of the machinations of the school administration, I’m not sure what the final straw was that broke the camel’s back of Mrs. Cole’s employment. I vaguely remember hearing something about her health. Looking back on it, I truly hope that’s not true. I already owe that woman an apology when I meet her in heaven; I really really hope that our rebellion didn’t exacerbate any health conditions she may have had.
Regardless of the reason, we arrived at school one morning to discover the school principal sitting behind the freshly undecorated teacher’s desk. The fishless fish tank was gone. Evidence of Mrs. Cole’s presence had been removed.
Oddly enough, and make of this what you will, we genuinely liked the elementary school principal and enjoyed having her as a teacher. For a few weeks, the classroom was productive. School principals, of course, have things to do other than teach. The restoration of authoritative balance was short-lived.
The first thing I noticed about our new teacher was her youth and beauty. I immediately liked her and wanted her to like me back. Why and when the shift back to classroom terrorist happened, I don’t remember. But the change was swift and severe. My final memory of that poor young teacher is of her with her head on her desk sobbing as we filed out of the classroom at the end of the one and only week she worked as our teacher. On Monday, the school principal was back.
Our next and final teacher that year was a man. Mr. Williams was a missionary on furlough. He was young, athletic, and kind (at the beginning). On paper, even as I think about it thirty-plus years later, Mr. Williams makes perfect sense to have been assigned the task of riding herd over an unmanageable class of pre-teens.
We spent the majority of his first day “practicing” walking in line. Which, frankly, was exactly what we wanted. Marching up and down the hallway was far better than being in the classroom. Minus the times, of course, when the other teachers, included my mom, would see us in the hallway and would intervene, providing Mr. Williams a master class in classroom management. The other teachers, including my mom, had their own classes and teaching to attend to, though. Their intervention, while unpleasant, was sparse.
The punishment of “practicing” walking in line began because one of my friends thought it would be funny to get in the girl’s line.
To set the scene, when walking through the hallways, we were separated by gender into two parallel lines. The floor was made up of large tile blocks. We were supposed to keep one block between us and the student in front of us. Two blocks were to separate the boys’ and girls’ lines. It was all very rigid. And, as a general rule, it worked out fine. We never really cared about it except when it was connected to a larger program of rebellion.
So, when my buddy hopped lines, Mr. Williams kindly corrected him. My friend, a master of turning situations and teacher’s words on their head, played the confused fool. Again, kindly, Mr. Williams insisted that my friend line up with the boys.
“Then why did you tell me to get into line on this side?” my friend protested. “You said to line up boys and girls. I lined up behind a girl like you said!”
That’s not what I meant and you know it,” Mr. Williams patiently insisted.
“I don’t know what you meant,” my friend replied, his general joviality turning sinister. And we knew what came next. “I know what you said. Make up your mind.”
And with that, the tone for the remainder of the year was set. Mr. Williams took the bait, and instead of simply ignoring my friend’s obvious twisting of his words, engaged in arguing. Arguing turned his mild, friendly manner into anger. Anger turned to yelling. Yelling gave us control. We won.
Much of the rest of the next month or two was spent “practicing” walking in line. Practicing walking in line? We knew how to walk in line. We weren’t idiots. Mr. Williams made the mistake of misdiagnosing our problem. We didn’t need a better understanding and obedience to the rule. We needed a heart change. Instead of having us spend much of our school days marching in line, a time we spent ignoring the rules and talking to each other – you know, having fun – we should have been taken back to the classroom and confronted with our need to repent and believe in Jesus.
As the year progressed, Mr. Williams gave in and by the end of the year we were spending much of our time playing kickball outside. To be fair, I don’t blame him. He was young, inexperienced, wasn’t trained as a teacher, to begin with, and was subsequently in way over his head. Not to mention that the system of rules that he labored under and relied on but that ignored the heart was the ultimate problem.
Moving forward from that year, our rebellion became less overt and in the face of the authority figures, but it also became more and more depraved. We just became better at hiding our actions all while convincing our teachers, youth pastors, and parents that we bought in to the system. To be fair, we didn’t have a choice. Admitting that we didn’t buy in was an immediate expulsion ticket. Because of that, we learned how to do what we wanted without having to march in line up and down the hallway over and over and over.
Sixth grade was an anomaly during my elementary through high school years. No other single year stood out as so obviously rebellious. Sadly, though, the authority figures never homed in on the fact that our hearts were the problem. The rules only ever served to paper over our rebellion. Faced with the opportunity to overthrow the rules, we chose rebellion. Rule weren’t the problem and, hence, rules weren’t the solution. The gospel of Jesus Christ is what we needed. Instead, we were given more rules.
Growing up, I learned how to spell obedience and I learned how to feign obedience when necessary, but I was rarely confronted with the eternal fact that the inside matters more than external obedience. My god of self was allowed to sit in my heart without being confronted because it was believed that I was a Christian who just needed the soil of my heart weeded. During the school year of 1987/88, my heart was revealed in all the filth in which it wallowed. It took another sixteen years before my heart was broken and I repented and believed.
Soli Deo Gloria
 Thomas Schreiner, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 247.
 Philip Ryken, Reformed Expository Commentary: Galatians (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005), 181.
 Andrew Naselli, No Quick Fix: Where Higher Life Theology Came From, What It Is, & Why It’s Harmful (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017), 21.
 Naselli, No Quick Fix, 102.