Opinion: Christian Boot Camps Put Students in Danger, Says Marine

By Jay Mallow
boot camps drill instructor
A drill instructor berates a recruit during Basic Training. (Photo: Creative commons)

Rebecca Hopkins’ article detailing the existence and abuses of Calvary Chapel South Bay Pastor Chet Lowe‘s “boot camps” was sadly not too surprising to me. As a young person, I also experienced a “boot camp” run by amateurs in Bill Gothard’s ATIA ALERT program.

Over the past thirty years, I’ve seen many Christians look to the military as an example for discipline and character formation. As someone who not only went through that ALERT program, but also Marine Corps Boot Camp, Virginia Beach Police Department Police Academy, and Army boot camp and the NCO academy, I know how dangerous this form of “discipline” is. As a believer, I also know how unbiblical and inherently abusive it is, as well. 

I will never forget a moment shortly after arriving at Marine Corps Boot Camp Paris Island. After we received our uniforms, we were made to change, including our underwear. At the time I hadn’t worn cotton briefs in years but there was no choice. It was intimate. It felt somewhat violating. That was the point. 

One of the things all “boot camps” do is break down a person’s sense of self. In military culture, this is done to re-orient recruits from an individual to a collective identity. In training, this goes so far as to, in some cases, disallow first person identification (third person “recruit or cadet” instead of “I”). 

Sometimes sports teams and organizations can direct a person’s self-identification to rally around a new corporate identity. I will never forget being able to call myself a Marine. But it is important to note the breakdown aspect is always there. One must ask with any sort of “boot camp”: What self-identity is being offered in replacement, if it is offered at all? 

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Part and parcel to this intentional identity shift is the demand for instant, unquestioned obedience. This often has two purposes. First, it helps to break a person’s individuated will. You no longer have the autonomy to say no. 

Secondly, especially for members of the military and some civil servants, this demand for instant obedience (especially using fear and pain of reprisal) is used intentionally to overwhelm/override a person’s natural flight-or-fight response. The intention quite literally is to get someone to act without thinking. 

boot camps
A recruit during Basic Training (Photo: Rennett Stowe / Flickr)

For military, law-enforcement, and fire persons, this has a definite and positive purpose: we want people to be able to unthinkingly run towards danger when needed. To say these two ends—a reorientation of self and a negation of self-preservation/abandonment of will—is dangerous is an absolute understatement. 

There are suicide watches at military boot camps because stripping someone of a sense of self and removing their inhibitions is deadly. Even when done for a purpose, with an achievable goal and, under professional administration and oversight, those who successfully navigate these transitions still struggle with emotional regulation because they are literally trained to ignore their emotions.

There is a reason alcohol abuse and suicide is rampant in the military and civil rescue communities. There also are issues with self-identification once removed from a corporate organizational identity. 

But for Christians, these training methods are ultimately unbiblical and abusive. While they may seem attractive to instill a more corporate, communal identity and to encourage obedience, we must ask: Is this the way God does it? Does God “break us down,” removing our sense of self, to give us a different self? 

God doesn’t strip us of our will. God doesn’t violate our sense of personhood. God isn’t looking for a kind of automata to merely obey Him (Hos. 6:6). God works to transform our will, our personalities, and identities to become more who we truly are in Him.

As C.S. Lewis put it, “Your real, new self (which is Christ’s and also yours, and yours just because It is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self . . . look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.” 

Secondly, while God demands our obedience, He never demands unquestioning obedience, as the Psalms clearly show. Even the military doesn’t require unquestioned obedience, but instead one soldiers swears to follow lawful orders.

christian boot camps patmos
Chet Lowe speaks to students participating in a Patmos Reality Discipleship Intensive, in a photo from October 2015. (Photo via Facebook)

There is something inherently problematic in training someone to obey without question with no perceived purpose. And even with a perceived purpose, it’s still problematic. 

For example, the Apostles praised those who questioned their authority by using Scripture (Acts 17). And though Paul said follow me as I follow Jesus, he never instructs disciples of Jesus to obey another person like they would God. Period.

There is something wrong, and dare I say Satanic (Genesis 3), with giving someone God-like authority over another person. There are too many who misconstrue how we are called as representational creatures to represent God. Especially as finite creatures, we have not the wisdom, power, nor perspective to control someone else.

What makes the Calvary Chapel situation exceedingly dangerous is that you cannot give someone God-like power over another person’s will without it being abusive, especially when that power is given to amateurs. 

The Stanford Experiment where college students were put in charge of a fake prison was so shockingly abusive the college maintains a website detailing just how abusive it was. Within 72 hours the “guards” were stripping prisoners, withholding food, and privileging simple things like bathroom breaks. Ultimately the experiment was ended because the “guards” became so abusive.  

There is a reason military Drill Instructors/Sergeants are extensively trained, never alone, and kept to a rigid training plan—because abusing that kind of power is so easy. What Calvary Chapel is doing isn’t just “playing with fire.” It’s intentionally setting people on fire, telling them they can’t put it out, and handing untrained people gasoline telling them to add to the fire for the victim’s benefit. 

This is beyond dangerous. It is abusive, unbiblical, and God’s church should have nothing to do with it. 

jay mallowJay Mallow is a Marine and soldier. He also has a B.A. in philosophy and religion from Covenant College and a M.A. in exegetical theology from Covenant Seminary. He blogs at iclaimnothing.wordpress.com.
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17 thoughts on “Opinion: Christian Boot Camps Put Students in Danger, Says Marine”

  1. David Bustamante

    Calvary Chapels are independent churches and not a denomination. Some readers or your articles may not be aware of this. It would be helpful to clarify which Calvary Chapel Mr. Lowe is affiliated with instead of unfairly painting Calvary Chapels with a broad brush. Your consideration and clarification would be appreciated.

    1. Calvary Chapels are independent churches when that suits their purpose and a monolithic denomination marching in lockstep under Papa Chuck or his successor when that suits their purpose.

      Disperse for defense, Concentrate to attack.

    2. I get what your saying but I actually think Calvary Chapel (CC) might deserve the broad brush in this case – and I have been fortunate to only attend really good CC Churches (and two of their college campuses). While it is true every Calvary Chapel is independent there are people in CC with power to address these types of issues. Someone holds the trademark to ‘Calvary Chapel’ and can take that away. Someone runs the CC website and can take this church off of it. Someone is running the CC magazine and can look into these issues themselves or at least stop being a platform for these pastors. After all, some of these issues have been known or rumored about for years. Other CC pastors can stop having conferences that have these problem pastors as headliners. Although we are not a denomination I am concerned with how deeply integrated the churches/colleges are all while claiming to have no power to hold each other accountable. I’ve literally, personally, brought up problems like this to several CC pastors and got hand wringing in return. We now have a situation in which a person walks into a CC church and it is a toss up whether they will get a loving Christian community, a group of christian nationalists, or just a weird controlling cult like pastor. I recently had to advise my own mother to leave her Texas Calvary Chapel because the pastor has become so unhinged. This a problem all Calvary Chapel’s should be worried about- and from my experience it isn’t being taken seriously.

  2. Most complimentarians ascribe that same kind of power and authority to the husband in the marriage relationship, with the same type of abusive results.

    1. Brendan Bossard

      Michael, “most” is pretty strong. I know quite a few complimentarians who definitely do not have abusive relationships. Complimentarianism has different shades anyway. MacArthur’s version is not the only version. Mike Winger is working through a very deep study of the matter of egalitarian versus complimentarian views on his “Thinking Biblically” podcast. He is firmly but definitely not abusively complimentarian. I recommend listening to his study. (You can look him up on YouTube.) I think you will find that most complimentarians are just as likely to have godly character as egalitarians.

      1. Brendan – The question we need to ask is if the complimentarian is a professing complimentarian or a practicing complimentarian. Many professing complimentarians seem to be practicing egalitarians, so it’s not about what you say but what your actually do. Those who tend towards practicing strict complimentarianism also appear to have more issues with the husband exerting abusive power and authority towards the wife and children.

        1. Brendan Bossard

          Amy, thank you for responding. I agree to the extent that one’s actions speak louder than words; but words still mean things. One does not have to be egalitarian to treat women with dignity. It is wrong to impute the actions of a group’s worst characters to the entire group. Christianity is not an evil force just because some famous Christians have behaved evilly. The same applies in the complimentarian versus egalitarian. That was my main intent.

  3. Jay, many thanks for your perspective.

    After reading both articles posted on The Roys Report I’m prompted to emphasize two simple facts. First, missionaries and military personnel are adults. These camps were for minors who lack the maturity and legal agency to give informed consent for the experience. Second, prospective missionaries are extensively screened and trained by professionals at sending agencies before entering the work, and many are not accepted for service. It’s a lengthy process. These so-called boot camps attempt to circumvent that process and promise to transform youngsters from naive adolescents to battle-ready ministers over one summer. That’s unwise and ineffective.

  4. And let’s be honest.

    This is Christian hazing and something worldly organizations don’t even practice anymore.

  5. Rabindranath Ramcharan

    “God doesn’t strip us of our will. God doesn’t violate our sense of personhood. God isn’t looking for a kind of automata to merely obey Him (Hos. 6:6)”
    I’m not so sure. When Ann Graham Lotz talks about “minute by minute obedience to “minute by minute control ” or June Hunt says Christians have to let Jesus run their lives “by remote control “,or when radio preachers express similar doctrines, that’s exactly what it sounds like.
    If preachers don’t want a world where believers have no agency, no volition, no capacity for independent thought, let alone free will, they would do well to say so.

    1. Brendan Bossard

      Rabindranath, preachers are not God. Some may expect to be treated like little gods (although they would not publicly admit it), and some of their followers do treat them like gods. That is the problem. They are not God and anyone who treats them like gods are committing idolatry.

      1. Rabindranath Ramcharan

        While it is true that, ” For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.” 1 Corinthians 14:33, the preachers seem to have taken up the slack in that department. They can all be wrong, but they can’t all be right.

  6. Rabindranath Ramcharan

    “Christian boot camp” sounds an awful lot like “Purity Balls”, dads dating their daughters and married women holding mock weddings with their preadolescent sons. Tacking a few Bible verses onto a bad idea does not necessarily make it a good idea.

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