These were common questions asked of Christian parents in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Although declining in popularity these days, the parenting methods developed by Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo were very popular amongst Christians. Their most popular book, Babywise, was published in 1993 as the secular counterpart to their church-marketed infant care curriculum, Preparation for Parenting.
Now you may be wondering what this had to do with theology. Quite a bit actually, as you’ll see in a just a moment.
Recently my wife and I were discussing her breastfeeding journey of our children, which she has just chronicled on her blog. In our discussion, she would often use the term “feeding on demand”, which made me ask if there was another way to feed a newborn. “What hole have you been living in the last 10 years”, she asked. My wife then promptly informed me there was a popular strategy for scheduling feedings (I would later discover this is often called Parent-Directed Feeding.) One of the benefits of this method is that it allows parents longer periods of sleep at night.
Having been blessed with another baby boy recently, sleep has become quite the precious commodity in our home. So any new tip that would help us gain more sleep would be like gold to us! So I began doing some research.
What I found was surprising.
In their book, Growing Kids God’s Way, the Ezzo’s claim the method they developed “is a theological framework and the experience and research that we have acquired in the process of successfully rearing our own children.”
From a practical standpoint, there has been much controversy in Christian circles with Mr. Ezzo’s methods. The main concept in the book is to set your newborn on an schedule of feedings, roughly 3 hours apart. “Scheduled feedings designed by parents may put babies at risk for poor weight gain and dehydration”, says The American Academy of Pediatrics in a 1998 statement against such methods. Instead, they recommended “that the best feeding schedules are ones babies design themselves.”
But even more concerning is the Ezzo’s (mis)use of the Bible to support their methods.
Former pastor of Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian (and now Wheaton College President Dr. Philip Ryken), wrote about the positive and negatives the Ezzo method for his church in 1998. Regarding the Ezzo’s use of Scripture, Ryken said:
[I]n support of letting children cry themselves to sleep, the Ezzos say, “God is not sitting on His throne waiting to jump up at our every cry, trying to prove that He loves us.” They also cite Matthew 27:46: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Using that verse to tell you when to pick up a crying baby is not merely nonsense; it is sacrilege.
Focus on the Family also issued a statement in 2004 stating that “Christian leaders have questioned the Ezzos’ use of biblical texts in their parenting materials, highlighting instances in which the authors seem to ignore the original context and purpose of Scripture in order to draw conclusions about their particular approach to parenting.”
The Ezzo’s Preparation for Parenting (now out of print) which contains virtually identical material to Babywise, came under fire for it’s misuse of Scripture as well. Tony Payne, of the Christian publisher Matthias Media, wrote a lengthy article regarding the ethics of the Ezzo methods.
As I delved further into the training material itself, I found this poor use of the Bible to be a distressingly common occurrence. Where there is no specific biblical principle or command to justify a practice, the Ezzos have an unfortunate tendency to analogize. Feeding your baby on a very orderly schedule is said to line up with biblical revelation because God is an orderly God, and has created a world with orderly patterns of day and night, the seasons, and so on (PFP p. 57). Against the idea that a compassionate parent would never leave a baby to cry, the instance of Jesus being left to cry in dereliction on the cross by his Father is cited (PFP p. 144). The idea of a ‘maternal instinct’ is criticized as being contrary to the biblical principle of sober-mindedness (PFP p. 151). And so on and so forth. Using the Bible in this way, one can only be grateful that the Ezzos did not pursue the principles of biblical chastisement that could be gained from Psalm 137:9 (“blessed is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks”).
Payne makes an important point often overlooked by many Christians, including myself. When we are interpreting and applying the Bible to our everyday lives, we must bring the whole of Scripture to bear on the issue. We cannot simply pick one verse out of context and use it to support our arguments. It is also important to be consistent in our use of the Bible. We should not just apply the verse we think agree with us, but leave out the “harder” verses which speak to the issue.
Kathleen Terner, writing for Hank Hanegraaf’s Christian Research Journal in 2001, said Gary Ezzo’s company had “cultlike characteristics” which include, “scripture twisting, authoritarianism, exclusivism, isolationism, and physical and emotional endangerment of children.” Terner then goes on to report a long list of church discipline issues that have characterized Gary Ezzo’s past.
As a pastor-teacher of a New Hampshire church in the 1980s, Mr. Ezzo was asked to step down “amid complaints of authoritarianism, exclusivism and divisiveness.” Later Ezzo began working as a youth pastor at Grace Community Church of Sun Valley, CA (pastored by John MacArthur.) By 1995, the elders had began asking Ezzo to be more accountable. He then stepped down as a paid youth pastor. In 1997, the elders of Grace Church state they can longer support the methods of Mr. Ezzo’s parent company and put Ezzo under church discipline.
The elders statement, revised in 2000, states:
It appears rather obvious on biblical grounds that Mr. Ezzo’s refusal to heed his own church’s discipline disqualifies him from Christian leadership or public ministry in any context. After all, the first and most important qualification for those who would lead the church is that they be above reproach (1 Timothy 3:2, 10; Titus 1:6).
The Ezzo’s left Grace to attend nearby Living Hope Evangelical Fellowship (LHEF). By 2000, Gary Ezzo had been excommunicated from LHEF for a “pattern of sin” which he refused to turn from.
It is possible these concerns with the Ezzo methods lead the publisher to consider dropping Babywise in 2001.
As Christian parents, we should filter every “parenting method” through Scripture. We should also consider the personal character of the author and their interpretation (or lack thereof) when it comes to the Scriptures.
“The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, But the mouth of fools spouts folly.” (Prov. 15:2)