Culture At Large

How honorable are honor codes?

Caryn Rivadeneira

Last week, when Brigham Young University suspended Brandon Davies from its basketball team for having sex with his girlfriend, many nodded in approval. For good reason. In fact, if there were a class on Good Discipline 101, BYU would be at the head of it. After all, the university - run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - did exactly what every parenting book will tell parents: set rules and establish consequences. When the rules are broken, swoop in with the consequence. Voila.


I mean, especially in a world where we’re all quite accustomed to seeing athletes (and actors and musicians and “celebutantes") having rules bent ahead of them even as they step out of line, it’s refreshing to see a star athlete of a good team being treated like anyone else. Or, like any other BYU student caught in this predicament.


And it’s not like BYU doesn’t have the right to do this. Kicking an athlete off of their team for having sex is certainly their prerogative. A private school (or any organization) has the right to decide on a code of conduct for its students or athletes or whomever represents their organization. Mormons - like Christians - tend to frown on fornication, among other things. So they forbid their students to engage in it. That’s fine.


So why does this feel kind of wrong - at least to me?

Well, it’s not that Davies’ suspension itself feels wrong (if you don’t like those rules, don’t go to that school!) or that BYU’s consequence feels wrong. Frankly, it’s the “honor code” itself that doesn’t sit quite right.

While obviously this story is about a Mormon honor code (so, conceivably, drinking a Diet Coke would’ve gotten him kicked off as well), honor codes similar enough to this are alive and well in Christendom. I went to Christian schools all the way through college and have worked for Christian organizations - all had expectations of behavior. Though I never had to sign a pledge, friends at other Christian schools certainly did. Even still today, as a Christian author, I may not have to sign a conduct pledge, but I do understand that certain scandalous behavior or questionable stances could “ruin” my career. Or, at least, prevent me from being on certain radio stations or my book from sitting on certain bookstore shelves. That’s an “honor code” of a certain stripe.

While I get why these rules and codes exist to some degree, mostly, as a Bible-believing, creed-affirming, Jesus-loving Christian, these honor codes smack of something I just can’t stand.

My friend calls this something “sin sniffing.” Meaning, we set up rules - highlighting certain sins way more than others (we care a lot more about having sex than, say, showing mercy, don’t we?) - and then go around “sniffing” people out, ready to shame and punish those who misbehave or disagree.

Sin sniffers spend a great deal of time devoted to this. So much time, in fact, that little time is left for catching a whiff of their own rank sins or for breathing in the great needs and hurts of this world. You might call these sin sniffers Pharisees. Jesus did.

While I’m not about to tell the Mormons how to live or what to do with their noses, I’d like to challenge Christians to think about this. Of course, life requires some rules. Of course, broken rules need consequences. But do these sorts of codes that focus on a few “hot” sins really have any place in our grace-based faith? Do they keep people from sinning or help people live better? Or do they simply turn us into sin sniffers?

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