Rick Warren invited Dr. Kevin Leman to speak on birth order as a keynote speaker for the 2006 Purpose Driven Children’s Ministry Conference. The announcement for the conference included the following:
The three-day conference will focus on training and encouraging those who minister to children. What, you may ask, does birth order have to do with ministering to children? A lot more than you may think, the Tucson-based psychologist said.
“Everyone wants to know where they fit in with their families, why they are the way they are,” said Leman, a round-faced man with a wide, toothy smile.
Ministries that focus on children, and the adult leaders who lead those ministries, need to be aware that birth order exists and is not a whimsical theory created by a “pop” psychologist. . . .
By understanding the framework of birth order, Leman believes those who work with children and their parents can better understand the dynamics of those families, and if you understand the dynamics, you can be a better minister.
Promoting Leman, a psychologist, is not surprising, since Warren has had a long history of promoting counseling psychology. Warren also has Dr. Gary Smalley as a keynote speaker at the same conference. Smalley is a psychologically oriented individual whom we have critiqued.1 And, at a Celebrate Recovery conference, Warren had psychologists Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend speak. Furthermore, Warren has extensively involved psychologist Dr. David Stoop in his ministry.
On a Celebrate Recovery teaching video, Warren promotes the idea that “people don’t grow from [their] strengths but rather from [their] weaknesses.” Warren then confesses his own problems:
I remember when we were in college and I was making 800 a month and I was teaching in a Christian college, at the same time I was going to the college and teaching in it, at the same time, making 800 dollars a month and my counseling bill was 100 dollars a week. And I racked up a 1500-dollar marriage counseling bill for 15 weeks of counseling on my Master Card.
Warren says this while he is explaining that people tend to respond better to hearing about a speaker’s weaknesses rather than his strengths. Therefore, he talks about how he and his wife, Kay, struggled in their first two years of marriage. He says:
When I tell people about my weaknesses and I start talking about the marriage problems we had, and how we were headed for divorce and if it weren’t for God, and a good counselor, and our willingness to change and grow, you can almost hear a pin drop. Why? Because everybody has problems.2
Warren’s intent was to expose a personal weakness as a means of identification with others, but he exposed more than that. He exposed the fact that he depended more on professional counseling to rescue his marriage than he did on the Word of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the fellowship of the saints.
Warren’s trust in psychology over the Word of God, or even in addition to the Word of God, to save his marriage represents psychoheresy. In essence, Warren has an insufficiency-of-Scripture theology when it comes to his own and, therefore, others’ problems of living. He apparently does not believe that “his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue” (2 Peter 1:3).
Early Life Determinants
Dr. Kevin Leman is an Adlerian psychologist who has written and spoken on a variety of subjects. Therefore, before exposing Leman’s birth order fallacies, we need to reveal other psychological fallacies that he supports. The scientific evidence refuting Leman’s fallacious early life teachings is found in a book chapter on our web site.3
We have revealed that Leman is Freudian with respect to early life determinants of behavior. Absent Freud’s Oedipus complex, Leman promotes a type of Freud’s early life determinants of personality, which according to the theory occur during the first five or six years of life.4 Scientific research to the contrary, Leman says, “The fact is, your basic personality and underlying identity is as permanent and unalterable as the grain in a piece of oak.”5 This idea, promoted by Leman, has been scientifically discredited and flies in the face of what the Bible says about the spiritually transformed person. See, for instance Romans 6:4-6; Ephesians 4: 22-24; Colossians 3:9-11.
Leman and his coauthor Randy Carlson, a marriage and family counselor, have written Unlocking the Secrets of Your Childhood Memories. In discussing their book, they say:
Tell us about your earliest childhood memories, and we’ll tell you about yourself. We can confidently make this declaration because who you are today . . . your basic personality. . . your personal life philosophy. . . the secret to your entire outlook on life. . . is hidden within your earliest childhood memories.6
Conjure up an early childhood memory out of your past and we can tell you specifically how that memory affects your life today, how it will affect who [sic] you might marry, the kind of job you might gravitate towards, the kind of problems you might have in the world.7
Scientific research reveals that Leman is dead wrong about the power and permanency of early life childhood memories and his ability to use them to tell about the person. The fallibility and impermanence of early life childhood memories and the inability to use them to tell about a person is a well known, scientific fact. It is indelibly found in the scientific literature.8
Added to the above erroneous teachings is Leman’s teaching about birth order, which we discuss on our web site. Leman makes some extremely outrageous, superlative, and speculative statements about birth order and personality.
On the covers and elaborated throughout his two books on birth order, Leman says: “Your birth order powerfully influences who you are, who [sic] you marry, the job you choose and the kind of parent you are” (bold added).9 Note the words “powerfully influences.” There is no scientific research that supports Leman’s outrageously hyperbolic statement!
On the covers of his books Leman promises to reveal to you “WHY YOU ARE THE WAY YOU ARE” and says:
FIRSTBORN? MIDDLE CHILD? BABY OF THE FAMILY?
FIND OUT WHAT IT MEANS FOR YOUR CAREER, YOUR KIDS, AND YOUR MARRIAGE….
THE COMBINATION THAT MAKES THE PERFECT MARRIAGE MATCH
THE CAREER CHOICE THAT FITS YOU BEST
HOW TO MAKE YOUR BIRTH ORDER WORK FOR YOU AND MUCH, MUCH MORE….
Leman’s hype about the influence of birth order on personality sounds more like the snake oil salesman than a cautious scientist. The up-front extravagant promises Leman makes override the qualifiers he uses later in the book. And some of his qualifiers are meaningless. For example, Leman says: “While a child’s birth order is important, it is only an influence, not a final fact of life forever set in concrete and unchangeable as far as how a child will turn out”10 (bold added). The obviousness of this one cautionary statement makes it meaningless, because the same could be said for every other early life factor one could name. Also, if Leman had used this one statement, as faulty as it is, on the cover of the book it would never have reached the best seller list. And, this statement conflicts with Leman’s idea that personality is “as permanent and unalterable as the grain in a piece of oak.”
Inside the two books Leman majors on the grandiose promises from the cover of his books and only touches on the cautionary statements. What stands out and attracts buyers for his books are his pompous promises. Why? Because people want certainty. There is so much uncertainty about who we are and why we act the way we do and presto! Birth order according to Leman reveals “WHY YOU ARE THE WAY YOU ARE.” In chapter after chapter Leman elaborates on how “Your birth order powerfully influences who you are, who [sic] you marry, the job you choose and the kind of parent you are” (bold added).
Birth Order Research
Birth order research has always had a multitude of problems associated with it. For example, when eminent individuals are selected, from which fields will they come? Politics? Science? Religion? Business? Arts? Sports? Etc.? And, what constitutes eminence? The fact that they were elected to public office? That the individual is a Nobelist? That the individual made the baseball hall of fame? That the individual was burned at the stake during the Reformation? Etc.? Also, while surveys, checklists, and personality inventories have been used for verification, these personality profiling techniques are all fraught with problems of reliability and validity.
There has been a plethora of research on birth order and personality with contradictory results. The most extensive and exhaustive research to date was done by Dr. Frank Sulloway and published in his book Born to Rebel. It is interesting to note that Leman is an Adlerian psychologist and Sulloway is a Darwinian. Leman follows Adler’s strong interest in birth order and Sulloway sees birth order through Darwinian eyes of natural selection. For Sulloway there is an intimate and necessary connection between birth order and Darwinian natural selection. Leman rejects Sulloway’s Darwinism but wholeheartedly embraces what he believes Sulloway says about birth orderism and personality. But, Leman is dead wrong about what Sulloway says as we shall demonstrate shortly.
To support his high regard for Sulloway’s work, Leman says,
One eminent anthropologist even commented that she thought Sulloway would “join the pantheon of thinkers like Freud and Darwin, whose work has radically and forever changed the way we look at ourselves and the world.”11
Leman uses that statement in support of Sulloway’s work, but we use it as a criticism of Leman. It is a criticism of Leman in that the teachings of Freud and Darwin are unscientific, false, and detrimental to the teachings of Scripture. In using the above quote to elevate Sulloway’s work, Leman adulterates his own Christian testimony.
We agree that Freud and Darwin’s “work has radically and forever changed the way we look at ourselves and the world,” the very opposite from a biblical perspective. Freud and Darwin have radically changed the views of mankind to coincide with a detrimental, unbiblical view. Added to this confusion is the fact that Sulloway is one of the greatest critics of Freud, whose early life determinants theory led Leman to believe that “your basic personality and underlying identity is as permanent and unalterable as the grain in a piece of oak.”
Leman has a variety of stories to promote his birth order fetish. One of the stories has to do with Leman being introduced to birth order by a psychology professor when Leman was attending the University of Arizona. The professor described the first born, the middle child, and the baby. Leman says, “In a matter of minutes he had described my family and yet he did not know us.” Leman also describes the response of people. He says, “Light bulbs go on in their heads. It’s like sha-zam! They wonder why they didn’t see it before.”12 Notice the implied promises of such hype.
Sulloway identifies numerous factors involved in personality formation, but believes that birth order is the best predictor of personality. But, as one writer says, “Throughout this encyclopedic, doggedly researched book Sulloway emphasizes that ‘birth order is a fallible indicator.’”13 Fallible means “liable to error” and “inaccurate.” If Leman placed such an honest warning on the covers of his books, alongside his own prior cautionary statement, that would be the death of sales.
Many critical responses have been written to Sulloway’s book. Probably the best of the critics is Alan Wolfe in his article in The New Republic titled “Up From Scientism: What birth order and Darwin can’t explain.”14
Sulloway has presented an exhaustive amount of research in his book Born to Rebel. We have benefited greatly from Sulloway’s critique of Freud in his book Freud: Biologist of the Mind. We have doubted that Sulloway would subscribe to Leman’s hyped up, bombastic, arrogant oversell of birth order. Therefore, we emailed Sulloway and sent him information about Leman’s books. We quoted Leman’s extreme and superlative claims for birth order and mentioned our concerns about them. Sulloway replied:
My work here in the Galapagos prevents a long answer to your email, but you are basically correct. Birth order effects do exist, even outside the family, but they are modest in size. Hence there are always many exceptions to any generalization about birth order and claims about birth order therefore need to be tempered with qualifications. In particular, birth order effects appear to be context sensitive, rather than manifesting themselves as a fixed rule of behavior. Also, clinical evidence [personal observations versus scientific experimentation], as cited by Leman for his strong generalizations, is not really evidence in a scientific sense. All generalizations need to be formally tested. Leman never presents such tests (bold added).15
Frank Sulloway, the person upon whose work Leman relies to support his pretentious, pompous birth order scheme, would reject being used for that purpose. Sulloway refers to birth order as a “fallible indicator” and birth order effects as “modest in size.” The old adage “We see things not as they are but as we are” certainly applies to Leman’s understanding of Sulloway’s work.
The birth order books by Leman are essentially secular books based originally on nothing substantial, but only recently upon the brilliance of Sulloway, who rejects Leman’s understanding of his book Born to Rebel. Leman has been so immersed in psychoheresy that he does not see that he has swallowed and regurgitated the very wisdom of men about which believers have been warned (1 Cor. 2:5) and has financially profited by it.
Leman’s message that “birth order powerfully influences who you are, who [sic] you marry, the job you choose and the kind of parent you are” (bold added) is contrary to what the Bible teaches. Warren’s promotion of such psychological nonsense throughout his ministry and over the years makes him guilty of psychoheresy.
Under Warren’s recommendation and under Leman’s birth order teaching, thousands of pastors attending the Purpose Driven Children’s Ministry Conference will be deceived into seeing themselves, their own families, and the families in their congregation through the fallacious prism of birth order, rather than through the mirror perfect message about mankind according to the Bible.
Want the absolute truth about oneself? Read the Bible with its accurate typology of spirit and flesh. Read the lives of the patriarchs and saints and of the rebellious and repentant. We need to see ourselves and our “dysfunctions and disorders” (sins) along with our hope found only in Christ.
1 Bobgan, “Gary Smalley and Dr. John Trent: Right-Brain/Left Brain Pseudoscience,” www.psychoheresy-aware.org/images/Pro2_14.pdf.
2 Celebrate Recovery Senior Pastor Support Video Tape, 2003.
4 Kevin Leman interview, “Birth Order,” Focus on the Family Radio Broadcast, CS 181, side 1.
5 Kevin Leman and Randy Carlson, “Childhood Memories,” Focus on the Family, August 1989, p. 6.
7 Kevin Leman interview, “Childhood Memories: Understanding Yourself,” Focus on the Family Radio Broadcast, CS 481, side 1.
8 www.psychoheresy-aware.org/falsems1/html and www.psychoheresy-aware.org/falsems2/html.
9 Kevin Leman. The Birth Order Book, 1985. The New Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are. Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1998.
10 “Acclaimed psychologist to share birth order insights at upcoming PDCM Conference,” Rick Warren’s Ministry ToolBox.
11 Leman, The New Birth Order Book, op. cit., pp. 355, 366.
12 Ministry ToolBox, op. cit.
13 “Birth Order Is Back: A Darwinian view of sibling rivalry,” Networker, January/February, 1997, p. 13.
14 Alan Wolfe, “Up From Scientism: What birth order and Darwin can’t explain,” The New Republic, December 23, 1996, pp. 29-35.
15 Frank Sulloway, personal email, April 1, 2006.
(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, May-June 2006, Vol. 14, No. 3)