Over the last several years few social issues have caught the attention of the Christian community like homosexuality. Critics often complain that the attention and emotional energy that Christians have directed toward this particular issue is disproportionate to its relative importance (see, for example, my article “Ten things that are more disturbing than gay marriage”).
Regardless, the topic has assumed for many conservatives the status of a sort of litmus test that distinguishes those who accept “what the Bible teaches” (aka, the “prophets”) over-against those who allow their opinions to be shaped by the zeitgeist of contemporary culture (aka, the “compromisers”). On this construal the prophet recognizes and submits to the infallibility of the moral and prudential witness of the biblical authors, and he/she faithfully proclaims it even when it diverges from the cultural zeitgeist. By contrast, the compromiser subverts the moral and prudential witness of the biblical authors to the cultural zeitgeist, and thereby they subvert the authority of scripture itself.
In this article, I’m going to challenge this dichotomy between “prophets” and “compromisers”. To make my case I will argue that some biblical authors express views about corporal punishment — in particular the corporal punishment of children — that appears to be both immoral and imprudent even to those who understand themselves to be prophets. Moreover, this moral and prudential censure of corporal punishment is derived not from scripture but at least in significant part from contemporary culture. (Consider, for example, the Psychology Today article “The Problem with Physical Punishment.”)
This leaves the prophet with a trilemma. To begin with, he can accept the unqualified morality and wisdom of corporal punishment of children. Second, he can adopt a moral relativism that accepts the morality and wisdom of corporal punishment of children in the ancient world whilst eschewing it for today. Finally, he can concede that the Christian can occasionally accept opinions from the contemporary Wissenschaft (i.e. contemporary scientific and cultural understandings) which diverge from the opinions of some biblical authors. While the third position appears to be by far the best one, accepting it undermines the simple dichotomy between prophets and compromisers.
Would God allow the biblical authors to offer morally or prudentially errant instruction?
In his book Can You Be Gay and Christian? (which I reviewed last autumn) Michael Brown argues that homosexuality is incompatible with the teaching of the Bible and thus Christian conviction. A key part of his argument is the claim that God would never include within the Bible teaching on an important moral issue which is incorrect:
“How much of your life are you willing to leave to speculation? And given the importance of this issue, would a loving God leave so many of you hanging on a thread of uncertainty, conjecture, and guesswork? Would He inspire His servants (or, at the least, allow them) to make so many categorical statements against homosexual practice in the Bible, recognizing that no one would rightly understand the allegedly gay-friendly intent of these verses until the late twentieth century (or that no one would understand ‘sexual orientation’ until this time)?” (77)
Here Brown is arguing that God would never have allowed errant moral or prudential teaching to appear in the Bible. Since the Bible includes unqualified prohibitions of all homosexual activity, it follows that unqualified prohibitions of all homosexual activity must be morally and prudentially inerrant.
Brown’s argument depends on the general assumption that God would not allow morally and/or prudentially errant teaching to be included in the Bible. But is this true?
This is not a question that can be settled a priori. Rather, we have to look at the text and see. If we can identify a teaching in the Bible that we now recognize to be morally and/or prudentially errant, then we will have a defeater for Brown’s claim. So can we identify an example of a morally and/or prudentially errant teaching within the Bible?
Indeed, we can. In this article I’m going to consider the example of corporal punishment. In his book Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts (InterVarsity Press, 2011) (see my full review of the book here) William Webb considers the biblical teaching on corporal punishment. He notes how many conservative Christians today claim to follow the biblical teaching on corporal punishment (think, for example, of Focus on the Family). According to these Christians, the Bible supports the view that parents ought to give their young children a maximum of two smacks on their bottom with an open hand, though never striking out of anger and never leaving bruises.
Alas, Webb points out that this isn’t, in fact, what the biblical authors teach on corporal punishment. After carefully surveying the Old Testament, he summarizes what the Bible does teach in seven principles:
“1. Do not be duped by age restrictions. Teenagers and elementary school children need the rod just as much, if not more, than those in early childhood, and beatings are effective (not ‘ineffective’ for older children as presently claimed).
- Forget the idea of a two-smacks-max limit. Apply a gradual increase in the number of strokes so that it fuses better with the forty strokes cap for adults.
- Get the location right. Lashes are made for the ‘backs of fools’ not for their bottoms.
- Remove the ‘no bruising’ restriction. Bruises, welts and wounds should be viewed as a virtue–the evidence of a sound beating.
- Pick the right instrument. A good rod (hickory stick) will inflict far more intense pain and bruising than a hand on the bottom.
- Stop thinking about corporal punishment as a last resort. Use the rod for nonvolitional misdemeanors as well as for major infractions.
- Drop the notion of ‘love but no anger.’ Mix in a little righteous anger with your use of the rod.” (52-53)
To put this instruction in concrete terms, according to these guidelines a father could take his six year old who surreptitiously steals a cookie from the cookie jar, and beat the boy across his back with a hickory switch until he is black and blue. What is more, he could take his sixteen year old who fails to top up the gas tank after borrowing the car and do the same, albeit with more lashes given the boy’s greater age. (In case you think I’m presenting a strawman, please note principle 6: relatively minor offenses are fitting occasions for beatings.)
Back to the Trilemma
This brings us back to the trilemma: accept the unqualified correctness of the biblical teaching on corporal punishment of children; accept the correctness of the biblical teaching on corporal punishment of children relative to the ancient world; or reject the biblical teaching on the corporal punishment of children.
We will consider each in turn.
Let’s begin with the unqualified acceptance position. Many Christians have sought to follow the teaching of several biblical authors on corporal punishment. Far from restricting themselves to a “two smacks max” philosophy, they’ve beaten their children in accord with what they take to be the biblical instruction. Is this a viable option?
In Corporal Punishment in the Bible Webb argues that we ought not accept the instruction on corporal punishment that is given by several biblical authors. But at the beginning of the book he recalls asking an Ethiopian student named Fanosie whether he should share his view with Ethiopian Christians. Webb recalls:
“I still remember his vivid answer. He said nothing, nothing at all. Instead, Fanosie bent down his head and showed me a series of welts, scars and ugly disfigurations. He is a tall man and his dark curly hair hid these marks fairly well. He explained to me that he could take off his clothes and show me more marks from beatings he had as a child. He described being raised in a typical Christian home, and how not infrequently, his father beat him with a stick. In fact, Fanosie told me how it was still acceptable for many Christian husbands in Ethiopia to beat their wives as an act of corrective discipline.” (18-19)
Fanosie went on to admonish Webb that he simply needed to share this material with pastors in Ethiopia. Fanosie could attest from personal experience that corporal punishment is harmful and destructive. We should not accept this teaching today.
This brings us to the second option of the trilemma: a qualified, moral relativist acceptance. That is, could one accept that corporal punishment was good relative to the ancient world while adding that it ought to be repudiated today?
There are two problems with this response. First, it commits one to a deeply implausible moral relativism, and one which is simply belied by the facts. If physical beatings are psychologically shattering and deeply harmful for a child today, we have every reason to believe they would likewise be psychologically shattering and deeply harmful for a child three millennia ago in the Middle East.
Second, this middling position undermines itself. You see, the initial motivation for adopting this moral relativist position is to save the teaching of the biblical authors as regards corporal punishment. But by adopting a relativist position one is not, in fact, saving that teaching. Instead, one is undermining it. The reason is simple: the biblical authors never intended to provide instruction that was relative to their context alone. They were offering general practices and maxims of wisdom that were unqualified. If we now say that their instruction is bad for today, we are rejecting the instruction that they intended to offer. Consequently, there simply is no good reason to adopt the relativist position.
This brings us to the final option: reject the teaching on corporal punishment. Whether we recognize it or not, this is already the position of most Christians (certainly most Christians in the West). Today if a Christian was teaching principles 1-7, most Christians (including most who accept the prophet/compromiser dichotomy) would denounce their teaching as morally errant. And if a Christian parent inflicted abuse on their children in this manner, we would be right to call the authorities and report them for abuse.
I for one do not accept the moral or prudential licitness of corporal punishment. I’ve never hit my child and at thirteen she is well mannered, courteous, kind, and an excellent student. I cannot begin to imagine the destruction that I would have wrought in our relationship if I had physically beat her in the manner summarized in 1-7.
Parting Comments for Future Dialogue
At this point we can draw together the lessons from this brief consideration of corporal punishment and biblical moral and prudential instruction.
The starting point is to recognize that there are not simply two groups, e.g. prophets and compromisers (or, for that matter, enlightened progressives and retrograde fundamentalists). Rather, Christians adopt a range of positions on a continuum as each struggles to interpret the Bible and apply its teaching to their lives. If you agree with William Webb and most other people today that it is simply wrong to beat children, you will likely not appreciate the indignant censure of the self-styled prophet who derides you as compromising with the culture. Instead, you will insist that while you accept biblical inspiration and authority, you have good reasons not to accept this particular teaching as given by the author.
This leads to the next point: we should be careful not to collapse what biblical authors intend to communicate into what God intends to communicate. These two intentions may (and no doubt often are) one and the same. But they also may diverge. To note the example to which I frequently point, the imprecatory psalmist may express hatred of his enemies which is irreconcilable with the Christian gospel. But that doesn’t mean that his utterances do not belong in the text. Rather, we recognize that God included those words for a particular reason, even if the divine intention diverges from the intention of the imprecatory psalmist. (I have argued that in the case of the imprecatory psalms, the divine intention is best summarized as identification and transformation, i.e. we identify ourselves in the anger of the imprecatory psalmist even as we are called to move beyond it and be transformed into the image of Christ.)
Similarly, if we decide to reject a biblical author’s teaching on an issue like corporal punishment, it will be because we are persuaded that it is wrong based on some other data (e.g. information from the social sciences; personal experience; other biblical passages). In this case as well, the point is not to question the place of these texts within the canon. Rather, it is to question the way these texts have been read and applied by some Christians.
With all that in mind we can return to the heated debate over homosexuality. I would submit that we begin by setting aside self-serving dichotomies. And that includes both prophet vs. compromiser and enlightened progressive vs. retrograde fundamentalist. Instead, we need to recognize that people of good conscience who accept the authority of scripture can come down on different sides on issues like this.
Next, I would suggest that all sides reflect further on the basis on which one distinguishes instances where the biblical authors offer non-authoritative and potentially errant instruction (e.g. corporal punishment) from instances where the biblical authors offer authoritative and inerrant instruction.
Finally, I would suggest that folks also keep in mind the importance of drawing on a wider set of extra-biblical resources including philosophical argument, social scientific research, and practical experience. Since all truth is God’s truth, no Christian should be afraid of considering a broad range of resources in navigating an important ethical question.
Christians will probably not come to agree on a contentious topic like homosexuality anytime soon. But hopefully by setting aside simple in-group out-group dichotomies, Christians on all sides of important issues of moral and prudential debate can begin to make progress in a spirit of open dialogue and good will.