Anointed? … Evangelicals and Authority 3 (RJS)

I recently received, courtesy of the publisher, a copy of the new book The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age by Randall Stephens, an associate professor of history at Eastern Nazarene College and Karl Giberson, formerly a professor of Physics at Eastern Nazarene. Giberson has now moved on to concentrate on a number of writing projects. In this book Stephens and Giberson examine several different case studies to explore the manner in which “America’s populist ideals, anti-intellectualism, and religious free market, along with the concept of anointing – being chosen by God to speak for him like the biblical prophets” influence broad ranges of evangelical and fundamentalist beliefs.

In chapter 3 Stephens and Giberson look at The Family of God. The topic  is manhood, womanhood, discipline, child-rearing, and sexuality – a rather broad mix, but the focus is on the intersection between evangelicalism and psychology. This is probably the most controversial of the chapters and, I think, the least clear cut. There is no obvious, or even fairly obvious, “correct approach” to sift through the views of secular experts. There is no Mark Noll or Francis Collins to use as a model.

In their discussion of “anointed” evangelical experts on family Stephens and Giberson turn briefly to J. Richard Fugate, Larry Christensen, and Tim LaHaye; don’t mention Bill Gothard at all, which rather surprised me; and then focus in on Dr. James Dobson.

Did Dr. Dobson’s Focus on the Family organization influence you, your parents, or your family?

Do you think he is right in his focus on sinfulness in children and on the need for  firm discipline?

Stephens and Giberson are both fair and critical in their treatment of Dr. Dobson and Focus on the Family in this chapter. Dr. Dobson is distinctly different from the “anointed” authorities discussed in the first two chapters. He has real credentials in the area for which he is best known. He earned a Ph.D. in child development from the University of Southern California and spent several years on the faculty of the USC medical school. He published in top notch peer reviewed journals. He left USC in 1976 and founded Focus on the Family in 1977.

Children and Discipline. Dr. Dobson’s experiences at USC, not specifically with his research but with the general culture of permissiveness and anything goes sexuality, led him to write the 1970 book Dare to Discipline and his career took a very different turn. He viewed the home,  school, and world as a moral battleground where parents must keep a firm hand to raise up their children. The most controversial of his positions is in favor of corporal punishment, the fact that he allows, even advocates, spanking as an appropriate form of discipline for young children – although only in limited circumstances and for limited reasons.

For Dobson, Proverbs 22:15 laid out the specifics of firm discipline: “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.” (p. 116)

Dr. Dobson took a stand and a stand many of us will appreciate against an anti-Christian approach by a significant number of outspoken psychologists and child development gurus.

Young people, said Dobson, should learn Bible stories at an early age. He reacted forcefully when a famous child psychiatrist, in an essay titled “Religion May Be Hazardous to Your Health,” warned of the dangers of teaching violent Bible stories to young children. Dobson turned the phrase on its head: “Ungodly Experts May Be Hazardous to Your Children!” (p. 116)

Dr. Dobson believes in and takes a stand confessing the reality of both human agency and human sin. There is such a thing as wrong, and humans can act in deeply immoral ways.

He turns to St. Paul, who spelled out the ubiquity of sin in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God.” The implications of such passages are crystal clear to Dobson and others. “Therefore,” he writes, “with or without bad associations children are naturally inclined toward rebellion, selfishness, dishonesty, aggression, exploitation, and greed.” Young people first and foremost, need redemption. In contrast, mainstream professionals urge parents to foster self-respect, mastery, and hopefulness in children. Empathy and communication skills also rank high. (p. 125)

Because of his emphasis on original sin Dr. Dobson finds discipline and boundaries to be essential. Children are not simply innocent vessels to be shaped and  formed. This emphasis disturbs some – and his most vociferous critics focus here. On the other hand his method and approach is really not all that extreme in the scheme of American culture at large – both within evangelicalism and in the broader culture.

Through the years Dr. Dobson has had a great deal of influence within evangelicalism. His books and courses sell and his radio show was quite popular. When my children were young I would listen to it on the way to work in the morning. There was good advice mixed in with an approach that was significantly more conservative than I was then or am now. (I was and am after all a working professional and a mother).  But then I never looked to one person or organization alone for guidance. I stopped listening after one show where a guest was advocating an approach to raising infants to refrain from crying. Crying, apparently, was viewed as a sign of sinfulness and wilfulness, even in an infant a month or two old. A properly trained infant, according to this woman, would not cry. When interviewing this woman Dr. Dobson did not endorse the approach as far as I could tell, but also did not point to potential flaws in it. I never listened to the show again.

On the other hand, the Adventures in Odyssey radio show put out by Focus on the Family was part of our family experience for another decade or more. Until we out grew it (or my children did).

Women, sexuality, and marriage. Initially Dr. Dobson and Focus on the Family stayed focused on family issues and away from public political pronouncements. This changed however, and he became much more of a conservative political presence. He was always known as conservative  on issues like the appropriate roles for men and women in the family and in the country, but in later years he became much more outspoken about political issues he saw as impacting the family. His approach is in line with much of American evangelicalism, but out of step with the experts in the academy and in the APA (American Psychological Association).

In particular Dr. Dobson is opposed to same-sex marriage and finds child-rearing within the context of same-sex relationships to be troublesome. In this he is opposed by the APA, most researchers at secular Universities, and more than a handful of scholars at Christian institutions. I know a couple of same-sex couples raising children, and it certainly doesn’t appear that they do a better or worse job than others as a whole. According to Stephens and Giberson Dr. Dobson has been caught, or at least accused of, misapplying the research of others to support his contention, especially on the issue of children raised by same-sex couples. But it is not entirely clear if this is an honest difference of opinion, the kind that can occur in any heated discussion, or a deliberate miscasting of evidence and quote-mining to make a case for his position.

Beyond issue of proper use of research though, these family issues are much harder to resolve than the rather academic issues of American history and scientific views of creation.  Dr. Dobson should not be the anointed authority to whom we turn, he and his organization have both strengths and serious weaknesses. But the science of psychology and human behavior is something of a fluid field and moral behavior and human sinfulness are concepts that Christianity takes seriously.

Where should we look for advice and insight? In a post Scot linked in his Weekly Meanderings on Saturday, The Scandal of the Evangelical Experts, Thomas Kidd chided Stephens and Giberson for a rather strident New York Times piece, The Evangelical Rejection of Reason, promoting this book. Toward the end of his post Kidd reflects:

Giberson and Stephens don’t give evangelical readers much guidance on how to draw the line between wisely appropriating mainstream scholarship and abandoning essentials of the faith.

The Anointed raises important questions about the way that some evangelicals sequester themselves in intellectual cul-de-sacs. But the book also makes me wonder what Christians in positions of academic influence can do to help upgrade the intellectual rigor of American churches.

This reflection of Kidd’s is dead on the money in the chapter on The Family of God. Is the answer to simply accept the pronouncement of secular experts? Weigh the majority as though truth was a democracy where all experts received one vote? Certainly this is not the case. Scientific naturalism and the rejection of the supernatural isn’t exactly the approach we should take to the questions of science and faith. Yet this is the approach that a majority of secular experts in the sciences would advocate.

Nor is the denial of human sinfulness the approach we should take to behavioral or moral issues. As Christians we believe that we are broken eikons (to use Scot’s expression for image of God) and responsible agents. This brokenness affects both children and adults. It affects human behavior towards others – and this includes sexual behavior. We all, or at least most of us, agree that some sexual behavior is deviant. The recent scandal at Penn State is a case in point – and the secular experts agree. The “hook-up” culture common on many college campuses isn’t exactly consistent with Christian teachings either, but here we may diverge from the secular experts. There is right, there is wrong, and there is moral responsibility.

Stephens and Giberson give no convincing approach in this chapter to help evangelical readers evaluate and appropriate mainstream scholarship wisely. Although they point to the fact that there are some Christian experts who take a position quite different from that of  James Dobson on many of these issues, including both corporal punishment and the issues of sexuality and same-sex marriage, there is no effective guidance, and no convincing expert to turn to. This is an issue where the general approach to turn to the best educated Christian experts doesn’t seem to work at all. There is no Mark Noll or Francis Collins who puts forth a convincing argument.

Where should we turn on these thorny and troubling issues?

Who would you list as evangelical ‘experts’ on family?

Who can we trust to provide wise insight into the strengths and weaknesses of mainstream scholarship here?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

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  • This is a superb post, RJS. Thanks so much. I, too, have been concerned that the fundie-bashing of Stephens and Giberson can be counterproductive and actually confusing, and I love the measured way you handle Dobson: as a brother, with whom you disagree on some things. An excellent piece.

  • Thank for this wonderfully even handed piece today RJS. You managed to thread a needle that is all too often weighted to one extreme or the other. As my Brit friends would say, spot on!

  • Pyschology or philosophy is a way of percieving life, people trying to find answers to life. Whereas Christianity is God telling us about life and how it is to be lived. We need to build our lives on the solid rock of the word, not on the sinking sand of Psychology and Philosphy, they may seem the same but the results tell us otherwise…. Traditions of men, or the word of God.

    If the root is not biblical the fruit definely would not by any means be biblical and would not have an enduring effect. The more we build our lives on pyschology or philosophy, the more our lives and society falls apart.
    Christ is what hold everything together.

    Collosians 2:8 says See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces[a] of this world rather than on Christ.

  • Fish

    I find that many adults are far more sinful in their day-to-day lives than children, yet no one is using the rod on them.

    We parents would freak out if our children were caught cheating on a test, for example, but cheating on one’s taxes in a cash economy is just part of accepted life. Similarly, if our children were deliberately acting in a way they knew had the possibility of killing someone, punishment would be swift, yet texting and surfing the web while driving for adults is socially acceptable and totally legal in many places.

    I know several same-sex couples with children and I share the observation that they seem neither worse nor better than ‘regular’ parents.

  • JenG

    As somewhat of an aside, I have a great deal of reservation about teaching my young children “bible stories” – not because they are violent but because a lot of them are theologically and literally challenging and not simple colorful morality tales. I think that by waiting until they are older to introduce most of the bible is not necessarily a bad thing. I am interested in Enns’ ideas on this in his “Telling God’s Story” series and am planning to review the ciricullum before my infant daughter gets much older as an option for how we will approach scripture as a family. Evolution has cast some doubt for me on the whole notion of original sin but I’ve yet to work that out… Anywhere you could direct me on that issue?

  • Let me weigh in as a “card-carrying” member of the APA for 27 years. Dr. Dobson was not summarily rejected by American psychologists until he started getting overly involved with politics. Yes, his positions on corporal punishment went against the grain, but he was certainly not the only one in the 70s and 80s validating a limited amount of spanking. Even child experts outside evangelicalism saw it as a minority opinion of validity. His views on sexuality were conservative, but many non-believers accepted them. His appointment to the President’s Council on Pornography lined him up with several secular psychologists and they all agreed on their findings (some of which have been proven unhelpful in years since).

    What I contend is not that conservative viewpoints have been shown by the APA to be wrong, but that evangelicals give up and stop doing the research necessary to show that many liberal psych positions are untenable and that their conservative ones may hold psychological value. For instance, when Moynihan was citing study after study in the 60s on the devastating cultural effects of single-parent homes, Evangelicals should have quoted him and applauded him repeatedly. But because he was a Democrat, most Christian psychologists (Dobson included) chose to ignore him.

  • TJJ

    Sure, as an evangelical raising a family in the 80s/90s, Dobson had an influence. But he was one of many other influences. I went to college, grad school, as many evangelicals have and do, and I resent and reject the inference (premise) of the book that evangelicals represent a dumbed down and ignorant demographic, dumded down by a bunch of dumb and deceptive or ignorant leaders who were wacky and quacky.

    This is a perjorative and dismissive labeling and spinning done by those of a more liberal (progressive?) politic to marginalize and dismiss those who are more conservative in their politics.

    Debate and advocate the issues, the values, the policy, but enough of just atacking the other side of a political or religious spectrum as dumb and stupid because they don’t agree with you/us/me/etc.

  • This is where I tend to look to experience and look back on my own childhood. Without some really solid research with long-lasting consequences, we’re probably just going to have to make do with some age-old wisdom.

    First off, there is a case to be made for corporal punishment that has nothing to do with religion. In some ways it surprises me that secular psychology would lean they way they do (though I do agree there is an “anything-goes” sort of bias). As a new parent with two little ones, it is important to me to raise children who are on the one hand free to express themselves, explore and express curiosity, and develop their own sense of identity, and on the other hand, to be obedient, well behaved, kind and respectful. There is a case to be made for firm discipline that has nothing to do with original sin, and that is that it is just not acceptable in our society for us to act like animals. From my own personal exper4ience, kids who have been especially disruptive, deviant and rebellious have been those who were not well disciplined. That’s not to say that corporal punishement is the only effective form of discipline, but when faced with a choice, I’m going to end up looking back to how I was raised, because I was a really good kid. I think I had the best upbringing a kid can have, and I want the same for my kids.

    That said, I would be very interested to learn what the data is for all the research that’s been done. Interpretation of data in this area is even more difficult than in other scientific fields, so it would be interesting to really sift through everything.

  • Joe Canner

    Mike #6: Thanks for that “insider’s” view, which resonates with my impressions of the evangelical view of research. I think this aversion to research also colors Dobson’s (and others’) view of homosexuality and same-sex parenting. They are quite happy to bash existing research and quote-mine from various obscure and poorly-done studies, but don’t have any interest in either doing original research or accepting the best available secular research.

  • Elaine

    With the knowledge we have of human brain development in children, I find it troubling and outrageous that Christians continue to perpetuate the belief that infants exit the birth canal filled with evil sin saturated motives and desires. It is doubly sad that certain Bible translations of verses have been used to justify and supposedly prove not only the possibility but the obligation of “godly” parents to physically strike and cause pain to children.

    The root word of discipline is not “spank” – it is “disciple” which means “to teach.”

  • dopderbeck

    Great post!

    I think the underlying problem is the assumption that “social science research” can govern some of these basic questions one way or the other. This underlying assumption leads to the phenomenon of reporting “research results” in a non-scientific, politicized, non-objective fashion.

    This is particularly true of the same-sex marriage issue. I have no confidence at all in FTF’s slant on this data. Neither do I have confidence in the slant taken by many gay rights groups, but it seems particularly troubling to me that data is politicized by Christians.

    If we have theological reasons for believing that the ideal of one-man-and-one-woman-for-life of marriage should be considered normative, then we should let the “social science data” lay where they may and stand on theological grounds.

  • DRT

    First, I have yet to find anyone in my life that believes humans don’t sin. The only people whom I see wielding that sword who are conservatives who want to accuse more liberal people of acting like they are god. I have had that used against me many times in the past decade to somehow imply that I am thinking I am above sin. That could not be further from the truth.

    Sin, much like job performance, is something you never master. People always have development opportunities regardless of the stage of life or spiritual maturity.

    Kids lack development in areas different from adults, that’s all. I am a big fan of Bill Cosby’s brain damage skit relating to children’s behavior.

    Second, I can’t see how someone can possibly ever recommend hitting without being in danger of a millstone being tied around their neck and thrown into the sea. Now let me be clear, some sort of physical hitting on an individual level may not be too bad, or may be too bad, but I think it is irrefutable that recommending hitting as a fairway approach is irresponsible. How many disciplined children does it take to make up for one tragic incident where a parent really hurts or kills the child. That is irresponsible.

    Scientists (I assume that is how he portrays himself) are not the right people to recommend a course of action involving medical treatment. I would consider hitting to clearly be within the realm of medicine and people in the medical field consider many more nuanced perspectives before recommending a course of treatment. As I said, if saying we should beat children causes one to get too much medicine then it is probably not the right treatment.

  • dopderbeck

    On original sin and discipline of children: there are many good reasons to discipline children, and there may be good reasons to use “corporal punishment” in some degree, but I don’t think “original sin” is one of them, at least not stated so starkly.

    First, there is the basic theological question of what “original sin” means — no small matter, which is a key dividing point between East and West, for example.

    Second, even among those who adhere to more of a Western view of original sin, there is the basic theological question of whether there is something like an “age of accountability” — again, no small matter.

    Third, even for those who adhere to a Western view of original sin and who think infants and small children can be morally culpable solely on account of original sin, there is the question of whether baptism of infants and/or membership in the covenant / Church community can have any ameliorative effect — an truly enormous question that is a key dividing point between the Catholic and Protestant West, and that also in various degrees divides Protestants over infant baptism.

    I think Stephens and Giberson hit this theme as well, but for me, the troubling thing about many populist evangelical leaders is this sort of lack of theological depth and nuance.

  • dopderbeck

    Having said all that — like RJS, I too used some FTF resources when my kids were young, and found many of them helpful. Most of it, after all, is just basic Wisdom, which doesn’t really have to be tied to any social science or theological agenda.

  • Jon G

    Personally, while I disagree with much of Dobson’s political agenda, I’ve found his psychological arguments to be quite compelling and effective in raising our 3 children. I think when he stays within his field of expertise, the man is pretty dead on.

  • rjs

    Mike (#6),

    Thanks. Your input is a good contribution here and matches my experience.

  • rjs


    I agree that Dobson was at his best with basic wisdom not tied to a social or theological agenda. When he moves to a social or political agenda he loses some credibility. There is a lesson here for many of us I expect.

  • Great post, RJS. Thanks for writing this.

    BTW, James Dobson has not been affiliated with Focus on the Family since 2010. (See the bottom of this page: In Giberson & Stephens’ NYTimes article, they wrote as if Dobson were still leading Focus. Also, since Dobson left, my impression has been that Focus has pulled back a bit from political involvement.

  • rjs

    Mike Hickerson,

    The focus of the book by Stephens and Giberson is on “anointed” experts, so the emphasis here is primarily on Dobson not on Focus on the Family. The two though are largely indistinguishable until 2009-2010.

    Focus on the Family is moving on … as it must if it is to survive beyond Dobson.

  • One other point I wish to add to this discussion (though it may not seem germane, I believe it is). The secular field of psychology is made up of at least two main governing bodies: The APA (referenced above) and the APS, a group made up primarily of Psychological researchers. The two bodies used to have a lot to do with each other. But, in the late 1980s, APS members began publishing scholarly papers showing that many practices of APA members (such as traditional 3-way marriage counseling) could not be proven to be effective.

    At the time this was happening, I was relatively new to the field and I sat by and admired the courage of researchers to stand up against the status quo. Some researchers, however, bowed to public pressure and never took their research any further. Other brave souls persevered and helped us see that some psychological approaches amount to quackery. Unfortunately, it was during the late 1980s that many Evangelical psychologists got too busy writing popular books and left the field of research.

    That was not a banner day for us. We could have taken the lead in ferreting out hyperbole and false practices in a field that is as much art as it is science. But we bailed out on that responsibility and it shows in our distaste for proper research.

  • rjs

    Stephens and Giberson also make what I am pretty sure is a gaffe in the introduction to their book regarding Dobson. They connect him with Ken Ham and young earth creationism. I am nearly certain this is not the case and Dobson falls in line with Hugh Ross favoring an old earth progressive creation understanding.

  • John M.

    Thanks rjs, good post. This is kind of off topic, and I may be wrong, but you seem to be much more conservative on theological and social issues than you do on the issue of science and faith, where you seem to be pushing the envelope on traditional conservative views. Do you ever experience cognitive dissonance between your general theological orientation and your acceptance of current mainstream scientific theories? Case in point. In this post you seem to accept the concept of original sin and clear universal moral boundaries. But reading your posts on the topic of origins, tends to throw traditional theological understanding of these issues if not under the bus, at least into strong question. Am I off base here, or is this a somewhat accurate evaluation? A summary question: How do you personally reconcile the tension between your apparent conservative theology and your more open-ended approach to integrating faith and science?

  • rjs

    John M,

    I don’t really have a “traditional” Augustinian view of original sin. But I certainly think that “for all have sinned” means all – both individually and corporately. Some of this involves areas where I don’t have firm convictions yet, but am looking at what different people have to say. I’ve spent a lot of time studying science and much less so far studying or thinking deeply about theology.

  • Mick Porter

    Good post.

    I find all this talk of being on one side or the other of a political divide really unfortunate. I wonder if there is any possibility of progress in your country in terms of viewing politics in any other categories beyond liberal/conservative? These are highly arbitrary categories, but it seems like a whole nation is invested in the left/right divide.

  • rjs


    Good observation. I think as a country and as a church we are way too invested in the left/right divide. It defines identity in ways that are entirely inappropriate, especially for Christians. And the divide has become more militant over the last 30 years.

    I won’t get involved in specifically political discussions at any level because it is a no-win, no-reason proposition.

  • “Did Dr. Dobson’s Focus on the Family organization influence you, your parents, or your family?” – No influence on my parents in the context of the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) in which I was raised. I had heard Dr. Dobson’s name dropped periodically by some friends, but I did not encounter his material until a student at Grove City College.

    I think Dr. Dobson’s drift into politics related to trying to find structures/ways to support his family concerns. Over the past several years I’ve been drawn into local political conversation regarding trash disposal (a variety of concerns regarding a landfill just over a mile from our house and slow development of comprehensive recycling in our region) AND school budgets/building projects which directly affected my four children. Should I become more involved in political action as Medical students with whom I minister may face the question of risking their jobs over whether to offer/not to offer an abortion to each woman who visits their office? The reasons for and impact of larger public presence are complex. They can involve a lot of risk for the “powerful” and the “weak.” Please forgive me for this long tangent. Maybe it would be better to discuss in another context. . . .

    My wife and I have read/discussed “The New Dare to Discipline” (Tyndale. 1992). In addition we read “The Strong-Willed Child” (Tyndale. 1995). I found it a helpful lens on my own life 😉 Our children likewise enjoy “Adventures in Odyssey” and various other Focus on the Family storytelling resources 🙂

    I agree that not including Bill Gothard’s is a surprise. A number of our friends have mentioned his work to us, but we have not followed up to the recommendations. My wife and I continue to learn parenting from extending family and parents (to whom we live close by and are actively engaged with) and from the communities of faith of which we have been members (no doubt some of the material is distilled from sources such as Dobson).

    With regard to daily family devotions, we have appreciated a number of resources, but highly recommend “My First Message” (Eugene Peterson. Navpress. 2007) and “The Jesus Storybook Bible” (by Sally Lloyd-Jones, illustrated by Jago. Zondervan. 2007) for introducing the Biblical story.

    As for being a mom, my wife can’t stop giving away, recommending and leading discussions on Keri Wyatt Kent’s “God’s Whisper in a Mother’s Chaos” (InterVarsity Press 2000). With regard to raising children, I have appreciated “Children Matter: Celebrating Their Place in the Church, Family, and Community” (Scottie May, Beth Posterski, Catherine Stonehouse, and Linda Cannell. Eerdmans. 2005).

    Other resources we’ve appreciated: “The Birth Order” (Kevin Leaman. Note: I don’t agree w/it’s simple categorizations, but it was helpful for me to start somewhere. My wife and I now have four girls around the house. The oldest two are twins and the third child has a number of developmental delays), “The Danger of Raising Nice Kids: Preparing Our Children to Change Their World” (Timothy Smith. InterVarsity Press 2006), “On Becoming BabyWise” (Book I and II by Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam. Multnomah Books), “A Little Child Shall Lead Them” (Johann Christoph Arnold. Plough Publishing Press/InterVarsity Press. 1997), “Parenting in the Pew” (Robbie F. Castleman. InterVarsity Press 2002).

    William J. Webb’s “Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts” (InterVarsity Press. 2011) appears to be of interest and sits on a ‘to read pile.’ Note: You may remember his earlier piece “Slaves, Women & Homosexuals
    Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis” (InterVarsity Press. 2001). Yes, I’m on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and have been greatly blessed by a number of the materials published by InterVarsity Press.

  • Who would be regarded as an academic, secular and/or pop culture ‘expert’ on family? It seems like there are a lot of different opinions about most everything with regard to raising children and family structure/dynamics.

    PS. At my wife’s suggestion, I’m adding to comment #26: “Never Mind the Joneses: Taking the Fear Out of Parenting (Tim Stafford. InterVarsity Press. 2006) as a resource AND noting that we were flexible in a our application of BabyWise.