Is Tony Campolo a Bad Parent According to Proverbs?

Is Tony Campolo a Bad Parent According to Proverbs? March 24, 2015

by Jared ByasJared Byas

Last week Tony Campolo wrote about his son’s new position as humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California. What was most disheartening for me was this sentence:

“Since that Christianity Today article, several of my evangelical friends have quoted Proverbs 22:6, contending that scripture validates the claim that if I had taught my son the right values, he would not have departed from the faith at the age of 51.”

Importantly, Tony’s point was that Bart actually is living out the values Tony taught. But can we talk for a second about how common it is for people to think that if I did everything right my kid wouldn’t do things I disapprove of? I don’t like to beat dead horses but this one just keeps coming back like an equine episode of The Walking Dead. So, two quick points that Proverbs itself makes about Proverbs:

Proverbs 26:7 | A proverb in the mouth of a fool is as useless as a paralyzed leg.

First, it’s important to recognize proverbs are not equations or promises that you can hold over God’s head like a court testimony. Proverbs aren’t magical spells just anyone can use.

In fact, they can even contradict each other, as the verses just before these attest: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly or you will be just like him” (Prov. 26:4) followed immediately by “Do answer a fool according to his folly lest he be wise in his own eyes.” It’s no mistake that these verses are next to each other. It’s not written by some amateur hoping no one would notice the contradiction. The contradiction seems to be exactly the point.

Me: “Some jerk just said something idiotic on Facebook. So, which is it, writer of Proverbs — do I respond or not?”

Writer of Proverbs: “Well, those are both true in certain circumstances.”

Me: “Um, okay. That’s pretty vague. Which circumstances, writer of Proverbs?”

Writer of Proverbs: “. . . ”

Me: *Spends embarrassing amounts of time on Facebook over the next 3 years and learns that there are appropriate times to respond and what circumstances lend themselves to such. Picks Proverbs back up in 2018.*

Me: “I get it now.”

Writer of Proverbs: “I knew you would eventually. That’s kind of the point.”

Using proverbs as though people are robots and life always works according to cosmic equation or rulebook is foolish. That’s using proverbs to deny the need for wisdom when it’s stated purpose is the exact opposite. More practically, if you don’t have grown children and no one asks for your advice, then please shut up about how to properly raise children.

Use them as guides to a nuanced and wise life and they will serve you well. Use them as rules to circumvent using your inexperienced critical thinking skills and they quickly become a weapon (see below).

Proverbs 26:9 | A proverb in the mouth of a fool is like a thornbush brandished by a drunk.Storm Trooper Evil

The times I’ve seen people with good intentions use Scripture to unknowingly injure another human are some of my most disheartening in the church. I think Jesus said something similar about a plank and some sawdust. When people who aren’t self-aware and wise about the world try to throw out proverbs as advice they are turning plowshares into swords.

These proverbs are meant to be the tools to grow as God’s wise people — not to poke and skewer our brothers and sisters in our effort to feel safer about our Bible or about the path of our life. When we are in such desperate need to be in control of what is often the baffling realities of life we can hurt ourselves and those around us. I think some of Tony’s “friends” had been drinking too much wine around the thornbushes again.

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  • Pete, you know how much I hate to correct you on your own blog, but reading this article, you give the strong impression that “wisdom” and “law” are different things. If that weren’t bad enough, that implies that the things we find in scripture fall into different genres and historical contingencies with their own implicit rules of interpretation and use. To make matters worse, that implies that we can’t just yank a verse out of the Bible as we might a Chinese fortune cookie and apply it generically to whatever it makes us think of.

    Well, obviously, all of that is a threat to evangelicalism as we know it. Also, stormtroopers didn’t even have parents, so that pretty much invalidates your entire argument.

    • peteenns

      Hey, Jared’s the heretic today. Complain to him 😉

    • newenglandsun

      I’m new here…someone tell me if this is supposed to be a serious comment or not.

      • (it’s not)

      • Judy Buck-Glenn

        He is being tongue in cheek.

    • Jared Byas

      Typical. Making assertions without any evidence. I, on the other hand, present to you evidence that stormtroopers do in fact have parents:

      • I do not accept those photos as canon. Although they are adorable.

        • Gary

          Not begotten, not made. Cloned.

    • you Jared Byas gives the strong impression that “wisdom” and “law” are different things.

      It might be helpful to distinguish between lower-case ‘law’, which is an approximation, and upper-case ‘Law’, which could [roughly] be seen as the Platonic Form toward which ‘law’ strives. I suggest a look at the following:

      For Christ is the telos of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Rom 10:4)

      Just like the models science [hopefully] approach reality by successive approximation, I claim that the law approaches Jesus, by successive approximation. So, you can look at successive iterations of the law and say that when juxtaposed, the law as it develops over time is pointing toward Jesus, or to use a usefully pregnant term, the Logos.

      It might also be helpful to point out that our Law, our Logos, or Jesus, is a person. In contrast, a given ‘law’ is not. Similarly, is חָכְמָה—’wisdom’—a person, or a thing? Proverbs is deliciously ambiguous; chapter 8 famously personifies her, and I think for good reason. Wisdom takes care of you, as a mother nurtures her child. Most conceptions of ‘law’ do not do this.

    • Luke

      I am stealing that fortune cookie line 😀

  • Andrew Dowling

    “Use them as guides to a nuanced and wise life and they will serve you
    well. Use them as rules to circumvent using your inexperienced critical
    thinking skills and they quickly become a weapon”

    I think you can insert “the Bible” for “them”

  • Kim Watson

    When I read that Christianity Today article, I used my hand that wasn’t holding the computer mouse down to start heaping shame on my head, even though I spent at least two years after my youngest left home forgiving myself for all my parenting failures. Then I wiped it all off, knowing that my job now is to walk beside younger parents telling them how pleased God is with the way they love their kids. There is no magic formula for anything in the Bible, just a command to love God and our neighbour as deeply as we can. I can see that love in Bart and Peggy.

    • Gary

      Perhaps you can see goodness in Bart too.

  • Thank you Jared, and thank you Pete for accommodating his post. Well needed; well done!
    You guys got me thinking. With the plethora of special interest Bibles out there, perhaps there is room for one more: ‘The Wack-A-Mole Antidote Bible: God’s Answers to Clobber Verses’

    • Gary

      Wack-A-Mole isn’t quite kitschy enough to be a specialty Bible.

  • Kim Fabricius

    “The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn from the crow.”

    Okay, it’s Blake, not the Bible — but it ought to be.

  • “More practically, if you don’t have grown children and no one asks for your advice, then please shut up about how to properly raise children.”

    Agreed – but you know, as long as others are unhelpfully doling out parenting advice, maybe Tony Campolo should have excommunicated his own child, like some pastors I could name. It’s a bad idea to drag internal family dynamics into the limelight in order to grind your theological axe. But as long as it’s going to be done, let’s make sure we keep these things in perspective. Discipline is one thing, excommunication and ostracism are different beasts. It might keep a kid in line, but it has more to do with fear and intimidation than any heartfelt values. And unfortunately, in my observations, “training up a child” in conservative evangelical contexts too often means “spiritually manipulating a child.”

    With all that in mind, it seems like Tony Campolo did an excellent parenting job. Not that it’s anybody’s business but his family’s.

  • Using proverbs as though people are robots and life always works according to cosmic equation or rulebook is foolish.

    I wonder if that’s [part of] what it means to be imprisoned to the στοιχεῖον of Paul’s Gal 4:3,9 and Col 2:8,20? Also, for the win:

    When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. (1 Cor 13:11)

  • Gary

    It all just helps us empathize with Bart for leaving the poison behind.

  • Judy Buck-Glenn

    I wonder how you get credentialed as a Humanist Chaplain? Interesting.

    I am an ex-atheist, so I kind of get both sides of this. I was raised by non-beleiving parents and while my mother was fine with me being ordained as a Unitarian minister, she was really a bit upset when I jumped ship and became an Episcopalian. But in the end, she was proud of me anyway. Always addressed even birthday cards “The Rev”.

    I am sad for Tony, because I am sure it hurts that his son rejects God, but in the end, we all have to find our own way. God won’t lose us track of us. And I do think the best consolation is indeed remembering that the only standard of judgment Jesus ever gave us was what we did–or did not do. Maybe consoling for more people than Tony Campolo.

    • Gary

      “Rejects God” is an interesting phrasing. Perhaps Tony conceives as “rejects God.” Perhaps Bart conceives as not “rejects” but “doesn’t affirm” (let’s not confuse negativity with neutrality) and rather than “God,” perhaps “belief in God.” Bart would be more likely to phrase as “doesn’t affirm personal belief in God.” I’d suggest empathy benefits from understanding perspectives from their perspectives. Let’s not just be sad for Tony but hold hope for him and let’s share in the joy with Bart to and hope for understanding and respect for all.

      • Kim Fabricius

        The question surely is which “god” is being rejected. If it’s a mind-sacrificing / gay-loathing / women-patronising / nation-valorising / violence-sanctioning deity, then good-riddance: here is a purifying rebellion, a sanctified atheism.

        In any case, Simone Weil was not far from the kingdom when she wrote: “Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”

        • Gary

          And the winnowing fork is in his hand. One of the most poignant questions of the 21st century IMO is this: What’s the proper response to the smell of chaff burning? Sadness or Joy?

          • Aaron

            For love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection, even that itself may be perfected–not in itself, but in the object. As it was love that first created humanity, so even human love, in proportion to its divinity, will go on creating the beautiful for its own outpouring. There is nothing eternal but that which loves and can be loved, and love is ever climbing towards the consummation when such shall be the universe, imperishable, divine.

            Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed.

            And our God is a consuming fire.


          • Gary

            Except for crystals and Oprah, I think I could be a new age Christian.

    • newenglandsun

      Nowadays, is there really much difference between Unitarian and Episcopalian? I mean some Episcopalians are more dogmatic but there are a lot that have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

      • Andrew Dowling

        You can’t be serious . . .

        • newenglandsun

          So which Episcopalians are the real Episcopalians? The Episcopalians who support women’s ordination or the Episcopalians that don’t? The Episcopalians who support gay marriage or the ones who don’t? The Episcopalians who lean toward Catholicism more-so than the average Catholic or the Episcopalians who don’t?

          There are Episcopalians of all different sets. In fact, Robin Williams (who was an Episcopalian) classically made a joke about ten reasons why one should become Episcopalian. Within that joke was “1. No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.”

          The late Marcus Borg was also an Episcopalian. Just like with the Unitarians, being an Episcopalian nowadays is pretty much a free-for-all other than that one has to receive communion x number of times.

          • Stuart Blessman

            You mean Episcopalians are an open bunch of believers who welcome all and keep the centrality of Christ at their center, majoring on the majors while showing compassion and charity for disagreements on the minors?

            Burn them all, I guess.

          • newenglandsun

            If they were “an open bunch of believers who welcome all and keep the centrality of Christ at their center, majoring on the majors while showing compassion and charity for disagreements on the minors” as my own church is or even the Eastern Orthodox or Catholic or heck, even different Lutheran churches, that’d be one thing. But there are Episcopalians who accept gay marriage, reject baptismal regeneration, reject the deity of Christ, reject the Trinity, etc. You seem to not have a grasp on the overall doctrinal disagreements within the Episcopal Church overall.

          • newenglandsun

            BTW, here’s an excellent article from a Bishop John Shelby Spong who writes AGAINST the orthodox doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus.

            HELLO! This is a bishop! His traditional task is to DEFEND and GUARD the Truth from heresy and yet he has fallen into heresy himself! And there’s no standard for measuring orthodoxy within the Episcopal Church as there is in the Catholic or Orthodox churches.

            It’s not like someone can just recite Nicaea and show Bishop Spong to be a heretic and then convict him of heresy to have him excommunicated. Which is my point–I would need the Episcopal Church to lay down what it actually believes is considered doctrine before I considered entering it. Episcopalians, like I said, are pretty much a free-for-all. You want to be a heretic, join the Episcopal Church. You want to be orthodox, join the Episcopal Church. Again, “WILL THE REAL EPISCOPALIANS PLEASE STAND UP?!?” I ask.

          • Stuart Blessman

            Just like with the Unitarians, being an Episcopalian nowadays is pretty much a free-for-all other than that one has to receive communion x number of times.

            You say that as if it’s a bad thing…

          • newenglandsun

            That is a bad thing. They’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Have you not paid much attention of the descent of Episcopalianism into liberalism?

          • newenglandsun

            Just FYI, if any one wants to correct my seemingly misguided position on the non-dogmatic positions of the Episcopalians, I have asked this question here:


            We seem to be getting off topic from Enns’s blog.

  • Luke

    Random Proverbs anecdote: Just the other day a local fundamentalist “reformed” pastor here (Sydney, Australia) preached on Proverbs 23:13 (“Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die.”) telling parents they should discipline their kids with a rod — a biblical rod, no less — which can and should cause bruising, but so long as you’re using a biblical rod, the child will not die. “That is a promise from God.” Ugh. 🙁

  • Great post, Pete. Thanks for addressing this gross inept use of the Bible. It really causes me heartache when I see Believers hurt by people following this biblical perspective. Jesus must hurt, too.

    • Gary

      Most of the gross inept use of the Bible I’ve seen like this has been at the hands of clergy and lay leaders. They pray, listen to the Holy Spirit, do this, and then wonder who non-believers don’t take them seriously.

      This whole approach to respect of literature wouldn’t even pass a basic Freshman year English class. Soon, nobody will be following the wing nuts. Watch.

  • Jake Enns

    I have seen the very same things Peter. Proverbs are… wait for it. . . proverbial statements. Not promises or doctrine etc. They are just ideas of how life usually works out – it really is that plain and simple folks.

  • toddh

    I read the original CT post, and it sounds like Stetzer is essentially trying to take shots at progressive evangelicalism and mainline Christianity without sounding like too much of a jerk. But I think his not-so-veiled point is that those versions of Christianity produce more agnostics and atheists than conservative evangelicalism.

    That may be true – I don’t know. I’ve been thinking lately about how conservative evangelicals will replicate more of their own in the next generation, and the only way I can think of that could work successfully for them is by cocooning their children amongst people who share like-minded beliefs – cradle to grave. That kind of social cohesion could have a chance at deflecting the kind of challenges that are out there for their children in an internet age. But I’d rather take my shot at giving my kids a more complex faith, and more complex view of God, even if it means risking that they end up believing something different than I do.

    • Gary

      I think this is one of the bigger infights of Western Protestantism. Who produces more non-theists? Evangelicalism has had an upper hand for a few decades and (maybe non-humble) bragging rights about being numerically and economically successful while “dead” churches are in decline.

      That era though seems to be over and now we have a race where both are huffing and puffing and the finish line isn’t anywhere in sight.

      Personally, I relish in discussing the complexity of faith with my kids. Would love to more but they’re really interested only so much.

      For sure, they’re not interested in picking up norms of my generation’s or my parents’.

      • Andrew Dowling

        People also come to interest in spiritual matters at different points in their lives. My interest in Christian history/the Bible was as minimal as it could be at 18; ten years later I was finishing a book on biblical scholarship every 2-4 weeks.

        • Gary

          Often’ this a grace that people more easily grant to their own spiritual journey than to others’ and, in the case of this blog, to their children.

  • Jeff Y

    Very good thoughts. I once had someone tell me, based on the same Proverbs 22:6 verse, that anyone who had a child to grow up and become an unbeliever could not serve as an elder (since, an elder had to have ‘believing children’).

    This of course goes much deeper than the misuse of proverbs, as you well know, but to the way the whole Bible is to be read – genre matters.

    • Gary

      When talking about genres, I usually see lists such as wisdom, epistle, etc. I usually consider these secondary genres. Primary genre is a holy text. From my perspective, that’s where the bigger errors in handling the text occur, that less deferential delicacy is given to the text than what a freshman would be required to give in literary analysis to any piece of fiction. I’d suggest people might like the Bible more with better literary criticism of the Bible’s texts than absence of literary criticism of the texts.

  • kmv1

    Imagine raising up a child so that even when he no longer believes in God he can’t stop acting like Jesus.

    • Gary

      As a father of four, I’m trying to imagine this, but I must say… it’s really hard. I mean, sheesh, the Theotokos only could pull off one kid able to do this.

  • Emily

    Thank you for being another particle of the medicine treating the autoimmune disease that has infected the Church. Living to serve Christ and allowing God to humble me so He can make me more like Jesus is not simple nor simplistic and definitely not legalistic. The only “simple” theology is knowing that Christ gave us a new commandment to love one another. He asked us to love our enemies. He told us to love God the Father with every part of our Father God created selves and to love our neighbors as ourselves. None of that is simple but it is the only way I know how to represent Him well. When we the Church, The Bride of Christ, learn to focus on God and on the specks in our own eyes, allowing us to love one another as flawed and broken followers of the only perfect human ever born, then we the Church will no longer have an autoimmune disease, and the world will not be afraid to embrace us.