This guest post was written by Randal Rauser.
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 are 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 prophets”) the status of a sort of litmus test that distinguishes those who accept “what the Bible teaches” over-against those “compromisers” who allow their opinions to be shaped by the contemporary culture. On this construal, the prophet recognizes and submits to the infallibility of the moral and prudential witness of the biblical authors, and they faithfully proclaim it even when it diverges from the culture. By contrast, the compromiser subverts the moral and prudential witness of the biblical authors to the culture, and thereby they subvert the authority of scripture itself.
In this article, I’m going to challenge this dichotomy between “prophets” and “compromisers.” In particular, I’m going to argue that Christians who uphold the authority of scripture can — and often do — disagree with biblical authors. Once we recognize this fact, we can begin to have more open and irenic discussions about topics like homosexuality.
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 would-be prophet with a trilemma. To begin with, they can accept the unqualified morality and wisdom of punishing children with physical violence. Second, they can adopt a moral relativism that accepts the morality and wisdom of corporal punishment of children in the ancient world while eschewing it for today. Finally, they can concede that the Christian may occasionally accept opinions from the contemporary culture (e.g. contemporary scientific and cultural knowledge) which diverge from the opinions of some biblical authors.
Once you realize how wrong it is to punish children by beating them, neither of the first two options appears promising. This leaves the third position as the best one. However, once you embrace the conclusion that Christians can occasionally diverge from the perspective of particular biblical authors on one particular issue like corporal punishment, you blow up the simplistic 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? Michael Brown argues that homosexuality is incompatible with biblical teaching and Christian conviction. (I reviewed Brown’s book in four parts; see part one here) 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. Brown writes:
“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, and that since the Bible includes unqualified prohibitions of all homosexual activity, it follows that unqualified prohibitions of all homosexual activity must be inerrant morally and prudentially. But is the assumption that God wouldn’t allow errant teaching to be included in the Bible really true?
This is not a question that can be settled a priori. In other words, we can’t just assume it is true because it seems plausible. Rather, we have to look at the biblical text and see whether the evidence bears it out. And here’s how we do it: if we can identify a teaching in the Bible that we now recognize to be morally and/or prudentially in error, then we will have a defeater for Brown’s claim. So what’s the evidence? Can we identify an example of a morally and/or prudentially errant teaching within the Bible?
Beat your children well? Corporal punishment in 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 (see my full review of the book here) William Webb considers the biblical teaching on corporal punishment. He notes how many conservative Christians today (e.g. Focus on the Family) claim to follow the biblical teaching on corporal punishment.
According to these conservative 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 on pages 52-3:
- 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.
To put this in concrete terms, a father who is consistently seeking to be “biblical” based on (1)-(7) could take his six year old who is guilty of stealing a cookie from the kitchen, 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. (Lest you think I’m overstating the case, please reread principle 6: relatively minor offenses are fitting occasions for beatings.)
Back to the Trilemma
This brings us back to the trilemma: (1) accept the unqualified correctness of the biblical teaching on corporal punishment of children; (2) accept the correctness of the biblical teaching on corporal punishment of children relative to the ancient world; or (3) reject the biblical teaching on the corporal punishment of children.
Let’s consider each of these possibilities beginning 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 researching the topic of corporal punishment, William Webb came to reject the Bible’s instruction on beating children. At the beginning of Corporal Punishment in the Bible he recalls asking an Ethiopian student named Fanosie whether he should share his conclusions with Ethiopian Christians. Webb then recalls Fanosie’s unforgettable response:
“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.
I agree. 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. This teaching is brutish, harmful, and fundamentally unjust. It simply cannot be accepted today.
This brings us to the second option of the trilemma: a qualified, moral relativist acceptance. In short, is it possible that one might agree that corporal punishment is bad today while recognizing that it was morally good and necessary in the biblical era in which the instruction was first given?
There are two problems with this response. First, it commits one to a deeply implausible moral relativism 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 since the biblical authors don’t teach that corporal punishment is good for their time alone. Rather, they teach it is good simpliciter, irrespective of time or culture. Since the relativist rejects this conclusion, by restricting the biblical authors’ teaching to the ancient world they are in fact rejecting it.
This brings us to the final option: an unqualified rejection of the biblical authors’ 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 harmful. Indeed, 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.
Disagreeing with a biblical author is not the same thing as disagreeing with God … or the Bible
So where does this leave us? 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. Rather, Christians adopt a range of positions on ethical issues as each struggles to interpret the Bible and apply its teaching to their lives.
At a bare minimum, this fact demands charity as we wrestle with the text and its ethical implications. 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 capitulating to culture. Instead, you will insist that while you accept biblical inspiration and authority, you have good reasons not to accept this particular teaching from the biblical author.
But if we reject the biblical author, aren’t we thereby rejecting the Bible? In short, no. We need to distinguish what biblical authors intend to communicate in a biblical text from what God intends to communicate in that same text. While these two intentions are often the same, they also may diverge. And evidence from science, moral reflection, and yes, even contemporary culture, can illumine points of divergence.
To note one vivid example, the imprecatory or cursing psalms (e.g. Psalm 68; Psalm 137) express a hatred of enemies. It seems to me that the vindictive hatred of these texts, while perhaps emotionally understandable from those who have been deeply wronged, is nonetheless incompatible with Jesus’ call to love one’s enemies.
However, there is a reason that the cursing psalms are included within the psalter. I would suggest it isn’t so we can agree with the psalmist. Rather, while we can identify with his anger, as Christians we’re called to move beyond it. Since God doesn’t endorse the vindictive hatred of these psalms, God’s intention behind including these texts in the Bible differs from the psalmist’s original intent in writing them.
Similarly, if we decide to reject a biblical author’s teaching on an issue like hatred of enemies or 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; moral reflection; the witness of other biblical passages).
With all that in mind, we can finally return to the heated debate over homosexuality. This article hopefully demonstrates that simplistic dichotomies like “prophet” vs. “compromiser” are unhelpful. Instead, we need to recognize that people of good conscience who accept the authority of scripture can nonetheless find themselves in disagreement not only with each other but also potentially with a biblical author. Just as one might disagree with the hatred of the cursing psalmist or the biblical advocate of corporal punishment, so one could potentially disagree with a particular biblical author’s perspective on same sex relationships.
To sum up, disagreement with a biblical author does not entail disagreement with God or the Bible. In each case, we must carefully consider the biblical and extra-biblical reasons that lead one to disagree with the biblical author. If we keep that simple point in mind, hopefully we can set aside inflammatory charges that others are “undermining the authority of scripture” and thereby begin to make progress in a spirit of open dialogue and good will.
About Randal Rauser
Randal Rauser is Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta. He is the author of many books, including Is the Atheist My Neighbor?: Rethinking Christian Attitudes toward Atheism (2015), The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver, and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails (2012), and You’re Not as Crazy as I Think: Dialogue in a World of Loud Voices and Hardened Opinions (2011). Rauser blogs and podcasts as The Tentative Apologist at randalrauser.com.