The reactions to the story of NFL star running back and 2012 MVP Adrian Peterson being indicted for ‘reckless or negligent injury to a child’ have been a bit divisive, to say the least.
It’s a fascinating experiment as a pastor living in Minnesota, i.e. Vikings country, to ask your 7th/8th grade confirmation class their thoughts on the issue. For starters, it’s a perfect demonstration of someone sincerely buying their own rationale when it’s personally convenient. Adolescent boys lawyer up pretty quick when the NFL is trying to take their best player off the field.
But everyone has an opinion on this case. Everyone. Football fan or not, in this particular case, everyone seems to be registering a pretty passionate plea. Even our state governor has publicly given his stance. What was revealing to me as a pastor, was that it wasn’t until over 20 minutes into our confirmation classroom discussion, and not until after heavy prompting and hinting on my part, that any student said, “What matters most is what God says about parenting our children…”
The fact that it took that long and that I had to tip my hand that much to get to that point…I don’t think it’s simply because I’ve been a poor theology instructor for these kids. Maybe. Rather, I think it’s because kids (humans in general, for that matter) will tend to give you responses they think you want to hear until you touch a nerve, and then they respond instinctively. This specific case happens to be a topic that everyone seems to have core beliefs about. At that point, people feel justified in letting knees jerk.
The tipping point for my confirmation students, the moment that finally led one of them to suggesting that we see what God says about the topic, was when I pointed out on the whiteboard that all of their responses thus far had begun with the words, “I think…”; “I feel…”; “I believe…”. After those prefaces had generally come thoughts like, “I think parents should be allowed to discipline their own kids in their own homes however they want” (again, this seemed to be the preference of the diehard Vikings fans. No, they didn’t perceive their logic to be self-serving.). Another popular response was, “I feel like a parent should never hit their child, no matter what the circumstances.” When I calmly asked, “Why?”, one of the young women responded with a passionate explanation that ended, “It’s just wrong.” When I further pressed her on an explanation of WHY we should all submit ourselves to her declaration that such an act is wrong, she finished with, “Because.” There were other more “moderate” responses that went something along the lines of, “Well, it’s okay to spank your child, but you shouldn’t use an object to do it like Adrian Peterson did.” Again, when pressed, there was no conceivable WHY to the reasoning.
While this is admittedly a conversation with 14-year-olds, most of the conversations I’ve heard from full-grown adults haven’t sounded much different. For that matter, the “experts” sound very similar. I could name a dozen prominent talk radio figures who have weighed in, proposing little reasoning for their stance beyond “I think” or “I feel.” The innate pride of a sinful heart simply doesn’t understand that what “I think” or “I feel” about a given situation does not make it so, no matter how many tears I shed when offering my sentiments nor even how many logical points I string together. You CANNOT make a moral argument without an appeal to God.
Someone might contend, “Sure you can! Let’s just all do what’s best for mankind without hurting someone.” First off, why? For argument’s sake, what is the logical reason why we should be working toward the benefit of mankind? Second, even if we all agree to work to not hurt one another, who are you to say what does or does not ultimately hurt someone? What makes you the authority? What makes anyone the authority? “Alright. Well, let’s just go with the majority consensus.” Okay, are you really comfortable with the majority consensus about Jewish people in mid-twentieth century Germany? Are you comfortable with the majority consensus about black people in the South in mid-nineteenth century America? Let me reiterate: logically, you CANNOT make a moral argument without an appeal to God.
So, what does God’s Word say about physicality in the discipline of children?
Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them. (Prov. 13:24)
This passage is by no means the only advice the Bible gives on parenting, but it appears the most relevant to the given case. So let’s dissect it a bit.
What’s obvious at first glance is the acknowledgment of a parent using a “rod,” what’s generally been referred to in the Peterson case as a “switch.” The assertion of the first half of this passage of wisdom literature is exactly the opposite of what many Americans would categorize as loving parenting. The writer says that if you DON’T use a rod, when necessary, to discipline your child, you HATE your child.
So, at this point, the defenders of Adrian Peterson rejoice and those who don’t like the passage conclude that the Bible is “old-fashioned,” “regressive,” and “unreliable.” Well…hold them horses….
Reading on in the passage, upon further explanation, we see that a parent who loves his child is “careful to discipline them.” How does this relate to the Peterson case? Several medical examiners evaluated Peterson’s son and found the wounds on the child to be extensive, open lacerations which the doctors deemed “child abuse.” So careful is obviously the operative word in “careful to discipline.” Was Adrian Peterson careful?
Technically the word “careful” is not in the original Hebrew text, but the idea is there. The word musar (translit.) means to chastise in order to reform behavior, for the benefit of the one receiving discipline. So the motive of the discipline is loving correction. But to what degree can physical discipline be enforced before it crosses a line from chastisement to abuse? Where does loving discipline end and out-of-control anger begin? I think we’d need to see into someone’s heart before we can say unequivocally. Since we can’t do that, in our country, we use a jury of peers. It’s not a perfect system, but perhaps the best we can do in a sinful world.
So, my point today is not whether to spank or not to spank. My point is not to suggest what the NFL should do with Adrian Peterson. My point is to encourage Christians to temper their gut reactions (and innate thoughts about parenting styles), and first carefully consider the Scriptural directives. A Christian should be able to recognize, “Well, how I was raised…” or what I think or what I feel does not make something gospel truth. In fact, a Christian who understands that he is victim to a sinful nature should actually assume that his natural instincts on moral issues are probably a click or two off from perfect.
Is it crazy to suggest I can’t even always trust my native instincts on what is right or wrong? Put differently, why should I subject my natural instincts to the authority of the Bible?
Simply this: Jesus endured the ultimate switch of discipline – the cross – upon which he received the beating we deserved for our sins. “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isa. 53:5) Without hesitation I can say that Jesus is a better, more loving, more self-sacrificial, gentler man than me or anyone I’ve met. Furthermore, as one raised from the grave, Jesus clearly has insights on human nature that surpass my understanding. Finally, Jesus repeatedly states throughout the Gospels that he upholds the Old Testament Scriptures (Luke 24:27; Matt. 5:17; Matt. 23:35). This includes our Proverbs passage. Adding this all together, I would assume Jesus’ perception of loving parenting is better than my perception, which is marred by a sinful nature. In short, I trust his Word ahead of my gut.
You cannot make a moral argument without an appeal to God. So, CHRISTIAN, the world needs your guidance. It doesn’t need your natural, gut reaction. A pagan world can produce that on its own. Instead, what the world needs is a humble, counterintuitive, nuanced, informed and thoughtful response born out of the Word that brings life (John 6:63). Graciously lead the way.