Are Pro-Spanking Christians Feckless or Faithful? A Response to Jonathan Merritt

by
September 25, 2014

Jonathan Merritt responds to my critique of his article “Christians have no moral rationale for spanking their children” by asserting, “my argument is not that the Bible forbids spanking.” I am glad to hear it but he sure seemed to be arguing the Bible forbids it in the first article when he referred to Christians who practice corporal discipline as “belt-swinging believers,” “hell-bent on hitting” children who are embracing a “false gospel of spanking.” Merritt’s first article ended,

If you’re a conservative Christian who is hell-bent on hitting your kids, just accept that science has done all it can to wave red flags. The Bible is not to blame for the damage you’ve done to the pink-faced child who thinks you hung the moon. Jesus has nothing to do with it. It’s your fault.

So Merritt is saying corporal discipline damages children, it is contrary to the Bible, Jesus has nothing to do with it, but the Bible does not forbid it? In the response to my critique he adds that it “increases the risk of child abuse, and can cause emotional and psychological damage.” Nevertheless, he clarifies that he is not saying that the Bible forbids it, but simply “that spanking is not advisable.” It sure seems like Merritt is refuting himself.

Merritt asks, “So why is Prince so concerned with conforming to the “majority opinion? It’s difficult to say.” I am pleased to answer the question. I referred to the majority opinion of evangelical biblical scholars because one of the things so troubling in his first piece was his willingness to dismiss the majority opinion in one-sentence without even acknowledging the scholarly evangelical consensus. Merritt has every right to disagree but since he wrote a public piece to persuade others I think it is important to note that he and Michael Eric Dyson hold a position largely at odds with evangelical scholars.

Merritt also asserts, “He may not be bowing to modern culture, but this article appears to genuflect to evangelical culture. The latter is no more noble than the former.” To this charge I plead guilty (well, except for the genuflecting part). Unlike Merritt, I do not equate the majority report of modern culture with the majority report of evangelical biblical scholars. My commitment to the Bible as God’s authoritative and inerrant word convinces me that would be feckless and not faithful.

In Merritt’s response to my critique he mentions my colleague Thomas Schreiner’s review of William Webb’s Corporal Punishment in the Bible where he said he feared Webb was “domesticating the Bible to fit modern conceptions.” While I agree with Schreiner’s observation regarding Webb’s book I would say that at least Webb’s book offers a sustained and comprehensive argument with due acknowledgement of majority scholarship. When I say, “Merritt is domesticating Scripture to fit the prevailing spirit of the age” he asks, “Sound familiar?” He then proceeds to refer to the domestication charge as a “textbook marginalization tactic used by religious and political partisans: drag out a boogeyman from under the bed to send people running.” Or it could be that he, Webb and others are domesticating Scripture to fit modern conceptions and the prevailing spirit of the age.

Merritt and I agree that “whether a majority supports a belief is irrelevant to whether or not that belief is true.” Though the longstanding testimony of the evangelical church should be factored into the discussion and taken seriously. He also wonders why I did not reference the editors of Christianity Today editorializing against corporal discipline. Well, I was responding to his article and he did not mention them. His only appeals in the article were to Michael Eric Dyson and social scientists to conclude, “Pro-spanking Christians justify their position by pointing to a Proverbs passage they clearly don’t understand, or by ignoring the entire New Testament and Jesus’ teachings.”

J. Gresham Machen once warned about people who attempt to pit the words of Jesus against other parts of Scripture. He wrote,

[They] represent those elements in the teaching of Jesus—isolated and misinterpreted—which happen to agree with the modern program. It is not Jesus, then, who is the real authority, but the modern principle by which the selection within Jesus’ recorded teaching has been made. Certain isolated ethical principles of the Sermon on the Mount are accepted, not at all because they are the teachings of Jesus, but because they agree with modern ideas” (Christianity and Liberalism, 77-78).

It does not bother me that Jonathan Merritt opposes corporal discipline or is making a case against it. But it does bother me that he is attempting to co-opt Jesus to do it. It also bothers me when countless faithful, Gospel-loving Christian parents are told they are embracing a “false gospel of spanking,” when they are actually loving their children and pointing them to Christ (Prov 3:10-11, 29:15 Heb 12:5-11).

 


David E. Prince
David E. Prince is the pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church and a professor of Christian preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.