Monday, September 18, 2006

Disciplinary Measures

In the spirit of laying my own prejudices on the table, I should note that I've been a fan of using lectionaries for a long time, certainly long before I decided to start a podcast centering on one. When asked to give a sermon for a local congregation, I've tended to argue that I like the idea of having something outside of myself determine the text I am to use, to help ensure an extra layer of protection against bringing my own agendas to the sermon, preaching simply on what I want to preach. I do not argue that I can ever be totally free of such personal agenda, but I believe that the lectionary helps to guard against that.

For this reason, I've always been somewhat mistrusting of "topical" sermons, although perhaps not entirely fairly. A topical sermon does allow a preacher to be responsive to the needs of the church community. But to me, topical sermons have always tended to sound too much like "proof-texting," and long experience has shown that a preacher can find Biblical texts to say almost anything he/she (although usually he) wants to say.

This past weekend, I went to a church in a different tradition to meet up with an old friend (in case that friend reads this, I should point out right now that he knows that I have different opinions on some of these matters, and I have always been thankful for his forbearance. If he or anyone else chooses to respond in defense of the kind of thing I will argue against, they should feel free). This church was apparently in the middle of a sermon series on "the family." Although I did not hear any sermons other than the one, it seems that other sermons in this series detailed roles for each of the members of the family: the father, the mother, etc. This particular sermon was dedicated to encouraging parents to discipline their children. This message was accompanied by probably close to a dozen different Scripture passages not only instructing parents to discipline their children, but declaring the consequences of failing to do so.

In truth, I do not think that I actually disagree with anything that was said in this message. As the preacher said, "[We] need to be aware that these verses are in Scripture," and I am not trying to suggest that they don't mean what the preacher said they meant. My problem is more that I think the sermon overstated the case. It perceives this vast majority of people who refuse to discipline their children. Although the instances of such disciplines as spanking are undoubtedly fewer than they might have been in another era, I simply do not believe discipline, per se, is as virtually non-existent as the sermon would have had me think.

The preacher also tried to be responsible enough to say that spanking was a discipline of last resort, and that it should only be done out of love, and never out of anger. He also was responsible enough to note that foster parents (there was a call earlier in the service for Christians to become foster parents, a call with which I heartily agree) should never spank their children, not only because it was illegal, but because so many of those children come from abusive backgrounds, where a spanking could have tragic repercussions.

But I never did hear proper examples of what other kinds of discipline were to be exercised. If spanking is a last resort, what should be tried first? All too often, I hear people give lip-service to this kind of thing ("spanking is only a last resort," or "war is only a last resort after diplomacy has failed"), but when it comes down to reality, these "last resorts" are performed well before other options that might have been tried. In my opinion, more often than not, this simply comes down to a failure of the imagination. It's not that parents think spanking really isn't a last resort, it's that they don't know what else to try. If a sermon is going to encourage parents to discipline children, it is imperative that creative options be shown as examples. Simply telling parents "spanking is a last resort" is wholly insufficient.

But that brings us back to the question of whether or not this kind of sermon was really necessary in the first place. A whole sermon devoted to telling parents that they need to be willing to discipline their children, under the assumption that few parents these days do so?

I think the real problem I had with the message was something well beyond the details of the message itself. A picture was painted of Christians needing to "dig in our heels" and stand up for Christian ideals over and opposed to "the world" (including, explicitly, government. This is despite the fact that we currently have the most "Christian-friendly" government in years!) that is out to destroy civilization as we know it. Yes, Christians need to be different than non-Christians. We are "salt and light," so to speak, so that the world might see a better way. But I think this view (implicit, if not explicit) that non-Christians are the "enemy" is counter-productive. This "us vs. them" mindset will only hinder us in our ability to teach non-Christians about the love of Christ.

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