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Sighting the Nonexistent

Do the doctrines of sin and obedience to God lead to child abuse?

Martin Marty's Sightings column is typically worth reading. After the decades he has spent as a religion scholar, his columns will educate nearly every reader.

Unfortunately half of Sightings columns are written by guests, and these tend toward infuriating rather than instructive. Today's column (not yet online [Update 5/4:It's up now]) by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore is about spanking. She leads with the story of parents at Remnant Fellowship Church in Brentwood, Tennessee, who spanked their child, Josef Smith, to death and are now serving life sentences.

She says Remnant's "religious leader Gwen Shamblin encourages parents to spank their children, describing corporal punishment as a 'time-tested, ancient teaching of the Bible' necessary to shaping adherence to God's authority." Miller-McLemore fails to note that Remnant Fellowship is not a mainstream evangelical church, but tends toward aberrant Christian sect.

Miller-McLemore then criticizes critics of spanking, who call such disciplinary methods child abuse. She notes that sociological research "documents increased affection and paternal involvement as positively related to an emphasis on children's submission to parental authority and use of corporal punishment." And she says Christians should be wary of both the anti-spanking and pro-spanking groups. Miller-McLemore is right when she concludes, "For Christians, discipline means fostering conditions that induce a desire to love God and seek the good of others."

But Miller-McLemore is confused when she writes,

News about Josef Smith's death powerfully reminds us just how hazardous careless use of Christian proclamation can be, especially as it impacts those least able to protect themselves and most dependent on adult benevolence. Fervent promotion of doctrines about sin, obedience, and bending the will to God have had and can have devastating consequences.

Miller-McLemore does admit, "seeing children as sinful does not de facto lead to their harsh punishment." And she says Calvin and Augustine did not condone coporal punishment but found spiritual capacity in children.

Yet, she seems to see these examples as exceptions from the rule that "doctrines about sin, obedience, and bending the will to God" lead to abuse. In fact disregard for such doctrines has had far worse consequences. The idea that all people are sinful, children included, does not lead to abuse. If parents fail to apply the doctrines to themselves or find in them an excuse to abuse their children, it's no condemnation of the doctrine.

Miller-McLemore concludes, "For children in particular, what people believe about Jesus or God – whether God demands obedience or offers love – matters." She seems to be unable to consider that God both demands obedience and offers love. Parents too can demand obedience and enforce their demands with discipline while also tenderly loving their children.

Child abuse may be tied to bad or heretical doctrine, but it is not the result of classic Christian doctrines of sin and obedience to God. Ignoring those doctrines (especially when professing not to) is dangerous not just for children but for us all.

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