Note: This is an edited and collated version of a series of posts that I made at Free Jinger in August 2011.
For much of my life, my encounters with U.S. fundamentalist Christianity were sporadic and bewildering. I started digging into the roots of the fundamentalist mindset when I became a homeschooler and a Sunday school teacher. As many of us have discovered, fundamentalism has become prevalent in both fields of endeavor–particularly homeschooling.
Fundamentalism, of course, is not a monolithic entity, but different fundamentalist groups share many common traits. A particularly disturbing common trait is the fundamentalist use of exegesis. In short, it stinks. This incompetence exists right at the foundation: not only in interpretation, but also in basic reading comprehension. This is a disturbing thing to see in groups that insist that they are drawing their inspiration straight from the Bible.
Here is a selection from “The Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy,” which appear at the Vision Forum’s website, visionforumministries.org. I will present items 16 through 21 and examine the verses that the Vision Forum uses to support its declarations. These items cover what the Vision Forum wants parents to do in order to educate their children. I will use my Oxford Study Bible (New English Bible with Apocrypha), which was a gift from the Russian Orthodox seminary where I worked one summer–in other words, from a church with much more experience in the problems of living than the Vision Forum.
Preliminary thoughts: I also use the words “biblical,” “body of Christ,” “community of believers,” and so forth, but I do not mean what the Vision Forum means when they use them. I have at least an elementary grounding in theology, exegesis, and church history, including the great mistakes and failed experiments of various communities of believers. People who are searching for answers and stumble over this stuff without having the tools needed to discern the traps–no wonder they’re taken in.
16. Education is not a neutral enterprise. Christian parents must provide their children with a thoroughly Christian education, one that teaches the Bible and a biblical view of God and the world. Christians should not send their children to public schools since education is not a God-ordained function of civil government and since these schools are sub-Christian at best and anti-Christian at worst. (Deut. 4:9; 6:6-9; Rom. 13:3-5; Eph. 6:4; 2 Tim. 3:15)
17. Fathers are sovereign over the training of their children and, with their wives, are the children’s chief teachers. Christian parents are bound to obey the command personally to walk beside and train their children. Any approach to Christian education ought to recognize and facilitate the role of fathers and mothers as the primary teachers of their children. (Deut. 4:9; 6:6ff.; Ps. 78:3-8; Prov. 1:8; Eph. 6:4; [sic])
First come two short quotations from the same section of Deuteronomy. Deut. 4:9: But take care: keep careful watch on yourselves so that you do not forget the things that you have seen with your own eyes; do not let them pass from your minds as long as you live, but teach them to your children and to your children’s children. Extracted from the first discourse of Moses, in which he introduces the Law to Israel. Here are verses 7-8: What great nation has a god close at hand as the Lord our God is close to us whenever we call to him? What great nation is there whose statutes and laws are so just, as is all this code of laws which I am setting before you today? (Hint: Who is Moses talking to?) Verses 10 ff. retell the events at Mount Horeb–the story that the Jews are to pass on “to your children and to your children’s children.” But the Vision Forum skips ahead to Deut. 6:6-9: These commandments which I give you this day are to be remembered and taken to heart; repeat them to your children, and speak of them both indoors and out of doors, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign upon your hand and wear them as a pendant on your forehead; write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates. This passage is from Moses’ second discourse and comes right after the Ten Commandments and the Two Greatest Commandments. Both passages are quoted to support Tenet 16, which begins, “Christian parents must provide their children with a thoroughly Christian education, one that teaches the Bible and a biblical view of God and the world.” So far, so good–if we ignore the assumptions in the rest of Tenet 16.
Rom. 13:3-5: Governments hold no terrors for the law-abiding but only for the criminal. You wish to have no fear of the authorities? Then continue to do right and you will have their approval, for they are God’s agents working for your good. But if you are doing wrong, then you will have cause to fear them; it is not for nothing that they hold the power of the sword, for they are God’s agents of punishment bringing retribution on the offender. That is why you are obliged to submit. It is an obligation imposed not merely by fear of retribution but by conscience. An extract from Paul’s advice to the believers in Rome about how Christians ought to live in the general culture. The passage containing these verses begins, Every person must submit to the authorities in power, for all authority comes from God (13:1). Verse 6 continues the theme by requiring Christians to pay taxes. The Vision Forum cites verses 3-5 to support Tenet 16, which asserts that “education is not a God-ordained function of civil government.” Is the assumption here that because the authorities are referred to as exercising a judicial function, but not an educational function, then the educational function is not their proper sphere? The Bible doesn’t mention governments building roads either; does the Vision Forum tell people not to use public highways?
Eph. 6:4: Fathers, do not goad your children to resentment, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Extracted from Paul’s advice to believers about Christian relationships. Cited to support the Vision Forum’s assertion that education should be “Biblical.” Certainly, but why does this mean that “Christians should not send their children to public schools?” And how can an irreligious subject such as trig be made “Biblical?” Does labeling a textbook “Now With More Bible Verses!”–yes, I have seen this–really turn it into “the discipline and instruction of the Lord?” And why should it be anyway? Is there not a time for every purpose under Heaven?
2 Tim. 3:15: . . . remember that from early childhood you have been familiar with the sacred writings which have power to make you wise and lead you to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Extracted from Paul’s attempt to encourage someone who is facing persecution. Cited by the Vision Forum, once again, to show that all education must be “Biblical” and private. Verses 16-17 explain what the Bible is for (in Paul’s view): All inspired scripture has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, or for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man of God may be capable and equipped for good work of every kind. Yes, and public school is for teaching trig. Why does the existence of Biblical education have to obliterate the other kind? The passage continues with a warning against the time when people will not stand sound teaching, but will follow his own whim and gather a crowd of teachers to tickle his fancy. They will stop their ears to the truth and turn to fables. (vv. 3-4) Something else that struck me when I first started looking into fundamentalism was the general denial of the basic tools of thought–logic, debate, fact-checking–as well as the many centuries of sound teaching that have arisen from the use of these tools. I think the common fundamentalist adherence to the King James Version above all others stems from the same source. Refusing to learn how to read the Bible in the original languages, and clinging to a translation so old that many of the words have changed meaning in our own language, enables self-serving preachers to read into the Word of God whatever they wish to see. And they teach others, who believe in good faith, because they have never been given the tools they need to ask the questions that would point out the holes in the foundation.
One more thing: I couldn’t have told you the religion of a single one of my teachers at public school. The question did not come up, ever. My American History and Literature (double period) teacher explained the currents in Christian thought in the U.S. during various periods in history because so many of the authors we studied were writing as Christians and we needed to understand where they were coming from. He did not make value judgments about Christianity, although he expected us to clearly express our own opinions in well-written essays. Not once did I ever hear a word critical of Christianity or supportive of any other religion or of a lack of religion for that matter. Not once in thirteen years.
Ps. 78:3-8, part of the introduction to a historical psalm, alludes to Moses’ instructions to Israel in the two passages from Deuteronomy quoted above. The psalm recounts the Exodus and the unfaithfulness of succeeding generations in the Promised Land. The Vision Forum cites verses 3-8 to support their assertions that “Fathers are sovereign over the training of their children” (what is this obsession with human sovereignty and dominion?) and that “the Bible presents a long-term, multi-generational vision of the progress of God’s kingdom in the world.” In a general sense, this is true–but I do not think those words mean what the Vision Forum thinks they mean. Also, why use a selection from a psalm about backsliding in the Promised Land to support the assertion that “the next generation will build upon the faith and improve upon the faithfulness of their parents?”
Prov. 1:8: Attend, my son, to your father’s instruction, and do not reject your mother’s teaching . . . Extracted from the introduction to the proverbs of Solomon. The Vision Forum stretches this verse to mean that fathers “are sovereign over the training of their children” and that fathers and mothers must be “the primary teachers of their children.” I note that Proverbs is primarily concerned with wisdom, right use of authority, and understanding of human nature. Naturally a child’s parents or other primary caregivers will be that child’s first teachers in wisdom, discernment, and justice. But, again (and again and again), what does this have to do with trig?
18. Educational methodology is not neutral. The Christian should build his educational methodology from the word of God and reject methodologies derived from humanism, evolutionism, and other unbiblical systems of thought. Biblical education is discipleship, a process designed to reach the heart. The aim is a transformed person who exhibits godly character and a trained mind, both of which arise from faith. The parents are crucial and ordinarily irreplaceable in this heart-level, relational process. (Deut. 6:5-7; Lk. 6:40; 1 Thess. 2:7-12; 2 Tim. 1:5; 2 Pet. 1:5-8)
Deut. 6:5-7: . . . and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments which I give you this day are to be remembered and taken to heart; repeat them to your children, and speak of them both indoors and out of doors, when you lie down and when you get up. One of the Two Greatest Commandments with part of Moses’ exhortation regarding the Law, previously quoted. From this the Vision Forum makes the assumption that parents are primary in all education (yet again).
Lk. 6:40: No pupil ranks above his teacher; fully trained he can but reach his teacher’s level. This is Jesus explaining one of His own parables (v.39): Can one blind man guide another? Will not both fall into the ditch? The Vision Forum quotes v.40 as if it referred to antagonism between “Biblical education” and “humanism, evolutionism, and other unbiblical systems of thought.” It is certainly arguable that the 19th-century concept of evolutionism (which is not evolutionary theory as a whole) and some of the assorted concepts that have gone by the name humanism since the Renaissance are contrary to the truths expressed in the Bible. It is also arguable that they are not. But not via this verse.
A final thought about “Biblical” vs. “unbiblical” home education: The 19th century Americans who many Vision Forum members and followers venerate depended on books for answers to problems of daily life, such as what to teach to children. They weren’t the books of the Bible. They used books with names like Pleasant Pages and Practical Housekeeping. What verses, if any, these books quoted generally had to do with character. They did not attempt to connect every detail of children’s education to a Bible verse pried out of its place and stretched to fit. Trying to use the Bible as a home cyclopedia is like prying apart a car because you need a part to fix the motor in your blender. The car is supposed to be taking you somewhere.
1 Thess. 2: 7-12: . . . although as Christ’s own envoys we might have made our weight felt; but we were as gentle with you as a nurse caring for her children. Our affection was so deep that we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but our very selves; that is how dear you had become to us! You remember, my friends, our toil and drudgery; night and day we worked for a living, rather than be a burden to any of you while we proclaimed to you the good news of God. We call you to witness, yes, and God himself, how devout and just and blameless was our conduct towards you who are believers. As you well know, we dealt with each one of you as a father deals with his children; we appealed to you, we encouraged you, we urged you, to live lives worthy of the God who calls you into his kingdom and glory. Extracted from Paul’s assertions about his and his fellow missionaries’ conduct when they stayed with the believers in Thessalonica. I note two things here. First, Paul holds up as proof of his good intent the fact that he “worked for a living,” which did not involve accepting money from the believers. Second, Paul assumed certain things about the conduct of parents. A woman caring for her children is “gentle;” a father (tenses changed) “appeals,” “encourages,” and “urges” his children toward the right way. The Vision Forum, typically, cites this passage to support their assumptions about “educational methodology.” Are they gentle? Do they appeal, encourage, and urge children toward the right way? What happens to people raised in VF families who refuse to fall into their assigned places in their parents’ multi-generational vision?
More on conduct of parents toward children when I finally get to the citations from Proverbs.
2 Tim. 1:5: I am reminded of the sincerity of your faith, a faith which was alive in Lois your grandmother and Eunice your mother before you, and which, I am confident, now lives in you. Paul to Timothy again, this time from the beginning of the letter about bearing up in times of persecution. From this verse the Vision Forum extracts the idea that “Biblical education is discipleship.” Once again, the words are true according to general understanding, but the Vision Forum applies them in a highly specific way that requires following a lot of assumptions down a rabbit hole. This verse is a good jumping-off point for unpacking the Vision Forum’s own words.
“Biblical education is discipleship.” Teachers described in various books of the Bible did take disciples. Discipleship is a closer relationship than studenthood: almost familial. However, what the Vision Forum calls “Biblical education” is not the kind of education described in the Bible and their vision of discipleship is something else as well. “A process designed to reach the heart.” Hopefully, if the teacher loves his or her subject, the disciple will come to understand that love even if he or she doesn’t share it; however, “reaching the heart” has a different emotional weight in Vision Forum literature, more like “eliciting compliance.”
“The aim is a transformed person who exhibits godly character.” Paul emphasizes character formation in the other passage from this letter quoted here, but not transformation. Transformation comes through repentance, not through a course of study. And in order to be transformed by any means, a person has to have been formed in the first place. Speaking of transformation in children is–well, it’s of a piece with the adversarial, punitive, coercive, intrusive, and blasphemous child training methods embraced by fundamentalists, in my opinion. Instead of adults repenting and being transformed, children are the targets of transformation and by implication the reservoirs of sin. More on the blasphemousness of this in a moment.
“And a trained mind.” Using the Bible as a mental training handbook leads one back to the metaphor of ripping apart a car in order to fix a blender. Courses in logic train the mind. Playing Lotto trains the mind. Using the Bible as a mental training handbook is aiming too low. In any case, using the Bible as a set of thought-stoppers is closer to what fundamentalists do with it: training the mind to stay quietly on its blanket, never exploring the living world beyond the arbitrary boundary.
“Which arise from faith.” Faith and reason share a common kingdom, but strike out for different borders. Faith is for the things that reason cannot parse; the trained mind still has limits. On the other hand, what reason can comprehend must be the domain of reason. Even untrained, stunted reason balks at being asked to accept what it can disprove. Forcing the issue–demanding that reason be subordinated to faith in its own province–produces cognitive dissonance. Or, without the psychological jargon, it messes up a person’s head. Unfortunately, this is a common outcome of making a child’s entire education into a faith issue, at least judging from the accounts of ex-fundamentalists.
“The parents are crucial.” Yes, every child needs parents–born, chosen, whatever.
“And ordinarily irreplaceable.” I hope not because otherwise people who lose their parents are pretty much out of–
“In this heart-level, relational process.” Stop!
“This heart-level, relational process” whose aim is “a transformed person” is not the business of human beings. It cannot be diagnosed by watching for a predefined exhibition of “godly character.” It is “a heart-level, relational process” in the control of the only One who can see into individual hearts. We can place our children in the midst of knowledge; we can appeal, encourage, and urge. We cannot reach into their hearts and transform them. We cannot put ourselves into the place of God Almighty. To believe otherwise is blasphemy.
Make disciples of our children? I certainly hope so. Train their minds? Absolutely; God gave us reason, so we should make good use of it. Teach them Scripture? Yes, of course. But that is as far as we can go. No “educational methodology” can assure us that they will always make the right choices. No amount of repetition of verses can assure “godly character.” We can train children to exhibit the right responses on demand; we can stunt their ability to think so that they don’t ask the wrong questions: we can render our children rootbound, try to clip the wings of their souls to keep them in the places we assign. Or we can trust God to do what is not possible for human beings and keep in mind that nobody else’s heart is within our dominion.
Onward! This has been quite a slog for me, so thanks to everyone who has kept reading.
2 Pet. 1:5-8: With all this in view, you should make every effort to add virtue to your faith, knowledge to virtue, self-control to knowledge, fortitude to self-control, piety to fortitude, brotherly affection to piety, and love to brotherly affection. If you possess and develop these gifts, you will grow actively and effectively in knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Extracted from a discussion about how Christians ought to live while awaiting Christ’s return. “All this” is the gifts and promises of God. Once again, discussion of spiritual renewal among adults is enslaved to discussion of “educational methodology” and the “transformation” of children who do not get to consent.
So much for educational methodology. Now for the educational mandate.
19. Since the educational mandate belongs to parents and they are commanded personally to walk beside and train their children, they ought not to transfer responsibility for the educational process to others. However, they have the liberty to delegate components of that process. While they should exercise great caution and reserve in doing this, and the more so the less mature the child, it is prudent to take advantage of the diversity of gifts within the body of Christ and enjoy the help and support that comes with being part of a larger community with a common purpose. (1 Cor. 12:14ff.; Gal. 4:1,2; 6:2; Eph. 4:16)
20. The age-integrated communities of family and church are the God-ordained institutions for training and socialization and as such provide the preferred pattern for social life and educational endeavors. The modern preference for grouping children exclusively with their age mates for educational and social purposes is contrary to scriptural wisdom and example. (Deut. 29:10-11; 2 Chron. 20:13; Prov. 22:15 with 13:20; Joel 2:16; 1 Cor. 15:33)
21. The Bible presents a long-term, multi-generational vision of the progress of God’s kingdom in the world. Christian parents need to adopt this perspective and be motivated by the generational promises of Scripture, and church shepherds need to promote this outlook within their flocks. By the grace of God, as fathers faithfully turn their hearts toward their sons and daughters and the youths respond in kind, the next generation will build upon the faith and improve upon the faithfulness of their parents. (Ps. 78:1-8; Is. 59:21; Mal. 4:6; Lk. 1:17; Gal. 6:9)
1 Cor. 12:14ff.: Selected from a discourse by Paul about spiritual gifts. The Vision Forum quote actually starts in the middle of the discourse, but Paul tends to repeat himself, so I will begin at verse 14 as well.
A body is not a single organ, but many. Suppose the foot were to say, “Because I am a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it belongs to the body none the less. Suppose the ear were to say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it still belongs to the body. If the body were all eye, how could it hear? If the body were all ear, how could it smell? But, in fact, God appointed each limb and organ to its own place in the body as he chose. If the whole were a single organ, there would not be a body at all; in fact, however, there are many different organs, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” or the head to the feet, “I do not need you.” Quite the contrary: those parts of the body which seem to be more frail than others are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we regard as less honorable are treated with special honor. The parts we are modest about are treated with special respect, whereas our respectable parts have no such need. But God has combined the various parts of the body, giving special honor to the humbler parts, so that there might be no division in the body, but that all its parts might feel the same concern for one another. If one part suffers, all suffer together; if one flourishes, all rejoice together.
Now you are Christ’s body, and each of you a limb or organ of it. Within our community God has appointed in the first place apostles, in the second place prophets, thirdly teachers; then miracle-workers, then those who have gifts of healing, or ability to help others or power to guide them, or the gift of tongues of various kinds. Are all apostles? All prophets? All teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues of ecstasy? Do all have the power to interpret them?
The higher gifts are the ones you should prize. But I can show you an even better way.
Paul then goes on to assert that no spiritual gift or deed of charity means anything if exercised without love and moves into a discussion about love itself–the one that begins “Love is patient, love is kind.”
The Vision Forum uses this meditation on the nature of Christian community to allow parents an out from its previously declared “educational mandate.” Parents can “delegate” teaching to other people, but they are to make sure that any teachers besides themselves are Christian. First of all, does Paul actually say anything about an educational mandate? I note that he recognizes the gift of teaching in some, not in all, and furthermore he has no problem with that. He does not say that the people who can teach are all parents of school-age children or that all parents of school-age children can or must be teachers. It is likely that he is speaking specifically of the gift of teaching religion, but since the Vision Forum treats all education as if it were religious education, my point stands.
As for requiring all teachers to be Christian regardless of topic, Paul never speaks of it. Paul quotes from at least one pagan poet in support of his arguments about conduct (more on this later). If he values pagan teaching about conduct, what does this imply? If we are to quote Paul, perhaps we should pay attention to what Paul is actually saying. And if we don’t want to use Paul’s words in support of religious tests for schoolteachers, we’re stuck; no other writer of the New Testament comes even this close to the topic. Or perhaps we could exercise discernment instead of trying to use the Bible as a home cyclopedia. And discernment begins with the evidence of the senses.
I already wrote about my experiences with criticism of Christianity in thirteen years of public school. In short, there was none; in fact we explored Christianity in order to better understand Christian writers. Along the way we discussed honor, self-sacrifice, charity, mercy, and many other virtues. But of course, that isn’t enough to satisfy critics who write about parents’ “liberty” to be anxious about the religious background of public school teachers. When I read the Vision Forum’s dire warnings about what could happen if parents send their children to public school, I am reminded of what Father Andrew Greeley says about certain Catholics of his acquaintance. In paraphrase: They only recognize as truth certain things said in a certain exact way. Say the same thing in a different way and it’s just meaningless mouth noise at best and anti-Christian at worst. Discernment is reduced to running down a checklist of shibboleths.
I have taken a good long look at what the Vision Forum defines as Christian and I don’t think it has anything to do with growing into the measure of the fullness of the stature of Christ. It has more to do with the bed of Procrustes, or that horrible lying fable about breaking the lamb’s leg. I may be straying, but at least I’m not crippled in the name of God.
Gal. 4:1,2: This is what I mean: so long as the heir is a minor, he is no better off than a slave, even though the whole estate is his; he is subject to guardians and trustees until the date set by his father. Extracted from Paul on life under the Law vs. life in the grace of Christ. The Vision Forum quotes this as if it were a support of the educational mandate. But it describes Paul’s opinion of life without grace.
Gal. 6:2: Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. From another discourse in Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia, this one about living under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. For once the Vision Forum gets it right. “The help and support that comes with being part of a larger community with a common purpose” is part of the Godly life and this quotation supports that assertion. But this doesn’t have anything to do with who is supposed to teach reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.
Eph. 4:16: . . . and on him the whole body depends. Bonded and held together by every constituent joint, the whole frame grows through the proper functioning of each part, and builds itself up in love. Paul really likes the theme of the Church as the body of Christ; this extract is part of a discourse on how Christians should treat one another. Here is the rest of the broken sentence and the one to which it refers (verses 14-15): We are no longer to be children, tossed about by the waves and whirled around by every fresh gust of teaching, dupes of cunning rogues and their deceitful schemes. Rather we are to maintain the truth in a spirit of love; so shall we fully grow up into Christ. He is the head . . . Let the one who has ears, hear.
Next we come to a set of verses that illustrate two persistent shortcomings of the Vision Forum’s treatment of the Bible: confusing description with prescription and confusing situational with universal.
Deut. 29:10-11, 2 Chron. 20:13, and Joel 2:16 all refer to the whole people of Israel gathering together: all ages, both genders, and all walks of life. In Deuteronomy, Moses is making a speech to the people who he sees standing before him, ready to receive God’s covenant. In 2 Chronicles, King Jehoshaphat is leading “the people of Judah and Jerusalem” in prayer at the Temple on the eve of battle. The passage in Joel refers to the community’s response to a plague of locusts, which is interpreted as the wrath of God; they gather together to pray, fast, weep, and repent of sin. From these verses the Vision Forum argues that “The age-integrated communities of family and church are the God-ordained institutions for training and socialization” and that these descriptions of community assemblies are “a multi-generational vision of the progress of God’s kingdom in the world.” I would argue rather that these verses illustrate how people have always sought one another’s company when something that affected the whole community was happening–but I didn’t buy my glasses from the Vision Forum.
I took the preceding three verses out of the sequence in which the Vision Forum presents them because they go together, but also because a verse in the middle of the sequence really should be considered separately. This is one of the so-called rod verses in Proverbs.
So, the next verses cited are Proverbs 22:15 “with 13:20.” Proverbs is generally accepted in mainstream churches as a collection of pragmatic observations about human nature combined with meditation on how to be the best people we can be. Proverbs 22:15, in the translation I am using, reads, Folly is deep-rooted in the hearts of children; a good beating will drive it out of them. This is one of the (in)famous “rod verses,” which are cited in support of hitting children. (I know that there are various euphemisms applied to hitting children. But I prefer to call a spade a spade.) Hitting children is supposed to make them wiser, better people, child training experts say, pointing to this verse.
Wait a minute. Even we wishy-washy context-citing types accept that the Bible expresses unified themes about God, humanity, and so forth. So why is Paul, who knows the Hebrew Bible inside and out, talking about mothers treating children gently and fathers encouraging and urging children toward the truth? Why does he warn against provoking children to resentment? Why does Jesus Himself threaten dire consequences to whoever makes a little child “stumble?” And if childhood is supposed to be a faulty state out of which one must be beaten, why does Jesus say that believers must “become as little children” in order to enter the Kingdom? Even Paul, when he speaks of childhood as lacking, portrays leaving childhood as a process of growth: “putting away childish things” when one becomes an adult, not before.
Historically, apparent contradictions within the Bible have been resolved in several ways:
1. Declaring an entire book noncanonical–the fate of the Gnostic Gospels.
2. Accepting that the Bible is the human record of divine revelation and as such also a reflection of the flawed humanity of its writers.
3. Rechecking the translation.
4. Living with cognitive dissonance and trying not to think about it.
Some authorities have chosen option 2 when dealing with dissonant values expressed in Proverbs and elsewhere in the Bible. I accepted this until I ran across an analysis of the original Hebrew here. In short, the verse should read (paraphrase): Behaving as if one didn’t know any better when one actually does is a failure of adults, not children; disciplining children keeps this failure from becoming active in their hearts. IOW, discipline your children–make disciples of them, teach them–before they are old enough to get into serious spiritual trouble and they will not become “fools.” Applying this verse as if children are already “fools” and beating will make them wise amounts to reading things into the Bible that are not there. There is a long tradition in Western culture of violence toward those under our authority, with special cruelty reserved for children (see For Your Own Good by Alice Miller). Trying to find justification for a bad tradition in our holy book is a natural failing, but a failing nonetheless.
The verse that is taken “with” the above, 13:20, reads, Walk with the wise and learn wisdom; mix with the stupid and come to harm. Once again, advice to adults is applied to children, this time to denigrate the practice of putting children in classes with their agemates “contrary to scriptural wisdom and example.” Educator Charlotte Mason also spoke against the practice of grouping children by calendar age, but on the grounds that children who are the same in age are not necessarily the same in ability or in needs, and also that they will not be mixing exclusively with their agemates as adults, which defeats the purpose of school as preparation for capable adulthood. Note that although she had the Bible read in her schools regularly (KJV even!), she did not feel the need to drag a misapplied Bible verse into her argument–and she did not justify her opinion by calling children stupid. It is possible to reach the same conclusion by charitable and uncharitable means. We are to choose charity.
1 Cor. 15:33: Make no mistake: “Bad company ruins good character.” Paul again, quoting the Greek poet Menander–a pagan–although he does not bother to note this in his letter, as if it weren’t an issue. What’s more, he is quoting Menander in support of an argument about Christian conduct, specifically not associating with people who say that there is no resurrection of the dead. The Vision Forum quotes this pagan poet in support of keeping children out of age-graded classrooms. Children are stupid, children are bad company, children are fools . . . I sense a theme.
Now, and last, we turn to the “multi-generational vision of the progress of God’s kingdom in the world” that the Bible is supposed to present. First the Vision Forum cites the beginning of Psalm 78 again. As I wrote above, this is a historical psalm about the Exodus and backsliding among the descendants of those who attained the Promised Land. The psalmist alludes to Moses’ charge to the witnesses at Mount Horeb, to pass on the stories of the events that formed Israel into a nation. Indeed, any culture is founded on the stories people tell. This particular story, however, is not exactly about “the next generation [building] upon the faith and [improving] upon the faithfulness of their parents.” The Bible was divided into chapters and verses relatively recently, purely as a navigational aid. Analyzing verses in isolation puts us in the same predicament as the fabled blind men trying to describe an elephant.
Isaiah 59:21: This, says the Lord, is my covenant, which I make with them: My spirit which rests on you and my words which I have put into your mouth will never fail you from generation to generation of your descendants from now on, for evermore. The Lord has said it. The editors of this Bible translation suggest that Isaiah 59 really is a discrete unit (this isn’t always the case with Bible chapters!) that amounts to a liturgy of repentance. Verse 21 is the very end, the closing benediction. The initial call for repentance (verses 1-15) paints a picture of a wholly corrupt society: Your hands are stained with blood and your fingers with crime . . . no one sues with just cause, no one makes an honest plea in court . . . their schemes are harmful and leave a trail of havoc and ruin . . . all the ways they choose to walk are crooked; no one who walks in them feels safe . . . we have relapsed and forsaken our God; we have conceived lies in our hearts and repeated them in slanderous and treacherous words. The overarching theme is that the people do not act with justice and so no justice comes to them. Again, this is hardly about a “multi-generational vision” of each generation perfecting the next.
Malachi 4:6: He will reconcile parents to their children and children to their parents, lest I come and put the land under a ban to destroy it. “He” is the prophet Elijah, who is prophesied to return, and the speaker is the Lord. This is the last line of the prophecy of Malachi regarding the struggle that stands before the people who have returned from Babylonian captivity. No longer able to define themselves as a people with a monarch, they must learn how to define themselves by the word of God as passed down to them in Scripture. Malachi also looks for a coming day of judgment. Lk. 1:17 alludes to Malachi’s prophecy of the return of Elijah. An angel is speaking to Zechariah about the impending birth of his son John: He will go before him as forerunner, possessed by the spirit and power of Elijah, to reconcile father and child, to convert the rebellious to the ways of the righteous, to prepare a people that shall be fit for the Lord. Both verses are cited to support the triumphalist “multi-generational vision,” but the passages they come from describe a people in need of renewal.
And here we are at the end. The Vision Forum quotes once again from a discourse on Christian life in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. I will quote the entire passage, Gal. 2:7-10, which is the end of an appeal for mutual charity and generosity. The snippet the Vision Forum uses to support its multi-generational vision is set off in boldface. Make no mistake about this: God is not to be fooled; everyone reaps what he sows. If he sows in the field of his unspiritual nature, he will reap from it a harvest of corruption; but if he sows in the field of the Spirit, he will reap from it a harvest of eternal life. Let us never tire of doing good, for if we do not slacken our efforts we shall in due time reap our harvest. Therefore, as opportunity offers, let us work for the good of all, especially members of the household of the faith. Paul earlier (5:22-23) describes the harvest of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
This is what Paul exhorts the people to work for. What does the Vision Forum say it wants? It wants “the generational promises of Scripture.” But the passages it cites to prove that there are such “generational promises” turn out to be about promises to Israel conditional upon keeping the Law–the whole Law, not just the bits modern fundamentalists favor–calls for repentance and renewal, simple description of a past event, or advice about living with other people. What do the cited passages actually say about teaching children? They say to discipline our children–that is, to treat them like disciples. They talk about being gentle with children, urging them toward the right way, and telling them good stories. Not about improving them in some kind of spiritual eugenics program. We each answer to God for our own actions. Not for the actions of our parents. Not for the actions of our children.
Thanks for reading.