Do your church members physically abuse their children? Maybe you think it’s so few that you don't feel compelled to teach publicly what everyone knows: don't abuse your kids. At most it's one or two bad apples, right?
I'm not so sure.
I cannot say that I want to write about this topic, and I’m no expert. But I keep stumbling into abuse situations in one church or another. And in every case it's been a “model family” who abused their children in the name of what they thought was “biblical discipline.” In other words, I’m talking about well-meaning parents.
Sometimes anger was to blame. The parents confess that their temper got the best of them when their discipline left bruises. Then again, something about their overall approach regularly leaves cuts, welts, or bruises.
Sometimes a severe deficiency of wisdom was to blame. I heard of one couple who spanked their six-month old. Or another who would strike different body parts of their older children with a hard object. And all of these parents believed they were doing the right thing.
Defining abuse would take another article. But like the Supreme Court justice said about pornography, you know it when you see it. You can see the frightened child backing away as their young eyes behold the grotesque ungodliness storming toward them.
Could this be a larger problem in Christian homes than we realize? I can’t imagine there are accurate statistics for this kind of thing. But whatever those statistics would show, I’ve become increasingly convicted that pastors, Sunday School teachers, and small group leaders need to teach parents to not abuse their children. And I think elder and deacon nominees should be asked if they ever have been abusive. I trust that many older and wiser pastors do, and I’m happy for men like this to chuckle at a younger man like me for finally waking up to what they’ve long known and practiced. Perhaps I only need to say it for today's generation.
Why today's generation? Western culture at large has become so undisciplined that churches are rightly taking more care in training parents to “raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” This is biblical. As the culture slides, Christian parenting should increasingly look different than the world’s, including in discipline.
I trust you’ve sat in a restaurant, as I have, and watched someone’s child assert dominance. The parent desperately tries to appease the child, but to no avail. You honestly feel sorry for both parent and child, wishing the parent knew that God had given him or her authority, because both parent and child are miserable together when God’s good gift of authority is abandoned. Christians, generally, understand that authority can be a good thing. God exercises authority for the sake of authoring life in others, and he means for us to do the same.
But friends, how capable of sinfully stumbling we remain. How quickly anger can get a hold of us. And how wrong our parental “wisdom” can turn out to be. We must not forget that all of us are prone to abusing authority. Do you think you’re exempt? Then I wouldn’t want to be your child.
Mark Dever often says that the abuse of authority is a particularly heinous sin. Authority abused, he explains, egregiously lies about what God is like.
Husbands, parents, pastors, employers, office-holders, be warned. God hates the abuse of authority, and he will punish it. He will bring justice.
Homeschooling parents, have you isolated yourselves and not invited other parents into your life to check yourself against? Double-income parents, have you piled so many things into your schedule that you have become short-tempered? Dads, do you labor all day to bring order to the office, and then blow a gasket when you find disorder at home? Moms, do you fear what other parents will think about your children and therefore feel the need to control them?
So back to where I began: Do you as a pastor assume that child abuse is so rare that it's not worth publicly addressing? I increasingly wonder if there is more abuse going on among “good Christians” than we realize.
Let me then plead with you: instruct your members, for the sake of the impatient and the unwise. Exhort them to not abuse any of the authority that God has given them, especially over weaker ones. How we damage their understanding of God when we do. Explain what wise discipline looks like. Depending on the forum, you should probably get into the nuts and bolts. It might seem obvious to never spank a six month old, but you just might serve several families in your church by speaking those words outloud. I have also told members who struggle with anger to never, ever, ever pursue discipline when angry--to decide that it's better "to let the kid get away with it," if you must, than it is to risk abusing them. You should also define abuse more carefully than I have done here.
Then encourage your members to build friendships in the church where they can confess even their really ugly sin to one another. Assure them of the elders love and desire to help them fight sin.
And, of course, watch your own life and parenting. Invite younger parents into your home. My wife and I have learned scads about discipline by sitting at the dinner table of older and godlier parents, and even joined them upstairs after dinner as they read to their kids and put them to bed.
God is so tender, and gentle, and long-suffering with us. What a privilege we have to model that with our children, and teach our churches to do the same.