Sometimes Christians get really concerned that our culture is influencing how we interpret the Bible. I understand that concern and think it’s a very real issue. But I think we often forget that culture has been influencing how we understand Scripture for a very, very long time.
For example, the Romans thought they were the new covenantal nation just a few hundred years after Christ, likely because they were essentially an unstoppable force and they perceived themselves to be especially blessed by God because of their military successes. (Does that sound familiar?)
It’s really interesting to examine how art influences our interpretation of Scripture. A classic objection to Gentle Parenting is that Jesus whipped the money changers in the temple. But did He really?
Let’s look at what the Bible actually says about this story, and provide some clarity to common assumptions and culturally-influenced interpretation.
ASSUMPTION: JESUS WAS ANGRY AT THE MONEY CHANGERS
Scripture does not say Jesus was angry during this event. It’s certainly a possibility that was angry. We are reading it with our own preconceived ideas if we attribute His actions to anger, because Scripture is silent on whether or not He was angry.
We can tell from Scripture that He was not acting in a fit of rage or flying off the handle when He cleared the temple. We can be very nearly certain that He didn’t lose His cool and start going crazy. How do we know? John and Mark both suggest His actions may have been planned. In Mark 11:11-19, Jesus visits the temple but waits until the next day to do anything, and in John Jesus takes the time to make a whip from cords (John 2:15.) These both indicate that His actions were not impulsive or “knee jerk reactions” to the situation playing out at the temple.
ASSUMPTION: JESUS USED A WHIP ON THE MONEY CHANGERS
We do know that Jesus used a whip! But nothing indicates that He used it on people.
Scripture tells us there were livestock in the temple and that Jesus drove them out with a whip He constructed. This might sound a bit intense or dramatic, but it was the cultural norm to use a whip to herd and direct livestock. He was simply using a common tool for the common work of herding livestock.
ASSUMPTION: JESUS YELLED AT THE MONEY CHANGERS
Mark and Matthew clearly state He was teaching when this happened and that people were amazed at His teaching, and no Scripture indicates that He yelled at them.
I suspect most scholars view this interaction as an angry outburst because the Greek word for “overturned” the tables is “katastrephó” (catastrophe) and that sounds chaotic and crazy. I’m a bit rusty on my greek, but I think katastrephó is descriptive of the act of overturning, not the motivation behind the act. Additionally, the word does not inherently imply it was an outburst.
ASSUMPTION: JESUS WAS CLEANSING THE TEMPLE
This assumption is easy to make because most Bibles provide a story title that reads something like “Jesus cleanses the temple.” Here’s the thing we often forget, though: animals in the temple were a normal occurrence, and selling animals for sacrifice and paying a temple tax were required by Jewish law. The exchange of money itself would not have been cause for concern. Some commentators suspect that the focus had grown beyond service to profit and that unfair prices had essentially turned the temple courts into an exploitive marketplace.
Other scholars believe His motivation was symbolic. “Because Jesus drove out people and animals that were essential [to temple life], many scholars view his action not as a cleansing of the temple but as a symbolic act predicting its destruction. This puts Jesus in line with the actions of Israel’s earlier prophets and agrees with the words that John 2:19 has Jesus utter on this occasion: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus seems to have envisaged that the temple would be removed to make room for whatever more perfect state of affairs would replace it in the kingdom of God.” (James F. McGrath, “Jesus and the Money Changers.)
If His actions were symbolic, there’s literally no reason He was acting in anger, and, of course, there is no Scriptural evidence to suggest He was.
WHY ARE THESE ASSUMPTIONS SO WIDELY BELIEVED?
We don’t usually think about how art impacts our interpretation of Scripture, but a vast majority of the art depicting this story shows Jesus with His hands raised, whip in hand, coming at the people.
Christ Cleansing the Temple by Bernardino Mei
Christ Expelling the Money-Changers from the Temple by Nicolas Colombel
Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple Valentin de Boulogne
It’s easy to see how our understanding of this story may be influenced by the cultural understanding of cultures before us. Reading Scripture without cultural bias is very nearly impossible. But if we are to rightly divide the Word of Truth (II Timothy 2:15), we cannot be content only to understand Scripture through our cultural bias. We must be willing to ask hard questions of the text and ourselves and pray for wisdom as we seek the heart of God.
In general, we try to present in a positive way what the Bible actually says about parenting and let our followers draw the contrasts to more traditional perspectives. But a blog post “Parents, Require Obedience of Your Children” by John Piper twists Scripture in subtle, but significant ways, and is once again making its rounds within our circle of friends, so we decided a response was in order.
1. Beware making implicit commands from Scripture.
Piper writes, “Requiring obedience of children is implicit in the biblical requirement that children obey their parents.”
This statement boldly presumes to know what God should have said, rather than what God did say. This is the same road the Pharisees trod.
If the Spirit wanted to tell fathers they should require obedience of children, He could have done so. After all, He was already giving commands to fathers in this passage! What the Spirit commands is sufficient, He doesn’t need our human ingenuity to create more commands.
Nor does Piper’s logic hold up in the context of Ephesians 5-6. According to his logic, it makes no sense that God would require wives to submit to their husbands and yet not require that Christian husbands should require submissive obedience from their wives. This is a wide open door for domestic abuse. But what about husbands? By the same logic, Christian wives should require love from their husbands. Unless one fundamentally redefines love, this is absurdity. Yet this is kind of logic that Piper employs to twist Ephesians 6:1 from a command given to children into one given to parents.
2. Obedience is a part of the gospel, but it is the gospel that enables that obedience.
Piper writes, “Parents who do not teach their children to obey God’s appointed authorities prepare them for a life out of step with God’s word — a life out of step with the very gospel they desire to emphasize.”
External compliance and genuine obedience are not the same thing! God is not after external compliance to certain rituals and behaviors. He is after our hearts! He pursues genuine, joyful obedience from us. This requires the power of the Spirit regenerating us to bring us into obedience to Him. No amount of practice complying to our parents’ commands will ever help us joyfully obey God. No one in the entirety of human history has learned to obey God by obeying their parents. No one.
3. It is possible to teach children to have wisdom. This is far better than mere obedience. It’s a little slower and sometimes looks messier in the moment, as the best way to teach wisdom is by allowing a child to make choices, live with the good or bad consequences, and help them connect their experimental lessons to the wisdom of Scripture. This prepares a child for all of life, where they need wisdom (daily), not just unquestioning obedience (almost never).
Many a parent has come to grief by inculcating unquestioning obedience in their child. Later, as parental influence naturally waned in their maturing child, they discovered their child was still very compliant and obedient. Except now they were listening to others who did not have their child’s best interests at heart. Inculcating wisdom is far better than obedience.
4. Consistency is the key, not obedience. A wise parent consistently calls their children to meet age-appropriate expectations. Yet this doesn’t need to devolve into a battle of the wills.
Piper says, “Little children, under a year old, can be shown effectively what they may not touch, bite, pull, poke, spit out, or shriek about. You are bigger than they are. Use your size to save them for joy, not sentence them to selfishness.”
Yet God never calls us to fight or defeat our children. Instead, He calls us to train them and instruct them (Eph. 6:4). The wise parent consistently lays before his child the path of life (as found in Scripture) and lets them experience the consequences of choosing unwisely. These lessons are far better learned than the ones created through the artifice of obey or be punished.
5. It is easier to require obedience than to understand your child. Lazy or permissive parenting is a bad idea, but that doesn’t make immediately punishing a child for every disobedience a good idea. This is a false dichotomy. We don’t have to choose either of these extremes.
Far harder than letting children have their way or demanding children do everything your way, is trying to understand a child. Their needs and desires, their capabilities and passions may be expressed in immature or inappropriate ways, but those are opportunities to make sure a child is heard, understood, and given the opportunity to learn how to do it better in the future. This bears the fruit of wisdom far better than simply punishing disobedience.
6. There is an alternative to generational cycles of passivity or punishment: Gentle Christian Parenting. It’s rooted in treating our children in the same way God, the ultimate example of fatherhood, treats us. We take seriously that we should bear the fruit of the Spirit at all times, including in how we discipline our children. We note that dozens of times the apostles command Christians to be gentle, compassionate, kind, and respectful. These commands come with no exceptions for children. When Paul writes “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” there is no clause that excludes children. When Peter says “Show proper respect to everyone.” he doesn’t add a disclaimer that excludes children.
7. There is no path from external compliance to joyful obedience apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.
Piper writes, ”Children need to obey before they can process obedience through faith. When faith comes, the obedience which they have learned from fear and reward and respect will become the natural expression of faith.”
There is a disconnect here between a biblically grounded understanding of salvation and a concept of parenting that is more rooted in tradition than the Bible. Put simply, if there is nothing you can contribute to your salvation, there is also nothing your parenting can contribute to your children’s salvation.
That is not to say that parents should stand by passively and allow sin to ingrain patterns and habits in their children! We should teach them the wisdom of Scripture, help them learn to obey God, and when they sin let them experience the natural consequences of their sin.
But to suggest that forced obedience to parents naturally leads one to joyful obedience to Christ mocks the wholly saving work of Christ and the work of His Spirit in us.
8. Happiness isn’t found in always expecting to get what one wants, but neither is it found in always obeying a sinful and sometimes selfish person. Children flourish in families where they are genuinely respected as humans made in the image of God and where parents and children engage cooperatively to achieve divinely ordained goals. This is how God calls Christians to live, whether in the microcosm of the family or the community of the church.
9. Theological formation occurs first and deepest by parents. What a mother and father show their child about love and authority is what that child will believe about God. Often for the rest of their life. So it is important to represent God well. Yet since God is slow to anger and extraordinarily patient (1 Tim 1:16), why should we represent Him by immediately punishing every disobedience? That’s not how God responds to the disobedience of believers. Instead, God leads us to repentance, not through discipline, but through kindness (Rom 2:4).
Parents, you can do this, and you can do it in a way that bestows dignity and respect to your children as little image-bearers of God.
You can parent through disobedience while bearing the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control for your children. It requires first realizing that our children are our closest neighbors, and God has called us to love them as we love ourselves. And He’s called us to treat them as we want to be treated.
And you can teach your children that Biblical obedience is rooted in relationship, not rule-following.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the more common title attributed to this story: The Parable of the Prodigal Son. Ah. Now you’re with me, right? Most modern Bibles highlight this story as if it is primarily about the son. But really, this story highlights the heart of the father.
In the Old Testament God used the Law to reveal the heart and nature of man. In the New Testament Jesus used stories to reveal the heart and nature of God. This story is about a good, good father.
You can read the parable in its entirety in Luke 15:11-32. There are a few points I want to bring to your attention:
- The younger son’s request for his inheritance was likely a profound dishonor and humiliation for his father. He was, in essence, saying “you’re as good as dead to me.”
- Squandering an entire inheritance was highly discouraged, and possibly illegal in first century Judaism.
- At his lowest point, the rebellious son slept among swine.
What we see here are at least two incidents where the son broke the commands of Torah. Besides living among unclean animals, we see a level of dishonor, disrespect, and humiliation that very well could have given the father every right to bring his son to trial as a rebellious son as we see in Deuteronomy 21. Such extreme rebellion against his father could have warranted the death penalty in that ancient Jewish culture.
But instead of taking him to trial, instead of beating him with a rod in hopes of curbing his rebellious spirit, instead of lecturing and trying to control his son, this father gives him the gift of free will. Not only does he allow him to choose his own foolish way in life, but he ignores his own law-given right to protect his own reputation. When he could have taken him to trial for rebellion and dishonor, he gave up his financial security, his place of honor and standing in the community, and his own paternal instinct to protect his son.
The good father didn’t intervene. He didn’t punish. He allowed his son to learn hard life lessons from the natural consequences of his very foolish choices. And Luke 15:20 tells us that when that lesson had been learned the father was overcome with compassion for his son.
The son returned to his father because he knew him to be a good man. And upon his return his father throws a ridiculous celebration – one the son didn’t deserve, and one the older brother couldn’t understand.
GRACE-BASED PARENTING IN THE PARABLE OF THE GOOD FATHER
- The good father allowed his son to break the laws of the Torah
- The good father did not lecture, confront, or punish his son
- The good father was filled with compassion for his son
- The good father welcomed and restored him to a place of honor after the son experienced the natural consequences of his foolish choices
This doesn’t mean that we should never step in and protect our children, nor does it mean that there’s no place for instruction, correction, and discipline! Certainly grace-based parenting requires instruction, correction, and discipline. But we can learn a valuable lesson from the parable of the good father: natural consequences have a God-designed way of teaching life lessons that even the Law cannot teach.
“Natural consequences have a God-designed way of teaching life lessons that even the Law cannot teach.”
The father had every right within the context of Mosaic Law to require respect and honor from his son. He had every right to distance himself from his unclean son when he returned.
But he was filled with compassion.
“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
Here is a verse that seems to hold a great promise to young parents everywhere. Do the right things raising your children and they’ll for sure keep doing those right things throughout their life. Of course, that verse also seems like a curse to those with adult children who have wandered from the faith. Obviously their parenting was lacking, or else their children would still be in the faith. Maybe, just maybe, this verse will kick in before their kids are old.
But what if that’s not what this verse says at all? What if we have badly misunderstood this verse?
A quick look at the Hebrew will confirm our suspicions. A literal translation of this verse reads,
“Train an adolescent in his own way, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
Hold on a second! What happened to the “should”? Simple. It’s not in the Hebrew. Nor is it in the Greek translation of the verse. Nor in the Latin translation either. The first English translation of Proverbs by John Wycliffe and Nicholas of Hereford renders it, “A young man waxing after his way, and when he hath waxed eld, he shall not go away from it.” It is not until the 1500s that the “should” is brought into the verse. It is then codified in the King James translation, which then causes it to persist in English Bible translations down to the present day.
So if Proverbs 22:6 isn’t a divine promise about the fruit of parental training, what does it mean? Two things are key to unlocking the meaning of this verse. First, the use of na’ar, which means child, adolescent, or young man. The na’ar of Proverbs is undoubtedly an adolescent or young man, not a small child. But the na’ar is not just any young man. He is not the son gaining wisdom from his father through the teachings of Proverbs. Instead the na’ar is decidedly foolish. To quote Bruce Waltke:
“The other six references to naar univocally characterize his way as foolish. He is grouped together with the gullible in 1:4, is said to lack sense in 7:7, to have folly bound up in his heart in 22:16, to dissemble in his evil deeds in 20:11, and so to be in need of correction in 20:13. Left to himself, he will disgrace his mother (29:16).”Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15-31, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 203
The second key to this verse is “his own way.” The book of Proverbs presents two basic ways a person can take, the way of wisdom or the way or foolishness. Pursuing one’s own way, rather than pursuing the way of wisdom is foolishness. This is clear in Pr 14:12; 14:14; 19:3; 21:2; 28:6. This is also entirely consistent with the understanding of na’ar as a foolish young man. So this is not a verse about training up a young man to “follow his heart” or to try and channel him towards his natural inclinations. Rather it is a warning that the natural inclinations of an adolescent can be quite foolish.
So what does this proverb teach? Essentially, if we allow our adolescents to be trained in their own natural inclinations, those habits will persist with them for the rest of their life. This is the time in life when character is being set and patterns are being settled that will not be easily overcome later in life (yet don’t despair, for the power of Christ within us can overcome all these things). This verse is a call for parents to be engaged with their teenagers, helping them to see the difference between wisdom and foolishness, drawing loving and appropriate boundaries, encouraging them to pursue wisdom, and letting them feel the full weight of the consequences of their foolishness.