To clarify up front, I'm not writing this to advocate for or against spanking. I know there are divergent opinions on that means of discipline. I believe there is a place for spanking and other kinds of corporal punishment, but I am also convinced that a wide variety of factors are involved in determining the best and most appropriate sort of discipline in any given situation. Families have different personalities, as do individual parents and children, and different people respond differently to various ways of dealing with circumstances. At least in my experience, boys generally require a different approach than girls; which shouldn't be much of a revelation to anyone who may have noticed that men and women also tend to communicate in rather different ways. In any case, we sin not only in our thoughts and with our words, but also in and with our bodies; so there also needs to be an exercise of bodily discipline. But I'm not writing this to make any particular case for how such things ought to be handled.
I do not presume to be any expert in parenting. I have had twenty years of experience as a father, including multiple opportunities to deal with all of the ages and stages of childhood, but most of what I've learned has been by trial and error. My wife has done the vast majority of hands-on parenting along the way, although I've certainly taken an active interest in that work. I try to be consistent and fair, objective and just, firm but understanding, patient and merciful, as our Father in heaven is merciful. That is what I want, and what I aim for, and yet I still find that I get impatient and lose my temper. Especially if I'm feeling stressed out or anxious about other things, or weary and exhausted, I too quickly raise my voice, speak too harshly, and yell at my children when a calm and quiet voice would be more effective. I do believe there is a time and place for spanking, but sometimes I resort to that approach too readily, instead of taking the time to train my children in a better way. Aware of these weaknesses in myself, and concerned to be the best parent I can be, out of love for my children, I think a lot about how best to discipline them. I'm writing this to think out loud about that a bit.
There are vocational hazards to being a pastor, such as the fact that I am inclined to analyze everything theologically. Actually, that's not a bad thing in itself, but I do tend to overanalyze things and second guess myself. There are plenty of times when it would be better just to do whatever it is that needs to be done without thinking too much about it. Well in this case of parental discipline, I've had some confusion in my mind and questions that I've wrestled with since the very beginning. I remember comments that were made in some of my psychology classes at Concordia, Seward, that really perplexed me and never did make sense to me, neither in theory nor in practice. To say it simply, the question has been one of how to divide the Law and the Gospel without compromise or confusion in the discipline of children. This question was brought to the forefront of my mind at the CCA a couple years ago, when we dealt with the Fourth Commandment, and I think my own confusion has been exacerbated since then. Perhaps it is not an issue with anyone else, but it has been a nagging concern for me.
I don't know, this may even sound amusing to others, but I honestly find myself tied up in knots over how to apply both Law and Gospel in disciplining my children. How do I avoid a confusion of the Law and the Gospel, practically and concretely, when I am given both to punish and to forgive my children? How do I ensure that the Gospel has the last word and predominates, while at the same time administering consequences for behavior that must be corrected? These are the questions I have found myself asking and trying to answer in my mind, time after time, as I have gone about the task of parenting and disciplining my children.
These broad concerns have come up, indirectly and in general, in our Monday evening Bible class over the past couple of weeks. We're studying the Smalcald Articles, and we've been looking at Luther's discussion of Sin, the Law, and Repentance. A good question was asked about how these things pertain and play themselves out in the context of a family. Specifically, how should confession and absolution take place between spouses, parents and children? In the process of responding to such questions, and in subsequent conversations with Pastor Grobien, I've recently had one of those wonderful "light bulb" experiences that help to clarify things.
I remember Dr. Preus once saying, in the only class I was able to take from him (Justification!), that when his wife would apologize for something or other that occurred in their life together, he would not respond with a word of absolution, "I forgive you," but would wave it off with a simple "that's alright." I was intrigued by that comment, and I'm sorry that I never had the opportunity to engage him in conversation about it. Surely there are circumstances in which a specific word of forgiveness is called for. I believe that would happen naturally and appropriately within families (and among friends), if Christians were making regular use of Individual Confession and Absolution with their pastors. Nevertheless, I am also convinced that Dr. Preus was making a very good point about the day-to-day life that Christians live with one another in this world. If every sin were confessed and absolved in a deliberate and formal sort of way, it would all become terribly complicated, cumbersome and contrived, and we'd never get on with living in our vocations and stations in life. It would become another version of the enforced enumeration of sins that the papacy required and the Lutherans rejected at the time of the Reformation. Similarly, it would bring disproporionate attention to the outward infractions that we commit against our neighbor, and thereby distract us from the weightier sins of the heart, our covetous lust and idolatry. As a general rule for family life, I think that Dr. Preus was exactly right. Love simply covers a multitude of sins, and we live together in faith.
Dr. Luther, in his preaching on the Fifth Petition, makes the marvelous point that we are all so deeply indebted to one another, and all the moreso indebted to God for our trespasses against Him, that we should all be badly off without the recourse of this prayer. In praying for the forgiveness of our trespasses, and pledging the forgiveness of our neighbor for his trespasses, the Lord has enabled us to draw a line through the entire ledger, and all the debts are cancelled. That doesn't mean there aren't occasions for apologies and reconciliation, for confession and absolution (both between brothers and with the pastor). But our daily life is not burdened and bogged down with a neverending stream of transactions, as though we were in constant need of negotiating sins and the forgiveness of sins. Rather, we live in the Atonement of the Cross, in the free and full forgiveness of Christ Jesus, in the global Absolution of His Resurrection, clothed (and clothing our neighbor) in His righteousness, innocence and blessedness. The status quo, if you will, is not the measure of our behavior (be it good or bad), but the grace of God in Christ.
This state of grace, it now seems to me, is the key to the predominance of the Gospel in parenting and discipline. That is to say, the entire family lives each day, each week, each month, year after year, in the context of grace and the forgiveness of the Gospel. Not so much in the sense that everyone is kind and polite, considerate and nice to one another; though it is surely true that gentleness and respect should characterize a Christian home (and the fact that it often does not is a call to daily contrition and repentance). What I have in mind, quite concretely, is that parents faithfully take themselves and their children to Church: to hear and receive the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins, in Word and Sacrament. And that parents, in the home, living from the weekly Divine Service and back again, daily catechize themselves and their children in the Word of God and prayer; that parents read the Scriptures to their children, and review the Catechism with them, and pray with them, and sing Psalms and hymns with them. In short, that the family be making regular use of the means of grace, and finding their spiritual life and health and strength in the Gospel precisely there. This then serves as the foundation and the norm for the rest of life. The Gospel then predominates, even in the midst of discipline, because it is the overriding context in which everything else happens.
In the past, at least for the last few years, I have tended to think about parental discipline in terms of the Office of the Keys. Maybe that is another vocational hazard to being a pastor, because this is certainly the framework in which I think about the pastoral care of my members (among whom are my own children). I'm not so sure, at this point, whether or to what extent fathers (and mothers) are to exercise the "office of the keys" per se. Certainly, they are to call their children to repentance by means of the Law and the Gospel, and they are to speak and bestow the forgiveness of sins upon their children. But I'm not clear on how or when a father would ever use the binding key with his child (to retain sins). In any case, it is no prerogative of parents to excommunicate their children or exclude them from the Christian congregation.
Such questions aside, I think I have been mistaken to suppose that every occasion of discipline or punishment requires a specifically corresponding word of forgiveness. This is where I have gotten myself so tied up in knots. Do I speak forgiveness right away, and then administer punishment? Do I withhold forgiveness until an apology is given? Or do I wait until after there has been some consequence suffered, and then forgive my child? Trying to think through these things in terms of the Office of the Keys and Confession, it always seemed muddled to me. We don't believe, teach or confess that absolution (or forgiveness) is contingent upon any penance; yet the Office of the Keys is the authority to forgive the sins of those who repent and want to do better. Where sins have been forgiven, there is no longer any condemnation. There are no contingencies or strings attached to the Gospel. But as a father, I must discipline and train my children to live responsibly and obediently, to respect authority, to do no harm to their neighbor; not for the sake of forgiveness or salvation, but for the sake of their life in this world.
Here is where the two "hands" come in, the left and the right. This is terminology that Lutherans have used for the two "kingdoms," that of the temporal governing authorities on the "left hand," and that of the Church (the Kingdom of Christ and His Gospel) on the "right hand." Parents are given a responsibility and a coinciding authority on both hands. They are responsible for the catechesis of their children in the Word of God, in faith and prayer, but they are also responsible for the temporal care and training of their children for life in this world. There is a kind of discipline on either hand, but it seems to me that parental discipline is chiefly carried out with the left hand, that is to say, for life in this world as good neighbors and citizens. It is not primarily aimed at spiritual correction and improvement, but has for its goal the safety and well-being of bodily life and property, as well as the ongoing formation of self-discipline and personal responsibility, which become more and more necessary as children grow into adulthood, if they are to provide for and serve their own future families and communities. All of this is fine and good, an aspect of God's ongoing providence of His creation and among His gifts of daily bread. But it isn't the Office of the Keys, and it doesn't require that every admonishment, correction and rebuke be coupled with an explicit word of forgiveness.
If you blow it at work and bear the consequences of some error or infraction, you don't expect your boss to absolve you of your transgression or allow the problem to go uncorrected. Or, if you get pulled over for speeding, you don't suggest to the officer that you are heartily sorry for your sin and repent of it, supposing that he will forgive you and tear up the ticket. In neither case do you conclude that you remain in your sin and have no recourse. You go to the pastor and to the means of grace for the forgiveness of your sins, even as you pray for such forgiveness daily in the Our Father. You know and trust that, for Jesus' sake, your sins are forgiven and taken away, as far as the east is from the west. You still have things to take care of at work, and you still have your traffic fine to pay, but you understand that these do not touch upon your life and salvation in Christ (except that you go about them in faith and love as a Christian).
Likewise, when a Christian parent disciplines a child in the context of a Christian home, the child knows and trusts the Gospel, and will continue to hear and receive the Gospel (both in the home and at Church), without supposing that he or she will escape the consequences and punishment of sinful behavior. Of course, the Law does its work of accusing and crushing the old Adam, whether it be applied on the left hand or the right. That is the Lord's prerogative, and it is always aimed at repentance, unto faith in the forgiveness of sins. The Law best serves that purpose, however, not when it is tempered or compromised, qualified or softened, but when it executes its judgment and administers its sentence with firm, objective fairness.
Well, those are my rambling thoughts on the matter for now. Perhaps I will think of a dozen more things I should say, and would like to say, as soon as I publish this post. But I suspect that my thinking (and thinking out loud) about parenting and discipline will be an ongoing, lifelong enterprise. Parenting is more of an art than a science, and I need to keep practicing the art. It is ultimately my Father in heaven who catechizes me to be a good father to the children He has entrusted to my care and discipline. I give Him thanks and praise, therefore, for what seems to be a greater understanding and clarity of thinking at this particular juncture in my life.