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Moral divide between church leaders and laity
by Graeme J. Davidson
5 September 2009

Just because a moral edict is in the Bible or it’s a church’s official ethical stand doesn’t automatically make it right.

... The smacking referendum highlighted an ethical divide between our church leaders and the 88 percent of us who didn’t think a parental smack should be a crime.
... A few conservative Christian groups, like Focus on the Family, were pro “a smack as part of good parental correction”. After all, the book of Proverbs, which is full of weird aphorisms, says, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him”. It’s the kind of archaic wisdom advocated by the Taliban.
... In contrast, our mainstream churches’ attitude was that a few verses from Proverbs, or anywhere else in the Bible, weren’t enough to justify even a little physical abuse to discipline our kids. Nor did they agree with Focus on the Family’s view that “Smacking typically works best with ages 2 to 6” provided it’s for a specific purposeful misdemeanour and never done in anger.
... Mainstream church leaders urged us to vote to keep the anti-smacking law because it helped reduce family violence. A local pastor echoed the views of many when he said he felt uncomfortable offering political guidance, but that the Church had a Christian duty to do so. He claimed “many people look to the Church for guidance on matters of morality and ethics”. Do we?
... Eighty-eight percent of voters in favour of a correctional smack would suggest that few of the pewsitters in our biggest churches do what their leaders want them to do. Back in 1968, the Vatican found that out to the detriment of its moral authority when Paul VI decreed in his controversial encyclical, Humanae Vitae, that all forms of artificial birth control were morally wrong, The vast majority of Catholics have since ignored their Church’s ban on artificial contraception.
... All of us have been kids and many of us have kids of our own. We’ve probably experienced smacks and may have doled out a few ourselves, especially when a child’s safety was at stake. So, we feel capable of making up our own minds without being told how to vote by church authority figures who subtly imply that their views are what God wants.
... And we remember that up to a couple of decades ago, church schools were handing out corporal punishment liberally and views about disciplining our kids akin to those of Focus on the Family were widely accepted within the Church.
... The Church has done plenty of moral flip-flops over the centuries. It sanctioned holy wars, put witches and magicians to death, extracted confessions through torture and denied suicide victims a Christian burial, all of which it now regards as morally wrong. On the other hand, maybe we could do with a U-turn back to the Church’s mediaeval practice of opposing loaning money, with high interest rates, to the poor.
Ultimately, though, just because a moral edict is in the Bible or it’s a church’s official ethical stand doesn’t automatically make it right.
... The way to test this is to ask: if God or church authorities command us to do something wrong, like killing a child, would that make it right? Of course not. What is ethically right or wrong doesn’t depend on who says it or where it’s written – including whether it’s from a religious leader, a church decree or in the Bible.
... Something is morally right or wrong for other reasons, like whether it’s just and fair, or whether it will bring greater love, happiness or unhappiness. Even the most fundamentalist Christians wouldn’t endorse the biblical command to kill witches and sorcerers. Nor would they believe that those who spare the rod hate their kids, as the writer of Proverbs says.
... Church groups and religious leaders, like the rest of us, are rightly free to offer an ethical point of view. They speak out, draw attention to issues and make valuable contributions to ethical debate. But we must judge these contributions on their own merits, not because we trust that the Church will always get it right.




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