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FIRST-PERSON: Scott Peterson on the last pew

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Did you notice Scott Peterson in your church this past Sunday?

Right back there, on the third pew from the back. The now-convicted death row inmate probably didn’t fill out a visitor card, but he was there. Of course, in a literal sense, you would have noticed Peterson, recently convicted of brutally murdering his wife and unborn baby — dumping them in the water while he partied on with his adulterous lover. The paparazzi would have followed him through your foyer and into the sanctuary.

But Scott Peterson is far from alone. There were little boys and young men in your congregation, this past Sunday, who are wondering what it means to be a man, who have no idea how to be a protector of women and children. Any one of them could be the next generation’s Scott Peterson, in heart if not in deed.

We err if we think that Scott Peterson is all that unusual.

And we err even further when we think that this phenomenon exists only outside our church walls. We all have seen the faces of women we can’t get to visit our churches for weeks at a time, because they don’t want anyone to see the bruised eye left by a man’s fist. We all have heard of the teenage Southern Baptist girl driven off to a “clinic” in the big city to dispose of a baby her deacon father or youth group leader boyfriend didn’t want ever discovered. We all have seen the tearful woman silently crying in a church building while her adulterous husband sings the special music, with hands raised and eyes closed on the platform up front. We have all seen the little boy, with eyes averted and head low, walking into our Vacation Bible School, dropped off by a mom who must work three jobs because his father abandoned them for a woman with a particular way with peroxide, silicon and Botox.

As Christians, we know what this is — a spirit of murder. Jesus has taught us that hatred of our brother (or our sister or our child) is not simply an emotion. It is instead the fountainhead of murder (Matthew 5:21-22). The Apostle John explicitly identifies hatred with the kind of murderous spirit that led to the slaughter of Abel (1 John 3:11-15). And Jesus traces all of this back to the one who was a “murderer from the beginning,” the “evil one” himself (John 8:44).

This is especially appalling when men act murderously against their wives and children — see the public’s fascination not only with Peterson but also with Robert Blake and, in the last decade, O.J. Simpson. We seem to know instinctively, whatever our egalitarian feminist culture tells us, that men have a unique responsibility to protect women and children. We’re eerily disturbed when they instead become predators against them.

The responsibility of our churches is heavy, and growing heavier by the year. Our culture is skyrocketing in hostility toward women and children, even as it encourages men to view “responsibility” and “commitment” (i.e., being husbands and fathers) with dread and disdain. And I am not just talking about the obvious family revisionists from the left-fringe of the culture wars. R.W. Connell, a sociologist at the University of Sydney in Australia, writes about a new wave of what he calls “transnational business masculinity” — the way the global market now expects men to be men. He notes that this vision of masculinity combines a corporate cutthroat competitiveness with a libertarian sexuality that tends to view women as commodities to be consumed. Connell cites as an example the near-universal reality that hotels catering to businessmen are now expected to provide pornographic videos in their rooms. And so it will take more than mere political conservatism to address the values of Scott Peterson subversively celebrated all around us.

The Scriptures give us the pattern for training up men who will love their wives as Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:25-29) and who will model for their children the love of the Father (Ephesians 6:4). In the Proverbs, a father teaches his son not only how to avoid irresponsibility and heartache, but also how to rejoice in his sexuality with the wife of his youth and how to nurture another generation of children with wisdom and godliness. This is far more difficult in an era when so many fathers have a different zip code and when often, even the fathers who are present every day, are passive dupes when it comes to spiritual leadership in their homes or churches.

So what can pastors and church leaders do? First, stop telling jokes about the “old ball and chain” or how “when mama’s not happy, nobody’s happy.” Model for your congregation what it means to revel in the joy of loving and caring for your wife and children. Make sure your people know that you wouldn’t trade one moment with your wife for any Internet-generated pornographic picture or any Friday night fling with a movie star. Make sure your people know that you would rather be in the backyard with your children than on a golf course with your buddies — or in front of the television with a bucket of chicken and a Diet Coke. Keep before your people the joys of marriage and fatherhood — and the joyful responsibilities to protect and to lead that come along with it.

Also, older men, make sure you take responsibility for teaching the younger generations what it means to be a protector of women and children. This starts in the church nursery by teaching toddler boys why hitting girls is especially wrong. It continues by teaching teenage boys to have respect for women, whether through obedience to their moms or by refusing to drool over someone else’s future wife on the pages of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.

Sometimes it means telling young married men it is time to take off the baseball caps, to stop playing video games and to grow up. Sometimes it means gently telling a young man that he needs to work two jobs so his stressed-out wife can stay home and care for their children. Above all, it means keeping before all of our men — young and old — the transformative power of the Gospel and the sanctifying power of the Word of God.

Look around in your pews next Sunday morning. A young Scott Peterson just might be there. Do you have a message for him?
Russell D. Moore is dean of the school of theology and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He is the author of the new book, “The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective” (Crossway).

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  • Russell D. Moore