“Some guys need to learn how to take a punch”

There’s a lot of discussion right now regarding classroom incidents at Bethlehem College & Seminary. Some students allege “spiritual abuse”; others say those students are being overly sensitive and need to develop “thicker skin.” I’m a graduate of Bethlehem’s MDiv program (2020) and a former full-time employee, and in a discussion I had about this with a professor and leader in the school, he made this statement: 

“Some guys need to learn how to take a punch.”

That is a fascinating, powerful, and illuminating statement, for so many things, including educational philosophy and pedagogy, character formation, leadership, “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,” and even more fundamentally, epistemology and the nature of truth itself.

If that’s true…

First, for arguments sake, let’s grant that the statement is true (we’ll return to this later). Let’s say that as part of your pastoral training program, part of what you are going to do is “teach guys to take a punch.” If that is going to be part of your methodology and pedagogy, that would need to be very clearly spelled out on the front end, or people are going to get hurt. When a punch is thrown in the ring at the boxing gym, we can legitimately call that “training”; but when that same punch is thrown in the hallway, we would call that “assault,” and clearly understanding the context you are in makes all the difference. If you are in a classroom, and you are not thinking to yourself “I’m in the boxing gym; I need to be prepared,” and someone throws a punch at you, it may blindside you and leave you dazed and bruised; it may feel like an attack; it may have dramatic effects on the rest of your experiences there; it may even leave lasting wounds.

In my experience as a student, I don’t ever recall hearing, “expect to get punched, brothers.” Nor, in my experience, when punches were thrown, even if it was more akin to the “boxing gym,” I don’t recall adequate follow up by the “coaches” and “trainers.” Some students thrived in this environment, and I was one of them. I gave as good as I got with just about everyone including the most direct and forceful professors; I was praised by them for the way I “fought.” But I’m left with deep reservations and questions about my own formation and leadership as a result.

Other students, it seems clear, didn’t know that this was what they were getting into, and when the punches came, they were left with bruises and wounds. If “some guys need to learn how to take a punch,” is an unwritten part of the pedagogy, then that needs to be advertised up front so students know what they are getting into.

But is it true?

I actually agree that part of a leadership training program, like a seminary, should include developing endurance and resiliency. Imagine a pastor trying to counsel someone through an abusive situation: how will they develop the resiliency required to face an aggressive abuser, and protect the abused? He may even have to face some “punches” in that scenario. “How to best train pastors and leaders for these kinds of situations?” is actually an important pedagogical question, I think.

And to be fair, the “boxing gym” analogy is not the only analogy I experienced in seminary; I also experienced the “lab room” analogy, analyzing texts under a microscope; the “marathon” analogy, reading thousands and thousands of pages (and sometimes collapsing near the finish line); the “cultural heritage center” analogy, examining authors from other cultures and time periods, and cultivating a curiosity and appreciation for them; and there were other analogies, too.

But I think if “some guys need to learn how to take a punch” is even part of a seminary program, it needs to be rigorously evaluated in light of texts describing pastoral ministry, like this one:

“And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel (μάχεσθαι) but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition” 

2 Timothy 2:24–25

The verb μαχομαι and the noun μαχη get translated “fight” or “strive,” as well as “quarrel.” One could argue that the “boxing gym” mode of training actually does more to train “fighters” and “strivers,” and neglects the deeper, and more important character formation required to produce leaders who are “gentle,” “patient,” “humble” teachers.

Or consider, among the qualifications of an elder:

“not quarrelsome [or “violent”] but gentle.

1 Timothy 3:3

This connects with how we understand what it means to be a “Biblical Leader.” When we were assigned Edwin Friedman’s book in an undergraduate “Leadership” course at Bethlehem, I wrote a very critical review because I felt that it inculcated a “survival of the fittest” and “strong vs. weak” approach to leadership, which is anti-Christian in my opinion, but which fits perfectly with the sentiment that “some guys need to learn to take a punch” (see my “Review: A Failure of Nerve”).

“Taking a punch” connects to our understanding of “Biblical Manhood.” When “Biblical Manhood” is understood primarily in a martial frame, as “courageous warriors” “fighting for truth,” then this becomes an important part of their formation. But if “warfare” isn’t the primary mode of understanding “masculinity,” then this kind of formation becomes deficient as it neglects other important aspects. Anyone wishing to explore the “warfare” mentality in American Evangelicalism can consult any number of books published recently, not least Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne.

Finally, “some guys need to learn to take a punch” actually connects to our fundamental understanding of “truth” and the process of learning and discovering truth. Is “truth” and “knowledge” something that is primarily gained via the combative process of “debate”?

Or is humility and love a crucial part of knowing? And I say this as someone who deeply appreciates the “free market of ideas,” and the idea that the “truth has nothing to fear.” I love debate and argumentation and facts and reason, writing this post itself is a participation in these processes. But there is much more to knowledge than debate, and there is a kind of “debate-mentality” that actually hinders the true gaining of knowledge. Those interested can track down whole reams of philosophy and theology on this (one place to start is with Esther Meeks “covenant epistemology” in Longing to Know and  Loving to Know, and others who have built on her work).

And I can imagine someone affirming all the above, who would wish to affirm both “take a punch” and “humility and love” hypothetically. But which parts of the philosophy are operational in the system? If you think to yourself “we want to form humble and loving leaders” but your methodology consistently forms fighters who go on to bruise others, then the methodology needs to be re-examined.

And I should add here, that in my own time at Bethlehem Seminary, I believe I did also learn how to listen humbly, love patiently, and care gently, and I learned it most in my counseling classes, two of which were co-taught by Bryan Pickering. Looking back, it is not surprising that Bryan resigned his teaching position after Fall 2020, and resigned from his pastoral role in 2021 over issues directly related to these things.

At the end of the day, some are just convinced that “some guys need to learn to take a punch,” and wholeheartedly embrace the entire package of ideas that undergird that statement and the methodologies that enact it. Some students will hear this and think “that’s exactly what I need, what our churches need, and what our culture needs right now.” 

I, though, am no longer convinced and am trying to rethink and re-form this in my own life and leadership.

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash 

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