July 11, 2024

Post 2: Is spanking relevant for modern Christian parents?

In a previous post, I had concluded that a literal reading of the Bible indicates that parents should spank their children. However, careful Bible readers need to look at the context and be cautious about coming to a conclusion and then looking for Scriptural support.  I admit that I had originally decided that spanking was outdated in today’s modern parenting, but I could find no support — either from my own Bible reading or from scholars — for my opinion. 

The question I was asking was whether or not messages about corporal punishment and explicitly striking a child with a rod (Prov 13:24) should be read literally?  After all, the Bible addressed issues because they were culturally and historically relevant.  Some things the Bible discusses make more sense if we have background into what was happening when people wrote the words.  These issues, however, always speak to both a currently relevant topic and a more profound principle.  Bible readers have misused some Scriptures in modern history.  For instance, slave traders used Bible references about relationships between slaves and their masters (Eph 6:5) to justify the African Slave Trade.  The idea that men referenced in the Bible had multiple wives (including David [2 Sam 5:13], the “man after God’s own heart” [Acts 13:22]) has been used by some to advocate for polygamy.  Is “the rod” only pointing to a more profound principle but being illegitimately used today to justify corporal punishment?  Does discipline in the Bible refer to something different than what we mean by discipline today?

Should we punish children?

The word of God is living and active (Heb 4:12).  The more I read, the more relevant the Bible becomes.  When the eyes of the heart are opened (Eph 1:18), study reveals the persistent relevance of the Bible.  Only God could have written this.  The Bible is air-tight.  Statisticians call this air-tightness “internal consistency.” There is nothing in the Bible that contradicts any other part of it.  Every aspect supports every other part, and every “jot and tittle” of the Bible will be confirmed to all people (Matt 5:18).  Many Protestants claim “sola scriptura,” meaning that Scripture is the highest authority, for this reason.  Scripture is also timeless.  It is perfectly relevant millennia after it was completed and will continue to be equally applicable for additional millennia if God tarries.  I conclude that passages on discipline, specifically punishment of children, are as relevant today as when initially inspired.  Parents should have a mind to punish (not just properly reward-see previous post) their children.  Children continue to need discipline, likely in the exact amounts as Biblical times.  Parents remain the primary personal, intentional source of that discipline.

It seems like “discipline” and “punish” could be used interchangeably in the Bible.  To many people, “discipline” sounds more refined than punishment.  We can focus on discipline because rewards are a form of discipline, right?  Most people today do not think of rewards as a form of discipline.  The word discipline implies, primarily, instruction or teaching.  Traditionally and in modern society, discipline primarily refers to challenge and hardship (i.e., repetition, struggle, endurance, patience, tolerating discomfort).  If you need evidence, observe any secular elementary school classroom.  Children are complimented, for sure, but teachers do not consider such praise a form of discipline. Praise does not cause children to mature, even if it does encourage them to do the same behavior again (to get more praise).  James (James 1:3-4) says that endurance during stress (trial) is what causes maturity.  No one ever pleasured and enjoyed themselves into a good job or an advanced degree.  We stress the body to build strength and stress the mind to build knowledge and character.  It is usually pleasure and enjoyment that disqualifies people from achievements.  Discipline is a reference to learning through hardship and discomfort.  The goal, according to James, is to endure that hardship.  Based on the other texts, discipline is likely also referencing punishment for wrong behavior and not reward for proper behavior.  The act of discipline in the Bible refers to punishment[1] and not reward.

The line between metaphor and reality

Perhaps “the rod” is a metaphor.  Psalm 23:4 is an excellent example of this.  The rod and staff are the equipment the shepherd uses to protect and direct his sheep.  Jesus the Great Shepherd (we are the sheep) uses various devices to protect and lead his people.  The rod, in this case, is mostly symbolic.  When my Dad spanked me with a wooden spoon, some would say he was too literal.  He should have been thinking “rod of correction,” not a literal wooden spoon.  I have been testing this belief for decades, and the idea that my Dad was too literal has never sat right with me.  It makes more sense to spank than not to spank for misbehavior.  People generally do not say that spanking is foreign or nonsensical, even if they think it is barbaric. 

The Bible suggests that parents should be careful about being angry and acting out of anger (Eph 4:26, 6:4, Prov 14:29).  This statement is also the current belief, even in my relativistic and liberal profession of Psychology.  Psychologists believe that if a parent is angry when disciplining a child, the child misunderstands the significance of the discipline (i.e., the child gets the wrong idea), and harm may come to the child.  So, the Bible supports both calm discipline (Ps. 38:1)[2] and physical discipline.  Whether you use a rod, a wooden spoon, or your hand, you still strike a child.  Modern Psychologists suggest it would take anger ever to inspire physical discipline on a child (since people only hit others out of anger), so corporal punishment is immoral.[3]  The Bible says you should both calmly and physically discipline a child.  It is not uncommon for the Bible to set a higher standard for behavior than secular culture (Matt 5:21-22).  Parents who use calm corporal punishment in discipline report that the process is challenging, heart-wrenching, and humbling.  Would God advocate for behavior that resulted in humility (James 4:10)?  I do not believe that “the rod” is merely a metaphor in Proverbs.  Further, Solomon (the writer of most Proverbs) would likely think that conclusion to be nonsensical.  The rod he refers to is probably a real rod (or a wooden spoon or a hand).

A time and place

Other reasonable people, such as Piper, may not have the hang-ups about spanking that I do.  Piper is my parents’ age and generation.  This generational difference could be the main reason it is so hard to find someone who writes on the issue of spanking beyond noting it’s in the Bible.  It may not occur to most writers to ask the questions I am asking.  Does that mean I am incredibly insightful?  Not necessarily.  It likely means that I represent a specific cultural and cognitive demographic (Gen X, post-Modern, skeptical).  As I said, when I was in elementary school, spanking was ok.  When I was in high school, spanking was no longer ok.  In about a 10-15 year span, spanking went from a common discipline to immoral and potentially illegal activity.  That is a brief span for a cornerstone of parental discipline that has been active for millennia (Prov. 13:24 was transcribed around 900 BC, so about 3000 years ago, and Solomon probably did not invent corporal punishment) to be taboo suddenly.  The point here is that the idea that all corporal punishment is outdated or abusive is relatively new. It’s so new that a baby boomer like Piper (born in 1946) likely has limited context for my confusion.  If we apply “the test of time,” my non-spanking opinion immediately succumbs. 

Cultural ruin

Is culture so different now that even if corporal punishment is a good thing, there is no way I can do it with a clear conscience or no way that my children can learn from it? “Too soon” means that an event was so horrendous that we cannot even mention it without emotional burden.  Exposure to violence is indeed a fact of life these days. So has 9/11, race riots and police brutality, increased violence in the media, and decades of televised war, to name just a few, impacted and changed society that all physical striking is interpreted legitimately as violent abuse?  Admittedly I feel that in myself.  I remember watching the movie Gladiator and deciding that boxers were modern gladiators, and I never wanted to watch another match.  My tolerance for physical aggression has been affected by the culture I was born in, as I daily witnessed and processed terrible violence, mostly on TV.  I can, however, see a difference in violence done out of sport from that done out of hate.  I can still watch football.  I smile when I see teenage boys punch each other in the arm.  Any ruin I feel for aggressive behavior results from my lack of thoughtful processing and not the augmented and ruined meaning of the act.  So no, corporal punishment is not out of place in society, but it can certainly be out of place in my heart.  My heart, in that case, would need to change, not culture, and not the standard for discipline if established by God (sola scriptura).

At the risk of discouraging the ongoing thoughtful parenting process, I will state that it seems spanking is as appropriate for today’s parenting as it was in the past.  I certainly did not exhaust all of the arguments against spanking, but I addressed my primary concerns.  At some point recently, I discovered that the possibility of a view that will completely change my mind becomes increasingly unlikely, and it’s time to move forward on incorporating spanking into my parenting.  So, if those commands to physically discipline my children when they misbehave are directed right at me, the modern parent, what is spanking supposed to do? 


[1] Punishment is used in this context to contrast the Operant Conditioning terms “Reward and Punishment.” In this essay, I will not use punishment to refer to its more classical definition of “retribution.” I use it in a way that’s synonymous with “discipline.”

[2] The only direct Biblical references for calm punishment I could find were people asking God to be calm and just (Jer. 10:24) in his punishment to his people.  There were no commands to parents about punishing calmly, even if God calls us to be calm (slow to anger [James 1:19]).

[3] Interestingly, I think an angry discipline is where the Bible and Modern Psychology are more alike than not.

AJ Switzer

This name is a moniker so that the text can speak for itself. I am developing what I can write about more than how I write. I use AI to edit my stuff.

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