Do Christian Parents have a Moral Rationale for Spanking?

September 25, 2014

No one can fault Jonathan Merritt for lack of audacity. In a recent article he dismisses the majority opinion of evangelical biblical scholarship in one sentence. He writes, “Pro-spanking Christians justify their position by pointing to a Proverbs passage they clearly don’t understand, or by ignoring the entire New Testament and Jesus’ teachings.”

What is Jonathan Merritt’s authority for this sweeping assertion? Well, it is because he, Michael Eric Dyson (professor of sociology at Georgetown University), and social scientists say so. Merritt seems to write with the assumption that the witnesses he has assembled should settle the matter for all of us. He refers to Christians who believe the Bible teaches corporal discipline of children as “belt-swinging believers,” “hell-bent on hitting” our children who are embracing a “false gospel of spanking” and ultimately being anti-Jesus. The short piece reads more like a tantrum than a thoughtful interaction with the issue.

Merritt joins much of the media in seizing the indictment of NFL player Adrian Peterson by a Texas grand jury for reckless or negligent injury to a child as an opportunity to denounce any use of corporal discipline on children. Peterson used a switch from a tree branch to spank his 4-year-old child, leaving welts and cuts on the child’s legs, buttocks, and scrotum that were still obvious days after the spanking. Merritt mentions that Peterson is a professing Christian and then notes that eighty percent of self-identified born-again Christians believe that spanking is acceptable, which is fifteen percent more than the general population.

Merritt does not bother to point out that most evangelical Christians are appalled by the photos of Peterson’s son and would not endorse the obvious anger and lack of parental self-control demonstrated by the physical harm inflicted in those photos. A biblical understanding of proper parental use of corporal discipline in training children repudiates discipline administered with a lack of self-control. Physical chastisement of a child is not a way for parents to vent anger or relieve their frustration on their child—that is hellish, not holy. Physical chastisement for Christian parents is a part of the process of training a child concerning sin and its consequences. Corrective discipline should function to point the child toward the gospel.

Merritt rejects the majority report of evangelical scholarship that the “rod” passages in the book of Proverbs refer to physical chastisement (Prov 13:24, 22:15, 23:13-14, 29:15) in favor of Michael Eric Dyson’s position that the “rod” in Proverbs simply refers to a shepherd’s staff and calls for “guiding” children. Anti-spanking author and NT scholar William Webb rightly dismisses the word-study fallacy of using the use of “rod” in Psalm 23 to interpret the use of “rod” in Proverbs as ludicrous. He writes, “These anti-spankers wrongly drag material from one context into another just because they share the same word. . . . scholars rightly argue that the rod is an instrument used in bodily discipline to hit the child” (Corporal Punishment in the Bible, 44-45).

Where Merritt’s argument lacks substance, he adds bravado. He writes, “Outside of this passage [Proverbs 13:24] and a few others in the (non-literal) book of Proverbs, the Bible barely says anything about physical punishment of children. You’ll find nothing aside from a few general references to ‘discipline.’ There are none – count ‘em, zero – verses in the New Testament endorsing spanking.”

To the contrary, what we find in the NT is language that alludes to and parallels “rod [physical] and reproof [verbal]” (Prov 29:15) language in Proverbs. For instance, Derek Kidner writes regarding corporal discipline “rod” passages in Proverbs, “This is not a purely Old Testament attitude: it is expounded more fully in Hebrews 12:5-11. . . . Ephesians 6:4 warns against undo severity; but the obligation remains” (Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary, 105).

Tremper Longman’s treatment of Proverbs 23:13-14 is representative of the majority evangelical understanding:

To withhold discipline, even physical discipline, is a matter of neglect. Coercing them to instruction is a lifesaving act. . . . Hit children in the context of instruction, and they will live. The sage is not talking about a rigorous beating, but rather something equivalent to a spanking. This may be surmised from the matter-of-fact statement “they will not die” as well as the book’s general emphasis on moderation, kindness, and gentleness (Proverbs: Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, 426).

Merritt is domesticating Scripture to fit the prevailing spirit of the age. He attempts to co-opt the words of Jesus to reject what seems apparent elsewhere in the Bible. He points to Jesus’ famous command to “turn the other cheek” as an argument against corporal discipline of children. A red-letter-Bible-only hermeneutic is unconvincing to those of us who believe that every word of Scripture, including Proverbs, is ultimately “the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17, Col 3:16). Pitting the teaching and ethics of Jesus against the rest of Scripture is a repudiation of what Jesus taught and the Bible’s self-attestation (Matt 5:17-20, 26:54, Luke 24:24-49, John 10:35, 2 Tim 3:16, 2 Pet 1:21).

Corporal discipline is no parenting panacea and a spanking-only approach to parenting is a harmful repudiation of the biblical testimony. A Christian parents’ ultimate goal is to point to and clarify the gospel to their children. Verbal instruction and correction, along with consequences for actions and restitution when possible, will be the more consistent form of discipline and training of one’s children. Nevertheless, there are times of willful defiance when the controlled, loving use of corporal discipline will accomplish what words cannot in driving folly out of the heart of a child (Prov 22:15).

All forms of discipline, including corporal discipline, are to focus on training the child and not the comfort of the parent. When the “rod” is used in uncontrolled anger, the child becomes dehumanized as an object on which the parent releases their frustration, and the result is a hellish division between the parent and child. Every parent has some approach to how they discipline their children. Some parents yell and scream, others parents banish their children to their room for an hour, and some beg, plead and bribe their children to obey. Often, immediate corporal discipline, accompanied by verbal instruction about sin and gospel hope that ends with an embrace and declaration of love provides some of the sweetest moments of intimate and affectionate love between a parent and child. Sin is clarified, the consequence of sin is administered, reconciliation is quick, and the gospel is proclaimed—a strategic gospel opportunity (I talk about using gospel language in dealing with your child’s sin here).

As a father of eight children, one of my most heartwarming parenting moments involves corporal discipline. My oldest son was about seven-years-old at the time, and my wife told him to make a Father’s Day card for me with the three things he was most thankful for about his dad. When he presented me the card, the first page was a picture of us playing baseball. It said, “I am thankful my dad teaches me how to play baseball.” The second page was a picture of me preaching and him listening to the sermon, and it said, “I am thankful my dad teaches me about God.” The third page was a picture of me spanking him. It said, “I am thankful my dad loves me enough to teach me right from wrong and tell me about Jesus.”

No matter what Jonathan Merritt, Michael Eric Dyson, and some social scientists say, I do believe that kind of biblical corporal discipline is an act of love. I also believe, along with countless evangelical Christians, that it is “not only a good thing but a ‘God thing’” and that Jesus has everything to do with it.

 Image credit: Boston Public Library

See Also: Are Pro-Spanking Christians Feckless or Faithful? A Response to Jonathan Merritt

David E. Prince
David E. Prince is the pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church and a professor of Christian preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

David E. Prince

David E. Prince is the Assistant Professor of Christian Preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition to his role on the faculty, he is also the pastor of Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. He is married to Judi and they have eight children.  Read More by this Author