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 pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24