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Spare the Rod? Spanking in an age of child abuse

In his blog post, "Why Jesus wants you to stop spanking your kids," theologian Benjamin Corey speaks to what seems to be a growing conviction inside of evangelical Christianity: God is against spanking. What seems to have triggered his post was the arrest and subsequent suspension of NFL football player Adrian Peterson for child abuse after "spanking" his child with a tree branch.

What should Christians, and especially Christian parents, make of these calls to "cease and desist" from spanking, especially in light of the rampant child abuse in our culture?" This post is an attempt to sketch an answer to that question looking to the book of Proverbs for direction. Why Proverbs? The book of Proverbs not only contains some of the clearest instructing on parenting in the Bible, but also specifically addresses in several places the use of the "Rod."

  • Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him. (Pro 13:24 ESV)
  • Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him. (Pro 22:15 ESV)
  • The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother. (Pro 29:15 ESV)

A couple of exegetical observations are in order at this point. First, is important to observe is that the "Rod" as it is used in Proverbs clearly refers to corporal punishment. The Proverbs certainly do not demand the use of the rod for every disciplinary situation. Verbal reproof is also mentioned in Proverbs, and it is further implied that if verbal correction is sufficient, then the rod is unnecessary (17:10). However, the proverbs are also clear that at least in some cases words alone will be insufficient.

  • By mere words a servant is not disciplined, for though he understands, he will not respond. (Pro 29:19 ESV)

In these cases the rod is a legitimate way for parents to correct and instruct their children and "drive out" the foolishness that is bound up in their hearts (22:15).

Second, the rod in Proverbs cannot be dismissed as a mere metaphor for a generic kind of discipline, like a time-out. Proverbs 23:13-14 state bluntly: "Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol." There is simply no way to avoid the obvious meaning of this passage as referring to the physical punishment (striking) of children as a legitimate means of discipline. As Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman III summarizes, "The “rod” is not to be taken metaphorically in the book, but rather as a tool of physical discipline."

Third, the rod in Proverbs NEVER JUSTIFIES ABUSE. It is quite clear that the issue of child abuse is one of the primary reasons many Christians are moving away from spanking. And in a society where the physical abuse of children is tragically rampant, I can understand how the bluntness of Proverbs 23:13-14 makes some parents very concerned. Further, we must acknowledge that in some cases child abuse has in fact been justified by an appeal to the Bible's teaching on not sparing the rod.  Let me be clear: Child abuse is a gross and grievous sin before God, and must never be tolerated by the Church. The Biblical legitimacy of the rod in no way condones or supports child abuse.

But still the question remains, does not spanking increase the likelihood that child abuse will occur? The answer is "No," as long as the use the rod is used the way that Proverbs intends. The overall context of the book of Proverbs puts several constraints on parents who would use the rod for discipline. For starters, it is clear that any use of the rod by parents must be modeled on God’s discipline of his children (Proverbs 3:11-12). This means that use of the rod is never done out of anger, but out of love. It also means that the purpose of the rod is not to punish or inflict payback, but is a "rescue mission" to save them from walking down a path that will destroy them. These two constraints alone preclude the possibility of spanking becoming Child Abuse. Further, the rod must be exercised by a parent who is following all of the other admonitions of wise behavior that he Proverbs lays out: slow to anger, patient, gentle, etc. Again, Tremper Longman helpfully summarizes: "Such physical punishment (the rod) was not severe, and these passages must never be used to legitimize any form of child abuse...Discipline is never to be done out of anger or hate or a desire to harm, but out of love and a desire that the person improve, In this way the parent follows the model of God, who disciplines his children."

In his book Shepherding a Child's Heart, Ted Tripp is equally clear. "Use of the rod is not a matter of an angry patent venting his wrath upon a small, helpless child...The rod is never a venting of parental anger. It is not what the parent does when he is frustrated. It is not a response to feeling that his child has made things hard for him. It is always measured and controlled." For those who may want to read further on this issue, Tripp also lists several unbiblical distortions of the Rod that parents must avoid, as well as common reasons often given by parents for not spanking their children which fail to be persuasive. It must be said that Corey's article cited above falls into this category. While his article might be taken as a warning about the harm of child abuse, there is no legitimate argument made against spanking as defined and constrained by the Proverbs. In fact, he doesn't deal with the text at all when making his case that Jesus doesn't want us to spank. 

The bottom line is this: Proverbs makes it clear God has given the rod as a legitimate tool of discipline. Most contemporary arguments against spanking fail to engage the text of Scripture and thus fail to persuade. The use of the rod is done out of love for the child, for the positive end of teaching them wisdom.

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