Spanking has become quite the controversial topic these days and has even become somewhat of a taboo in certain quarters. For this reason, Nancy French has a column in National Review Online in which she boldly declares “I Spank My Kids.” Her declaration is provoked by a report from Texas about a woman who was convicted of a felony for spanking her child. No belt was used, and no bruising occurred. Nevertheless, this woman lost custody of all three of her children and was sentenced to five years probation. After the trial, the judge scolded the mother saying:
“You don’t spank children today. In the old days, maybe we got spanked, but there was a different quarrel. You don’t spank children. You understand?”
This judge’s shaming of this mother indicates that the spirit of the age has gotten crosswise with the spirit of the Bible when it comes to spanking. Even though the Bible affirms corporal punishment (Proverbs 13:24), spanking has become a no-no, and parents who do spank are feeling the pressure to keep it secret lest they be accused of child abuse.
There is even a debate among some evangelicals about the ethics of spanking. This debate tends to focus on the proper application of the various “spanking” texts from the book of Proverbs.
Proverbs 13:24 He who spares his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently.
Proverbs 29:15 The rod and reproof give wisdom, But a child who gets his own way brings shame to his mother.
Proverbs 23:13-14 Do not hold back discipline from the child, Although you beat him with the rod, he will not die. You shall beat him with the rod, And deliver his soul from Sheol.
Proverbs 22:15 Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of discipline will remove it far from him.
Scholars such as William Webb argue that Christians have to go beyond the Bible’s affirmations of corporal punishment to a better ethic that would forbid it (see here and here). But I think that Webb and his ilk have misunderstood the Proverbs when it comes to physical discipline.
For a better account of the Bible’s teaching on corporal punishment, I would recommend a short article by Paul Wegner titled, “Discipline in the Book of Proverbs: ‘To Spank or Not To Spank?’.” In this article, Wegner shows from scripture several different levels of discipline, one of which is corporal punishment (#6).
Level 1. Encourage proper behavior: A wise parent encourages a child to behave properly (Prov. 1:8-9; 2:2-5; 3:13-15; 4:7-8).
Level 2. Inform of improper behavior: A wise parent is proactive and addresses certain issues before the child might be confronted by them (Prov. 1:10-15; 3:31-32).
Level 3. Explain the negative consequences of sin: A wise parent points out the negative consequences that lie along the path of life (Prov. 1:18-19; 5:3-6).
Level 4. Gently exhort: Wise parents will, on an ongoing basis, advise and exhort their children against sin that can easily become a pattern and encourage them to use wisdom (Prov. 4:1-2, 14-16).
Level 5. Gently rebuke or reprove: The wise parent knows when to use rebuke properly (Prov. 3:12; 24:24-25).
Level 6. Corporal punishment that does not cause physical harm: A wise parent knows when to use corporal, non-abusive punishment (Prov. 19:18; 13:24; 23:13-14; 29:15).
Level 7. Corporal punishment that causes physical harm: The book of Proverbs does not suggest that parents use this technique for discipline, but that serious sin can lead to serious punishment (Prov. 20:30; 10:31).
Level 8. Death: The book of Proverbs also does not include this in the realm of parental discipline, but in the realm of consequences meted out by government or society’s leaders (Gen. 9:6; Prov. 19:18).
This article does not say everything that needs to be said about physical discipline, but it does establish a biblical basis for it. Despite the pronouncements of the judge in Texas, parents who love their children will make use of non-abusive physical discipline (Prov. 13:24). This is what the Bible teaches, and we should be vigilant not to let the spirit of the age make us think otherwise.