When the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) met last week, it passed a recommendation calling on its members to adopt discipline methods that do not include corporal punishment. It not only calls on schools and orphanages to abandon spanking, but it also calls on parents to abandon it as well. The PCUSA issued a series of rationales for this decision. Here is Rationale #1:
Corporal punishment models aggressive behavior as a solution to conflict. Numerous research studies have associated corporal punishment with increased aggression in children and adults, increased substance abuse, increased risk of crime and violence, low self-esteem, and chronic depression. It is difficult to imagine Jesus of Nazareth condoning any action that is intended to hurt children physically or psychologically. Time outs and deprivation of privileges are as effective as corporal punishment in stopping undesirable behavior. The effectiveness of corporal punishment decreases with subsequent use and therefore leads caretakers to hit children more severely. Children must eventually develop their own conscience and self-discipline, which are fostered by a home environment of love, respect, and trust.
The PCUSA apparently sees no distinction between loving discipline and gratuitous violence. One member who spoke in favor of the measure put it this way, “If we can’t stand against hitting and abusing children, what can we stand for? Let us love them and not hit them.”
One thing that was missing from the recommendation is any interaction with the numerous biblical texts (especially the Proverbs) that commend corporal punishment as a loving means of 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).
Wegner’s article does not say everything that needs to be said about physical discipline, but it does establish a biblical basis for it. Despite this action from the PCUSA, 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 Bible’s teaching to be nullified by appeals to authority that trump scripture.
For more on this topic, I recommend Andreas Köstenberger’s discussion in God, Marriage, and Family.