What the Bible teaches about spanking

I can imagine that recent events may drive a fresh conversation in our culture about the morality of spanking. Americans have widely divergent views on the matter. Even evangelical Christians have seen some division over the issue in recent years. In light of this, Christians need to be ready to engage this discussion in a biblical way, insisting on the protection of children from abuse while also pursuing biblical truth concerning discipline.

For Christians, the key texts on this issue are in the book of Proverbs. Here’s a sample:

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 withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death.

Proverbs 22:15 Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of discipline will remove it far from him.

At first blush, these texts read like a straightforward endorsement of corporal punishment. While theologian William Webb has argued forcefully that they are not, Tom Schreiner has contended that such revisionist applications of the text are incorrect.

For a really helpful interpretation of the “spanking” texts in Proverbs, I recommend a short article by Paul Wegner titled, “Discipline in the Book of Proverbs: ‘To Spank or Not To Spank?’.” In this article, Wegner argues that the Proverbs in question reveal six different levels of discipline available to parents, 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).

Andy Naselli has a thoroughly biblical look at the issues in an article published last year titled “Training children for their good.” Naselli argues that the Bible supports the use of spanking as a legitimate form of discipline. There is careful discussion of the relevant biblical texts, especially the Proverbs. If you’re looking for a solid, biblically formed work on spanking, you need to read this. In fact if you don’t read anything else, you should read this one. Here is the outline of his argument:

Introduction

A. Seven Propositions about Discipline from Hebrews 12:4-11

1. God disciplines his children (Heb 12:5-7, 10).
2. God disciplines all his children (Heb 12:6, 8).
3. God disciplines only his children (Heb 12:6-8).
4. Discipline is training: God disciplines his children for their good (Heb 12:10-11).
5. Discipline seems unpleasant and painful (Heb 12:11).
6. God’s children should endure God’s discipline (Heb 12:5, 7, 9).
7. God’s disciplining his children compares to human parents’ disciplining their children (Heb 12:5, 7-10).

B. Levels of Discipline in the Book of Proverbs

Level 1. Teach
Level 2. Warn
Level 3. Enforce

Q1. Does “the rod” represent discipline but exclude physical discipline (Prov 13:24; 22:15; 23:13-14; 29:15)?
Q2. Is spanking a form of physical and psychological child abuse?
Q3. Do the proverbs about using the rod refer to young men rather than children?
Q4. Is spanking an obsolete part of the Mosaic law-covenant in the Old Testament?
Q5. Is spanking antithetical to the gospel?

C. Concluding Application

1. Pray for your children.
2. Evangelize your children.
3. Use multiple levels of discipline.
4. Love your children, and tell them and show them that you love them.
5. Beware of two extremes: (a) not disciplining and (b) over-disciplining.
6. Fathers, take the lead in discipline.
7. Learn how to discipline each of your children most effectively.
8. Distinguish between family rules and the Bible.
9. Be humble about parental discipline; don’t be proud and judgmental.
10. Persevere with a long-term view that trusts God’s word.

4. Recommended Resources

There is much more that can and should be said about this, but these writers conclude that the Bible allows corporal punishment that is non-abusive and that does not cause bodily harm. If you are interested in reading more, I recommend the resources that Naselli provides at the end of his article.

29 Responses to What the Bible teaches about spanking

  1. danny September 13, 2014 at 4:30 am #

    Can an application of a text be revisionist? Not sure that makes sense (but willing to be convinced).

    • Denny Burk September 13, 2014 at 9:23 am #

      I know it’s sounds strange to say a “revisionist application,” but I did so for a reason. William Webb advocates a “redemptive movement” hermeneutic that says that the application of the text shifts over time as readers advance beyond the inferior ethic reflected in the text. If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is.

  2. buddyglass September 13, 2014 at 9:05 am #

    I’m just not sure corporal punishment is necessary anymore. Discipline, yes, obviously, but I suspect parents can achieve roughly the same outcomes via other methods. If that’s true (and can certainly be disputed) then I don’t see the rationale for choosing to employ corporal punishment.

    • Ed Hardin September 13, 2014 at 10:37 am #

      It’s difficult to rationalize with oratory how painful electricity through the body would be to a 15 month old. Even harsh words mean nothing unless an understandable consequence is applied. The scale between spankings, to monologues to acceptable dialogues complete with requested petitions made by the child tips over time slowly so that spankings eventually cease.
      Tripp’s shepherding a child’s heart explains this well, among other resources.

    • Shari Jean September 13, 2014 at 10:58 am #

      I’m just not sure corporal punishment is necessary anymore.

      And why would corporal punishment not be necessary anymore? What means do we have to achieve the same outcomes that parents in biblical days did not have? That is not logical at all.

      • buddyglass September 13, 2014 at 2:33 pm #

        More things to take away as punishment.

  3. Don Johnson September 13, 2014 at 11:25 am #

    Webb’s argument is not that hard to understand. He looked at some of the then current teachings on spanking and found seven ways that they reduced/changed what the Bible text said and interestingly he agreed with all of these changes. But then he asked why not add an eighth change and eliminate corporal punishment altogether, at least as an allowed choice of parents? If you are going to make seven changes to what the text says (in order to get to the current conservative evangelical view of “Biblical” discipline), why not make an eighth?

    As a parent I have used corporal punishment but extremely rarely. A child does need discipline, but not all children are the same and what might be appropriate for one might be entirely inappropriate for another. Since we are sinners, there are some parents that will hear the “Biblical disciple includes corporal punishment” teaching and abuse their kids.

    I agree with Webb that faithful parents can decide that they will not use corporal punishment.

  4. glanotte September 13, 2014 at 1:59 pm #

    I am curious what you would say to people who say that spanking is mandatory and to not spank your children is being disobedient to God? This was a perspective that we ran into as foster parents, where spanking is strictly prohibited.

    • tedfrazier September 17, 2014 at 11:33 am #

      First of all, foster children are not actually your children. You do not have the authority to decide on spanking for somebody else’s children. You could explain all the reasoning behind not using physical pain as punishment on a child who is highly likely to have been abused in the past, but simply saying “they’re not actually mine and it’s illegal” should be enough of an explanation. Taking the foster part out of the equation, Not spanking would only be a sin if the child was in a situation where spanking was obviously needed and the parent refused. I believe SOME kids rarely actually need to be spanked, and all kids differ in when they reach a point of maturity where spanking is no longer needed. Sometimes it is a judgement call that only the parent knows well enough to decide and we should give them the liberty to make that decision.

      • Geoff Lanotte September 17, 2014 at 12:48 pm #

        Thanks! That is very often what we would say, but the often quick retort was that you can’t raise children God’s way unless you spank them. It was just the first time I had run across that perspective. I think the bible allows it but doesn’t command it and that proverbs are not necessarily considered commands or promises.

        However, that is an interesting point about the the child needing it and the parent refusing. That is a perspective I hadn’t considered.

        • tedfrazier September 18, 2014 at 12:22 pm #

          Also, thanks for fostering. Good foster parents are very much needed. My wife and I have been foster parents for three years and have fostered 20 kids in that time.

  5. Adam Omelianchuk September 13, 2014 at 3:46 pm #

    Couldn’t Naselli have put “God disciplines all and only his children” under one point? Theologians and there bullet points! Also, it seems clear to me that Scripture treats spanking (if it treats it at all) as purely an instrumental good, the end of which is the good of discipline, and the end of discipline is a worshipful life. If it doesn’t further those ends in a way that is superior to other forms of discipline, then it should be abandoned for the other forms; otherwise one might risk *disobeying* God continuing to spank.

  6. Justin Garcia September 14, 2014 at 12:55 am #

    Good discussion here. I have a question that I never really thought about before until now. As mentioned in the article AP or Adrian Peterson, star NFL RB for the Minnesota Vikings, has been charged with child abuse for leaving marks while disciplining his 4 year old son. AP’s lawyer’s argument was that Adrian intended to discipline his son and never meant to harm him. While I cannot say for sure what Adrian’s motives were, I do believe it is asking the right question. Most child abuse laws are governed by what someone did and not so much what their motives were in doing it (unless it’s a capital offense). God disciplines out of love, hence he commands us to discipline our children for to not discipline is to hate them, leaving them to be punished when they disobey authority when they leave the home.

    Now I can’t say for sure that the Bible (in the book of Proverbs) teaches that you are only to use a rod and not leave any marks. I think it’s entirely possible that visible marks were left when a son would receive discipline, which by today’s standard would be considered child abuse. But it seems to me that the real crime is the motive. If a father or mother intends to discipline their child because they love them and want their greatest good, then that must be what defines good discipline. For it’s possible to obey the law and not commit child abuse against your children , but still hate your children by giving them no discipline at all (as in the case of the prophet Eli’s sons).

    To me, discipline is defined by the motive and no so much the act itself. The act is a result of the motive, whether for good or bad. If Adrian Peterson hit his son out of anger and selfish pride then he has not only violated the laws of the land, but the law of God. The question for me is whether it is possible to bring physical harm to a child (or teenager) perhaps unintentionally out of a motive of love because they intended to discipline their child to teach them that what they did is not okay. It seems that love is the defining factor behind discipline. What do you think? What are some other considerations?

    • buddyglass September 14, 2014 at 9:13 am #

      An improper motive makes the acdt sinful, if not illegal, regardless of the severity of the punishment. But I don’t think the legal system should consider only motive. Plenty of horrible things (that we definitely want to continue to be illegal regardless of motive) have been done by well-meaning yet confused, ignorant or mentally ill parents down through the ages.

      • Marsha Miller September 14, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

        I don’t believe that motive determines whether or not discipline is child abuse. The parents of Lydia Schatz and Hana Williams followed what they thought were Biblical teachings on discipline and their children are dead.

      • Justin Garcia September 14, 2014 at 12:54 pm #

        Agreed Buddyglass! I should have mentioned that the Bible does not require corporal punishment, but seems to be more concerned with correction and discipline out of love. So I think a Christian can spank their child but should also obey the laws of the land. And the laws state that you can’t leave a mark, which is probably based on a general rule that if a mark is left, the punishment is too severe. And I think for small children, there is no reason to hit them hard enough to leave a mark. I was thinking more in the case of a teenage son who received the rod from his father in the Proverbs scenario.

    • Marsha Miller September 14, 2014 at 5:51 pm #

      Since I wrote my last comment I have seen a photograph of Peterson’s son. There are whip marks all over his legs, crusted over with dried blood. In addition, he admits he hit the boy on his scrotum.

      There is no conceivable excuse for Peterson. Not long ago he lost his two year old son (with a different woman). The boy was beaten to death by his mother’s new boyfriend who claimed he only meant to discipline him.

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