In an online editorial, the editors of Christianity Today have gone on the record against spanking. The subtitle of the article says that “misuse of biblical teaching on discipline can have deadly consequences.” The editors then go on to list several instances of fatal child abuse that have been linked to parents who take a literal interpretation of scriptural passages on discipline. They agree with the case William Webb has made against spanking and say that Albert Mohler “seems to miss the point” on the theological ramifications of corporal punishment. Finally, the editors encourage parents to cease spanking and to “explore more creative and effective ways to train up our children in the way they should go.”
There are a number of problems with this editorial, not the least of which is its unsatisfying interaction with the biblical issues at stake in this debate. The CT editorial relies almost entirely on William Webb’s trajectory hermeneutic—a way of interpreting the Bible that says modern readers sometimes need to move beyond the ethical instruction of scripture to an ethic that supercedes it.
Webb first applied this hermeneutic to the gender issue in his book Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals. More recently, Webb has taken a similar approach to corporal punishment in his book Corporal Punishment in the Bible. In the first book, Webb argues that even though certain passage of the New Testament favor male headship, modern readers have to move beyond that teaching to a better ethic. Similarly, in the new book on spanking, Webb argues that even though certain passages of the Old Testament favor corporal punishment, Christians have to move beyond those passage as well to a non-violent position. It is the latter book that the editors of CT appeal to in their article.
Webb’s hermeneutic was widely criticized ten years ago because it allows specific biblical teaching to be nullified by the reader’s perception of redemption trajectories. In other words, this approach to reading the Bible presents a threat to the authority of scripture. In a 2004 article for JETS, I think Wayne Grudem highlights the difficulty best:
It nullifies in principle the moral authority of the entire NT and replaces it with the moral authority of a “better ethic,” an ethic that Webb claims to be able to discover through a complex hermeneutical process entirely foreign to the way God intended the Bible to be read, understood, believed, and obeyed. Because a denial in principle of the moral authority of the NT commands is at the heart of the whole system, and because the system denies the historical accuracy of the creation account, I do not believe Webb’s “redemptive-movement hermeneutic” should be accepted as a valid system for evangelicals today (p. 346).
Tom Schreiner notes that there are differences between Webb’s earlier book on the gender issue and the more recent one on corporal punishment. Nevertheless, Schreiner cautions:
One wonders, in considering Webb’s work as a whole, if he is prone to domesticating the Bible to fit modern conceptions. If Webb is correct, women can serve as pastors and children should be disciplined without any corporal punishment. What is next? … God’s Word does not necessarily fit the cultural mores and thought conventions of our day. In responding to some of the extremes of fundamentalism, Webb must beware that he does not land in the lap of liberalism.
The editors at CT appear to have embraced Webb’s hermeneutic as a legitimate way of reading the Bible. They should not be surprised, however, that there are many evangelicals who disagree.
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 gives a better explanation of the Proverbial texts than the editors of CT. 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 editorial from CT, 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 an interpretive approach that is foreign to scripture.