What the Bible Teaches About Spanking
“Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is. And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.” (Ephesians 5:17-18)
The subject of spanking, corporal punishment, is one of the most controversial topics that adults discuss. There are two opposite extremes to the subject: those who justify abuse—and those who believe that “science” has proven that any form of spanking is criminal violence. Each of these extremes is prejudice; both are deceptive and misleading. The first distorts the teaching of the Bible to justify cruelty and injustice. The second would have us believe there is no difference between a loving parent spanking his child out of concern for him and the most indefensible criminal assault and battery. This is like saying house-cats and lions kill many people each year throughout the world.
One of the essential needs of a human being is the ability to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong—and to experience contriteness for doing wrong. Contriteness means feeling regret and sorrow-that-I-did-it, as opposed to sorrow-that-I-got-caught. All effective training and the discipline that works with good training is focused on this crucial need. There are children who have never felt ashamed of doing wrong; there are children who have been humiliated and belittled, but have never really felt remorseful or penitent. Both abuse of children through cruelty and criminal violence, and abuse of children through benign neglect deprive the children of this most necessary experience of feeling inward grief and sorrow for having done wrong.
The exact meaning of the word spanking is not precise; spanking means abuse to about half of the population; spanking means appropriate correction to the other half. The dictionary defines spanking as “a number of slaps on the buttocks delivered in rapid succession, as for punishment.” This definition does not cover enough ground; it does not address the use of something other than the hand.
Those who distort the Bible to justify abuse are obsessed with their need to physically punish their children. They are drunk with the compulsion to hit, to lash out. Their conduct is excessive, far beyond what is justifiable or defensible, just as alcohol or drug use brings people to extreme behavior. The result of their actions is an awful reproach; their drunken approach to governing their children is far, far from what God teaches in the Bible. These people are not fit to raise children, and all children, including theirs, should be protected from them.
Other people are just as obsessed with not ever laying a hand on their children. They are drunken with a compulsion not to restrain their children in any physical way. They are inclined to say such things as “Follow your heart,” not realizing that there is something corrupted in the hearts of all human beings from birth. Some of these try to govern their children with methods that never involve corporal punishment of any kind, while others simply do not correct or control the behavior of their children effectively. Here, too, is excess.
Parental Accountability to God and to Others
If it is fair for parents to be held accountable for excessive discipline of their children, then they should be held accountable for under-disciplining. They should be held accountable for a lack of love in failing to restrain their children, and they should be held accountable in punishing their children too much. Both extremes are unreasonable; both do much damage to the children. Although under-discipline does not typically leave physical damage, it leaves terrible spiritual damage; while excessive, unbalanced discipline leaves physical and spiritual damage. Both devastate the family structure and destroy family government. Both leave a child ill-equipped for life among other human beings.
To whom should the parents have to answer as to how they go about their responsibilities? “For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:11-12) When we give account of ourselves to God in the end, He will be absolutely fair and impartial in His judgment. We will be judged righteously. But there are preliminary accountings before this final, absolute one. God has set up other authority to restrain men from sin while they are in the flesh. These authorities are imperfect and get mixed up and both forbid and require things by law that are not right. We should obey the laws of men when those laws do not conflict with the laws of God. In Romans 13:1-7, we read, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” However, while a Christian pays taxes and attempts to render to the government its dues, the laws of men may contradict what is right or wrong before God. Then we read in Acts 4:18-19, “And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye.” Children of God are citizens of a kingdom that is not of this world, and they are citizens of some human government in this world. Their citizenship of the non-earthly, and the responsibilities of that citizenship are superior to their lower citizenship. If the laws of God conflict with the laws of men, we should obey God.
Now the laws of men forbid parents to beat their children until they are dead, or until they are bruised all over, or until their bones are broken. You can be arrested, charged with criminal behavior, and convicted if you do these things in the United States. No child of God should be guilty of these things; they are a reproach, and they are shameful. They break the laws of God, as well as the laws of men. “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted.” (Ephesians 4:32)
Extremists against corporal punishment would tell us, “Children are the only citizens who can be beaten with impunity, and this probably arises from the belief that children are the property of others rather than human beings who have rights.” Extremists for corporal punishment would tell us, “Parents should have the right to slay their children for their own good and for the good of other children.” Now, “Rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.” It is evil to destroy your children in the name of saving them. It is just as evil to neglect their training and discipline by regarding all corporal punishment as being “beaten with impunity.”
In Luke 7:33-35, Jesus gave us a guideline to use when dealing with all extremism. The unbelieving Jews rejected John the Baptist, “For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and ye say, He hath a devil.” They did not want the truth, therefore they picked on John’s abstinence. So God sent them His Son, and we read, “The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!” What is the guideline? What is the lesson to be drawn? “But wisdom is justified of all her children.” That is, the fruit of the thing tells the story, whether it is evil or good. “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16) The fruit of appropriate spanking and other disciplinary tools is good and healthy; the fruit of permissiveness or of cruelty is evil.
There is a time to approve and support the secular authority when a long reign of terror, cruelty, and bullying finally comes to an end in the home of the abused. And there is a time to equally abhor and grieve over the misapplication of secular authority in interfering with and interrupting the appropriate discipline of a blessed, God-fearing home. The censure and disapproval of society should be on homes where the children are not in submission to the parents in a right way, and we welcome a recent trend toward holding parents accountable for the criminal actions of their children at home who should be under their authority, but who are neglected and not supervised as they should be.
If the policeman enters the home of a murderer or a child molester and arrests him or her, we give our approval. Such people should answer for their conduct. We would not want people to murder or molest children without any law or order. “He beareth not the sword in vain.” (Romans 13:4) We want the police to have the power and authority to put a stop to crime and lawlessness. When the laws of the governments of men become corrupted (when they clash with the law of God), the flaw is with the corruption—not the reality of secular government. “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour.” (1 Timothy 2:1-3) The Christian is a citizen, first and foremost, of a kingdom that is not of this world. He is to be a good citizen of that kingdom, and he is to be as good a citizen as he can be in the secular government under which he currently resides.
Biblical Teaching About Spanking
Those who do not want to spank their children find little support in the Bible for their opinion, while those who are inclined to excessive behavior in spanking their children justify their conduct by twisting and distorting certain scriptures. Like many other Bible subjects, certain verses appear to justify those who wrest the scriptures to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). If these verses are rightly understood (2 Timothy 2:15), they teach a healthy, balanced approach of wisdom that will commend itself to anyone who wants to responsibly raise and govern children.
The first of these twisted verses is: “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.” (Proverbs 23:13-14)
This verse is fairly guaranteed to raise the hackles of anyone who is opposed to corporal punishment. It seems to teach that parents can and should beat their children to a pulp (“he shall not die”—but a child can die at the hands of a parent) to get them to obey, and that the very eternal salvation of the soul of the child is at stake if the parents don’t go to this extreme.
Along side this verse, we will present two other verses: “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4) “Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.” (Colossians 3:21)
You can see right away that these two verses put a restraint on the parent, whereas the verse from Proverbs would seem to give unlimited freedom from normal restraints or regulations. But taking the Bible as a whole (the only way to rightly understand what it teaches), we see that discipline is to be administered in such a way that does not provoke the children to wrath (needlessly and unfairly) and does not discourage the child. The whole process can be accurately described as “to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” These are very descriptive words; they mean a great deal. The word nurture is related to such words as nourish, nurse, and nutrition. It conveys the idea of something needed, something essential to proper development—something that does not discourage growth and advancement. A parent is not primarily a disciplinarian, but a nurturer of their children. The disciplinary aspect of their responsibility is just part of that responsibility. They are not just Mr. or Mrs. Make-you-do-it, but accountable assistants to God (stewards), entrusted with the care and development of precious young souls. Those who abuse their children exaggerate the chastisement aspect of parents all out of proportion, warping and deforming the entire meaning of being a father or mother and bringing a reproach upon all who try to parent responsibly.
One of the checks that God has built into the process is that children grow up into adults themselves. After a time, those children are no longer children, and they are looking with adult eyes at those who had their government for a while. In the normal course of life, parents enter into their second childhood, and the situation is reversed. Those who were children get to become caretakers to the old people who were their parents before. This does not happen with all, but in the normal progression of things, the parents do indeed reap what they have sown (Galatians 6:7).
Why Does the Bible Teach So Strongly About Corporal Punishment?
“Well,” you may say, “this nurturing is all well and good. But why would the Bible assert such a strong and emphatic way (beating) of dealing with a child?”
Because there is something in the child that is not amendable to reasoning and polite restraint. Here is the Bible scripture for that: “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.” (Proverbs 22:15) We also find this described in Romans 8:7, “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” The child comes to this world with his own deadly enemy in him—we carry within us the seeds of our own destruction from the womb. Note the untiring, unflagging aspect of this thing in every child. It is “bound in the heart” and “it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” Frankly, this is something that all the most excellent parenting in the world cannot remove, although it can “drive it far from him,” i.e., move considerable distance between the conduct of the child and the thing that is in his heart, so that he behaves in a more civilized manner and demonstrates character. That is, he can be conditioned and trained in such a way that contradicts and restrains the corrupted moral nature within him. This is the best that the parents can do for the child; only God can do more than this, and He has set it up so that the child must choose to come to Him for further help. God can and will deliver us from our enemy if we seek Him as He says to do (Luke 1:74-75). Good training is an irrefutable pointer to the essential need of a heart regeneration.
Now a lot of people do not believe the Word of God along these lines. Some of them believe that the parent must try to do what only God can do. Others are persuaded that we have no corrupted nature of enmity against God; they want to think, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that we somehow evolved from lower forms of life and were not even created. We find that the anti-spanking movement has done a brilliant job of propagating the view that spanking is just another form of child abuse, and they smack us with this propaganda along with a smattering of half-truths. Here is an example of one of these half-truths: Spanking is “any disciplinary hitting of kids that’s not injurious or currently considered abusive.”1 Take note of the word hitting, which can include punching, cuffing, boxing the ears, and slapping the face. This is typical of unbelief. Light is not just light and darkness is not just darkness with them; they must needs confuse the two. “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!” (Isaiah 5:20-21) Behind this blurring of the line between right and wrong is unbelief.
[Holly Bennett, Today’s Parent; “A Good Spanking or a Bad Habit?”]
The rightful responsibility of the parents, working together with God, is to train the child to distinguish between right and wrong, in such a way that harmonizes and synchronizes with the dealing of the Holy Ghost in the heart. It is a great privilege, as well as a profound responsibility, to be given this place to work with God in the oncoming generation. And when it is done right, there is a lasting effect, even if the child never chooses to allow God to bring about a work of grace in the soul. That lasting effect is described in Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” The training has a life-long effect.
The nature of the child is at the root of his/her great need—the need for firm, loving correction—constantly pointing in the right direction toward the greatest decision that he/she will ever make: the need to get right with God.
Now, the reader can see at a glance that beating the child excessively does not point in this direction, and neither does hands-off, leave-them-to-themselves parenting. Some are too harsh and tyrannical in their attempts to govern, while others are too lenient.
Differences in Children
Every human being is different. Some of us are slow learners, while others seems to respond faster to the need to submit to family government—to be told what to do and required to do it. This is one of the great lessons of life—that I am not a law unto myself—and many people never learn it. If I cannot accept authority from parents, will I be able to accept the Great Authority? If I get a wrong idea about what authority is and why submission to it is required, what will it do to my concept of God?
Because we are each different, some of us require and need more chastisement than others. Some are naturally outwardly compliant, although the inward motivations may be very different from the outward actions. While others are more like the son who refused to go when his father commanded him to go in the field, but afterward, he went. His brother, who at first seemed to respond obediently to the command, did not go (Matthew 21:28-31). The scripture in Proverbs 23:13-14 is an encouragement to be resolute enough to deal with those who need that much discipline. The position of those who go to excess in not dealing with the need of the child would be to say, “No child needs to be spanked”; but that is not true. Some children need it very much, along with the level of nurturing and admonishment that is appropriate to the strength of their will. With these unruly, willful children, stern measures are necessary to help them in their need; yet again the emphasis and focus of the scripture is on their nurturing. To those parents, who by temperament and disposition are not suited to raising such children, but who have them to raise, the Bible records, “Correct thy son, and he shall give thee rest; yea, he shall give delight unto thy soul.” (Proverbs 29:17) “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” (Proverbs 13:24) “Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying.” (Proverbs 19:18) Notice the words in these scriptures. It does not say, “Chasten all the time,” nor does it say that the means (spanking) should become the end (the whole point), but it plainly presents the chastening as a means to an end, with the emphasis on the end. In other words, it must work good to the child. If it is not working good, it is time to stop and ask God what to do. The word “betimes” (early) tells us that there is a season when a spanking might do what is needed, and that there is a season when a spanking will not do what is needed. There can come a time when chastisement is hopeless. That will be a good test of your love for that child. Did you love him/her all along, or were you caught up in the spirit of abuse? Did you pray for the love of God to be shed abroad in your heart, or did you depend on just your love for your child?
Spanking in Perspective
But spanking by itself is no good at all. Corporal punishment is not the only tool for correction in the parents’ toolbox, not even the main tool, nor should it be used by itself. To spank a child who seriously doubts whether you love him will do great damage. To spank a child because you are angry or vindictive is not nurturing at all. To just hit a child is not chastisement. To just slap a child is not properly corrective. Inappropriate behavior will not yield the peaceable fruits of righteousness. Furthermore, at a certain age (and it differs with the child), spanking will be counterproductive. When the child is no longer a child, but an adolescent (partway between a child and an adult), spanking is no longer appropriate for most. And for some children, there may be little good that can be done by a spanking at any age; other means of correction will be more effective.
As a rebellious seven-year-old, I despised the restraint of my parents and dreamed of the time when I would “grow up” and be on my own. My stubborn will collided daily with my mother. Fortunately she was equally determined to keep restraining and correcting me; she loved me too much to leave me to myself. I tried her severely. One day, after a great deal of inexcusable behavior on my part, she was very irritated. As she went to chastise me (yet again), she said, “You little imp!” When she said this, the Spirit of God convicted her that it was wrong to have said. I fully deserved to be called an imp by my actions, yet I was not a little devil (an imp), just a rebellious, disobedient boy. Before she chastised me, she apologized to her seven-year-old son. Inwardly, although I was careful to show no outward sign, I was profoundly affected. My little selfish philosophy, that my parents handled me thus because they were bigger and could (and that they secretly enjoyed their superiority), took a big hit that day. Mother was sincere. She really was doing what she was doing to me in the fear of God. The chastisement touched my heart. The chastisement was more than the spanking; it was her attitude toward the standard of right and wrong that spanked me inside.
The Chastisement of the Lord
How does God spank? “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.” (Hebrews 12:6) What is His purpose in this chastening and scourging? “He for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.” (Hebrews 12:10) Here is His commitment to His children: “If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments; If they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless my lovingkindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail. My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips.” (Psalm 89:30-34) Notice the careful, measured response of God to our need. Unlike fallible human parents, God makes no mistakes. He always gets it right the first time. “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:13-14) At times, we need the rod; at times, we need the stripes; God knows that. If we fail to get them, the result will be injurious to us. God’s great love and faithfulness to us is in the discipline. He loves us too much to allow us to misbehave. He understands the result of neglecting to correct. God understands when a spanking will do no good, too. He has a whole range of corrective measures that He takes when we need it; He also knows when the time for hope by chastisement is gone. “Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.” (Isaiah 1:5) Yet even here, with all hope of correction through punishment vanished, God still loves; God still wants the best for us.
“Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children.” (Ephesians 5:1) The need of our children for training and correction is so serious that we cannot afford to overreact or to under-react. Too much is at stake. We must get it right. It is our formidable responsibility and unique privilege. We are accountable to Him who gives us a pattern to follow in His parenting of us. He has allowed us to share some of the burden and some of the delight of the oversight of others. Let us do right by those who rearing is entrusted to our care.