Especially in light of increasing public pressures not to spank children, parents are legitimately questioning whether or not spanking should be a part of their repertoire. As parents who seek to train up our children as God has prescribed, we must look to His word as our authoritative source for parental training. Thankfully, the Bible has much to say regarding parental discipline. But can it bring clarity to the question of spanking? Does the Bible teach that parents should spank their children?
I believe yes, and yes—but with very specific parameters and limitations. The Bible is quite clear about disciplinary method, purpose, and results. Biblical discipline is always to be conducted in love and for the purpose of the growth and godliness of the one being disciplined. It is never punishment, and never abusive. It is painful, yes, but should never be harmful. Over the course of five articles I will consider in detail five very direct passages pertaining to the physical disciplining of children: Proverbs 13:24, 22:15, 23:13-14, and 29:15, and Hebrews 12:5-13.
As this series begins, I must preface it by noting that many events of the Hebrew Bible take place under the economy of the Mosaic Law, and because that Law governed Israel as a nation and not church-age believers of today, we need to be cautious to properly understand Old Testament context. We certainly don’t want to misapply a principle or a mandate. But the book of Proverbs makes things relatively simple. Proverbs is filled with universal truths not restricted to any particular era or economy, but broadly applicable to God’s people in any age. So, we begin there.
He who withholds his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently. (NASB, Prov. 13:24)
The Hebrew shebet, references a rod or staff, used typically in the pastoral setting as a physical restrainer and teacher for the governing of a flock. The one who hates his son is withholding (Heb., cho-sek, participle) the rod from, or refraining to use the rod on his son.
Hate (Heb., sane) is a prominently used word indicating a disposition one might have toward an enemy. In a literal grammatical-historical understanding, the meaning of the phrase is crystal clear: withholding the rod of discipline is simply hateful toward a child.
By contrast, the one who is loving (Heb., ahav—here in the participle form) his son disciplines diligently. The Hebrew shahar (is diligent) is a verb in the Piel stem—a stem that is intensive or emphatic. The phrase could be accurately translated as, “The one loving his son is a very, very diligent discipliner.” A discipliner in this phrase is contrasted with the withholder of the rod in the previous one. The simple question implied for parents is this: “Do we or do we not love our children?” We do so (at least in part) by providing them discipline (Heb., noun, musar—reproof, chastening, or correction). In this context there is but one litmus test for parental love.
Some practical implications
While we can’t yet flesh out a functionally comprehensive understanding of the Biblical perspective on spanking until we have examined all the related passages and considered them synthetically, there are some principles immediately evident from this first passage:
(1) Proper discipline is associated with the use of the rod. How much and how forcefully, and when to apply the rod and for what purpose, are issues not addressed in this particular passage. We can’t even assert from this passage that the rod should be the exclusive method of discipline. Such an assertion goes beyond the text itself. Nonetheless, the association of the rod to proper discipline is undeniable.
(2) Proper discipline is associated with love. The reasons are not explained in this verse, but the only passages in Proverbs that mention parental love (3:12 and 13:24) describe the expression of that love in terms of discipline. Whereas punishment may be associated with retribution and wrath, discipline is not related to those ideas.
(3) Proper discipline is not described here in terms of abuse or causing harm, nor is it described as punishment. Likewise, God does not punish His children; instead He disciplines them. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1), and punishment is related to condemnation. On the other hand, discipline is for training up in righteousness—and that is an important part of every believer’s walk. Since God exemplifies righteous fatherhood, we should, of course, seek to emulate His approach with His children: discipline is to be conducted as an expression of love for the spiritual well-being of the child, and punishment should have no place in the parental vocabulary of the believer.
We begin, then, to catalog the principles, until we have examined each of the related passages in order to understand how the principles complement one another, and finally to address the questions of how spanking is to be utilized by the believer, if at all.
While I hope to clarify some of these things as the series progresses, I challenge readers not to wait for me—and not to simply rely on my words, but rather to search these things out on their own. If these articles accomplish anything at all, I hope they challenge readers (1) to value the Scriptures as the ultimate guide for parenting (and even life itself) and (2) to be diligent in searching its pages.