(Today and Thursday, we’ll be posting two perspectives on Christian parenting. Anne Sokol’s focuses on Tedd Tripp’s popular book on parenting. In tomorrow’s article, Aaron Blumer writes on “The Simplicity of Biblical Parenting.”)
For brevity, I focus here on my disagreements with Shepherding a Child’s Heart—its application of some Scriptures and its overall emphasis. My main concerns are these:
- The book’s focus on requiring obedience as the primary component of the parent/child relationship and emphasis on parental authority as the right to require obedience.
- Tripp’s teaching that spanking is the means the parent must use in order to bring a child back into “the circle of blessing.”
- Tripp’s interpretation that the “rod” in Proverbs equals spanking, that spanking is even for young children, that spanking is the God-ordained means of discipline (which parents must obey) and that use of the rod saves a child’s soul from death.
- His portrayal of any other style or method of parenting in a derogatory manner and training parents’ consciences that failure to discipline as his book teaches is disobedience to God.
These points are the heart of Tripp’s teaching, and while his book contains many truths, it does not communicate the full truth of gospel-oriented parenting, as he claims it does.
1. Is obedience the primary component of the parent-child relationship, and is it right for parents to mainly exercise their authority as the right to require obedience?
For several reasons, I see the obedience emphasis as a frustrating, and even false, paradigm for the parent/child relationship. The truth of the gospel is that my child will never obey me or God perfectly while on the earth. I, an adult, will never obey God perfectly on this earth. The essence of the gospel is that perfect obedience to God’s standards is only achieved by Christ—and in Him, we are free from this exacting burden.
So emphasizing obedience as the primary component of the family relationship, as Tripp does, distorts the gospel and puts our focus on ourselves and our sinfulness—not only because we will always fail, but also because our works are not praiseworthy; they are only acceptable insomuch as they are the Spirit’s work. The gospel focuses us on Christ’s obedience and His complete sufficiency for us. And the deeper we understand and accept that truth, the more we are transformed into His image (i.e., the more we obey). Obedience is the fruit, not the object. Obedience is our joyful freedom, not our punishable law.
Martin Luther wrote:
Therefore the first care of every Christian ought to be to lay aside all reliance on works, and strengthen his faith alone more and more, and by it grow in the knowledge, not of works, but of Christ Jesus, who has suffered and risen again for him, as Peter teaches (1 Peter v.) when he makes no other work to be a Christian one….
Then comes in that other part of Scripture, the promises of God, which declare the glory of God, and say, “If you wish to fulfil [sic] the law, and, as the law requires, not to covet, lo! believe in Christ, in whom are promised to you grace, justification, peace, and liberty.” All these things you shall have, if you believe, and shall be without them if you do not believe. For what is impossible for you by all the works of the law, which are many and yet useless, you shall fulfil [sic] in an easy and summary way through faith, because God the Father has made everything to depend on faith….
Now, since these promises of God are words of holiness, truth, righteousness, liberty, and peace, and are full of universal goodness, the soul, which cleaves to them with a firm faith, is so united to them, nay, thoroughly absorbed by them, that it not only partakes in, but is penetrated and saturated by, all their virtues.1
A better rubric for parenting is developing a loving relationship (which does entail teaching obedience) which prayerfully prepares a child’s heart so that it is favorable to receive the good seed of the gospel. Again, teaching obedience is one part of this. Tripp’s emphasis is wrong and his methods are limited—he claims that communication and the rod are the only “biblical” methods of discipline.
Second, on the subject of authority as the right to require obedience, Tripp writes:
Authority best describes the parent’s relationship to the child. (p. xix)
When your child is old enough to resist your directives, he is old enough to be disciplined. When he is resisting you, he is disobeying…. Rebellion can be something as simple as an infant struggling against a diaper change or stiffening out his body when you want him to sit in your lap. (p. 154)
Yes, loving parenting authority does require obedience, but the extent to which Tripp emphasizes this is mistaken. Though he mentions other aspects of servanthood in authority, his main thrust is authority as requiring obedience, and he goes to great lengths to teach parents exactly how to exercise authority in this manner. Tripp’s book makes this the main factor in the parent/child relationship in a manner that is not consistent with Scripture.
For example, God’s relationship with us as His children is characterized by many things other than His right to demand obedience from us. He emphasizes lovingkindness, rejoicing, longsuffering, compassion, and sacrifice. He meets our true needs, helps us to will and to do His good pleasure, has compassion on us, blesses us—and much more. Tripp gives little attention to how these apply to parenting.
We want to model the entire nature of God—not mainly God’s exercise of authority over us to command obedience. Communicating to my child that God can be trusted because He always is acting in wisdom, righteousness and truth toward us is the more godly path to obedience.
Again, Martin Luther understands:
This also is an office of faith: that it honours with the utmost veneration and the highest reputation Him in whom it believes, inasmuch as it holds Him to be truthful and worthy of belief…. What higher credit can we attribute to any one than truth and righteousness, and absolute goodness?
Thus the soul, in firmly believing the promises of God, holds Him to be true and righteous…. In doing this the soul shows itself prepared to do His whole will; in doing this it hallows His name, and gives itself up to be dealt with as it may please God. For it cleaves to His promises, and never doubts that He is true, just, and wise, and will do, dispose, and provide for all things in the best way. Is not such a soul, in this its faith, most obedient to God in all things?
In His dealings with us as His children, God does nothing like reaching down and spanking us each time we disobey. Sin has natural consequences, but God bears them with us, redeems them, and works in the secret places of our hearts transforming our beliefs and understanding about Him. Greater obedience results. His graciousness is not permissive, but it is very patient—training yet not demanding.
2. Does spanking bring a child back into the “circle of blessing”?
Shepherding a Child’s Heart connects spanking with blessing:
The rod returns the child to the place of blessing…. The rod of correction returns him to the place of submission to parents in which God has promised blessing. (p. 115)
The disobedient child has moved outside the place of covenant blessing. The parent must quickly restore the child to the proper relationship with God and the parent. As the child returns to the circle of blessing, things go well for him. He enjoys long life. (p. 135-136)
The Bible does not support Tripp’s teaching that spanking brings a child back into the “circle of blessing.” Spanking is not endued by God with such spiritual power, nor, in fact, is a parent endued with the power to restore the child. Biblically, confession and repentance restore our fellowship with God and others. Let’s cling to this promise: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (NASB, 1 John 1:9). Tripp’s made-up “circle of blessing” teaching goes beyond what God says.
Also, the command to obey was given to the child. Just as husbands are not told to make their wives submit and wives are not told to make their husbands love them, parents are not told to make their children obey.
I taught my daughters to obey—starting when they were small—because I wanted their hearts to be sensitive and trained in the things of God. But teaching obedience is only one facet of my parenting.
3. Has Tedd Tripp correctly interpreted the “rod” passages?
Tripp teaches that the “rod” in Proverbs equals spanking, that spanking is even for young children, that spanking is the God-ordained means of discipline (which parents must obey) and that use of the rod saves a child’s soul from death.
God has commanded the use of the rod in discipline and correction of children. It is not the only thing you do, but it must be used. He has told you that there are needs within your children that require use of the rod. If you are going to rescue your children from death, if you are going to root out the folly that is bound up in their hearts, if you are going to impart wisdom, you must use the rod. (p. SACH, 108)
The rod … is the parent, as God’s representative, undertaking on God’s behalf what God has called him to do. He is not on his own errand, but fulfilling God’s. (p. SACH, 109)
Tripp’s use of Proverbs 23:14 (NIV: “Punish him [a child] with the rod and save his soul from death”) is faulty. Only the grace of God saves us from death and from our sinfulness. It is unbiblical to assert that spanking is God’s “means of grace” for saving children in any way. We diligently teach our children to obey, but spanking them is not salvific in nature. In fact, it is usually unnecessary. There are many godly ways we can teach our children to obey: by our example, by physically helping them fulfill our instructions, by meeting their internal and external needs, by teaching that choices have consequences, etc. God does these things for us as His children.2
The book refers several times to this conversation:
Father: “I must spank you. If I don’t, then I would be disobeying God.” (p. 31)
And again, “Dear, you know what Mommy said and you did not obey Mommy. And now I’ll have to spank you.” (p. 103)
In reference to the mother’s actions, Tripp explains that “the issues of correction transcend the present. All earthly punishment presupposes the great day when destinies are eternally fixed” (p. 103).
The conversation Tripp describes suggests parents who are controlled by a parenting formula rather than by the Holy Spirit: “I must spank you.” And linking earthly punishment to the day of judgment is a distortion of God’s relationship to us. As His child, my eternal destiny was decided already, because He punished His Son, not me.
As His children, He does not consistently punish us when we sin. He trains and disciplines us consistently but He is not obligated to punish us. By teaching parents that they are required to spank, Tripp teaches children (and their parents) that—contrary to the gospel—God does punish us consistently for our sins. Because Christ was punished for us, God is free to use whatever methods of discipline He wishes in order to train us and bring us closer to Himself.
Luther’s words are helpful once again:
When I say, such a Person [Christ], by the wedding-ring of faith, takes a share in the sins, death, and hell of His wife, nay, makes them His own, and deals with them no otherwise than as if they were His, and as if He Himself had sinned…. Thus the believing soul, by the pledge of its faith in Christ, becomes free from all sin, fearless of death, safe from hell, and endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of its Husband Christ.
Tripp errs gravely in asserting that spanking is God-ordained, that God’s methods of discipline are limited to communication and spanking, and that parents must spank or they are sinning.
The book also lacks adequate attention to age differences and stages of development—a great aid in child-rearing. On this point, Sally Clarkson writes:
The unfortunate thing is that many parents, in the name of faithful discipline, do not understand the differences between babies or toddlers or young children or even teens with all of their hormones, and they exhibit anger and harshness toward their children, act in a demeaning way, while neglecting the cues of the child at each stage. These parents have no perspective for the children themselves–they use a rule and formula no matter what–and often wonder why their children do not respond to them.3
4. Is Tripp correct that any other methods of parenting are ineffective and disobedient?
Finally, Tripp consistently describes other methods or styles of parenting or discipline as ineffective and undesirable. This is a weakness in his argument because other godly methods of biblical training do exist and have been used effectively for many years.
For example, a daughter of Puritan parents, Mary Fish (1736-1818) writes: “They were very watchful over us in all our ways, and they had such a happy mode of governing that they would even govern us with an eye, and they never used severity with us at all.”4
These summarize several of the major errors in teaching and emphases that I have found in Shepherding a Child’s Heart. The book includes several good teachings, but the overarching errors concern me to the point that I do not recommend the book to parents. Those considering promoting this book and its teachings seriously should give these topics a lot of thought.
2 According to Clay Clarkson, Heartfelt Discipline, Prov. 23:14 is probably referring to the use of an actual rod on the back of a young man (p. 56).
4 Joy Day Buel and Richard J. Buel, Jr. The Way of Duty: A Woman and Her Family in Revolutionary America, p. 7