Many Christian parents have long hung on to and strongly justified their use of physical punishment on children as Bible-centered. Many people however do not realize that the saying: “Spare the rod and spoil the child” is not in the Christian Bible. It is a secular proverb! Other statements about use of the rod however do occur in the OT, such as:
“Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them” (Proverbs 13:24)
“Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die.” (Proverbs 23:13)
“A rod and a reprimand impart wisdom, but a child left undisciplined disgraces its mother” (Proverbs 29:15)
“I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.” (Lamentations 3:1)
The most frequently used Hebrew word for rod means shebet or shabat rod, staff, club, scepter, tribe as in the quotes above. A different Hebrew word for staff (matteh or mattah) apparently is used for a bigger staff or rod; shaft, branch, a tribe. It is the word used in the following text:
“So Moses spoke to the Israelites, and their leaders gave him twelve staffs, one for the leader of each of their ancestral tribes, and Aaron’s staff was among them.” (Numbers 17:6) As an emblem of authority used to pick a helper for Moses one cannot conceive of this instrument as intended to give the people a thrashing.
As such it seems the Hebrew word, shebet, is used for corrective punishment of children (same as with sheep from a shepherd and as God with us); not for inflicting punishment to the level of suffering. So in the role of a guiding principle or as a call to obey a rule its use is always explained and made clear. In this way love is shown to be the goal when the rule is first put in place as well as each time prior to the punishment being applied for infraction. This is the method God uses. In the Old and New Testaments however people believed that all aspects of their lives were under God’s direction and so they conformed to religious rules 24/7, understanding that nothing was out of God’s sight. Because the rules for use of the rod occur almost exclusively in the OT one problem in present-day parents putting this Biblical parental advice into modern day understanding or context is the potential for abuse. It’s great to say God would not approve of child abuse quoting in support:
“Fathers (Parents), do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” (Colossians 3:21)
“Fathers (Parents), do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
Firstly, how seriously are these quotes taken? Secondly, Scripture acknowledges that there are conditions under which a Biblical rule can be applied improperly. For example:
“We know that the law is good if one uses it properly” (1 Timothy 1:8)
Given the examples in the initial passages of circumstances that may put many children at risk of abuse at the hands of unscrupulous or hot-tempered parents, it is probably to be expected that some may selectively use only those passages that they interpret as instruction from God, which support their cruel or undisciplined actions or they may be prone to misread them. Who’s there to protect the child? Should we simply collectively respond to the situation of unprotected children with: “Ah well, too bad; Scripture must be obeyed regardless”? Moreover some people do not understand that training is not synonymous with beating. Many animals are trained to do incredible things without ever being beaten. I think the life of children needs to be even better managed.
Quite recently it occurred to me that these passages do not mean: “Use physical punishment and nothing else as the method of training a child”. They are not advising parents that it is wrong to use any other approach such as discussion, explanation or on the flip side to ever overlook wrongdoing during a child’s upbringing. To the contrary the Biblical message seems to be that it is critical when raising children to adulthood to give them proper discipline starting early in their life. As such a parent needs to use all available tools to assist in this process from early in the child’s life. “.. starting early” may mean, from infancy. Does anyone believe that using the rod on a crawler is Biblical? Yet you can train a crawler about physical boundaries, for example, without corporal punishment. Nonetheless, if applying the rod is an effective means of discipline then this is one tool from which a parent should not shy away from using, when appropriate.
Giving consideration to how to make physical punishment effective is important because a parent may or may not know whether the physical punishment is working but persists in using it anyway. Habit? It worked for them? They know no other way to discipline? Whatever may be the case using a disciplinary method that is ineffective, that is, one not producing the desired result is not recommended. Even when effective a disciplinary method must not be inhumane or unsafe. The “fallout” from such approaches in raising a child may be doing much harm by undermining the goal of producing a self-disciplined and adequately socialized adult who will become an effective parent. For example an unfair, rod-happy parent may be setting the child up to disrespect adult values because they have not learned any consistent lessons as to why such punishment was fair or deserved; and they grow up to believe in inflicting pain as a personal right and/or in the right of might.
Appropriateness of the punishment depends on the age and capability of the child; the type, nature and clarity of the rule they broke; how or why the rule got broken; and the parent’s state of mind when the rule was first put in place and now. From these the child will understand the parent’s love, fairness and patience. Of course children facing physical punishment will look for loopholes to avoid experiencing the pain. Everyone, including some animals will do so by nature. It is the parent’s duty to maintain consistency in eliciting discipline. Yes parenting is painstaking. An undisciplined parent however cannot expect their child to be disciplined. In some cases such is the reason the rod becomes the indiscriminately used disciplinary tool. Unfortunately the destructive effects only show up “in disguise” much later in life.
It is to be borne in mind that the entire Book of Proverbs is just that: proverbs, wise advice, guiding principles, not rules. This is not to say the Book is not to be taken seriously. I think these passages mainly provide examples of why it is important not to let children grow up without self-disciple or a sense of accountability, guidance or structure. The context (place and time) in which God gave these pieces of parental advice was steeped in physical expressions of deterring non-conformity and of maintaining law and order, one in which using execution, chaining, flogging and stoning were acceptable means of enforcing law and order.
It is a different world we live in today in the West. God’s Word still stands; physical punishment is not out of the picture under its Biblical guiding principles. It is however not the primary method of discipline any more and is not required to be. The goal is to raise responsible God-fearing children. If other methods work well in certain situations why would it be wrong or anti-Bible to use them to achieve this goal? You will spoil the child if you spare the rod and as well do nothing else.
May I point out that in the same book of Proverbs where admonitions to not neglect corporal punishment of children occurs there are several statement that the rod is just as effective on the body of adults (for example Proverbs 10:13 in which shebet is the word used). So how often and strongly today do parents whose behavior is in question as in those passages, agree to be physically punished? And how often and strongly today does the church promote this method of correction for adults? Moreover the use of physical punishment is stated in Deuteronomy as a requirement for adults:
”If the guilty person deserves to be beaten, the judge shall make them lie down and have them flogged in his presence with the number of lashes the crime deserves, but the judge must not impose more than forty lashes… ” (Deut, 25:2-3)
Public flogging of adults is no longer an accepted practice today in this part of the world; or should it be because it is Biblical?
I was caned or flogged with a switch, a special small tree branch, a cane and a belt, certainly in my Elementary school days; but I do not recall earlier. Nonetheless I also experienced pleasing physical contact and other forms of affection that expressed endearment; positive verbal interaction, meaningful advice, encouragement and reprimand as well from my parents. As an adult I have had no resentment, sense of confusion or low self-esteem from that upbringing. Corporal punishment of children was socially accepted and in common use when I was being raised. My parents and I continued to have a mutually respectful, caring and happy relationship all through my adulthood till they went to Heaven a few years ago.
The truth is that punishment in general and physical punishment in particular is probably the easy way out for some parents. Those people do not appear to care about applying any other disciplinary method, often arguing falsely that because it was good for them it is unquestionably good for their children. Of my two now adult children the younger never received a spanking and I discontinued the practice with the older during the Junior High years when it became obvious that it was not producing any lasting effect. For the rest of their school years, from all reports, they progressed satisfactorily in their socialized disciple. Based on my observation any weak area of discipline before they left home were in the same areas in which my own behavior was problematic, for example tidiness and tardiness. From all accounts sometimes from unsolicited sources both children have come through very well. As a professional psychologist I was properly equipped with the knowledge that physical punishment was not the only way to respond to wrongdoing or to those who cross a line or offend.
In 1 Corinthians 4:21 Paul asked:
“What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit?”
It is interesting that the Septuagint, the Greek version of the OT uses the same word for “rod” used in Proverbs 10:13 as Paul uses here (rhabdos). Therefore even though Paul never recorded the people’s response we know how the wrongdoers in the quote answered that question. We also know that when we adults disobey, offend or wrong God He does not use punishment as the sole or even main means of correction. He also offers forgiveness, gives instruction and warning.
Paul confessed to Timothy:
“Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.” (1 Timothy 1:13)
When God dealt with the sin of the world it was not through punishing us for wrongdoing; and He has not continued to show His love for us by paradoxically punishing us without mercy. God did not take the easy way out! No matter how hard you look you will never find a passage in which Christ says to us something like:
“With beatings I will show my love for you”
Paul says: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord ” (Romans 6:23). Death! Are we to practice this because it is Biblical? It seems to me therefore that the full context of a text, as much as we can find out about it, not just the literal, is of critical importance for proper interpretation.
I listened to a message on TV by Father Mark Goring entitled: God is Just. In describing his sincere and abundant love for his earthly father he mentioned a time when his father was angry with him and that in bed that night he felt heartache for making his father mad. Even in his anger his father did not use the rod on Fr. Goring. It is also remarkable that his reaction to his father’s displeasure was not to be defiant or angry. This is how the love relationship between father and son played out without a threat of disciplinary collapse in that priest’s upbringing. It sounded like this pattern of parenting produced a well-behaved, socially conforming priest, which from his report is also true of his siblings. The regular or mandatory use of physical discipline did not appear to be necessary in that Christian family.
There was no mention that his father was a psychologist yet it is obvious that despite this difference with my own child-rearing experience that father knew to use an effective parenting style that did not require the use of punishment as its main feature. My father loved us clearly but in my case it was our mother who shaped me through a reasonable, positive and God-fearing response to life. Nonetheless it was not all without a hitch as to my shame I did drop out of the church for a number of years. To the best of my knowledge the rejection of my faith had nothing to do with parental practices. Nonetheless all through those years away from the Church mom’s reaction was constant prayer, no doubt with great disappointment, which she did not express to me; and never did she show any bitterness towards me till the Lord brought me back. And when I returned to the flock of Christ a few decades ago it was with much greater commitment to and love for the Lord.
My point in a nutshell is that the tendency to fixate, glorify or magnify the Bible’s advice about using the rod, without proper understanding is itself not a Biblical attitude. In the quote above (Ephesians 6:4) the Greek for “… do not provoke” means: Don’t be in their face pushing their buttons; and for the other “…provoke…” (Colossians 3:21) it is: Don’t irritate or incite them; that is, by the relationship you have developed with them. I read these as boundaries for parents’ behavior towards their children that are to guide their understanding of the Biblical requirement to teach children discipline.
The Bible has other suggestions for parents. If children are to be raised properly all Biblical guidelines are important for Christian parents to follow with correct interpretation. For example in the same Bible that says:
“Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him.” (Proverbs 22:15)
We also read:
“Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)
And advice on with what to equip children:
“My son, do not let wisdom and understanding out of your sight, preserve sound judgment and discretion; they will be life for you, an ornament to grace your neck.” (Proverbs 3:21-22)
Finally, parents need to recognize that discipline does not equal punishment of any kind or physical punishment in particular and must demonstrate this in their parenting. Moreover they need to examine their own behavior to be certain that they are not guilty of punishing their children for the things they have taught the children by example and sometimes by statements they may to other people; or when they cause the problem by their own provocation.
Being heavily invested in Biblical principles parents need to study these principles and other related issues from the Bible in order to apply them correctly. What I call “related issues” are those truths that apply to everyone including parents. Many seem to think that certain Biblical expectations do not apply to their relationships within their family, especially to their spouses and/or children. It is important however, for parents to apply these passages in the way they approach the raising of their children. Let’s look at two examples:
“Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do.” [Paraphrased with my addition in brackets] “Make it easy for everyone (including your spouse and children) to see that you are fair/reasonable in everything you do”. (Philippians 4:5)
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love (your spouse and children included).” (Ephesians 4:2)
“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another (including your spouse and children), forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32)
So to all parents, as you relate with and raise your children:
“… as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” (Colossians 3:12)