My cursor has hesitated over the publish button. My intention here is not to judge other parents’ choices or imply that my way is “the right way,” and I want to be sensitive to my friends who have made parenting decisions that are very different from mine. This topic is important to me. It’s something I spent time researching, thinking about and praying over while Jonas was still in the womb. A recent Bible study lesson on marriage and children in the book of Proverbs got me thinking about it again. Ben and I have a lot of Christian friends who choose to spank their children, and I know that we, by choosing not to spank, are in the minority. I am not out to tell anyone to parent differently. I think the one thing that convinces me to publish is a memory from a few years ago of a friend who, after taking her child to another room to spank him, returned and said, “I wish I didn’t have to spank.” I probably gave a weak smile, but I didn’t speak. I missed the opportunity at that time to open a dialogue about this idea that Christians are commanded by God to spank. So, I am writing this as encouragement for those who find themselves sighing, “I wish I didn’t have to….” You see, you don’t have to. If spanking doesn’t sit well with you, if you are concerned about the dynamic it is creating in your home, if it just doesn’t seem to be working well as a disciplinary tool, please consider my argument…..
This idea that God commands parents to spank their children hinges on four verses in Proverbs. That’s it. Four verses in all of scripture. Here they are:
Prov. 13:24 He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.
Prov. 22:15 Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.
Prov. 23:13,14 Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. if you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.
Prov. 29:15 The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.
At first glance, it seems to make sense that these verses refer to corporal punishment. Many of us have been taught that the rod is a physical instrument used for spanking. Spanking advocates often recommend a wooden spoon or switch of some sort. But is that what this rod truly is? Is that how God’s people would have understood these words at the time of their writing?
The word translated as rod is shebet.
1) rod, staff, branch, offshoot, club, sceptre, tribe
a) rod, staff
b) shaft (of spear, dart)
c) club (of shepherd’s implement)
d) truncheon, sceptre (mark of authority)
e) clan, tribe
The object can be a large walking stick, like that which Moses carried (and that which was carried by the head of a family), a shepherd’s crook, or a king’s sceptre. In each of these cases, the Shebet is a symbol of authority. In the case of the shepherd, it additionally symbolizes guidance and protection, as the shepherd uses it to ward off predators and guide his sheep so they are not lost. Psalm 23 says “thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” While the word does refer to a physical object, it is most often used figuratively throughout scripture. The Messiah is referred to as the Rod of Jesse. Jesus’ didn’t come to punish us. He didn’t come to strike us down, but to give us life. He extended undeserved grace to us – we who rebel and scorn and spit in his face – yet he did not condemn us, but extended love in gentleness and patience. His life was a ministry of teaching. Additionally, the word Shebet refers many times to God’s authority in a figurative manner, as in “Thy throne, Oh God, is forever and ever. The sceptre of thy kingdom is a right sceptre.” (Psalm 45:6), or “If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my rules….then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with stripes.” (Psalm 89:30-32). In both cases, the rod is a picture of God’s authority and might.
Those who argue for a literal interpretation of these Proverbs, don’t truly interpret the verses literally themselves. If they did they’d be advocating hitting their child with a large, thick piece of wood that has the potential to cause a lot of damage. No loving parent would even entertain such a thought. Yet, that is what a literal reading calls for. So, if we’re not willing to employ the action the verses are truly advocating, is it okay to simply fudge the original meaning, change it just enough so it is no longer distasteful to us?
Doesn’t it make much more sense and pose less problems, to take these verses figuratively and view the rod as a symbol, just as it is throughout so much of the Old Testament? When considering this, let’s take into account the fact that the book of Proverbs contains a lot of imagery and poetic language. We don’t have an issue with determining whether we should read Proverbs 30:17 literally: The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures. God does not send birds of prey down to pluck out the eyes of insolent children. The original Hebrew of the four rod verses begs us to take the poetic language of the book into account.
So, what then, is this rod a symbol of? As I said above, it is a sign of authority. God has indeed invested us with authority over our children, and we have the responsibility to exercise that authority by “training them up in the way they should go.” (Proverbs 22:6).
Before moving on, it is essential to define the word discipline. Too often it is used as a synonym for punishment, but punishment is only one of many definitions. Our English word discipline comes from the Latin words discipulus, meaning pupil or disciple and the word discere, meaning to learn. We are to treat our children as disciples.
1. Training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement.
2. Controlled behavior resulting from disciplinary training; self-control.
a. Control obtained by enforcing compliance or order.
b. A systematic method to obtain obedience: a military discipline.
c. A state of order based on submission to rules and authority: a teacher who demanded discipline in the classroom.
4. Punishment intended to correct or train.
5. A set of rules or methods, as those regulating the practice of a church or monastic order.
6. A branch of knowledge or teaching.
While discipline may include punishment of some sort, punishment is not inherent in the word, and the main focus is really on teaching. And isn’t that what the Bible clearly says is our duty? To teach our little ones? One of the most explicit instructions for parents is found in Deutoronomy 6 (and recorded more than once in almost identical words a few chapters later – must be important):
“And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise”. (Deut. 6:6,7).
This is what is written in the law about parental responsibility. We are to diligently teach our children God’s Word. If God intended spanking to be an important and beneficial aspect of parenting, would he not have clearly laid that out in the law? Instead, we have this beautiful, rather gentle picture of family life with communication at the center. We are to teach our children how to live godly lives by talking to them. Ever talking. Relationship. It is to be a constant, consistent process. It takes time, constant repetition. They will not mature overnight. Goodness, I look at my own life, and see my constant falling and failing. Me, an adult, who knows clearly what God expects of me and have had years to practice it. And yet I don’t find condemnation from him. It’s always grace. Undeserved grace. If we faithfully teach our children at every given opportunity, if this communication is a river that flows through our days together, they will learn. If we extend grace, instead of condemnation, they will trust and they will thrive.
Let’s look at the rod verses in a little more detail. It’s very difficult to separate ourselves from the cultural attitudes about these verses and to see them fresh. We’ve assumed without much question that we’re talking about spanking here, but, at least for me, when I get to the heart of what each interpretation really says, the oft assumed reading doesn’t make all that much sense unless we are intentionally looking through our punitive lens, the lens most of us were brought up with, the one that says children must be punished and hurt by their parents in order to learn, in order to embrace the LORD – this lens built on tradition and culture. It is something I am still shaking off, something I’m determined to shake off because I believe that the Bible teaches a better way.
Here’s my plain interpretation of each verse from both points of view. I tried hard to be unbiased about how I worded each side.
He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.
* The parent who doesn’t spank, hates his children, but if he loves his kids, he will spank them diligently.
* The parent who doesn’t teach his children with authority, hates them, but if he loves his kids, he will teach them diligently.
Which of these makes more logical sense? Which is a greater act of love? Did we learn more about God’s truth from a spanking or from our parents teaching us of him, and modeling the Christian life? I have a couple vivid spanking memories, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you, in either case, what my offense was. All I remember was the fear and panic. My sensitive little soul was focused on my physical and emotional hurt, not on the sin that the spanking intended to correct. Sure, I learned from spanking. I learned to fake it. I learned to say and do what my parents wanted, so life would be pleasant and I would be praised as a “good girl,” not so I would be pleasing to God.
Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.
*Children act foolishly, but spanking them will lead them to maturity.
*Children act foolishly, but teaching them God’s Truth will lead them to maturity.
We are all born with a heart stamped with Adam’s sin. We cannot escape that inheritance. Christian parents will all agree that it is our job to bring our children to an understanding of the nature of their heart and the nature of God’s grace. Will simply spanking a child enlighten his heart? How will spanking drive off foolishness in a real, heart centered way? I know from my personal childhood experience that spanking can lead a child to put on a façade of goodness in order to please and in order to avoid pain. But, in my case, that had absolutely nothing to do with my heart. Spanking, or the threat of it, did not cause me to truly give my heart to God. Again, isn’t it the teaching – the laying out of God’s expectations for us, his great gift to us, our response of heartfelt thanksgiving to him – that will bring the child to repentance and to godly maturity? Romans 2:4 says that it is God’s kindness that leads to repentance. Kindness. Doesn’t that just make sense? So much more sense?
(I’m not suggesting that Christian parents who spank don’t teach their children, as well. I’m merely discussing what the verse itself says, and if we’re going to choose the first interpretation, it clearly states that spanking alone – not spanking and teaching – has the power to drive folly out).
Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. if you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.
* Do not withhold spanking from a child; if you hit him with a large, heavy implement, he will not die, if you practice corporal punishment, you will save his soul from hell.
* Do not withhold discipline (teaching, guiding, correcting) from a child; if you parent him with your God given authority, he will not die. If you teach and guide him, you will save his soul from hell.
If we analyze the first interpretation, we’ll see that it just isn’t true, and if it isn’t true, it isn’t biblical. If we are speaking of corporal punishment, this verse tells us that it is our job to spank out child with the rod (walking stick, shepherd’s crook, sceptre), and that if we do this he won’t die. If we are speaking of physical death, this is a lie, because a child certainly can die by being hit with such a tool. Tragically, there have been children who have died from their Christian parents carrying out the advice of “Christian parenting experts” with far less menacing instruments. If we are speaking of spiritual death, please tell me how this practice will rescue him from damnation. What is it about striking a child as payment for his sin that will save him? It’s impossible. It is Christ alone who saves. He paid for that sin; a child cannot atone for it himself through a spanking ritual. If instead we view this verse as an encouragement to parents to do what God commands us in Deuteronomy 6, it works. Faithfully teaching them the ways of the LORD leads them to his saving arms. Is this a rule without exception? No. I know that there are parents who raised their children in a godly home, and yet a child strayed and went to his deathbed without making his parents’ faith his own. But that is the exception to the rule. When we are dealing with Proverbs, I think it is important to take into account that as wisdom literature, this book functions primarily to give us instruction, that if followed should lead to a desired outcome. (My ESV study bible says “The word wisdom (HB. khokmah) can have the nuance of “skill,” particularly the skill of choosing the right course of action for the desired result. In the covenantal framework of Proverbs, it denotes skill in the art of godly living.”) I know many parents who have wayward adult children, but we are only seeing in the moment. We don’t know how God is working in those situations. We don’t see the end. So, while we ultimately don’t know with certainty in each case, we can have faith in this general rule that if we train our children up in the way they should go, when they are old, they will not depart from it. When they are old. It may take lots and lots of time.
The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.
*Spanking and correcting will make a child wise, but a child who doesn’t receive these things will bring shame.
*Teaching, guidance and correction will make a child wise, but a child who doesn’t receive these things will bring shame.
A literal reading of this verse poses the same problem as the one above because, though reproof is spoken of in addition to the rod, the instruction to parents is still lacking in completeness. But if we view the rod as discipline – as teaching, training, guiding, discipling – then the pair, the rod and reproof, fit so perfectly together. We teach them what their duty is, and when they fall, we correct them and give them tools to help them do better next time.
I believe that The Bible calls parents to raise their children with gentle authority. While one can argue for a literal interpretation of the rod verses, it is an inferior reading that lacks the fullness of what God clearly commanded his people in the Law and seems out of step with other, clearer, verses related to parenting. In an upcoming post, perhaps I’ll discuss some of these other verses.
As I sit here considering what I’ve written, I know how short I fall. I am not a perfect parent, sometimes I’m not even a good parent, but I love my children, and with God’s grace, I will persevere and reach for better things. I’ll continue to shed that pervasive punitive mindset and strive to teach, guide and correct my children with gentle authority and kindness.
We all have choices; this is mine. Ours. I have friends who are wonderful parents who choose to spank. It would be wrong for our home. The main point I want to make here is that spanking is not an issue touched on in The Bible, therefore parents need to discern for themselves what is best for their children and themselves. If they decide that spanking is a worthwhile form of discipline for them, it should be with the understanding that this is a personal choice influenced by culture, not a command given by God.