Biblical Discipline or Abuse: Spare the Rod?

Mother taping the beating of her son

Mother taping the beating of her son

This week another video surfaced of a parent “disciplining” their child. Apparently, the boy posted false information on his Facebook page, his mother found out, and she proceeded to beat him more than 60 times with a belt (View the story). They videotaped the punishment and posted it on Facebook. Thankfully, the police quickly intervened and have since removed all children from the home.

It seems like every week another video surfaces of a parent beating their child or teenager under the guise of good parenting. Last week, I saw a video of a mother punching her teenage daughter for having sex in the home. She called the daughter expletives including whore and the “b” word. The video is very disturbing. In the comments section of many of these videos, viewers applaud the parents for not “sparing the rod” and spoiling the child. Oftentimes, they use the Bible to justify this kind of violence and abuse.

As a result, I feel like it’s time to take a close look at what the Bible says about disciplining children.

Proverbs 13:24 (NRSV), “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.”

Proverbs 22:15 (NRSV), “Folly is bound up in the heart of a boy, but the rod of discipline drives it far away.”

Proverbs 23:13–14 (NRSV), “Do not withhold discipline from your children; if you beat them with a rod, they will not die. If you beat them with the rod, you will save their lives from Sheol.”

Before we examine these verses about spanking, let’s look at the purpose of Proverbs. Proverbs was written to provide wisdom and instruction to its readers. The first nine chapters plead with the reader to choose wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:1–6 (NRSV), “The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young—let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles.”

Let’s keep wisdom and discipline as the backdrop of our discussion. The ultimate goal is to be a wiser and more disciplined person.

When the Bible talks about using a rod, it does refer to an actual rod or a wooden stick to inflict some pain as a punishment. The verses listed above mention striking a child as a warning to train them or prevent them from engaging in harmful behavior or activity. The ultimate goal of a strike is to instill discipline and to train them to stay out of harm’s way. The parent strikes the child out of love to keep them from doing something that will hurt them. These verses admonish parents to use a rod of correction as a training method. Therefore, training the child to go in a way that does not lead to death or Sheol as Proverbs 23:13-14 states.

Remember, wisdom is the backdrop of this discussion. Is it wise to strike an infant? There are certain churches that teach parents to strike babies as young as six months old. Is that a wise or loving thing for parents to do as believers? I don’t think so. Do I think it’s OK to give your toddler a little smack on the hand if he reaches for the stovetop? Yes, I believe so. You are teaching the child through a small strike that reaching for the stovetop is a harmful thing to do. You inflict minor pain to prevent them from experiencing major pain. Now, before you run with this, let’s address a few other issues concerning spanking in the context of the Bible’s total message and through the lens of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

How does the Bible view children?

The Bible makes it clear that children are a gift and blessing from God.

Psalm 127:3 (NRSV), “Sons are indeed a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward.”

The Bible makes it clear that children should not be excluded from worshipping God and are capable of praising God (Psalm 8:2; Psalm 148:12-13; 1 Samuel 1:24). In fact, when the disciples tried to exclude the children, Jesus became angry and told them to let the children come to him (Mark 10:13-6). Through this act, Jesus demonstrated that the needs of children are just as important as the needs of adults.

How the Bible views parents

God views parents as stewards. The Bible says the earth is the Lord’s and its fullness (Psalm 24:1). God is the creator of all things. All things were made by him and for him (Colossians 1:16). Our children do not belong to us. We are merely stewards. As believers, we do not even belong to ourselves. The Bible says we’ve been bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20). Hence, our children do not belong to us. God entrusted us to care for children. They are on loan to us. It is a privilege to be a parent.

As stewards over God’s children, we must take the utmost care of them because we’re going to have to give an account of our stewardship. Let’s look at the parable of the unfaithful servant.

Luke 12:41–48 (NRSV), “’Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?’ And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

The spiritual truths in this parable apply to parenthood. I previously stated the first truth. Our children do not belong to us. They belong to God, the master. The next truth is God entrusted us to care for his possession, the children. God expects us to prudently manage and shape their lives. If we do as the slave does in the text, beat the other slaves or beat our children, then we stand in judgment from God. We deserve the severe beating. As the scripture says, to whom much is given, much is required. Parents have been blessed with children and God expects us to raise them appropriately.

How does God discipline?

Hebrews 12:7–9 (NRSV), “Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live?”

God does not exempt believers from pain (Psalm 34:19; Matthew 5:45). God uses pain to discipline us and conform us to the image of Christ. The psalmist in Psalm 119:71 even says that it was good for him to have been afflicted because without it, he would not have learned God’s statutes. Sometimes God allows us to go through trials and tribulations so we can learn spiritual lessons and become more like Jesus. This is how God disciplines us. However, God does not do this to torture, belittle, demean, humiliate, or even kill us. Love motivates God to discipline us. He does not want us to perish, so he spanks us with the circumstances of life (2 Peter 3:9).

Hebrews 12:6 says, “For the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.”

Spanking is not the problem. Self-control is.

When I see parents beating their children uncontrollably, the real issue becomes clear. These parents have a problem with anger and self-control. Much of the guilty children’s behavior does not warrant the punishment inflicted by these enraged parents. I understand the severe anger of the father who came home and found his daughter having sex in the home. However, the behavior did not warrant him cursing her out and punching her. I believe the root of the problem is unresolved anger. I believe these parents need to ask themselves why they are so angry. They need to do some serious self-reflection and discover why their reactions to these parenting stressors are so severe. Many people attribute African-American’s corporal punishment parenting style to the hurt and pain of slavery. That may be true, but I believe it’s time to break the yoke of oppression in our homes. The curse stops with us!

Galatians 5:22–23 (NRSV), “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”

Galatians 5:22-23 lists the fruit of the Holy Spirit. These traits are called fruit because believers should produce these characteristics in our lives in abundance. Self-control is on the list. A parent should not spank their child if they cannot control themselves. That’s why many psychologists and parenting experts tell people to count to ten before administering any type of punishment because the parent should be calm and in control. Even though the scriptures in Proverbs use the word “beat”, the message of the Bible and Jesus Christ do not support beating a child uncontrollably. The word in the context of Proverbs means to strike, oftentimes only once, and definitely, not a blow that’s going to break skin, leave a bruise, break a bone or kill a child. Remember the ultimate goal of the discipline is to prevent them from harming themselves or engaging in behavior that will destroy them. Many of these out-of-control parents are harming their children, physically and psychologically. If you feel like you can’t spank your child and remain in control of your behavior, do not spank them. There are many techniques and disciplining options that are just as effective. Whatever technique you use, wisdom, love, and self-control should be the guiding factors.

I will share a personal story. When my 6-year old nephew was potty training, he went into my bathroom and pooped everywhere. He pooped on the floor, bathroom rugs, toilet, bathtub, and rubbed poop all over the walls. I think he was 3 or 4 years old at the time. When I saw the mess, I screamed at him at the top of my lungs. He never heard me yell so loud, and I didn’t just scream. I screamed in his face. When I saw the fear in his eyes, I knew in that moment I was out of control. After that incident, I vowed never to be the kind of parent who my children lived in constant fear of. That’s not the kind of “reverence” I want as a mother. I always want my children to feel safe and secure around me. I’m sure my nephew didn’t know what I was going to do next because I was so angry. That is not the type of fear God wants us to instill in our children.

Parenting is hard work and you do not automatically know how to raise children just because you’ve given birth. However, if we submit ourselves to the teaching of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, God will equip us to be the parents he desires us to be.

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