Over the last few weeks spanking has been a hot topic due in large part to Adrian Peterson, NFL MVP and 8 time pro bowl running back for the Minnesota Vikings, being indicted for child abuse after “whooping” (Peterson’s words) his four year old son with a switch (see the photos here).
What surprised me most was the almost knee-jerk reaction I saw from many Christians. “Why is the government persecuting parents who choose to spank?” Or “My momma whooped me too. Half my family would be in jail for using the switch.” When commenting on one thread, I asked if the person had seen the photos and they sheepishly said no, but that they were sure many of us would just have to agree to disagree.
What Adrian Peterson did was wrong. Period.
Many Christians want to defend the Bible from government intrusion. They feel the Bible demands they use corporeal punishment in every instance of disobedience, and so any government involvement in cases where children are being “spanked” is an intrusion on religion.
Full disclosure. I spank my children, but my views on spanking have evolved over several years. In large part, because I don’t believe the Bible demands we spank our children for every infraction and also because I’m more aware of the anger in my own heart.
What Does Scripture Require?
I don’t want to spend a lot of time with the textual evidence because Wendy Alsup has done such a knock down job with it already. Stop and read her, “The Rod.” For those that didn’t stop and read, let me provide an amuse bouche.
The Hebrew words are the shebet of muwcar, meaning the rod/staff/scepter of discipline/instruction/correction. I fully agree with this verse and seek to conform my parenting strategies to it. God says I have a shepherding staff to guide my little sheep who will veer off in their own ignorance and folly if I ignore my responsibility. He has tasked me with guiding them and my figurative staff is discipline. We defined discipline in a previous post as proactive training in righteousness. (If you haven’t read that post, please read it and the comments that follow before finishing this one as this post builds on those foundational thoughts.) I discipline my children, instruct them, and correct them to teach them wisdom in the place of folly. God wants me to be like Him—to use the same shepherding rod and staff that comfort me in Psalms 23 to train my children in righteousness. I am not dogmatically opposed to spanking, but I think it is a gross leap in logic to use this verse in Proverbs to justify or command spanking. The term rod implies shepherding authority and accountability. God says that I have an obligation to engage my boys with my God-given shepherding authority over them. I cannot cop out and disengage. My sister and I just had a discussion about her temptation to be a lazy single parent, but though it would be much easier to cop out and let her boys do whatever they want all day, she knew she had a God-given obligation to shepherd them—to engage them, instruct them, reprove them, support them, redirect them, and so forth.
The rod doesn’t necessarily require spanking. It serves a variety of purposes.
For many parents (my own practices and the many I’ve observed) spanking can be the easy way out. Our children disobey. We spank. 1+1=2, right? A spanking can be quick and tidy. But it can also remove the gospel from the equation. I do strive to sit down and explain why spankings happen first, but that doesn’t always happening if I'm honest. Especially if you have a strong-willed child like I do, that’s not always practical if spanking is your first level response. Also, considering God’s discipline of me, I noticed a variety of methods employed in a variety of ways. He doesn’t always bring the boom down immediately. He’s not the grouchy Zeus of Greek mythology. He is a loving, patient Father who sent his Son to die for us. He loved us first. He is the shepherd of Psalms 23 and the loving, proactively corrective Father of Proverbs.
Now many of you may be thinking, “That’s not me. I always labor to proactively instruct and apply the gospel to the affections of my children every time I spank them. I’m always patient, rarely angry, and use spanking as a tool to instruct, not to hurt” Great. Keep instructing them in righteousness and teaching them to love God and others. Keep up the good and difficult work of parenting.
However, the other reason my views and practices changed was being more aware of my own heart. I saw how often it was difficult for me to spank for every infraction without being angry or frustrated. Not just thinking of spanking my children but in general, I’ve apologized for sharp responses and actions toward my family more than I care to remember. It’s even more arduous to keep my sinful heart in check when disciplining my children. Using corporeal punishment as first response amplifies that sinfulness in my heart.
Don’t Provoke Your Children
Parents who believe spanking is commanded for every infraction, or useful, or a tool for discipline. I implore you to take just as seriously and with the fear of God in your body, mind, and heart Paul’s admonition, “Don’t provoke your children to anger.” Anger doesn’t breed love. It cannot change affections. It extinguishes the flickering flame.
I want to be suspicious of my heart in this matter. I want to give my children the benefit of the doubt on this front. Don’t spare the rod, but don’t provoke either. Don’t pigeon hole the rod. As the saying goes, if every problem is a nail, every tool becomes a hammer. How often do we use spanking as the hammer and our children’s sin as the nail?
God’s methods of discipline and correction are multifaceted. They are patient and kind. They are covered and smothered, as we say in the South, with love. They are always aimed at the heart. Ultimately, I believe spanking can be helpful, but I’m working to integrate it into a balanced offensive scheme to instruct my children in righteousness. I want to invest as much if not more energy in reading Scripture, praying, catechizing, reading stories, and proactively applying the gospel to their hearts and driving them towards the promises of God. I want to be hands on before a spanking happens or is even required.
A final note, Christians don’t hesitate to call out and decry abuse. The abuse doesn’t negate the use. Adrian Peterson calling what he did spanking and connecting it to Scripture only taints what you do if you refuse to call what he did wrong. Speak out first. Speak out loudly. Speak out without fear.
[Editor’s Note: Let me make a few clarifications. I had a long conversation with a good friend who offered some sharpening. First, my main pushback is against the idea that spanking is our first line of defense. Scripture does prescribe corporeal punishment, but it’s not prescribing it for every infraction, yet in my experience many parents use spanking as the easy way out. Second, I want to encourage parents to examine their own hearts as they discipline their children.]
Mathew B. Sims is the author of A Household Gospel: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and a contributor in Make, Mature, Multiply (GCD Books). He completed over forty hours of seminary work at Geneva Reformed Seminary. He also works as the managing editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and the assistant editor at CBMW Men’s Channel. He regularly writes for a variety of publications. Mathew offers freelance editing and book formatting.