Are anti-spanking Christians feckless or faithful?

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One Christian critic argues that anti-spanking Christians are sacrificing the Bible on the altar of modern culture. But such arguments are rooted in tired tropes and unfair characterizations. - Image courtesy of HA! Designs (

One Christian critic argues that anti-spanking Christians are sacrificing the Bible on the altar of modern culture. But such arguments are rooted in tired tropes and unfair characterizations. - Image courtesy of HA! Designs (

One Christian critic argues that anti-spanking Christians are sacrificing the Bible on the altar of modern culture. But such arguments are rooted in tired tropes and unfair characterizations. - Image courtesy of HA! Designs (

One Christian critic argues that anti-spanking Christians are sacrificing the Bible on the altar of modern culture. But such arguments are rooted in tired tropes and unfair characterizations. – Image courtesy of HA! Designs (

“No one can fault Jonathan Merritt for lack of audacity.”

Such was the opening line of a rebuttal to my commentary on Christian corporal punishment by David Prince, professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It’s not the first time a blogger has opened an article with a backhanded compliment, but one can only hope that Prince trains young preachers to interject more grace into their sermon introductions.

But the irony of Prince’s tone stretches far beyond his opener. While chiding me for “audacity” and “bravado,” and calling the article a “short piece that reads more like a tantrum,” he goes on to make an audacious assertion himself: “Merritt is domesticating Scripture to fit the prevailing spirit of the age.”

The most effective way to combat “bravado” is apparently to supersede it.

Prince’s insult sounds fresh at first, but only to those who haven’t followed such debates in evangelical circles. It’s actually a recycled meme that is more tired than novel. For example, when William Webb, adjunct professor of Biblical Studies at Tyndale Seminary wrote Corporal Punishment in the Bible, Prince’s colleague Thomas Schreiner said Webb’s views would lead to “domesticating the Bible to fit modern conceptions.” Sound familiar?

It’s a textbook marginalization tactic used by religious and political partisans: drag out a boogeyman from under the bed to send people running. Leftist partisans will simply call their opponent a “fundamentalist.” And those on the Right call their opponent a “liberal” or claim they are sacrificing the Bible on the altar of modern culture. In the end, [tweetable]assuming anti-spanking Christians are feckless is like assuming pro-spanking Christians are heartless.[/tweetable] And simply saying so doesn’t make it true.

Interestingly, it is Prince who actually seems to be bowing to the prevailing winds of a larger community. By his own admission, he is concerned with “the majority opinion of evangelical biblical scholarship” and alarmed that “Merritt rejects the majority report” and cites examples of those who are “representative of the majority evangelical understanding.” He may not be bowing to modern culture, but this article appears to genuflect to evangelical culture. The latter is no more noble than the former.

But whether a majority supports a belief is irrelevant to whether or not that belief is true. So why is Prince so concerned with conforming to the “majority opinion?” It’s difficult to say.

Even still, if you’re the kind of reader who can “eat the fish and spit out the bones,” you should still give Prince’s essay a read. In fits and starts, he makes interesting counter-arguments to the debate that should be seriously considered. He cites relevant commentators such as Tremper Longman whose treatment of relevant verses in Proverbs cannot be dismissed out of hand.

These arguments may change your mind, even though they have not changed mine. I still believe, for example, that one must never build an entire ethic upon the book of Proverbs. It is not a book of universal and literal commands, but rather a collection of general wise aphorisms that often bear the fingerprints of the culture in which they were written.

Even the conservative editors of Christianity Today recognized this when they editorialized on the matter of corporal punishment in “Thou Shalt Not Abuse: Reconsidering Spanking”:

We also believe it is more consistent with the full counsel of Scripture—in short, more biblical—to provide relief to people in pain than to actually “give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to him whose life is bitter” (Prov. 31:6, NASB). In the same way, it is more biblical to understand the praise of “the rod” as a reference to discipline than to limit its application to physical blows.

The editors of this “evangelical publication of record” conclude “God’s first and ultimate response to his children’s rebellion is not to treat them violently.” Prince makes no mention of this editorial presumably because it does not conform with the “majority.”

Like the editors of Christianity Today, my argument is not that the Bible forbids spanking—though I think the non-violent principles of the New Testament seem to lead us away from it—but rather that the Bible does not require it. There are many Bible scholars who agree with this position, though they may not win in a nose-counting contest.

Additionally, I do not think Christians can ignore the findings of social science as many in the evangelical majority do. A growing body of research shows that corporal punishment is not effective, increases the risk of child abuse, and can cause emotional and psychological damage. It also shows that when parents who claim to spank their children rarely or calmly are monitored, it turns out they spank more frequently and often out of anger.

Scientific data may not be sufficient for evangelicals to construct an entire ethic, but it is significant and cannot be dismissed. When science is considered in light of what the Bible does and does not say about this matter, I have concluded (along with many other Christians) that spanking is not advisable.

If that is a position of “audacity” or “bravado,” so be it.

>>SEE ALSO: “Why my dad regrets spanking his children” by Jonathan Merritt<<

  • Andy

    I can hear the people putting on a fresh pot of coffee, cracking their knuckles, sitting down at the computer and saying “It’s go time.”

    Aside from that Jonathan you got spanked pretty hard by David Prince. Take it like a man.

  • The joys of public debates! 🙂

  • Jonny Craig

    Not sure if you ever read comments or not (I would certainly understand why you would abstain) but I wanted to say that your writing on this subject has been ON POINT. Thanks for standing against a tide of ignorance. Your voice is important.

  • Thanks, Jonny. Much appreciated!

  • Andy

    I’m glad you took that as the bit of humor it was intended to be Jonathan. 🙂

    It’s a difficult issue. I had a conversation once with my son as your father did with you so I understand but it still doesn’t decide the issue for me I guess. God help us make good decisions.

  • Justin

    In your commentary at the Week, you said “Jesus has nothing to do it. It’s your fault.” How can you reconcile that statement with your newest assertion that “[your] argument is not that the Bible forbids spanking.” If Jesus has nothing to do with something, how can the Bible NOT forbid it? If Jesus has nothing to do with spanking, why are you now giving those child hitters a pass?

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  • Karl Kroger

    The critique you received was insulting and I think really misses the point. It saddens and troubles me that so many Christians justify with their faith, harming children (not to mention torturing prisoners and destroying enemies).

    At the same time, I get where people are coming from, and I know you do to. In my opinion, you were very dismissive to conservatives in your original piece, and then you closed it with a line of guilt and shame, saying: “It’s your fault.” How many people are still recovering from fundamentalism because of such messages? You’re so much wiser and more pastoral than stooping to that.

    Jonathan, I think you’re one of the most influential religious writers in America right now. And you’re in that position churning out gem after gem, while at the same time, more and more people are are discovering what it means to genuinely follow Jesus. What a time for you to be leading the conversations and journeys to authentic discipleship! Your voice is too important to ever cede the moral high ground. Blessings and peace.

  • I agree that Mr Merritt’s initial article was condescending and arrogant. Essentially, he wrote that every OT or NT believer since the beginning of the closed canon has gotten the concept of corporal punishment wrong, and that he, Jonathan Merritt, with one phone call, has gotten it right.

    Further, Mr Merritt made a sweeping sonorous pronouncement; “This must stop.” I picture Moses lifting his rod, er, staff, and demanding the Red Seat to part, but instead it is Mr Merritt, demanding that all Christians everywhere cease disciplining their child in the way that one “modern social scientist” says they should.

    And “modern social science” should be a clue that tells true Christians everywhere from whence Mr Merritt’s trust is finally placed.

    Hebrews 12:11 says, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

    According to the interpretations in Mr Merritt’s essay, we should change the Hebrews verse to say ‘For the moment all GUIDANCE seems SLIGHTLY UNCOMFORTABLE rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been LEAD by it.’

    Finally, our Father will return from heaven. “and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father.” (Revelation 2:27)

    Sounds like it could be a bit harsh. Perhaps Jesus can make an appointment with the “modern social scientist” to learn correct ways to discipline His children.

    What the NFL player did was not spanking, and what Mr Merritt is endorsing is not discipline. And as for Mr Merritt’s comment that “science has done all it can to wave red flags…” once again, it needs to be pointed out that the true foundation of life and church for every Christian is the bible. Science (true science, not psychology) is confirmation of what God has already accomplished.

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  • The point is that I don’t think Jesus can be used as support for saying “spanking is what the Bible commands.” Jesus has something to do with the conversation–and should with any Christian conversation–but using Jesus as a crutch for the pro-spanking position is unacceptable.

  • Fair enough. Looking back, I think that final paragraph could have been softened a bit to be more effective. The first draft was stronger and after receiving wise counsel, I softened the body of it a lot. No one pointed out the final graph’s tone so it remained. In hindsight, I would have soften its edges.

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  • Kelly

    There are lots of valid, scientifically proven psychological principles. And these principles are validated through out scriptures. The same scientific principles used to develop antibiotics are used in scientifically sound psychological studies. When God disciplines us, he does not strike us. If Jesus did sit down with a social scientist he would say I agree and have known this from the foundations of the world and you my social scientist friend know this better than those who claim to be my children. I’m graduate of the Southwestern Baptist theological seminary counseling program

  • Kelly, this article by John MacArthur explains how psychology (and social sciences) and the bible do not mix.

    “Why has the church been so quick to accept psychology? In large part it is because psychologists portray themselves as members of the scientific community. In our scientific age, unequivocal acceptance in the academic community must mean that psychology’s truth claims are unassailable, right? How Scientific Are the Behavioral Sciences? After decades of growing acceptance, most advocates of psychology simply assume that psychology is a true science. But it is not. It is a pseudo-science, the most recent of several human inventions designed to explain, diagnose, and treat behavioral problems without dealing with moral and spiritual issues.”

    I encourage you to read the full article. It is called “Insufficient Help” and there are two parts.

    As for your statement that “When God disciplines us, he does not strike us.” You are biblically incorrect. Jesus does strike His children, that is why the discipline is unpleasant, as stated in Hebrews. He uses suffering, He uses disease. He rebukes, He chastises. Read 1 Corinthians 11:32, (“But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world”) and the word for disciplined/paideúō in Greek means:

    “a child under development with strict training”) – properly, to train up a child (3816 /país), so they mature and realize their full potential (development). This requires necessary discipline (training), which includes administering chastisement (punishment).”

    Many of the rebellious partakers of the communion supper were actually killed. (1 Cor 11:30). Quite a large number were given illnesses and there were deaths. Paul declared flatly their rebelliousness was WHY. Ananias was killed. Sapphira was killed. (Acts 5). That is a rod of discipline, a strike of all strikes, from Jesus. He didn’t make a gentle suggestion to do better next time. So those are just three examples of your incorrect thinking on the “Jesus wouldn’t strike us” misunderstanding.

    Here is the first line of a good article about the discipline of Jesus, from the bible. As a self-stated seminary graduate, you should be familiar with the bible. The upshot is, Jesus disciplines with a rod. So should parents spank.

    “The Scriptures speak of three major categories of “trouble” for the believer: 1) discipline, judgment, or rebuke from the Lord;”

  • Karl Kroger

    Understandable and thanks.

    TheWeek and RNS are very different audiences, and so rightly so, your style will look different. I can also imagine for many readers of the former, who struggle with Christianity, your words were of great comfort.

  • Is it just possible that spanking children and harming children are not the same thing? Why are we all up in arms saying that spanking is always abusive? Surely that’s not the case.

  • Jonathan,
    I wonder what you would say to the growing psychological scholarship that contends that putting kids in timeout is quite harmful to them and can negatively affect their growth and maturity? At what point do you say that the social science consensus has gone beyond what the Bible says Christians are commanded to do? Where do you draw that line? I’m assuming that if an overwhelming majority of social scientists said that disciplining your kids in any form was harmful, you would push back against that as unbiblical, right?

  • Gene Mason

    Jonathan you struck a good balance in your original article. I think the actual area of debate here is “discipline” versus “punishment” and disciplining in anger versus in trying to accomplish something in the heart and mind of the child. The reason spanking is, I think, by-and-large ineffective is that the parent is often simply doling out punishment versus actual discipline. My wife and I did spank our children when they were younger, but on very rare occasions, and in the context of a discipline/punishment to fit the behavior. In most cases spanking was not the best means of discipline. Additionally, spanking takes a ton of time–leaving the child crying in their room is not discipline. There must be time taken to talk things through, to re-establish communication with the child and to help them connect action to the discipline. If you just spank and leave out the portion of time after, then you are teaching that actions have consequences, but once the consequence is over that’s it, price paid. I think spanking, frankly, takes a long time and a tremendous amount of energy and patience on the part of the parent if you are going to use that means of discipline. More often, for minor issues, a ‘time out’ or a ‘grounding’ of some kind is more effective. Someone who is “pro-spanking” must also be for spending a great deal of time, energy and effort before, during and after spanking to ensure the discipline is measured, not out of anger, and put into context for the child. So I would have to ask, at that point, if other means of discipline are just as effective and in most cases moreso, then why go first to the rod when it is time to discipline?

  • Tim

    So Prince says the Bbile doesn’t explicitly prohibit hitting his kids. Big deal. It doesn’t have to explicitly prohibit it for me to know that it’s not a good way to raise them. Both our kids are in their 20s now and neither has ever done anything that suggests we made the wrong choice in rejecting hitting them.

    In his response to your present post here, he relies on three passages of Scripture. The Hebrews passage he cites says nothing about corporal punishment, merely that discipline is beneficial. The same goes for the Proverbs 3 passage. Proverbs 29 does use the word “rod”, but emphasizes the merit of discipline, not the method of using corporal punishment.

    So if he wants to rely on these passages as giving him permission to hit his kids I guess that’s his choice. But a parent doesn’t have to hit a kid to discipline him or her, so why would he choose to do so?

  • Jon

    Jonathan makes a clear case that spanking a child is harmful and should not be done. I don’t think that the “rod = guidance” interpretation is correct, however, for a number of reasons. Aside from “rod=hitting” being the most obvious interpretation, Prv. 29 puts the rod in counterpoint with “reprimand”, showing that “rod” = “physical” and “reprimand” = “verbal” fits. Plus, the text in Hebrews makes it clear that a parent’s “punishment” for children is meant to be painful. That theme appears again and again, both in the OT and NT.

    So it seems that David Prince is also correct. He asserts that the Bibles do indeed recommend physical hitting.

    I think they are both right (Jonathan that hitting is harmful, and David that the Bibles say to hit).

    The conclusion is that the Bibles, in the meaning that they were written in, are simply inappropriate as a guide for all aspects of one’s life today.

    I know that Jonathan and many other Christians want to keep the Bibles as literally true and right. That’s just not honest anymore, however – we’d have to accept a flat earth, creationism, a rejection of germ theory, and most areas of our modern understanding of the world.

    One can still be Christian by seeing ones chosen Bible as “how the real God communicated to people at the time”. In fact, many Christians I know say doing so (dispensing with the idea that their Bible is infallible or that it doesn’t include incorrect ideas from ancient times), allows them to have a more honest, more vibrant, Christian faith.

    I see Jonathan’s posts on this topic as important steps towards that. After all, we can’t move towards a healthy culture if many of us still take the false and hurtful lessons of ancient people while rejecting what we’ve learned since then.

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