5 myths of ‘Biblical spanking.’ Taking the text literally would land you in jail.

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Pro-spanking Christians don’t actually read the Bible as literally as they think. If they did, they wouldn’t be defending their views on Twitter. They’d be complaining to the warden. - (Photo credit: http://bit.ly/1nTrXZM)

Pro-spanking Christians don’t actually read the Bible as literally as they think. If they did, they wouldn’t be defending their views on Twitter. They’d be complaining to the warden. - (Photo credit: http://bit.ly/1nTrXZM)

Pro-spanking Christians don’t actually read the Bible as literally as they think. If they did, they wouldn’t be defending their views on Twitter. They’d be complaining to the warden. - (Photo credit: http://bit.ly/1nTrXZM)

Pro-spanking Christians don’t actually read the Bible as literally as they think. If they did, they wouldn’t be defending their views on Twitter. They’d be complaining to the warden. – (Photo credit: http://bit.ly/1nTrXZM)

The national debate on the ethics of corporal punishment rages on, and pro-spanking Christians continue to claim the Bible encourages or even commands such behavior. I’ve argued that the withering findings of social science regarding spanking should be taken seriously and have warned that one shouldn’t build an entire ethic from Proverbs, a book of general wisdom rather than universal commands.

In the last week, however, I have dug deeper into the few Biblical texts that directly address corporal punishment. It turns out that much of what pro-spanking Christians teach has no Biblical basis and often directly contradicts what the text actually says. So spanking proponents don’t actually read these Biblical passages as literally as they say they do. If they did, they wouldn’t be defending their views on Twitter. They’d be complaining to the warden.

Let’s assume for a moment that those claiming to read these passages literally are correct. Here are five myths of “Biblical spanking” and what the Bible actually says:

1. Limit the age and number of swats when spanking – Evangelical leader James Dobson says parents shouldn’t spank kids younger than 15-to-18-months old and “most corporal punishment [should] be finished prior to the first grade.” He and others have also popularized the “two-smacks-max” approach to limiting the number of swats. These restrictions, however, are found nowhere in the Biblical text. Rather, these teachings are often drawn from social science, a field that is dismissed by the same individuals when convenient.

In the Bible, there is no upper or lower age limit found in the Biblical text. However, the Bible does speak about corporal punishment for adults at which point it imposes a “40 lashes, but no more” restriction (Deuteronomy 25:3).

2. Aim for the buttocks – Christian pastor and author John Piper says, “Children have little fat bottoms so that they can be whopped . . . It is not beating. It is not abuse. There is a clear difference.” But the Bible says that the rod of discipline is for “the backs of fools” (Proverbs 26:3; see also Proverbs 10:13 and Proverbs 14:3). If you read the Bible’s spanking texts as literal, timeless commands, aim for the back not the butt.

3. A belt, paddle, or hand will do – As Christian author Chip Ingram writes, Christians should “use a wooden spoon or some other appropriately sized paddle and flick your wrist” when spanking. But the Bible only instructs the use of two items for corporal punishment—the “rod” and “whip” (see various passages).

Some Christians promote a “rule of thumb,” which says that Christians should use a “switch” that is no bigger in diameter than one’s thumb. But this is not found in the Bible either. The “rod” in the Bible can refer to a range of items, including a shepherd’s staff or tree branch. No matter which definition you choose, there is no diameter restriction provided in the text itself.

4. Never leave a mark – Many Christian advocates for spanking talk about “swatting” a child so that it stings, but doesn’t leave a mark. But this is a modern American idea of spanking that has no root in the Scriptures. As Proverbs 20:30 says, “Blows and wounds (bruises­) scrub away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being.” The kind of discipline that cleanses the heart, according to the text, actually does leave a mark. The only restriction seems to be that punishing with the rod of discipline shouldn’t kill the person or cause dismemberment or permanent damage (see, for example, Proverbs 23:13).

5. Don’t hit out of anger – As Tom Frye, founder of Family First, wrote recently at Crosswalk.com, “A spanking (or any form of discipline) should never be delivered in anger. This may require a ‘time out’ for the parent to cool down so that loving discipline can take place.” But if the discipline of children by parents is a mirror of God’s discipline of God’s children, as pro-spanking Christians claim, then this is a farce. The discipline of God throughout the Scriptures isn’t absent of anger. It actually flows from God’s righteous anger.

As William Webb, professor at Tyndale Seminary and author of Corporal Punishment in the Bible says, “This sort of ‘love but no anger’ approach is a great plank within the platform of today’s spanking advocates. Unfortunately, it simply is not a biblical concept.”

Conservatives claim the Bible when they argue for corporal punishment, but what they are actually doing has little to do with the Biblical text. If you read the spanking texts literally, Webb says, you should respond to a person’s bad behavior by using a tree branch to beat them on the back until bruising occurs. This is irrespective of age, but in adulthood a whip can be used for up to 40 lashes.

Pro-spanking Christians speak of soft, swift swats and restrained wrist slaps. They talk of anger-less discipline with an explanation beforehand and perhaps a comforting prayer afterwards. This behavior is a modern invention and nothing at all like the Bible descriptions of corporal punishment. Even though some accuse anti-spanking Christians of “domesticating Scripture,” as Rachel Marie Stone writes, “contemporary American corporal punishment is already highly domesticated.”

The spanking restrictions that conservative Christians promote as Biblical would sound bizarre to those from the ancient Jewish cultures from which these passages arise. “Biblical spanking,” if one reads and applies these passages literally, is much more severe than the modern Western behaviors. Given that these practices derive almost from the book of Proverbs (selectively peppered with social science) and are out of synch with the Christian virtue of love, it seems Christians need fresh ways to read and understand these texts while remaining faithful to the Bible.

One such path forward is understanding the “rod” verses as general exhortations for parental discipline rather than literal commands to physically strike children. This seems entirely possible to me. Other approaches, like William Webb’s, may be helpful. He posits that the Bible indeed allows for corporal punishment but should be read in light of the redemptive movement of the Bible.

More work needs to be done. This conversation needs our best thinking as part of an ongoing conversation. Our children deserve at least this. And our credibility requires nothing less.

  • Andy

    Jonathan, after your last post and your fathers apology I was left wondering that you seem to have landed on your feet and have done pretty well for yourself regardless of the spankings by your father. How do you explain this?

  • opheliart


    I can see you are asking for ‘spanks’ by continuing this thread.

    Is good 😉

    One parent in my house had a wooden spoon for spanking. It was rarely used, and when used, it was not hard … however, one day, I took that wooden spoon and I wrote my name and my brother’s names on it. After that, never saw that spoon again.

    Peace and Love

  • I don’t place parenting skills and the resulting adult children in a 1 to 1 ratio. Some wonderful parents produce rotten children, some terrible parents produce lovely children, and most parents are a mixed bag of mistakes and wise choices that produce children who are likewise a mixed bag. My parents did a wonderful job raising us. They would be the first to admit that they made many good choices and also a handful of regrettable ones. And the result is me: a mixed bag who is as fallen as they are and likewise a product of God’s grace.

  • I love this story. One of the funniest stories from my upbringing was when I took my mom’s wooden spoons, snuck them out of the house, and buried them in the back yard. She had no idea where they went until years later when I confessed and we had a good laugh. 🙂

  • Tim

    I’ve noticed the same thing about the arguments the spankers put forth. Their reasoning is based on pop sociology with a couple Bible verses tacked on to try to make it legit. It’s horrible exegesis and leads to bad parenting.

  • @Tim,

    “horrible exegesis”

    ‘exegesis’ is a cop out.

    If a work of literature is too dangerous to take literally why was it made into literature in the first place? If god had something to tell all of humanity, arranging for it all to be written down in conflicting texts and concepts in different languages by illiterates and superstitious cave dwellers hardly constitutes a moral attempt to reach us in modern times.

    A person would be completely entitled to laugh off these dangerous texts for what they are; primitive scribblings and guesses on cow skin.

  • Tim

    You’re right, Atheist Max. Thank you for showing me the error of my ways.


  • Jon

    Another insightful, honest, and bold article by Jonathan Merritt!

    Though we may have differences in some areas, I don’t think anyone can deny the truth you speak in this article. Congratulations fpr speaking from a position of integrity, with nothing to hide.

  • Thanks for the feedback and encouragement, Jon!

  • Do you think there is ever an acceptable time/way for a Christian to spank his or her child?

  • Andrew: I personally don’t think so. But there are many Christians who I respect that disagree.

  • Jake

    So the argument here is that Christians are reading the bible wrong… You should spank your kids with a rod on the back?
    So are Christians supposed to see that the bible intends harsher punishment, find the bible irrelevant in this matter and move on towards a more ‘timeout’ philosophy? Seems like a terrible way to discuss the issue with bible believing Christians

  • Marcus Johnson

    Actually, Christians are supposed to stop running to the Bible for answers it was never intended to give. As Merritt pointed out, the Bible hardly refers to corporal punishment, primarily because the Bible was neither written nor compiled to serve as a guide to parenting. Any instances in which the Bible does refer to corporal punishment should really be understood as people, from their own cultural lenses, writing to an immediate audience that shared that same lens. That’s how I discuss it with Bible-believing Christians.

    I certainly don’t see why considering the Bible “irrelevant” in this matter is a problem. The Bible also is a poor guide for folks learning how to change tires, balance a checkbook, practice medicine, etc. That doesn’t make the Bible inherently useless.

  • ronald

    When we kids misbehaved, dad used to throw rocks at us as the Bible says in Deuteronomy. Actually, it says the elders are supposed to do it, but the city councilmen would always tell dad to go home and sleep it off. So he’d throw the rocks himself, but his aim was bad because he was drunk.

    At the time I hated it, but now I am older and see the wisdom of the ages that has been handed down to us in the Bible. Now I look back upon this discipline with gratitude, for it helped to put me on the right path!

  • Earold D. Gunter

    Probably TMI

    We had a bush in the back corner of our property that had branches about the diameter of a cigar at the base tapering to the diameter of a pencil lead at the tip, about four feet long, all growing up from a central base in the ground. It was what my siblings and me called the “switch tree”. We were made to select and retrieve the switch that my father used to “discipline” us, just before we were made to read certain passages out the bible out loud to him, all the while trying to not cry. When we did, he would warned us that if we didn’t stop crying he would give us something to cry about. Once we finished, he would hug us and tell us he whipped us because he loved us.

    Once I had a family of my own, the first, and last, time I spanked my son I had to run to the bathroom to throw up. Never again did I hit my child. Years later after my parents past away I took great pleasure in digging up the switch tree and burning it, just before I sold the house to another family, with children.

    I truly believe my father felt he was doing what was right for us, that he felt it was right in the eyes of the god he believed in. That is what his paternal lineage had believed in, and had done for centuries.

    Like children of alcoholics have a predisposition to follow the path of their alcoholic parent, I felt compelled to follow as well. It was only through honest evaluation of my beliefs, and the book that they were based on that I was able to see the error of my ways, and come out of the fog faith belief put humans in.

    Now my child does not spank his children, nor does he believe in books written by man that claim to speak for a god.

    Evolution at its finest.

  • Justin Case

    Kids are resilient. They can still do well for themselves in spite of a few, or even many, errors by loving and well-meaning parents. I was spanked and I think I came out fine. My kids were never spanked and they also came out fine. If kids can come out fine with our without corporal punishment, why resort to corporal punishment? Corporal punishment strikes me as lazy parenting, not taking the time and effort for more constructive training/disciplining that is usually better in the long run.

  • opheliart


    Your story of rocks reminds me of an incident involving an Orthodox priest. During a homily one Sunday, he told us that when he cleaned out his house to move, he found a rock that he had from when he was a boy. He did not remember why he had the rock, and so he decided to get rid of it.

    That same priest booted me out of his parish not long after his story about the rock. But some time before, when I was beginning to notice signs of fear on his part, and what I would call odd behavior (for a priest dealing with a catechumen), I wrote him and told him that he should not have thrown out the rock. I told him that the rock might not matter to him, but it mattered to me.

    Angry and frustrated at being treated so cruelly, without explanation as to WHY I was told to get out and find another church (yes, that’s what he said) … I wanted to rant in privacy. I was so angry and so hurt that I went for a walk on the dirt road leading to the river (the one where the tobacco fields are now corn, squash and potato). Upset, I picked up a large rock (bigger than the palm of my hand) and threw it wildly. Immediately after, I noticed the rock had landed in the farmer’s cornfield. I grew concerned. “What if the farmer’s plow hits the rock and it shoots out and hurts someone? What if the rock ruins the blade on the plow?” I quickly retrieved the rock, brought it home and have plans (when the time is ripe) to mail it to that Orthodox priest with a note saying: I am a priest, too.



  • opheliart

    Thanks for this story.


  • Thanks for sharing. Powerful testimony.

  • Thanks for writing this much needed article, which will hopefully prompt some reflection in the pro-spanking camp.

    Writer Jeff Charles made a similar argument 20 years ago while decrying the practice of school paddling (still legal in 19 states) in a long essay entitled “Sin, Sex, and Spanking School-Aged Children.”

    It includes this challenge: “I will pay $1000 cash to the first person who can show me a single Bible verse, either in the Old or New Testament (translation-not paraphrase), that advocates teachers beat the buttocks of children with a board. In addition I’ll make a new offer here and pay $1000 cash to the first person who can show me a single verse in the Bible (translation, not paraphrase) that explicitly teaches that any adult should hit any child’s butt with their hand. All I ask in return is that we study God’s word, and if we determine that no such verse exists then we teach the truth on the matter.”

    You can read the entire essay at http://www.nospank.net/jchrls.htm

  • rob

    Lutherans once again have our own sources

    The Kretzmann Project. The Popular Commentary of the Bible by Paul E. Kretzmann, Ph. D., D. D.,

    go to volume 2 old testament click on

    Proverbs THEN GO TO chapter 13 verse 24 and see what HE SAYS about that verse..


  • Mary

    I don’t think you’d remember me, but I grew up in church with you, and it did my heart so much good to read this. I stopped spanking my kids years and years ago, and got so much grief at the church from it. Hearing someone agree with me that it’s not at all Biblical who grew up the way I did is super validating that I’m doing the right thing. I’m so glad that leaders like you are speaking out against this.

  • John

    Another great article of one Christian mocking another Christian (Piper, Dobson, Ingram). There will always be theological, biblical, hermeneutical differences among us – and apparently there will always be someone in the press to sarcastically point out those differences. Thanks for eating your own Jonathan.

  • Gabriel

    “There is nothing that develops character in a young boy like a pat on the back, provided it is given often enough, hard enough and low enough. . . . It takes much less time than reasoning and penetrates more quickly to the seat of wisdom.”-Fulton J Sheen.

    There’s much nonsense coming out of modern psychology which shuns spanking. And then they wonder why their bratty children are sexually active by the time they are twelve, dressing up like Dracula by the time they are fourteen, and are somehow involved with multiple abortions by the time they’re 21.

    The attack on the family is on all fronts. The same so-called experts who warn people against spanking are the same bunch who are trying to normalize gay adoptions and teach schoolchildren why some children having two daddies or two mommies is wonderfully normal.

  • Gabriel

    Thus the reason why Jesus did not hand out Bibles, but instead founded a Church to teach in His name throughout the ages. Christianity is not founded upon the Bible, it is founded upon Jesus Christ and the teachings of His Church;l thus the Bible is a collection of books and letters which came to us through the Church, expressing not only the history of mankind but the way to perfection and salvation, which is knowing and serving God, Who is Truth, Goodness, and Love itself.

    Thus Jesus said that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all our heart, with all our strength and with all our mind; and then to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. All the other commandments depend on these two.

  • Looks like lots of straw men. Did, for example, Dobson ever *claim* that his 18 month – 1st grade restriction was found in Scripture?

  • @Gabriel,

    “Christianity is not founded upon the Bible, it is founded upon Jesus Christ”

    …er…Jesus…..who exists… only IN THE BIBLE.

  • Earold,

    Thanks for sharing that story.

  • @Gabriel,

    “so-called experts who warn people against spanking are the same bunch who are trying to normalize gay adoptions….that having two daddies or two mommies is wonderfully normal.”

    Shame on you.
    Your religious claims are as empty as the leprechaun’s pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

    Despicable nonsense.

  • Gandas

    Our children are placed in our care by a loving God who wants parents to form their thinking and behavioral choices. Spanking is a tool for training children “in the way they should go”. It is not the only tool, is fairly extreme, but in my experience, can be effective. Spanking is to be applied with specific critieria to adjust undesirable behavior, in our family it was for disobedience and disrespect to mom. Again spanking is not the only tool to train discipline and all of my children have come to my wife and I and said how much they appreciated ALL that we did in their formation and the life choices that they avoided because of what they received.

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  • Natalie

    If I may, Andy, I believe that the author turned out the way he did IN SPITE OF not BECAUSE OF being spanked as a child. Just because someone “turns out all right” doesn’t mean that what happened to them was right. There are many people in the world who have overcome HORRIBLE situations of abuse, rape, loss of children, friends, family, etc. and have chosen to have a positive attitude.

    Do not let circumstances determine your joy.

  • A.J. Berke
  • <3

  • I agree

  • An excellent point, Nancy! I was abused in several different ways as a child, and I still turned out ok. But that does not condone the abuse that happened to me.

  • *Sorry…meant Natalie…

  • I’m not really sure what you are getting at. Jesus existed outside the Bible in human form, and he was on this Earth decades before any part of the New Testament was written and at least a century or two before the Bible was compiled together and canonized. So Jesus actually predates the modern concept of the “Bible.”

  • I like this.

  • I do not think it was Jonathan’s intent to attack anyone. Just because he expresses a different point of view than some Christians does not mean he is attacking them. This seems to be his attempt to speak the truth in love and his concern for what God’s children are being taught and how they are being treated, and I fail to see why either of those things should be labeled as an attack. I also did not notice anything sarcastic in what Jonathan wrote.

  • This is a false and grossly exaggerated stereotype. There are many people who are pro-lgbt rights and are also pro-spanking (I know some of them). There are also many people who are anti-spanking but are also anti-lgbt (I know some of them). There are some, like you said, who are both anti-spanking and pro-lgbt rights, but the two groups are in no way the same thing. And neither point of view is an attack on family. Just because someone else’s family might be different, I fail to see how that is an attack or threat to your own. What is an attack is telling that other person that their family structure is illegitimate because it goes against your own “religious beliefs.”

    Also, there are many Christians who also fit in the lgbt category, so it is not an anti-religious thing, but that is another conversation for another forum.

  • And Jonathan’s ideas here about biblical “discipline” are also not an attack on family. They are an attempt to encourage families to reevaluate how they are treating each other and learn how to relate to each other in a more healthful way. It is intended to help families, not attack them.

  • Also, in many other passages, the word translated as “rod” (original Hebrew is “shebet”) is taken to be a metaphor for power and authority, such as in David’s psalms “Thy rod and staff, they comfort me” (speaking of God’s authority and guidance in his life). But pro-spanking Christians interpret that exact same word literally when it is convenient as an attempt to support their belief in corporal punishment. As Christians, we need to be careful about twisting the Bible’s to fit our own beliefs and prejudices.

    And remember, Psalms and Proverbs are poetic books by nature. Why is anyone interpreting them literally?

  • Nat

    @Atheist Max
    I’m not big on debate. However, many non-Christian historians agree upon Jesus of Nazareth existing. Many Biblical events match up to other historical documents. If you start researching you will be amazed at how much truth and exactness exists in the Bible. It’s super interesting if you just start looking into it and be more open.

  • Nat

    While I agree for sure with some things you are saying I disagree on one point. Hopefully I haven’t misunderstood what you were saying. My apologies, if so. Yes, the Bible came in the physical world from the church. Scripture says it was “God-breathed” and that the men who wrote the books were inspired by the Holy Spirit. My view and what I think the Bible makes clear is that it is actually from God. It’s amazing to me that Jesus came to us from the Spiritual/unseen/heavenly realm in physical form. I have always seen it truly as a miracle that God speaks to us directly through the Bible which is in physical form.

  • Kristopher

    I think that one can allegorize the Scriptures into useless, un-applicable nonsense.

    Exactly how is one supposed to take those Scriptures, which so clearly talk of spanking? Why on earth, if they were meant to be symbolic or non-literal, were they even written– or written in the form that they were?

    And if we’re to make these “controversial” texts symbolically, then what are we to do with the other Scriptures which also command us to walk a certain way, or advise us to do wisely (e.g. saving money, working hard, not hanging out with bad company, not getting drunk, not stealing, etc.)?

  • Tonya

    If you read proverbs, Solomon was the only one who referenced physical punishment of children, and he did but if we look at the results and how his kids turned out, it may be the message God is trying to show us here. My opinion….:)