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.