does the Bible mandate corporal punishment in child-rearing?
The book of Proverbs is often used, it would seem, to justify the claim that a true Christian approach to raising children must invariably include the use of corporal punishment (see, for example, Prov 13:24; 22:15; 23:13–14; 29:15). Partly because I keep running into this argument, I thought I’d post a few comments and observations relating to it.
First, perhaps the most extreme proponent of corporal punishment I’ve encountered is Sirach who, in chapter 30, writes:
1He who loves his son will whip him often,
so that he may rejoice at the way he turns out.
2He who disciplines his son will profit by him,
and will boast of him among acquaintances.
7Whoever spoils his son will bind up his wounds,
and will suffer heartache at every cry.
8An unbroken horse turns out stubborn,
and an unchecked son turns out headstrong.
9Pamper a child, and he will terrorize you;
play with him, and he will grieve you.
10Do not laugh with him, or you will have sorrow with him,
and in the end you will gnash your teeth.
11Give him no freedom in his youth,
and do not ignore his errors.
12Bow down his neck in his youth,
and beat his sides while he is young,
or else he will become stubborn and disobey you,
and you will have sorrow of soul from him.
13Discipline your son and make his yoke heavy,
so that you may not be offended by his shamelessness.
Fortunately few today go quite so far as Sirach. Nonetheless, my concern is with the derivation from Proverbs of the idea that corporal punishment is required by the Bible, or that “a parent that doesn’t use corporal punishment hates their child” (as I was once told). I know there are quite a few Christian parenting books which endorse forms of corporal punishment almost from birth, and substantiation is almost entirely founded on a few verses from Proverbs. I want to say that this is a gross misunderstanding of Proverbs virtually akin to the mistake made by Job’s friends who assumed that Job must be suffering because of some personal sin since that’s what wisdom taught.
My problems with this application of Proverbs are as follows:
- Proverbs should not be interpreted as rules in this way. I know people pay lip-service to this very fundamental hermeneutical strategy for Proverbs, but then subsequently jetison it when trying to draw lessons from the material. Proverbs attempts to teach profound truths in brief aphorisms which become guides to the wise to know how to act. It is clear from Proverbs itself that you need wisdom to apply its wisdom, for in the hands of fools the material in Proverbs is open to abuse (cf. Prov 26:7, 9)!
- The only form of discipline for children (or “youths” cf. 22:15; 23:13) explicitly identified in Proverbs is “the rod,” yet I know of no-one who suggests that corporal punishment should be the only form of discipline parents mete out to their children, despite the fact that a literalistic reading of Proverbs would lead one to conclude that this is the recommended course of action.
- “The rod” is clearly metaphorical in a number of passages (e.g. Prov 14:3). This is also reflective of the poetic nature of aphoristic wisdom literature, which employs all manner of poetic devices to convey its messages.
- This understanding is reinforced by the observation that Proverbs never contrasts methods of discipline: the antithesis to discipline is always lack of discipline, not another supposedly inferior form of discipline. Were corporal punishment being exclusively endorsed, I would expect some such contrast to appear.
- The use of “the rod” is influenced by the terse nature of the aphorisms, not because it is the be-all and end-all for biblical discipline. Once “the rod” is established in the aphorism as a reference to discipline, it is appropriate to use the symbol to develop the instruction countained in the aphorism.
The upshot of this is that while Proverbs teaches the importance of disciplining children, it should not be taken as endorsing particular forms of discipline. It clearly doesn’t eschew corporal punishment, but neither should it be understood as requiring it or even making it normative. Wisdom requires wisdom, and so one ought to recognise that individual circumstances need to be evaluated and dealt with individually. To my mind, to entirely exclude corporal punishment as a legitimate tool in discipline is as legalistic and blinkered as suggesting that it ought to be normative. Every child is different: what works for one will not work for another. Every circumstance is different: sometimes an urgent response is needed, sometimes not.
Finally, I’d also like to highlight Eph 6:4 as another passage which instructs us in how to apply discipline. I like Andrew Lincoln’s comment on the passage in his commentary on Ephesians:
Fathers are made responsible for ensuring that they do not provoke anger in their children. This involves avoiding attitudes, words, and actions which would drive a child to angry exasperation or resentment and thus rules out excessively severe discipline, unreasonably harsh demands, abuse of authority, arbitrariness, unfairness, constant nagging and condemnation, subjecting a child to humiliation, and all forms of gross insensitivity to a child’s needs and sensibilities.