Is spanking Christlike?

Parenting is hard.

If you are a parent, you probably understand how difficult it truly is to care for a child. Lack of sleep, constant chores, and the financial burden it brings are just the tip of the iceberg of the challenges parents face. Included in those challenges is the way it makes us face the sweet and bitter truths of our own childhood.

Often, it makes us appreciate all our parents did for us. Other times, we question the decisions our parents made in our upbringing. Some of us had abusive parents, some of us had absent parents, and some of us had good and decent parents. Regardless of which category we fit in, all of our parents made mistakes.

Once we become parents ourselves, we are forced to make decisions on what we will do similarly and what we will change.

One of the categories new parents wrestle with is discipline. Do we put them in timeout? Do we take away toys? Do we eliminate play time? Do we offer incentives when they behave? Do we spank?

I think it is important for parents to wrestle with various disciplinary techniques by reading the data behind behavioral science in children and deciding what is best for them and their families. My wife and I also wanted the Holy Spirit to help us discover a comprehensive biblical approach to spanking. Specifically, we wanted to know if it was Christlike to spank our kids. For starters, a biblical approach is not always a Christlike approach. That may sound strange to some, but it is nonetheless important to understand. Just as we should not look to Ecclesiastes for advice on the roles of Elders in the church, we should not look to Leviticus to find out what Jesus is like.

The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus “is the reflection of God’s glory and the EXACT imprint of God’s very being. (Hebrews 1:3a)” Consistently through the book of John, Luke quotes Jesus telling us that He acts the way the Father acts, does what He has seen the Father do, and is one with the Father. Additionally, Luke says that “no one has seen the Father” until Jesus “revealed Him to us. (John 1:18)” Finally, John the Evangelist tells us in 1 John 3:16 that love looks like Jesus on the cross, and we are to replicate this love.

In sum, we know what God looks like when we see Jesus. If there is any characteristic ascribed to God in the Old Testament that contradicts the character of Jesus, we need to look a little closer.

So, how does this apply to spanking?

If our goal is a biblical approach to spanking, we must start with Jesus, and, even more specifically, Jesus on the cross. But most parents don’t start at the cross, they start in the Old Testament. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” has become THE verse for spanking children in Christian households. The full verse reads like this, “He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently. (Proverbs 13:24)”

For those who read the Bible flat, giving each verse in the Bible equal weight in its application, this seems like a pretty clear and plain reading. Of course, if we are going to be consistent with our fundamentalism, we actually can only apply it to the spanking of our sons, not our daughters. Also, we could only use a rod, not our hands, a belt, etc. You and I know this would be a silly way to exegete an ancient text. But why do we stop there? If we are going to base an entire theology on one verse, why not dive in a little further?

First, this text was written by Solomon in the ancient near east (ANE). When he writes “rod,” is he thinking of spanking with a rod in the way we would? It seems far more likely he is thinking of a shepherd’s rod. A shepherd’s rod was used to keep sheep in line and steer them in the right direction. This verse likely is referring to the way we are called to guide our children, not a mandate to punish them with violence when they disobey. In light of Jesus, it would actually be applied in the opposite way that it has been. Guiding a child would include teaching them how to live nonviolently. Spanking teaches the exact opposite.

Second, even if this verse really does mean what we think it means, we should still rethink its application in light of Jesus. Yes, Solomon (author of Proverbs) was known to be wise. But his wisdom was limited as he was unable to know the full character of God as revealed in Jesus. His words were written in the Old Testament, which includes many laws that we would consider bizarre and unjust today, including putting a child to death that “curses his father or mother” (Leviticus 20:9).

Jesus set the Father’s true character straight through His life and teachings. His corrections often came in the form of “You have heard it said… But I say unto you…” I could see Him saying, “You have heard it said, ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child.’ But I say unto you, whoever spares the rod becomes like the Father, and I and the Father are one.”

A comprehensive and contextual study of the Bible made me change my view on spanking. I no longer believe that spanking children is an appropriate, Christlike measure of discipline. It communicates—at a very early age—that violence is a justifiable action for wrongdoing. It also sets up a view of God that is incompatible with the character of Jesus, who chose to sacrifice His life instead of responding with violence.

Spanking sometimes (not always) leads to obedience (though, for some personalities, it encourages rebellion). But obedience is not the entire goal, is it? We want our kids to obey out of respect and love, not out of terror or obligation.

If our kids become obedient out of obligation, they will likely treat their faith the same way—as a set of rules to follow in order to avoid condemnation from God. But God doesn’t care about rule-following for the sake of rule-following; He desires an intimate relationship that leads to obedience out of love.

Of course, rule-following for the sake of rule-following might keep one out of trouble momentarily, but it likely will set up a crisis of faith later or make one embrace fundamentalist or violent forms of Christianity. For instance, if a mild spank is justified to combat the crime of eating a cookie without permission, it may convey that there are levels of violence to combat the level of sin. It may seem small now, but later, this kind of thinking can grow into viewing God as a far-away, blood-thirsty warrior, who justifies any level of violence. For example, a shooting may be justified to combat corruption; an insurrection may be justified to combat a “stolen election”; a bomb may be justified to combat a dictator. Once we get to this point, God does not look like Jesus at all.

I am sure that most parents spank their children out of love. My argument is not against the motives of the parents, but what it may do to the children. If we’re honest, spanking is usually passed down. Parents spank their kids because they were spanked by their parents, who were spanked by their parents, and so forth. The Bible might refer to this as a generational curse. Just as the wrath of God is the built-in consequence of sin, a curse could be seen as the generational built-in consequence of sin. Only if we are open to the Spirit can we break these curses and allow ourselves and our children to be more like the Crucified Christ.

Finally, if you are a parent who spanks, it is not whatsoever hopeless for your children. Jesus accommodates to our failures and is constantly at work to reveal His true self. However, the more we are sanctified into a reflection of Christ, the less His accommodation is necessary. This should be the goal of every believer. But since our own good will eventually wear out, we need power from the Spirit to energize us for the long game of Cruciform Love.

In sum, my view of refraining from spanking is deeply theological. Parenting is surely not easy, but we have a Heavenly Father who demonstrates the characteristics that we need most as a parent: love, wisdom, and patient endurance.

Image credit: Pamela Reynoso

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  • Frankly Frank says:

    When God disciplines His children, it’s a lot worse that a little three second spanking. And he blasted his Son with wrath, a penalty we all deserved. I hope that the many well-intentioned parents who spank or have spanked their children in the past will not see this guilt (false guilt) inducing article.

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