The biblical case for spanking

I’m not sure what to think of a front-page New York Times story Monday that tried to connect the deaths of three children with a self-published book by Tennessee preacher Michael Pearl and his wife, Debi.

The Times reported that the Pearls advocate “systematic use of ‘the rod’ to teach toddlers to submit to authority.”

The meat of the story:

Debate over the Pearls’ teachings, first seen on Christian Web sites, gained new intensity after the death of a third child, all allegedly at the hands of parents who kept the Pearls’ book, “To Train Up a Child,” in their homes. On Sept. 29, the parents were charged with homicide by abuse.

More than 670,000 copies of the Pearls’ self-published book are in circulation, and it is especially popular among Christian home-schoolers, who praise it in their magazines and on their Web sites. The Pearls provide instructions on using a switch from as early as six months to discourage misbehavior and describe how to make use of implements for hitting on the arms, legs or back, including a quarter-inch flexible plumbing line that, Mr. Pearl notes, “can be rolled up and carried in your pocket.”

The furor in part reflects societal disagreements over corporal punishment, which conservative Christians say is called for in the Bible and which many Americans consider reasonable up to a point, even as many parents and pediatricians reject it. The issue flared recently when a video was posted online of a Texas judge whipping his daughter.

I haven’t read this book or others on the subject, but my GetReligion colleague Mollie says they often focus on biblical passages on physical punishment while completely ignoring grace and forgiveness in family relationships. Regardless, though, of what one thinks about the methods advocated by the Pearls, the trail of evidence linking the deaths to the book seems rather squishy. This line in the report stood out to me:

“If you find a 12-step book in an alcoholic’s house, you wouldn’t blame the book,” Mr. Pearl said in an interview.

But since the Times decided to do the story, I wish it had worked harder to explore — and explain — the religious beliefs involved.

Instead, we get a blanket statement that conservative Christians say corporal punishment is called for in the Bible. Later, that statement is adjusted a bit to suggest that “some conservative Christian parents reject the Pearls’ teachings.”

Crystal Lutton, who runs Grace-Based Discipline, one of several Christian blogs that oppose corporal punishment, said the danger with the Pearls’ methods is that “if you don’t get results, the only thing to do is to punish harder and harder.”

A GetReligion reader complained that the story focused on Lutton’s practical objections rather than her theological concerns. The reader said:

I’m part of the linked Internet board (with the opponent quoted). She and many others are very articulate at explaining their theological objections, along with their practical ones.

As the reader noted, the article did discuss the Pearls’ beliefs, albeit in broad strokes:

Much of their advice is standard: parents should be loving, spend a lot of time with their children, be clear and consistent, and never strike in anger. But, citing Biblical passages like, “He that spareth his rod hateth his son,” they provide instructions for “switching” defiant children to provide “spiritual cleansing.”

And this:

“To give up the use of the rod is to give up our views of human nature, God, eternity,” they write.

What do the Pearls mean by spiritual cleansing? How do their views of human nature, God and eternity play into using the rod as they do? What does the Pearls’ church teach in general, and where does it fit on the larger spectrum of evangelical Christianity?

The Times leaves such questions unexplored. But readers do learn that the prosecutor in one of the death cases has no plans to charge the the book’s authors. Imagine that.

Image of parents with child via Shutterstock.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Bobby

    This is not the place to debate corporal punishment. GetReligion is concerned about media coverage and journalistic issues. If you have comments related to journalism, by all means, please share your thoughts.

  • Dave

    If a serial killer of women is found possessed of a novel that outlines how to kill women, a public fuss will ensue over the book. If a saboteur of logging operations is found with a book glorifying monkey-wrenching, same thing. (And in neither case will the author of the book be charged.) This is not a religion-specific reaction on the part of the press.

  • Evy

    Looking for more information about the most recent case in Washington I found this blog.
    Who cares what Pearl means by “spiritual cleansing”? Who cares about the other “big picture” question you pose? Very real children have died and one of the commonalities between their so-called parents seems to be the fact they they all employed some of Pearl’s methods. Yes, the article could have talked about more philosophical questions, but that obviously wasn’t their intention, and why should it be? The philosophy behind a crime does not matter in the end. It can provide an explanation, but never an excuse for the loss of innocent life. Nice try though.

  • forty-two

    There have been plenty of previous articles talking about whether Pearl is morally/legally culpable in the deaths discussed in the Times, including a <a html=]CNN report. That’s why I was sort of annoyed that the Times spent so much space recapping that and so little on *why* Pearl believes as he does, and why his opponents believe as they do.

  • teahouse


    if we took that “how cares” approach, we should not talk about the Pearl’s books at all.

  • Daniel

    The Pearls don’t appear to believe in toatal depravity. Someone who embraces “spiritual cleansing,” for youngsters of the age under discussion, would appear to adhere to Arminian beliefs. I would like to see this discussed some place.

  • Bobby

    If a serial killer of women is found possessed of a novel that outlines how to kill women, a public fuss will ensue over the book. If a saboteur of logging operations is found with a book glorifying monkey-wrenching, same thing. (And in neither case will the author of the book be charged.) This is not a religion-specific reaction on the part of the press.

    For your analogy to work in this case, the serial killer would need to have watched a TV drama where women were killed or read a book on aggressive self-defense techniques. In other words, a more precarious connection to the deaths. A how-to-kill-women book is too easy a connection and not an apples-and-oranges comparison to the question here: whether a book on spanking that has sold 670,000 copies led to murders in three cases where there’s no direct evidence of that fact.

  • Mer

    Do we really want to call what the Pearl’s advocate “spanking?” I don’t. I was spanked as a child, and I certainly was never struck with a switch, a belt, a cane, or plastic tubing. The book occupies a more nebulous ground simply by proposing actual physical damage to a child (rather than spanking, which can does almost nothing). I think you’re down-playing the content of the book in order to ignore its possible ramifications.

    In light of this, I think Dave’s analogy is more apt that you previously stated. In addition to striking your child as early as six months old, Pearl states “a little fasting is good training.” This is turn led to the couple in question starving their adopted daughter. I guess I just see more of a causal link than you do.

  • Bobby

    Mer, thanks for your perspective. I haven’t read the book, as I noted in the post. But the news story itself did not persuade me of a causal link. Have you read the book?

  • Bobby

    Re: previous comment. I meant “convince me,” not “persuade me.” Thought I’d confess before someone called me on it. :-)

  • sharon d.

    On an utterly minor journalistic point, how long are news agencies going to hyphenate “home-schooling”? The universal usage, outside of the big media sources, has been for many years “homeschooling” as a compound word.

  • Bobby

    sharon d.,

    My AP Stylebook (2007 edition) has “home schooling,” “home-schooled” and “home-schooler” as the proper spellings. I agree that “homeschooling” would be better. I don’t have the latest stylebook so don’t know if AP has changed its guideline.

  • Jeff Charles

    The simple fact is that any preacher who claims spanking to be Christian is either a liar, and/or is ignorant of the New Testament. This includes the Pearls as extreme examples, but also includes all preachers who spout the same.
    Most Christians have heard the false teachings for so long they would be astounded and would have to actually read, and re-read, the New Testament many times before it might dawn on them that there is not one word in the New Testament instructing any Christian to hit anyone.
    As for King Solomon’s sole Old Testament advice to the Jews to beat their children, he never claimed any inspiration for his teachings. Why do we add to the Bible and assume his advice is inspired? Actually, for those who actually read the Biblewith an open mind, freed of the constant lies and false teachings, the Bible itself in I Kings 11 describes Solomon as so wicked he was the sole reason Israel had to be captured, divided, and destroyed — not a prophet, and not even a good king, although he was revered for his secular accomplishments riding on his father’s coattails. Even if Solomon were inspired, he would be “old testament.” A modern Gentile Christian would be no more obligated to beat children than they would to stone to death anyone who did any work on the Sabbath day, or to offer animal sacrifices as was the command for the Ancient Jews of that time. The Apostle Paul makes it clear in Galations that no Christian can follow even one small aspect of the law without denying Christ completely, and hence must live by the whole law. Christ never hit a child or taught anyone else to, nor did any New Testament figure, but he did condemn child abuse in the strongest possible terms in Matthew 18.

  • teahouse

    Jeff, your all about getting on a soap box but make no journalistically relevant, so your posting is actually off topic.

    Still, in response to your speech:

    1. If the New Testament makes no statement about corporal punishment or spanking, that doesn’t make it “not Christian” at all.

    2. It is dishonest first to demand a bible verse for everything and then turn around and deny an actual bible verse because supposedly it is not “inspired” or “old testament”. Well, Christians believe all the Bible to be inspired, includig books in Solomon’s name and the entire Old Testament.

    3. Solomo actually is described in the Bible as a just and wise ruler who in the end also did wrong. He is not called the “sole reason for Israel’s destruction”. And how is this relevant given that the Book of Kings doesn’t claim inspiration and actually is Old Testament.

    4. Christ actually never said a word about child abuse either. According to your logic, this means that opposition to abuse cannot be Christian.

  • teahouse

    Bobby 6 sharon,

    who cares?

  • Kathy

    I felt like the journalist gave out a lot of free passes, not challenging Pearl or quoting from his book when he referred to a “tapping” the baby in order to show that most readers would not call it a tap if the “tap” is supposed to sting and hurt.

    “If you find a 12-step book in an alcoholic’s house, you wouldn’t blame the book,” Mr. Pearl said in an interview.”

    That stood out to me also, Bobby, but it’s a statement that only sounds logical. The active alcoholic is doing the opposite of what the book says to do — but it is in following the Pearls’ instructions (to refuse the child food, to hose them off outdoors in lieu of bathing, to beat them until the child is without breath to complain, etc) that parents run into trouble.

    Also in light of the fact that the three children who were killed were all older-child adoptees, I think it would have been good for her to get a comment from an expert in such adoptions to shed light on why/whether there is any reason to suspect that in such situations, there is a greater risk.

  • samuel martin

    Spanking children as is commonly taught today is one of the most misunderstood teachings supposedly found in the Bible.