Why ‘Biblical’ Parenting is Horrible Parenting

biblical parenting

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I posed a question in my parenting Facebook Group, “If Jesus had children, would he have spanked them?” The overwhelming immediate responses were,

“no,”

“heck no,”

“if he did, I could not follow him anymore.”

Understandably, because it is near impossible to reconcile the loving, peace-making, power-giving image of Jesus with one who could intentionally hurt a child.  But someone brought up a fair point that during the time and context of Jesus, corporal punishment of children was likely the norm and not considered problematic in the least.

In fact, it sucked to be a child in biblical times. A lot. The way children were treated throughout the Bible were mostly horrible to our modern sensibilities.

Let’s start in the beginning, shall we? In Genesis, Abraham, hailed as the father of faith, dragged his son to the altar with the intention of killing him as a sacrifice to God. Try to put yourself in Isaac’s shoes—his father bound him and was going to knife him to death on a rock. That’s horrifying. And yet the Bible was disturbingly cavalier with what can only be described as child abuse.

Next, Exodus. One of the most climactic scenes in the central storyline is the genocide of children, where Pharaoh orders the infanticide of baby boys across Egypt. This atrocity is of course, repeated at the birth of Jesus, lest you think the Old Testament is more brutal than the New. Genocide of firstborn sons accompany the story of our Savior’s birth. These texts go beyond child abuse, but are veritable texts of terror. (Parenting tip: don’t read these Bible stories to your young children, genocide doesn’t make a good bedtime story).

And then we get to the most problematic text of all, the heralded verse used by conservative Christian families across the board for biblical validation to spank children: the dreaded ‘rod’ in Proverbs. In chapter 13 verse 24, “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.” This is the seminal Scripture passage used to justify spanking and other forms of authoritative parenting in much of conservative Christian parenting literature. Calls for more gentle forms of guidance are poo-pooed by some Christians as undermining biblical authority and shamed as watering down the gospel truths of godly parenting. Despite decades of research showing the lasting harms of corporal punishment, Christians will still defend spanking as a legitimate form of discipline because it is the biblical way.

But here’s the thing:

The Bible is not a parenting manual.

I repeat.

The Bible is not a parenting manual.

For Christians who hold Scripture in high authority, should it shape our parenting? Absolutely, but you cannot lift a verse out of the middle of Scripture and use it to justify hitting your child without regard to the context of both the Scripture and our current environment. To apply Scripture in this way is irresponsible to the text and does a great deal of harm.

It is okay to interrogate our holy scriptures when it comes to parenting. It is okay for us to say WTF Abraham, are you kidding me? You’re a terrible Dad for doing that to your son and I don’t blame him if he hates you for the rest of his life! The Bible’s primary purpose is not to present best parenting practices that apply across all time and cultures, it is there to tell a story about God, and us, and God’s plan of salvation. That Story contains snippets of gore and gripping tales of genocide and beautiful redemption found through gritty humanity. We can question the brutality without undermining the powerful ways Scripture shapes our faith.

How then, should we interpret Scripture to inform our parenting today?

First, allow the problematic texts to stand as it is and wrestle with it. Questioning why children were treated with so little respect gives us insight into the cultural context of antiquity and challenges us to examine how we still live in an Anti-Child world today.

Second, the way Jesus treated children stands in starker contrast when we have an understanding of the low status children had in biblical times. He welcomed, hugged, and blessed children, dismantling the strong power dynamics his contemporaries held over children. We should apply a Jesus-centric lens to guide our application of Scripture to parenting practices.

Third, follow the trajectory of Scripture. Digest the story of Scripture as a whole, the story of how God saves through Jesus. Jesus who preaches a kingdom where the least becomes the greatest and who subverts the powers of empire—the powers that enslave, oppress, and does violence to children, and allow the story to transform us into revolutionary parents who emulate Jesus in raising our children by giving up our power over them.

Please. Don’t pick up that rod in the name of biblical parenting ever again. Lay down the rod. Question the practice of spanking our children. Listen to the research that is seeking the best interests of children, telling us that the harm of corporal punishment is severe and long lasting and sometimes irreparable. No one questions your love for your kids, we are all trying to do the best we can. But the gospel is one that sets us free to imagine new paths, a Jesus way that does not lord power over the little ones but uses our hands to hold and not harm.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Yvonne Interval Frith

    So true Cindy. As a progressive christian, I have come to see the bible as a great book of metaphors, not a road map for my life. As, I don’t for a moment believe God ever expected us to conduct ourselves in the 21st century with a 1st century mindset. The bible is a great book, not a road map for modern day life. Keep up the great work.

    • David Munson

      So, where are your moorings?

      • Yvonne Interval Frith

        God gave us a mind, I whole heartedly believe we should use it. David, if you find yourself relying on a pastor, priest or anyone else to tell you how and what you should believe, then your “moorings” are based on man and his interoperation of God. The bible is a good book, with some very sage advice. However, all of the interpretations were written by men of a different time. So yes, I put on my 21st Century lens and study it with a fresh perspective. Do you wear clothes with blended fabric? Do you love shell fish? Do you beat your children? Would you stone a neighbor who you knew was cheating on their spouse? If you answered no to any of those questions, then you too, view scripture with a 21st Century lens. We get our moorings from our humanity and sense of decency, not how folks viewed society more than 3,000 years ago. Peace.

  • WatchingFromOverThere

    In the ancient world, the Jews, unlike some of their neighbors, did not practice human sacrifice. I always thought the story of Abraham going to sacrifice Isaac was one of those stories told to explain why this was the case.

  • David

    Cindy you are making this way issue too simplistic. O you saying no to all forms of corporal punishment, but would Jesus have punished his children at all? If so how? And what are we to make of Hebews 12: 6-11: “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. 7 If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? 8 But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. 9 Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? 10 For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.11 Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.”

    • Andrea

      Chastisement can be a softly spoken word. God often speaks in a “still, small voice” to his children. Speaking softly to a child to remind them of proper behavior is chastisement and discipline. It teaches them. It’s not punishment, it’s discipline. Neither “discipline’ nor “chastisement’ means “punishment.”

  • Andrea

    My parenting is Biblical, and I have never used physical punishment of any kind. The Bible has a lot to say about parenting and works well as a parenting manual, actually. LR Knost has a whole book about it. And no, spanking children is NOT Biblical.

  • http://drmichaellubbers.com Michael B. Lubbers

    Hello All, Inagree that Cindy simplifies the biblical perspective on child rearing to a few proverbial texts. Three overarching passages inform my thinking: the first is the “most detestible thing” to God: child sacrifices–and it took centuries for the people of Israel to root out the practice. It’s last referenced in late Kings I believe–Manassah’s reign. Second is Jesus’ treatment of children–very counter culture even for the Jews who were pro-family for the times. They followed the Shema which is certainly about teaching children well. Finally, there’s Paul in Ephesians who admonishes fathers to not “exasperate your children.” Weaved through the entire Scriptures are references to disciplining children as the Lord disciplines those He loves. As a child psychologist, I find the themes and messages in the Bible to be very useful for parenting and I believe raising children up in the Lord will lessen the need for the use of corporal punishment. But Christian parents who rarely sos know in the years 4-7 or so will not damage their children if they “impress” God’s command on them morning, noon and night.
    Take good care, Michael Lubbers

  • http://drmichaellubbers.com Michael B. Lubbers

    Bummer, I should proof my posts before I send them. Among other typos, I meant to say near the end, “Christian parents who rarely (infrequently) use corporal punishment in the 4-7 years or so will not damage their children . . . .”

  • DianenIT

    Sorry but I must disagree with this article. Applying the basic rules of hermeneutics would help understand the scriptures referred to in this article, showing that with correct application indeed the Bible is not just a great parenting manual but something holds truth through its principles. The actual event of Abraham offering Isaac was not meant to be normative but descriptive but through it was teaching principles. The scripture concerning use of the rod on a child is a proverb. Proverbs have hermeneutic rules as well as rules of literature that help interpret it correctly. Unfortunately, as with other scriptures, not only has the author taken it out of context but many others have misapplied it as well. Again, the use of the rod is descriptive but the proverb contains a principle within it.

  • Alejandro Restrepo

    Abraham attempting to kill his Son, The Pharaoh killing infants in Egypt, and King Herod killing babies in Bethlehem had nothing to do corporal punishment but rather it was homicide for different reasons respectively! >:O 1.) Abraham attempting to ritualistically kill his son was an act of devotion to the God Yahweh/Jehovah! >:O 2.) Pharaoh ordered the Egyptian soldiers to kill the infant jews in order to prevent an uprising of overpopulation! >:O And 3.) King Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been announced to him by the Magi! >:O You need to check up on your answers before you start posting them if I were you! >:O

    • Paul Vincent

      Jehovah was never going to allow Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Isaac was old enough to have resisted but he was obedient to his father. This was a test and also foreshadowed the incredible sacrifice God would later make with his own son. The Rod is applied figuatively in our house, with ipad removal and sad chairs. Smacking is a last resort and never done in anger. Think we have had 2 smacks in 5 years. a stern word works much better. not sure how i would deal with chronically misbehaving children though

  • http://takefiveanytime.blogspot.com Tom Eggebeen

    Thank you Cindy … keep up the good work … this book, which I love, has been used more wrong reasons than good. We are constantly working to free the Text from the hands of the violent.

    • David Munson

      Do you not think the “violent” could benefit from the Bible? Or is the Bible so violent that it affects people adversely? If this is the case, why do you love it?

  • http://takefiveanytime.blogspot.com Tom Eggebeen

    Or putting it bit more pointedly, the “biblical parents” I’ve known have all pretty much sucked. Ha.

  • Aurelia Nicholas

    The shepherd used the ROD to beat off predators like bears, and big animals…..it was also used to NUDGE a sheep off course. So that is completely taken out of context. If anyone were to actually go into the handling of sheep and shepherding they would realize the context of the use of the rod is wrong.. Most of us older folks were raised with corporal punishment so it is not even “biblical” even non religious people take that out of context because it as has been a saying throughout the passage of time. I also want to note, the treatment of women and children has always been horrible, just think of all the street urchins in Victorian, and Edwardian times. Nothing has changed, and you cannot just make a broad blanket statement that it is all biblical. It is the evil corruption of men. Hatred, selfishness, arrogance etc. facilitates this kind of treatment. When Jesus came he portrayed a completely different gospel of love. As for the genocide, Herod was an evil beast that was not obviously following the law…..thou shalt not kill. Killing the babies was a result of captivity and evil of the Israelites. . Which was a result of God’s wrath. So I don’t think you can throw that in as Biblical parenting. AS society progresses things will change.. I know on our CBC there was a whole segment dedicated to this subject because a dad here got jailed for spanking his 13 yr old for sexting. So there was a very interesting exchange of thought on the subject concerning laws and dealing with child discipline. I think overall culture and wrong doctrine has played into “Biblical parenting”

  • John T

    Great article. Thank you for confronting the evils of child abuse done in the name of religion. In my book, “Nazi Jesus or Bible Jesus” I discuss the issues of “using the rod” on children. It is NOT a biblical principle.

    • ortcutt

      Or maybe it is a biblical principle, and the Bible just shouldn’t be used to justify how to treat your children.

  • Margaret Ann Porter

    I’ll never understand why people who are bible-centered cannot make room for the evolution in thinking that is clearly present throughout the book. Why do they only accept evolution toward modern understanding in scriptures that serves them, but not in other ones? They are hypocrites and self-serving, and they diminish the power of the bible as a source for living in the modern world. (I’m not referring to this column, by the way, which is thought-provoking; I’m referring to some of the comments.)

  • Ottoniel Landrau

    Cindy there is a lot more to biblical parenting than just spanking a child. Proverbs 13:24 is not all the Scriptures have to say about parenting, it is just one of many Bible verses addressing parenting. As with any other subject the Bible addresses, we need to be careful not to take just one verse and refer to it as the Scriptures total revelation on the subject. There are many other Scripture references that along with Proverbs 13:24 make up the total Scriptural revelation on the subject. Ephesians 6:1-4, Colossians 3:20-21, and Hebrews 12 are just a few of many Scriptural references to parenting. If you are going to say Biblical parenting is horrible parenting then I think it is best you use the total Biblical reference to parenting and not just one verse.

  • earlrichards

    See http://www.nospank.net. It should be against the law for adults to hit small children.

    • Snooterpoot

      I have heard adults say that spanking is not hitting! My response is that spanking involves striking a child with one’s hand or another object. How is that not hitting?

      The cognitive dissonance is astonishing.

  • Brandon Roberts

    there are parents who do way worse because they believe the bible told them to (not defending spanking) like kicking out their kids for being gay

    • ortcutt

      There are parents who do even worse by believing that the Bible tells them to withhold medical treatment (Religiously Motivated Child Medical Neglect) or abuse their children in order to strike out demons.

      • Brandon Roberts

        yup

  • David Munson

    The problem with this article is not the progressive view of parenting. Rather, the problem lies in a cavalier treatment of Scripture as a living volume open to individual interpretation and societal whims. Society must interpret the Bible in a relativistic way lest God receive too much credit, like omniscience. Is that how the Bible is to be interpreted? If so, why are you a professing Christian? What is your foundation? Your own interpretation and application of the Word of God? Revelation 3:15-19 comes to mind. One more thing, your use of a vulgar acronym in reference to Abraham is neither professional nor Christian. A little corporal punishment goes a long way with vulgar children.

    • Snooterpoot

      Everyone who reads the Bible arrives at his/her own interpretation. How many times have you hit your kids (presuming you have any)? What did it accomplish?

    • ortcutt

      I think you’ve proven the point of the author.

  • See Noevo

    Cindy Brandt,
    Do you believe in Hell?

  • tyler

    I posed a question in my parenting Facebook Group, “If Jesus had children, would he have spanked them?”

    another question: did mary and joseph spank jesus?

    • Mark

      They would have had no need to as He never sinned.

  • Justin

    Are you kidding me with the Abraham and Isaac story? Abraham was not a bad parent, he was obeying God’s command. My goodness how does that story relate at all?

  • Eric Djebe

    Abraham and Isaak: A fearsome story, but there is deeper level to it.
    If you manage to shake for a moment the grisly image of a bloody slaughter that did not take place there remains the one basic fact: Jahwe tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to him. He tells him that his son does not belong to him, is not his property by right of an unshakable patriarchal system. As everything, he belongs to God, on one level with the birds of the sky, the lilies of the field and of Abraham himself. And when Abraham goes ahead to kill his property Jahwe tells him not to be stupid, that is not what he meant.
    Yes, there is a moral here for us parents. Our children do not belong to us. They are humans with their own fate; in the language of faith: standing before God beside us.

  • Ellen K.

    I’ve read that the “rod” in that verse is a guiding rod, not something to hit a child with.

    Part of looking at context is trying to understand what the original actually says, as well as the genre (type of work) we are reading. None of the stories mentioned are history. Nor are their intended messages about how to treat your children. Much better to understand that than to simply say the Bible is wrong.

  • Mark

    Well you wouldn’t have been pleased with my parents. My father in particular. Yet the only time he speaks the name of Jesus is when he swears!