What does the Bible say about physical punishment of children?”

What does the Bible say about physical punishment of children?” August 28, 2016


In the U.S. there is a strong tendency among certain segments of the population to emphasize only the negatives of Islam and only the positives of Christianity. What would you say to the Christians who believe in beating their children?


This responds to our July 26 item on verse 4:34 in the Quran that directs husbands to beat rebellious wives, currently a political issue in the Muslim world. Islamic interpreters explain that beating is a last resort and should be done lightly, not severely. The questioner raises the fact that Christians (and Jews) have a similar issue on physical discipline of children. Poet Samuel Butler coined the maxim “spare the rod and spoil the children” but it’s a biblical idea expressed in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs:

“He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (13:24; all translations from the Revised Standard Version). “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him” (22:15). “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. If you beat him with the rod you will save his life from Sheol” (23:13-14). “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother” (29:15).

However, other biblical Proverbs balance that, saying God’s people should be “slow to anger” and “overlook an offense,” while “love covers all offenses.” We find that emphasis in the New Testament Book of Ephesians: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (6:4).

These biblical admonitions bring to mind the notable fact that Abraham Lincoln refused to make a deathbed visit to his father or attend his funeral even though Thomas Lincoln had moved from Indiana to an Illinois locale fairly near Springfield. Biographers assume the boyhood Abraham was “provoked to anger” by Thomas’s harsh rule, including physical punishments.

To understand such Scriptures it’s important to recognize that from humanity’s early history till very recent times physical discipline, and the threat of it, have been pretty much universal in child-rearing across varied religious traditions and for non-religious families. But now Christians (and Jews) ponder whether any corporal punishment is appropriate any longer, even spanking of toddlers.

There’s lively debate about Proverbs’s sources and authorship that we’ll leave aside. Scholars tell us these biblical sayings parallel the style of ancient “wisdom” teaching in neighboring pagan lands where texts contain similar sayings about child punishment. There are two general Christian approaches to interpretation.

Kathleen Farmer of United Theological Seminary typified the more liberal outlook. She said biblical “advice” about punishment “has sometimes been taken literally and prescriptively and has had terribly destructive results. It ought to be understood as merely one culturally conditioned opinion” among many. She notes that a “rod” can be a symbol of authority as well as an instrument of punishment, and in loving hands is “comforting,” not threatening (as in the familiar 23d Psalm).

But conservatives see these sayings as God’s Word, relevant today. Bruce Waltke of Knox Theological Seminary commented that “children’s lives, favor, protection, healing, dignity, and prosperity” are at stake in parents’ duty of discipline and those who “turn their backs” on children by ignoring this harm and actually “hate” them. Waltke said this general principle may be “unfashionable” but shouldn’t be “explained away as culturally conditioned.”

There’s a far more severe aspect in Old Testament law that the questioner didn’t raise but the Religion Guy will. Deuteronomy 21:18-21 states that a son who is rebellious and disobedient toward his parents after admonitions should be brought to the city elders for judgment, with execution as the recommended penalty.

We’re looking back 3,000 years at a rude culture without professional law enforcement that held at bay the ever-present danger of anarchy through strict family and community discipline. In such times a patriarch could exercise life-and-death powers over his clan. In context, the law can be seen as a humane and sophisticated innovation because it barred a father’s personal vengeance. Mothers were involved, not just fathers, and couples at their wits’ end were required to seek judicial hearings from outside the family.

Since Old Testament law required testimony from two or three witnesses in capital punishment cases, a father’s allegation by itself did not suffice. It’s probably significant that the Bible doesn’t record any instance of such a child trial and execution though it records other cases of capital punishment.

The late Canadian Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut said it’s possible the law was “seen primarily as a warning.” Others interpret mention of the death penalty as a way of expressing God’s strong opposition to serious misbehavior, whether or not it was ever actually carried out. Indeed, one ancient sage said in the Talmud that such an execution “never occurred, and never will occur.”




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