What Does the Bible Say about Corporal Punishment?

Recent events involving prominent NFL players, including running backs Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, have once again brought the national attention to the issue of domestic abuse, in the case of Rice, the video taped incident where he knocked out his then fiancée in a casino elevator, and in the case of Peterson, the indictment of a grand jury for the abuse of his four-year-old child while whipping him with a “switch.”  Data collected by the University of Chicago in its General Social Survey since 1986 and interpreted in an article published at fivethirtyeight.com finds four correlating factors that accompany the use of corporal punishment in America: race, region, political affiliation, and religion.  The survey found that so-called “born again Christians” were 15% more likely than the rest of the populace to approve of corporal punishment, 80% against 65% for other religious affiliations.  Not surprisingly, a great number of these Christians will likely cite the Bible as the reason why they approve and employ corporal punishment, whether it be spanking with the hand or with various implements such as a belt, a paddle, a cane, or a “switch.”  Yet, even in light of current research that highlights the damaging effects of corporal punishment and its ineffectiveness in comparison with other, non-violent forms of punishment, Christians of all stripes continue to use various forms of corporal punishment on the basis of biblical injunction of “sparing the rod.”  In light of the culturally systemic use of corporal punishment in conservative Christian households, it bears upon us to review the biblical data and the hermeneutical (interpretive) presuppositions that accompany it.

 

The Biblical Texts

The texts in question include four verses from Proverbs (all verses quoted from the NKJV with minor changes by the author),

“He who spares his rod hates his son,
But he who loves him disciplines him promptly” – Prov. 13:24

“Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child;
The rod of correction will drive it far from him.” – Prov. 22:15

“Do not withhold correction from a child,
For if you beat him with a rod, he will not die.
You shall beat him with a rod,
And deliver his soul from Sheol.” – Prov. 23:13-14

“The rod and rebuke give wisdom,
But a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.” – Prov. 29:15

 

Hermeneutical Considerations

Each of these texts uses the term “rod” or “staff” (Heb. שבט šeḇeṭ, Gr. ῥάβδος “rod,” βακτηρία “staff,” πληγαί “blows”), clearly intending the beating of a child with a stick of some kind.  Prov. 23:13-14 explicitly uses the verb נכה nkh meaning “beat, strike, or hit,” (c.f. Gr. πατάσσω “strike”).

At first glance, some of these verses might be quite shocking to the reader.  Prov. 23:13-14 may seem particularly harsh in its recommendation, and I would hope these verses would indeed give pause.  I assume that most people would shy away from actually beating their children with a rod, cane, or “switch” preferring to spank with the hand or a broad paddle, and such a parent would be applying a literal interpretation of the Bible, i.e. using corporal punishment, while refraining from applying the “full letter” of the Bible to use a rod, cane, or switch.  In such a case biblical literalism is not consistently applied, as the full, literal application of these proverbs would be regarded as unnecessarily cruel.

So we must examine the hermeneutic of literal interpretation.  If a verse is to be literally applied, to what degree is the literal application to be made? Biblical literalism, then, is not applied consistently, since some figurative meaning is normally attributed to it in order to conform to societal norms of what counts as cruelty and abuse of a child.  If literalism then fails us as an appropriate hermeneutic, then we need to reexamine the way we do interpret these texts in light of what we know today as appropriate means of correcting and disciplining a child.

There may also be an assumption that the biblical application of corporal punishment should be carried out on the fleshy part of the buttocks where bodily injury is unlikely, but is this the case? The particular verses quoted above do not specify where or how such beatings with a rod are to be done, yet many other verses that use the same word for “rod” do specify, and in these cases the back is the part of the body that is to be struck with the rod. Let’s look at a few of these verses:

“Then I will punish their transgressions with the rod,
And their iniquities with stripes (lit. marks)” – Psalms 89:32

“Wisdom is found on the lips of him who has understanding,
But a rod is for the back of him who is lacks a heart (for understanding).” – Prov. 10:3

“A whip for the horse,
A bridle for the donkey,
And a rod for the fool’s back.” – Prov. 26:3

The term “back” here is the Hebrew word גו gēw, which is not used in Biblical Hebrew for the buttocks (The LXX does not translate the word directly), so it is clear from the context of beating with a rod that such beatings would be done upon the back of a child, possibly leaving marks or stripes.

Full biblical literalism simply cannot be applied here without encroaching upon modern, legal definitions of child abuse. Outside of extreme cases of beating that occur with sticks, rods, and belts, such as occurred in the case of Adrian Peterson, it is unlikely that a sensible parent would take a rod to their child’s back to the point of leaving bruises or stripes, and it should be abhorrent to us to think otherwise.

 

“A New Commandment I Give You”

Parents do well to discipline their children with firmness, wisdom, and love as the Bible would admonish us, but we have to understand the limitations of the Bible as a product of an iron age civilization with different ethical customs proper to its own cultural setting. As in other areas, i.e. slavery, polygamy, and warfare, we cannot simply take biblical (Old Testament) morals (i.e. ethical customs) and directly apply them today. We must allow for the development of our understanding of the psychological effects of corporal punishment, the effectiveness of other forms of discipline, and the very notion of using violence in any way that is not in accordance with defending the weak and helpless.

Christian morals teach us certain principles regarding the notion of punishment that we do well to adhere to.  St. Paul admonishes us in two places,

“And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath (παροργίζετε), but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.” – Eph. 6:4

“Fathers, do not provoke (ἐρεθρίζετε) your children, lest they become discouraged.”

In fact, studies into the use of corporal punishment have found these exact results, that physical beating children cause them to lash out in anger and cause various kinds of mental illness.

Our Lord Himself admonished the Pharisees against such literal interpretations of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Exod. 21:24), giving instead a renewed ethic that does not exact physical punishment for wrongs committed. This alone should cause us to rethink our use of corporal punishment as advocated by the Proverbs.  If Our Lord teaches that physical punishment in a judicial matter ought to be abandoned, then how much more physical punishment of our children?

 

A Man of Sorrows

But I want to take the issue further.  If we consider in greater measure the biblical context of “rods” and “stripes,” we find two other verses that I believe should radically change our perspective:

“Though I should walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
For Thou art with me.
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” – Psalm 23:4

“Surely He has borne our griefs,
And carried our sorrows,
Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten (נכה nkh) by God and afflicted.
And He was pierced for our transgressions,
Crushed for our iniquities,
The correction (chastisement) for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.” – Is. 43:4-5

The “rod” and the “staff” should be instruments of protection and comfort, not torment and fear.  The blows and stripes that were laid upon our Lord should not be laid again upon our children.  The cross as an instrument of tortuous punishment has now become a “weapon of peace,” so then, I say, let us not use instruments of physical torment and punishment upon our children.  If the Lord has taken blows and stripes rightly due for us, how can we lay such blows and stripes upon our children, for whom also our Lord was crucified?  The Gospel of Jesus Christ should renew our ethic of punishment, for the righteous punishment that was due for us on account of our sins was turned away by the Cross of Christ becoming for us an instrument of reconciliation and forgiveness.†  We ought, then, to turn times of punishment and correction of our children into times of reconciliation and forgiveness, engendering true repentance in them, so that they may grow up in the “Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus ” and not in the “Law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2).  Indeed, it is not punishment that leads to repentance, but “kindness, forbearance, and long suffering,” as St. Paul writes, “The kindness of God leads you to repentance” (Rom. 2:4).  All of these things must inform the way we discipline our children in order that they might learn true repentance.

Now, I am not going to “tell you how to raise your children.”  Everyone must decide for his or herself how to discipline a misbehaving child, but I hope only to bring some context to the biblical data in order than an informed decision might be made, not on the basis of strict, biblical literalism, but in the fullness of wisdom that the Gospel of Jesus Christ brings to our hearts and minds. Biblical literalism narrowly focuses upon the letter but misses the full breadth of the Spirit, “for the letter kills but the Spirit brings life.”  Indeed, if we are to take the Bible at its word, we must consider it in light of the ministry of reconciliation, which Christ has ministered to us and also given us to minister to others. But, let us also consider the full ramifications of a culture that beats children whether with a hand or with a rod, and the systemic problems that have engulfed our culture because of it.  The Bible cannot be used to justify violent and cruel actions that are against wisdom and common sense.  The Old Testament and iron age customs must give way to a New Testament renewed by the grace of the Holy Spirit, for a culture that is informed and nurtured by biblical literalism will languish in foolishness and cruelty to the detriment of the preaching of the Gospel.

 

† In case that any argue that such an understanding of the cross is not Orthodox, I direct you to this explanation of 2 Cor. 5:21 by St. John Chrysostom in his eleventh homily on the epistle, “But now He hath both well achieved mighty things, and besides, hath suffered Him that did no wrong to be punished for those who had done wrong.

18 comments:

  1. Let’s not forget one of the more thorough and direct passages on this subject in Scripture (understandably ignored in much Protestant discussion of the matter, given the source, but less understandably left out here), Sirach 30:1-13:

    He that loveth his son causeth him oft to feel the rod, that he may have joy of him in the end. He that chastiseth his son shall profit by him, and shall boast of him among his acquaintance. He that teacheth his son will make his enemy jealous: and before his friends he shall rejoice of him. When his father dieth, yet he is as though he were not dead: for he hath left one behind him that is like himself. While he lived, he saw and rejoiced in him: and when he died, he was not grieved. He left behind him an avenger against his enemies, and one that shall requite kindness to his friends. He that maketh much of [i.e., spoils] his son shall bind up his wounds; and his bowels will be troubled at every cry. An horse not broken becometh headstrong: and a child left to himself will be wilful. Cocker [i.e. pamper] thy child, and he shall make thee afraid: play with him, and he will bring thee to heaviness. Laugh not with him, lest thou suffer with him, and lest thou gnash thy teeth in the end. Give him not liberty in youth: beat his sides while he is still young, lest becoming stubborn, he disobey thee. (And overlook not his ignorance. Bow down his neck in his youth.) Train up thy son, and work with him, lest by his looseness thou be offended.”

    Of course, if the principles of biblical interpretation articulated herein are correct, this hermeneutic can account for (and dismiss) this passage as well. And, for that matter, any sort of passage on any sort of topic that the interpreter happens to find disagreeable or at odds with ‘wisdom and common sense.’

    Also the less than thorough study on the Hebrew word ‘back’ here leaves one highly unconvinced that it necessarily can’t refer to a back-side. In fact, it almost certainly can.

    Also: [citation needed] re: the supposed empirical harms caused by corporal punishment. I’ve seen the studies that *purport* to demonstrate this, and virtually none of them actually do. One such study, for instance, asked parents to report the number of times they spanked their kid in a week — 0, 1, 2, 3 or more — prior to a intelligence test of some sort, then the test cound a (slight) correlation between better scores and less times spanked. The supposed conclusion being that spanking hinders learning, when in fact the result can just as easily show that children with worse behavior problems tend to do worse at tests — which is obviously true. Many other studies fail to draw any distinction between actual abuse and spanking (as you also fail to do), lumping them together, and so obviously if these are the only two groups — ‘unspanked’ and ‘spanked or abused’, the data tells nothing of significance for those who advocate spanking and NOT abuse. Such correlation/causation problems and faulty methodologies hamper most of the studies on the subject.

    1. A citation to a literature overview on the research on spanking was provided: http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1565&context=lcp

      The experimental design you suggest is not terribly convincing on its face, to be sure, and there are problems with observational studies generally (and studies about spanking your children will always be observational), but the body of the work is not universally subject to those problems and paint a consistent picture. They are deserving of more than a casual dismissal. The caveat here is that I am statistician, not a psychologist, so while I know about experimental design, I am not terribly familiar with the subject matter literature beyond looking at a few of the papers. I will also leave the discussion of the hermeneutics to people more qualified to comment.

  2. “Of course, if the principles of biblical interpretation articulated herein are correct, this hermeneutic can account for (and dismiss) this passage as well. And, for that matter, any sort of passage on any sort of topic that the interpreter happens to find disagreeable or at odds with ‘wisdom and common sense.’”

    I’m not sure this statement actually says anything without being tautological, i.e. “interpretations are interpretations.” Furthermore, the hermeneutic provided by my post is not intended to either “account for” or “dismiss” the biblical evidence cited. Deciding to not interpret and apply the passages literally is *not* to dismiss them out of hand, but rather to apply them according to what I believe to be a more Christian hermeneutic, which follow’s Christ’s own hermeneutic of applying the biblical “eye for an eye” principle. This is not a zero-sum matter of interpretation.

    Regarding the Hebrew term גו, none of its few uses in the Hebrew Bible refer specifically to the buttocks, for which the word שת is used. The english term “back-side,” if found in any of the translations, does not necessarily refer to the buttock, e.g. the famous passage in Ex 33:23 uses the prepositional phrase אחרי “behind me.”

  3. In looking on this new blogs section of ancientfaith.com, I see that there is a blog post made by another author called “When football and clumsy theology collide”. Having read this post, I automatically assumed that he was talking about this article, because it would be fitting. (Upon further inspection, I saw that it was about another topic.)

    In any case, there are a couple things written here that I take issue with. The subject of corporal punishment is one that has been hashed about and rehashed for ages – your proverbial dead horse. There are millions of loud opinions out there about this, and plenty of people – many of whom who have no familiarity with children – who are more than happy to “offer” their opinion, whether it was asked for or not. For this reason, discussion of parenting issues are often extremely delicate affairs. Add to this the “Biblical” aspects people like to throw around to either justify their own or discredit others parenting styles, and one can understand how randomly throwing out a topic like this could be seen as trolling for clicks. But this isn’t the worst of it.

    Despite supposedly being some type of scholar, explaining to us poor folk Hebrew words that we might ourselves not be able to read, the heart of the matter does not fall upon whether or not this word or that word is used, because the Bible is a pretty clear advocate of corporal punishment being an effective means, when necessary, of correcting a young child. The author here obviously does not agree with that, and dismisses the people of the Old Testament of merely being products of their time. It is true that as Christians, we do not, for example, follow every law set forth in Leviticus. However, to insinuate, that spanking a child has anything to do with “an eye for an eye” is completely ludicrous.

    Contrary to the popular belief of today’s Western secularists, children are not by nature little angels who are only corrupted by the faults of their parents. On the opposite end, I don’t agree that children are born wicked, but by necessity, they are born self-centered and willful. Both of these traits are useful for survival, but at some point that self-centeredness and willfulness become dangerous. As parents, we try to teach and instruct, but there are some cases where a physical reminder is of much more use than begging your 6-year-old not to run out into the street for the 75th time. (Other parenting-types talk about using “natural consequences”. However, in a case like this, is it more reasonable to swat a kid on the backside, or is it more reasonable to let the kid experience the consequence of being hit by the car?)

    The other big problem with this post is that it not just conflates corporal punishment with abuse, but that it lumps hitting a child (whether abuse or not) with beating a woman unconscious. I think that I have made the case that corporal punishment (not abuse) may be appropriate when the child is putting himself or others in danger. The idea of this is to protect the child and others while teaching them to not do what they were doing. In this sense, we have to assume that there is no reason to “punish” a spouse like this, because at the very least, they are old enough that corporal punishment will not work. Furthermore, even ignoring abuse, it is demeaning to treat an adult, male or female, as a child, but particularly so when this is a person that one is yoked to (signifying an equalness) in marriage. After all, we are Christians, not Muslims.

    I understand that these two incidents involving football players have garnered a lot of attention because of the abuse aspect that seems to connect them. However, to tack these on a post supposedly about corporal punishment is demeaning to women, because it seems to say that the author views women on the same, low level as children.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, which I will try to answer as pointedly as I can. I distinguish first of all between parental discipline intended to save a child from danger and the intent to cause physical pain. The latter, such as slapping a child’s hand as it reaches for a hot stove, is certainly appropriate, while the latter, I believe is detrimental, in the long term, to a child’s mental health as demonstrated by ample scientific evidence. It may be more effective in the short term, but what about the long-term effects? What does it teach a child about effective means of dealing with someone who misbehaves? If physical violence is an answer at any level, then we may be unintentionally teaching our children that physical violence is an appropriate response toward peers or adults. If, as you say, corporal punishment is not appropriate toward adults, because “they are old enough that it will not work,” then why do we classify such actions against adults as domestic abuse? It is not because it fails to properly get the message across. No! It’s because we understand that an adult striking another adult is evil! Why then should striking children, who are more vulnerable physically and psychologically be any different?

      1. Even swatting the hand of a child who is reaching for a hot stove is intended to inflict a certain amount of pain to drive home the point that it would be a bad idea to do that again. All reasonable discipline has the same intent. If you take away a child’s i-pad, you are inflicting a certain unpleasantness upon the child for the same reason. A parent could abuse a child without ever spanking them — by locking them in their room excessively, yelling at them, verbally abusing them, etc.

        Also, the studies that claim to demonstrate that spanking is harmful are flawed, in that they do not distinguish between reasonable discipline and abuse. http://humansciences.okstate.edu/facultystaff/Larzelere/spare_the_rod.htm

          1. Spanking with the open hand on the butt can be abusive, and spanking with a belt or a paddle can be completely reasonable. The distinction is not the method used, but whether it is excessive, and also whether it is used to vent the anger of the parent, or as a tool of consistent discipline.

            Also, I am inclined to be skeptical of studies of the type that you refer to you because psychology and sociology is often agenda driven. A classic example is the infamous Kinsey Report: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinsey_Reports Which was used to push a number of bogus ideas as “scientific fact”… including pushing for the idea that pedophilia was “normal”: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=6036

            One undeniable fact is that 70 years ago, almost every parent spanked their kids, and the movement away from that has not been linked to an improvement in the behavior of the average child today.

  4. Switched for training – often.
    Spanked hard for discipline – when necessary.
    Now almost never need to do either.

  5. There was an incident not too long ago in Springtown Texas that made the news. The mothers of two high school girls complained that their daughters were paddled by a male principle which was in violation of the school’s own same gender paddling policy. The thing that really shocked me was that one of them had a male police officer as a witness. This principle must really be trying to humiliate these girls as much as possible. He could have chosen a female staff member to minimize the emotional damage but chose a male policeman instead. Involving the police in this is really crossing the line. Using a policeman as a witness could end up making female students distrusting of the police or give them a negative attitude toward law enforcement later on in their lives

  6. I would have to concur w/ Fr. John concerning his statement about violence among young adults today. I would suggest that prior to the 1960s children were spanked more often and in greater number than after the era of Dr. Spock. So the only direct correlation I see is that those who were spanked are/were far less violent than those who were raised w/o spankings…using “alternative” methods.

  7. I have to say, considering all the comments, the blog post isn’t unreasonable. It is true that none of us would consider beating sin out of our children – which is what some passages would seem to imply. Nobody takes the Bible completely literally on this issue, so where does one draw the line? You can still discipline your child without spanking them. And as studies have shown, it proves to be just as effective, if not moreso.

  8. I believe in corporal punishment for raising children and I believe adults should also have a strict discipline in them within themselves and that’s what it says in the Bible I am open to making myself better Christian

  9. I have read the article and all of the comments thus far. It seems pretty clear that some form of physical discipline, implemented with an object that can inflict some measure of pain, is obviously espoused in some passages of Scripture as positive. The New Testament seems very quiet on the subject, with children mentioned in mostly a positive, even idealistic light. It seems the conflict here for the modern reader is how to reconcile what we know now about abuse and child development with what we might interpret was happening then. Every generation assumes they are more enlightened than the previous ones. After all, with each generation we have more knowledge and books, more case studies, and more examples of mistakes, right? But history proves the “we are always progressing forward and upward” idea as false. Empire after empire rise and fall. The history of Israel and Judah show how one generation can see golden years and prosperity and the next generation can descend into debauchery and squander all of the wisdom gleaned from the former. In other words, are we truly raising better children in our modern, more enlightened generation? Would we have more school mass shootings by earlier generations of teens or less? Would there be less gang violence 200 years ago? More respect for adults and peers? Are kids better adjusted to adulthood and corresponding responsibilities now than 50 years ago? Do parents do a better job today (in general, backed with real statistics) raising children who are sexually responsible, mature and ready to thrive in a highly competitive world? Are there more “helicopter parents now than 100 years ago? Are kids more prepared for college, marriage, child-rearing today than in past generations? Discipline takes on many forms and always has. Kid Jesus got a good scolding by his parents for being left behind in Jerusalem. We modern, more enlightened folks tend to have blind spots. We think that because we have more experts than ever and more studies that we are actually raising better, more well adjusted kids who will thrive in adulthood. Moderns have trouble imagining how a parent might spank a child in a loving way if it inflicts even the slightest amount of pain. But as someone who has raised dogs for many years I have wondered how dogs learn empathy. With those sharp little teeth how does a puppy know not to just tear their mother and litter mates to pieces? The mother and litter mates bite then back. The mother doesn’t bite hard (and shows more restraint) than the litter mates because she isn’t trying to harm her puppy. But a little nip can keep the tip of her ear from being shredded and show Fluffy a little of what it feels like. In fact, a puppy taken from the mother and litter mates too soon can not learn these vital lessons and end up being a biter, not understanding the power in their bite and how it negatively affects other dogs or people. Research into other intelligent mammals shows similar physical discipline with abuse not all that common even in lions, bears, and other “ferocious beasts” :). Over and over natures way of training is to give young ones a taste of their own medicine so the can learn that to dish it out they better also know what it is like to take it. Humans have been disciplining their offspring for thousands of years using this very natural method and, yes, sometimes abusing it. Child abuse and trafficking is still happening today at alarming rates so I am not convinced we enlightened, modern age parents are controlling ourselves much better than our ancestors were. But we do have a lot more book and articles about how we should behave :). I am not convinced that limited, metered spanking in a way that inflicts a bit of pain for the loving purpose of training is evil. Without throwing in the abuse card, a loving parent will employ many discipline tactics because their goal is train and protect, not harm. Encouraging words are a form of training/discipline. Approving smiles and sounds (also used by other mammals by the way) also encourage right behavior. Taking privileges away, disapproving noises and looks, and “giving back some of their own medicine” are other forms used with varying degrees of success. Respect comes from awareness of another’s ability. A puppy will respect her mother when she becomes aware than mom also has teeth and will not allow her to simply bite down hard without showing her what it feels like in a measured response. She learns restraint rather quickly and then can enjoy playing in an acceptable way to both parties. I fear that in some cases modern parents might actually make their kids so bubble-wrapped by being afraid to even tap them that they may take far longer to teach their kids “how it feels” by using indirect methods that could be too abstract (harder to make the connection). I am not advocating eye for an eye here, nor abuse. I am saying that sometimes a taste of their own medicine (not the full dose they may have dished out) could be quite effective in helping them empathize rather than an indirect method that is in danger of losing the connection. Some argue that hitting a child just teaches them to hit. But then how come a mother dog nipping her biting puppy teaches her puppy to play nice and only use a soft mouth? Hmmm….

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