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
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.“