Is the Bible Against Spanking?

In the wake of the Adrian Peterson abuse allegations, people across the country are discussing spanking. A generation ago, spanking was commonplace, but people claim we have evolved as a society, become more enlightened, and now we understand based on sociological studies you just can’t do some of the things your parents used to do.

Interestingly, some Christians are arguing that the Bible (or Jesus Himself) is against spanking. But, these articles quote more from sociological studies than the words of Jesus or the Apostles. As Christians we need to ask the question, “Is the Bible against spanking?” While this question is not of interest to the wider culture, it should be of interest to Christians who seek to live under biblical authority. So, what does the Bible say? Proverbs mentions the rod six times in reference to the discipline of children:

  • Proverbs 10:13 “On the lips of him who has understanding, wisdom is found, but a rod is for the back of him who lacks sense.”
  • Proverbs 13:24 “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.”
  • Proverbs 22:15 “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.”
  • Proverbs 23:13-14 “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.”
  • Proverbs 26:3 “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools.”
  • Proverbs 29:15 “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.”

What do these verses mean? The rod was a tool used to discipline, and it was even used as a weapon by shepherds or warriors to strike their enemies (cf. Exo 21:20; Num 24:17; 2 Sam 7:14; 2 Sam 23:21; Psa 2:9; 23:4; Isa 10:15; 11:4; etc.). The rod can be used for literal, physical punishment or warfare, or it can be used figuratively to speak of physical punishment or warfare. For example, God wields the Assyrian empire to punish apostate Israel and refers to Assyria as “the rod of my anger” (Isa 10:5). While the rod is metaphorical here, the punishment inflicted is not.

Proverbs scholars divide into basically two camps on the rod verses in Proverbs. Some believe the rod is a metaphor for wise words that drive foolishness out of a child’s heart, but they are in the minority and their view is relatively recent. Even some of the scholars who argue for metaphor leave open the possibility that corporal punishment is in view.

For example, Goldsworthy in his commentary on Proverbs The Tree of Life writes, “It is not clear that this refers to corporal punishment, although the text could bear this meaning. The rod may be metaphorical…Discipline is the educational function of wisdom, thus, instruction in wisdom may be like a rod in driving out folly” (147).

Many Proverbs scholars like Murphy, Garrett, Longman, Waltke, Kidner, Bridges, Keil and Delitzsch, and more believe the rod refers to non-abusive corporal punishment such as spanking. Waltke argues that folly is bound up in the heart of a child and it will take more than just words to dislodge it (Waltke, Proverbs 1-15, 574).

Not only is the imagery of corporal punishment deeply rooted in the biblical canon, but it is also recommended in other Israelite wisdom literature like the Wisdom of Sirach (30:1-3). Other ANE wisdom texts that share a strong affinity with Proverbs argue for corporal punishment (cf. Ahiqar lines 81-81, ANET p. 428). Waltke cites several Egyptian wisdom texts that called for corporal punishment and make statements like “a boy’s ear is upon his back, he hearkens to his beater” (Waltke, Proverbs 1-15, 574) and “boys have ears on their back sides” (Waltke, Proverbs 15-31, 216).

The Bible is not only open to corporal punishment, but it sees it as necessary at times. Now, given that let’s make a few observations about biblical discipline:

  • Proverbs are wise counsel that the sage exhorts parents to heed. Scholars discuss the nature of Proverbs. Some argue they are just general statements not commands or promises, while others think they are commands and promises. But, Proverbs scholars agree these are exhortations that the Spirit-inspired sage counsels people to live by.
  • Children are sinners by nature and will choose the wrong path if left to themselves, therefore discipline is necessary. Proverbs is clear that a lack of discipline is destructive and damning to children because it fails to teach them that there’s a standard of right and wrong, and they’ll ultimately be held accountable for their actions (3:11-12; 22:15; 23:13-14).
  • Physically abusing children is condemned not endorsed by the Bible. Abuse is clearly not in view in Proverbs (cf. Eph 6:4 and the exhortation to not provoke your children to anger). Garrett writes, “This text does not justify brutalizing children” (196) and Waltke adds, “Parents who brutalize their children cannot hide behind the rod doctrine of Proverbs” (Waltke, Proverbs 15-31, 252). Something that someone apparently needs to teach Adrian Peterson.
  • Discipline will change over time so that a verbal reprimand will suffice. Proverbs does not command the spanking of children in every instance of wrongdoing. In fact, it calls for both corporal and verbal punishment. Proverbs 29:15 argues against seeing the rod as merely metaphorical because it sees both physical punishment and verbal correction as necessary. As Longman points out, “It is a sign of wisdom when a rebuke will suffice in the place of physical punishment (17:10)” (564).
  • Heaven and Hell are at stake when it comes to the discipline of our children. Waltke writes on Proverbs 22:15, “This proverb seeks to protect the youth from eternal death through the father’s relatively light sting” (Waltke, Proverbs 15-31, 216).
  • Proverbs advocates heart transformation not simply behavior modification. Solomon says you are going after the heart. We aren’t trying to produce little self-righteous Pharisees who always do the right thing under threat of pain. Behavior modification doesn’t last. Rather, we want to produce heart change so that when our children are left to themselves they will walk in wisdom.

There are two ways to really harm children. First, physical abuse is damaging to children. The pictures of what Adrian Peterson allegedly did to his son are sickening, and all of us should condemn that kind of behavior. Using a tool to bruise and cut your children is evil. If one cannot spank their children without losing their temper then they should not do it.

But, the second way to really harm children according to Proverbs is to fail to discipline them. That’s the society we unfortunately live in today. You are not doing right by your children if you don’t correct self-destructive behavior. We all know discipline is good, even discipline that is slightly painful in the moment (i.e. working out). Yes, it is abusive to hit your child with an object to the point that it brings blood, but it is also abusive to neglect discipline.

Yes, the teaching of Proverbs may seem foolish and out of step to contemporary culture, but we would do well to heed the words of renowned biblical scholar Bruce Waltke that spanking “should not be abandoned in the church as unfashionable or explained away as culturally conditioned…The failure of the apostate Western world to continue the biblical practice has left its civilization in moral chaos…” (Waltke, Proverbs 1-15, 574-575).

We want to employ gospel-centered discipline that teaches our children not only that they are sinners, but also there is a Savior! How do you accomplish this? You do it by having a calm conversation with your children in the midst of discipline. You ask your child to confess what they did wrong. You assure them that your love for them – and more importantly God’s love – is not dependent on their performance. You confess that you understand their sinful actions because you’ve done them before, and you tell them that you need to be forgiven by Jesus just as much as they do.