The subject matter of this article is a sensitive topic and I believe it will be received with mixed emotions. In this, my words will very likely step on toes; I am required thus to speak carefully and to rely on Scripture alone. If I am wrong in my conclusions, may God forgive me.
The question has been posed, “Is spanking a sin?”. To answer this question I will lean on the general equity of the moral Law of God and New Testament ethics.
What Does the Bible Say?
God is perfect – He is the flawless judge and the only Law-giver. The relationship between God and man has constituted the idea of ethics since day one. All of human existence is based on God’s very first covenant with us in Genesis 1:
“And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.””Genesis 1:28 ESV
What a sweet command we have been given: to fill the earth! In such a covenant, children are sacred and to be cherished. This covenant is inherently ethical; and as such, how we regard and treat children is a key part of faithfulness to God and His commands.
God’s Word is our highest standard for right and wrong. Our feelings will fail us, human laws will fail us, and coercion in all its forms can only destroy the liberty of Christ. Christians must humbly crucify their own flesh, reject uses of force, and lean on Scripture alone as the pure and righteous standard. With this in view, we can approach our question carefully and reverently.
How do we determine sin? Sinning, of course, is “missing the mark” of God’s standard. And the faithful are called to live before the face of God in all that they do. We refer to the Ten Commandments, God’s moral law, as this standard. Thus, let’s us seek God’s Will through His Law!
The Ten Commandments
I can find no instances in which this law instructs parents to spank. In fact, the law is summed up as being primarily about love for God and love for others. Never about vengeance.
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”Leviticus 19:18 ESV
But there is one commandment which clearly refers to the parent-child relationship. I think we ought to briefly address it and study it’s meaning!
“Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”Deuteronomy 5:16 ESV
It is my belief that this commandment is not (contrary to popular belief) meant to call children to unconditional obedience, nor parents to demand the same unconditional obedience. Such an interpretation would be utterly shallow. Instead, this commandment calls God’s people to love the sacred role of parents as they strive to emulate the character of God in every area of life. God‘s people strive for the beauty of the biblical family because of this wonderful commandment!
But this commandment is not just a call to value parenthood; it is absolutely a call to serve the needs of the weakest among us economically. Parents love, cherish, serve, and provide for their children during their weaker, formative years. Yet when these children establish households of their own, they are commanded to not forget their parents in the waning years of their life. Thus, this commandment entails that parents foster a deep, loving relationship with their children, free of disrespect, shame, or neglect.
This application of the fifth commandment is demonstrated by the consensus of God’s Word!
“Honor widows who are truly widows. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God… Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach. But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”1 Timothy 5:3-8 ESV
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”Ephesians 6:1-4 ESV
Thus, the biblical view of family is clear. And so is our understanding of the fifth commandment. God’s Law does not call parents to train their children through pain, but through cherishing; it then calls children to cherish their elderly parents in the same spirit of love.
“God’s Law does not call parents to train their children through pain, but through cherishing; it then calls children to cherish their elderly parents in the same spirit of love.”
So, we see that the Law models tenderness in the home. Now let’s look at the rest of God’s Word.
Punitive parenting advocates tend to reference the book of Proverbs. And though the battleground of the “rod” verses has long been a strong position to hold, their argument falls utterly flat in the face of a strong hermeneutic. I will not spend an excessive amount of time breaking down the hermeneutical issues present in the punitive argument. Samuel Martin’s book “Thy Rod and Thy Staff They Comfort Me” marvelously details these issues far better than I could in this short post.
Suffice it to say that parents are not to beat their children with a literal rod. And nowhere in Proverbs does God command parents to do so.
What He does recommend is self-control (Proverbs 18:21), gentle words (Proverbs 15:1), forgiveness (Proverbs 17:9), graciousness and peace (Proverbs 10:12), humility (Proverbs 29:22-23), and love (Proverbs 17:17).
The Teachings of Jesus and His Church
Just as there are no clear Old Testament verses in support of hitting young children, we find the New Testament to be equally lacking.
Jesus was the paragon of patience (1 Timothy 1:15-16), forgiveness (Luke 17:3-4) and love (John 13:34-35). He was the perfect example of gentleness (2 Corinthians 10:1a). In all of His words, parables, commands and teachings, it is clear that those who love Christ are not like the world. Christ taught an incredibly high view of children!
Jesus values the pure worship of children (Matthew 21:15-16). He explained that the perfect faith of a child is the ideal of Christian living (Matthew 18:2-4). He taught that to welcome a child in His name is to welcome Jesus Himself (Matthew 18:5)! He declared that it is better to drown and be forgotten – to be cast into the grave! – than to cause a child to stumble (Matthew 18:6).
As far as I can see, there is not an iota of support for spanking from Jesus. But the remainder of the New Testament makes a very clear point. Christians are called to ethical living without exception. And the teachings of the New Testament must logically be perfectly in line with those of the Old Testament.
Indeed, the general teaching of the Bible indicates that parents ought to deal with their children according to the principles of the fruits of the Spirit.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”Galatians 5:22-23 ESV
Such a mindset is the bread and butter of the gentle parent. It is our goal to fly the banner of Christ over our own lives, crucifying our sin, and leading our children in that same Spirit. There are no laws against the ‘fruits’ because they are objectively good. If you seek to obey the Ten Commandments and emulate Christ, your goal should be to live the fruits of the Spirit in every area of life.
“It is our goal to fly the banner of Christ over our own lives, crucifying our sin, and leading our children in that same Spirit.”
Incidentally, none of the fruits of the Spirit could be used to justify punitive discipline. But more importantly, there is not just a delineation between the fruits of the Spirit and punitive discipline; there is a total contradistinction between the two. Hitting is not an isolated activity; idolatry begets violence. Idolatry of oneself is the embodiment of pride; pride makes oneself the rule of law. When human (parental) law is ignored, coercion is the only tool that the pagan parent knows.
What Does Punitive Discipline Teach?
As force is the only tool in the pagan tool box, so it is never called to be a tool of the Christian. Among other things, church elders are called to be patient (Titus 1:7), they must be gentle and are forbidden from being abusive (1 Timothy 3:3). Aggressiveness is utterly incompatible with church leadership. This principle applies to so many areas of life – and especially to all forms of leadership. Sheep need a gentle shepherd, churches need gentle elders, and children need gentle parents.
The result of punitive treatment and force in leadership is corruption. Aggression teaches fear, coercion teaches mindless obedience, manipulation teaches distrust. Pagan rulers lord their authority over their subjects; yet Christ calls His people to reject idolatrous hierarchy.
Punitive parenting fails to bring up children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). It succeeds, however, in provoking them to anger. And if parental discipline provokes a sinful response, does it not cause children to stumble?
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.”2 Timothy 3:1-5 ESV
Selfishness, pride, arrogance, abusiveness, disobedience, lack of self-control, pleasure-seeking… these are the fruits of punitive discipline. How convenient that it “has the appearance of godliness” such that the Christian culture around us turns a blind eye to sin.
The Big Question
“Is spanking a sin?”
All of this has been the supporting data which brings me to the logical conclusion.
If the Law of God does not support parental use of judicial coercion…
If Jesus himself does not appear to have been an advocate for violence against children…
If the New Testament church supports the ethics described by Jesus (to include gentleness of the highest order)…
If spanking discourages, angers, and causes children to stumble…
If punitive (pagan) parenting is contrary to the fruits of the Spirit…
If punitive (pagan) parenting is not in accord with the general equity of God’s moral law…
Then it is sin. And if it isn’t sin, it is at least filled with sinful desires, motivations, and emotions. To sum it up, spanking is lawless. It occurs in spite of the commands of God. It demonstrates a failure in our progressive sanctification. Violence indicates a lack in Christian maturity; lack of self-control is clearly unaddressed sin.
And perhaps most concerning of all, parents often carry out this pagan judgement in the name of Christ. It is one thing to live inconsistently in our theological framework as parents; it is another thing entirely to wave the banner of Christ over it. To stamp God’s holy name on the unbiblical causing of pain to our closest neighbors is to bear false witness against a holy God. It is to make ourselves god, and conveniently rewrite God’s Will to our benefit. To demand instant, unconditional obedience from our children is to make a demand only fitting for a perfect judge. To interpret the “rod” verses as a justification for hitting, while failing to be consistent and use an actual rod to bruise children, is a worthless hermeneutic. Hitting, and the arrogance of the punitive mindset, represent a sinful framework; and justifying that with God’s Word is blasphemy.
This conclusion drives me to make a serious claim. If you use God’s will, His Word, and the name of Jesus to justify hitting children, you have violated a sacred commandment.
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”Deuteronomy 5:11 ESV
If I am wrong in my conclusion, God is quick to forgive; He is a kind and gracious King. But whether I am right or wrong, I leave the reader with one last thought. Be cautious in your usage of God’s Word. If I am right, then to use the name of God to justify physical punishment is very dangerous ground. Handle God’s name with reverence and pray for the Spirit’s guidance in your parenting. This is such a crucial area of life; the church cannot afford to get this wrong.