It’s impossible to talk about discipline without raising the question of spanking. The issue of spanking is a controversial one among Christian families. Pick up almost any parenting book in a Christian bookstore and you are likely to find tips on how to spank, when to spank, and who to spank. For many couples, the topic can cause a lot of marital division. So for a variety of reasons, it is critical for a couple to have a shared biblical vision for discipline.
If you choose not to spank that doesn’t mean you don’t believe in discipline. For too long, those who chose not to spank have been pegged as permissive parents. Even worse, some accuse those who discipline in a non-physical way as relying on guilt or manipulation. These types of either/or arguments are inflated and just not fair or accurate.
Those who make an argument for spanking, usually appeal to passages in the Old Testament book of Proverbs. I am always amazed at how often Christian writers and pastors speak with such absolute authority that spanking or physical discipline is clearly a biblical concept and the only option for New Covenant Christians. Without exception, those who endorse spanking as a biblical norm for discipline, refer back to the Old Testament book of Proverbs. There are eight passages that refer to the “rod.” Only four of these, specifically address the rod and children. Those most common are the following:
- Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them. (Proverbs 13:24)
- Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far away. (Proverbs 22:15)
- Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die. Punish them with the rod and save them from death. (Proverbs 23:13-14)
- A rod and a reprimand impart wisdom, but a child left undisciplined disgraces its mother. (Proverbs 29:15)
While a lot more could be said, let me just highlight a few points we should all wrestle with:
- The word “spanking” does not appear in the Bible.
Some Christian authors and speakers discuss physical discipline with such authority that one would just assume the word “spanking” is clearly found or commanded in the Bible. Couples are often surprised that our modern day debate is not as clear in the Bible. It is worth noting that the word spanking, or any instruction for physical discipline, is missing in the New Testament.
- The “rod” in the book of Proverbs was usually a large heavy branch used as an instrument of judgment, punishment, and correction.
Ouch! It wasn’t a paddle, twig, or belt. The rod was not the only instrument of punishment. The Israelites, as God’s covenant people, were instructed to stone rebellious children (Deuteronomy 21:20-21). Thank goodness we don’t do that anymore! Along with the rod, this cultural practice, thousands of years removed from us, is never instructed or commanded in the New Testament. Our “form” of physical discipline (spanking) is far different than what was practiced in ancient Israel, and prescribed in Proverbs.
- The “wise sayings” or “maxims” found in the book of Proverbs should be interpreted differently (and carefully) than we interpret explicit commands.
They are general truths, sometimes overstatements, to make godly wisdom memorable and applicable. The book of Proverbs is not considered history or law. It is a genre of literature within the Bible known as “poetry” or “wisdom” literature. As a result, we should be careful of interpreting them as direct or explicit commands like we do elsewhere in the Bible. If we take these passages literally, are we ready to apply the “rod” passages to adults (Proverbs 26:3)? I hope not! While we certainly can draw biblical truth from Proverbs, we have to be careful to do so in light of the Scriptures as a whole, redemptive history, and most importantly, the cross.
What seems clear then, is that the principle of discipline remains, but the type or form of discipline, has (or can) change. This is precisely the point Dr. Paul Koptak makes in the NIV Application Commentary on Proverbs. Commenting specifically on Proverbs 13:24, he writes,
“This saying contrasts fathers who ‘hate’ their children and those who ‘love’ them by teaching them. The difference is ‘discipline,’ the accent falling on loving correction rather than a particular form of it…similar sayings make it clear that the issue is one of instruction, not the means used to bring it about.”
In other words, Koptak, is suggesting that the sign of parental love and wisdom is not the presence of physical discipline per se, instead, it is loving, consistent, Word-saturated, gospel-centered, correction and instruction. If the “form” of discipline (physical) were meant to be still applicable today, one would expect to find similar language in the New Testament. Numerous passages in the New Testament exist on how to train up a child. However, not one of them, on this side of the cross, mentions any form of physical discipline.
This is a choice that each family, based on their reading of God’s Word, has to come to agreement on. It is one that should not be taken lightly. Our decision should not be based on our experience, culture, or personal preferences. Every couple has to make an informed biblical decision that honors the truth of God’s Word.
Discipline is far more than punishment. Biblical discipline is about relationship and instruction. It’s about shaping the heart of our children, without crushing their spirit, so that a life of walking in God’s wisdom follows. When we discipline out of love, we are equipping our children to choose godly character that will be of great benefit to them throughout their life.
For a much more in-depth discussion on this topic, see Clay Clarkson’s book, “Heartfelt Discipline.”
 Koptak, Dr. Paul E. The NIV Application Commentary: Proverbs. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003. Print.