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It’s easy to use the “we’re just following the Bible!” trumpcard when debating something, and spanking proves an excellent example of how this can go awry.

We’ve been talking about spanking as a method of discipline for a few weeks now, and two weeks ago we did a podcast where we looked at alternative forms of discipline to spanking that are far more in line with the heart of God. On Friday, I shared a concerning Fixed it For You about spanking.

Because of that, quite the debate has erupted on social media, with many people claiming that to offer other methods of discipline is “unbiblical” and “listening to worldly wisdom” and instead they will “follow the Bible.”

They believe that in spanking their children they are “following the Bible.” When people have shown other ways of interpreting those verses, they have claimed that, again, we are using worldly wisdom and they will just listen to what the Bible says.

There’s a propensity in Christianity, and especially in evangelicalism, to assume that you are “following the Bible” while everyone else is “interpreting the Bible.”

They’re just “interpreting”, meaning that they are trying to get away from what the Bible is actually saying, while you are just following Scripture.

We see this in a number of areas–in gender roles; in how we discipline; in how we handle government mandates or even in creation/evolution debates. Some evangelicals assume that the traditional evangelical way of doing things is “following the Bible without interpretation” while everyone else is become “liberal” and “interpreting the Bible” in an attempt to get away from what the Bible actually says.

What I want to show today is that EVERYONE is interpreting the Bible, and spanking is a great example.

You may think you’re not interpreting, and you’re accurately “following”, but you are still interpreting. And so the question we need to ask is, “what is the best interpretation of this passage?”

So let’s jump in to spanking.

There are only a few verses in Scripture that can actually be used to support hitting a child and causing physical pain to discipline, and most of them are in Proverbs. All use the term “rod”, and this is the most explicit of them. I’ll use the ESV translation here, since proponents of spanking tend to like the more conservative translations (and the translators of the ESV said explicitly that it was a “complementarian” translation that deliberately and intentionally affirmed male hierarchy).

Here are the verses:

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 23:13-14, ESV

Okay, so what we read in Proverbs, if you take it completely literally, is that you should be using a rod (a stick) to hit your child to discipline him or her.

If you are going to claim that you are “following the Bible” without “interpretation”, then you should do exactly, word for word, what the passage appears to say (there are still issues with that, but let’s go with it for a minute). That means that you should be hitting your children with sticks.

Some people literally do hit their children with sticks, as this advertisement that appeared in a Christian magazine horrifying showed:

The Rod Spanking Advertisement

A reader also sent me a picture of what this rod was like–I won’t include that since she’s in it. But let’s just say it’s very long and looks extremely painful.

And they thought this was “biblical”!

Most people, looking at that advertisement, feel sick–even people who spank.

Most of us can’t imagine using a “switch” on our kids. No, most people who were arguing that spanking was biblical on my Facebook Page weren’t arguing for hitting kids with sticks. They were arguing for a regimen that looked like this:

The 4-Point Plan for “Biblical” Spanking

Here’s what spanking advocates tend to say is “biblical”:

  1. Calming yourself down (so that spanking is not done when you are angry)
  2. Hitting your child on the buttocks with your hand enough times to cause pain
  3. Have the child cry
  4. Comfort the child afterwards and tell them how much you love them

This is the “biblical” way to do spanking, as people were telling me.

So it’s a four point plan of calming yourself down; hitting your child with your hand on the buttocks; doing so until the child cries; afterwards telling them you love them.

Okay, let’s look at those verses from Proverbs again:

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 23:13-14, ESV

Where, in those verses, do you see ANY of those four things? Where, in those verses, is it mentioned that you should hit your child with your hand across the buttocks? Where is it mentioned that you should comfort them afterwards? Where is it mentioned that you should calm yourself down first? Where is it mentioned that you should spank them hard enough so that they cry?

Nowhere. 

All of that is interpretation of what “the rod” means.

None of that is in Scripture. Absolutely none of it. It is, however, in a whole bunch of our books, including:

  • James Dobson’s books on parenting
  • Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Ted Tripp
  • To Train up a Child by the Pearls

And so many more.

We’ve been told that regimen of spanking is biblical so many times that we start to believe that it is.

Our books and pastors make the case that this is what spanking is. Some of the books even did tell you to spank with a stick, but many parents knew that was overly excessive, and so they rejected that for the hand. Nevertheless, this has been the theme in evangelical churches for generations: it is biblical to spank your children.

Except that this is an interpretation of Proverbs; it is not a plain reading of Proverbs.

If you spank your child with an open hand, while calm, and then comfort them afterwards, you are already interpreting  Scripture, not just following Scripture.

I think it’s perfectly fair to ask, then:

When interpreting Scripture, what are the things we should most look out for?

I’m not going to give my thorough interpretation of Proverbs 23:13-14; others have done a much better job, and I’d thoroughly recommend Jesus the Gentle Parent or Discipline that Connects to look at that. But I would like to point you to a few issues:

1. Look at the origin of the key words that are used

In this case, “rod” is used throughout Scripture not as a method of punishment but as a method of guidance. Even in Proverbs itself it has a different meaning that striking–as Proverbs 14:3 says (“in the mouth of the fool is the rod of pride”).

In addition, the word for “child” that is used here is more akin to an older child, like a teenager, than it is to a toddler or a child that’s 5 or 6.

So again–unless you’re using a stick to beat a teenager, you’re not following the “literal” Bible anyway. These verses do not apply to children aged 1-7, which is generally the age group that we are arguing for spanking.

2. Look at the purpose for the passage

The “rod” verses fall in what we would call “wisdom literature”, which is not a set of commands but rather a set of principles of how the world works. They are often poetic and often metaphorical or allegorical, compared to the rest of Scripture. For instance, in Proverbs 6:19-20, we’re told to tie the commands of our father “around our necks.” Anyone wore a command necklace lately?

3. Look at what the rest of the Bible says about this particular thing

The Bible doesn’t really speak to how a child is disciplined, only that he or she be disciplined.

4. Look at the character of God.

Is it God’s character to hurt and punish us for what we did in the past? Or is it God’s character to guide and train us?

A good question to ask is: “Can you picture Jesus doing this?” Jesus said, “he who has seen me has seen the Father.” One of the reasons He came in the flesh was to show us the Father. So if you can’t see Jesus doing it, then it’s not of God.

(It’s amazing how when people talk about spanking, they almost always talk about “God wants you to do this” rather than “Jesus wants you to do this.” As much as possible, use the name of Jesus and see if you still have the same interpretation!)

5. Look at the fruit of the teaching.

And finally, my favourite one: Look at the fruit. As Jesus said:

 

By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
Matthew 7:16-20, NIV

The wider context Jesus is speaking into here is how to recognize false prophets. Verse 15, right before this passage, says, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”

So the purpose of the fruit test is to judge whether someone is speaking the truth about Scripture or not. And how do we do that? We look at the fruit. Does it have good outcomes, or bad outcomes?

And that’s where the spanking meta-analysis by Elizabeth Gershoff that I’ve been talking about is so important. She combined studies of 160,000 children and created operational definitions across the studies so that she could measure the results in the aggregate. She looked only at spanking done with an open hand on the buttocks–exactly what people argue is “biblical” spanking–and not beating a child or spanking with a rod.

And that study found that spanking was either negative or neutral, not positive.

The fruit doesn’t lie. 

 

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Here’s my plea: Sometimes we think we’re just “following the Bible” when really we’re following what we’ve been told is the Bible.

And we’ve been told it so many times that we can’t imagine it NOT being the Bible. This is true with spanking, but it’s true with so many other things, too, like:

And so much more!

But God calls us to more. We can’t just ride on the coat-tails of what other people have told us is true. We have to be like the Bereans from Acts 17, who were praised for taking everything that Paul taught them, and comparing it to Scripture and thinking for themselves.

There’s been a lot of harm done over the last few generations in the name of “following the Bible.” I believe Jesus is doing a mighty work right now, shaking the church, and calling people back to Himself. Don’t be afraid to question what you’ve been told is the Bible. Jesus is the Word of God. Scripture is meant to point us to Jesus–the ultimate Word. Jesus is our measuring stick. Lean into Him. Don’t be afraid. The rest will follow.

 

On Spanking and the Rod in Scripture

Why are we so quick to think we’re “following the Bible”, unlike everyone else? How can we change this? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find BIBLICAL, HEALTHY, EVIDENCE-BASED help for their marriage. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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