Why would anyone want to write an article defending spanking? This is one of those topics which the modern world considers a fundamental sign of whether you are a civilized person or a barbarian, and I probably don’t need to tell you which side of the line advocates of spanking are thought to fall on.
There is some justification in this. We’ve probably all seen or heard examples of “spanking” which have been quite simply dreadful: the drunken father who whacks his children with a strap; the frustrated mother who lashes out in anger in the supermarket. Let me make it clear at the outset that I am not defending any of those types of spanking. In fact, I am as much against them as anyone from the anti-spanking lobby.
What I am defending, however, is Biblical spanking, which I believe is as far from the types mentioned above as East is from West.
The right theological framework
Any defense of Biblical spanking ought to start not with spanking itself, but with the whole issue being put in the right theological framework. John Calvin famously started his Institutes with the following statement: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” So where do we go to get this knowledge? The answer is that we go back to the book of origins, the book of Genesis.
What do we find there? Firstly, we find a good God who creates all things well, and crowns his world by making Man, who is His very image, and placing him in a garden. As for Man, he is Very Good, holy and righteous.
But what about their relationship? Is it only servant to master? Or something else as well? I mention this because I think that some Christians go askew at this point, and it affects their whole reading of the rest of the Bible. Because God puts a prohibition on Adam, many treat the relationship as if God was a judge and Adam on trial. Now whilst it is true that Adam was subject to a prohibition, this is not the primary relationship that was going on there. Luke tells us specifically in his genealogy that Adam was the son of God – not THE son of God, but a son of God nonetheless – and so the prohibition is far more akin to a father telling his child not to touch the electric socket than it is to a judge standing over a man on trial.
Of course, what then happens is that Adam disobeys and loses his holiness and his righteousness. He has erred, he is a rebel, and he has gone astray. So God punishes him, right? Well yes, but I don’t think we should see the curses as exclusively “punishment.” Pure punishment would have seen both Adam and Eve in Sheol there and then, but is this what happens?
Actually, quite the opposite. In the very next verses after the curses are announced (Chapter 3 verses 20-21), both Adam and Eve are restored. Adam calls his wife Eve – mother of the living – which is odd since they have both just been told that they are dead, but the reason he can do this is that God has just promised a saviour, and He has then clothed them to cover their nakedness. So they were saved directly after the curses were announced. In other words, except for God’s eternal punishment – which is punishment or retribution in its purest form – God places curses and, with them, pain not because he wants simply to punish, but because he also wants to see restoration. C.S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, describes pain as “God’s megaphone to a deaf world” and indeed it is. In a fallen world, the curses are there not simply as a means of punishing, but also as a means of grace in bringing people back to God (or to put it another way, nobody ever turned to God after winning the lottery).
We need to see clearly
Why is it important to establish all this in a defense of spanking? It is because spanking is under attack from a worldview that is incapable of seeing spanking as anything other than punishment. In the eyes of the humanist, who sees no ultimate authority over humanity, adults have no right to spank their children – who are in any case fundamentally good – and so spanking can only be seen by such people in terms of abuse of authority and as pure punishment. Sadly, I think a lot of Christians buy this. However, this misses the fundamental point of why spanking (Biblical spanking that is) is necessary. God’s curse on Man was in part a Judge’s ruling meting out punishment, but it was also a Father seeking to lead His children to restoration. So too we, as fathers, should use spanking to lead our child to repentance and restoration.
If we start from the position set out in Genesis, we come to a very different conclusion than the humanist one. We realize that our children have sinful, not pure hearts, that they do wrong and need correction. But we also come to see that if we are to spank, we do so not out of anger or a need for retribution, but from a position of love and with the purpose of bringing our children to repentance and restoration.
Using the rod
But why the use of the rod? Well, the short answer is that the book of Proverbs tells us that in many places. Yet we must approach this book with the same fundamental starting point as we have discussed above. If we just dive into the “spanking verses,” the temptation will be to just see “use the rod” “use the rod” “use the rod”, which is likely to lead us to a very harsh type of spanking, where our purpose is simply punishment and retribution.
But what is the book of Proverbs? It is a father talking to his son, imparting wisdom for life. And how does he do this? Go and read the first few chapters. He is not harsh. He is not judgemental. Rather he is full of love for his son and desperate to see his son do right. And so by the time we come to the “spanking verses” it is clear that what is in the father’s mind is not using the rod to punish, but rather as a means of discipleship, a means of correction, and above all a means of restoring the child.
Get this wrong, and we end up with a harsh, cold view of spanking, and I agree 100% with the humanists that this has no place in a civilized society. But get these basics right – those seen in Genesis, and those seen in Proverbs – and we suddenly see that spanking is actually a means of grace to our children – yes it may also be a punishment for wrongdoing, but more than that it is loving correction to steer them away from harmful, destructive and unrighteous ways of living.
I want to finish up this piece just setting down ten principles, which I think are really practical applications flowing out of what has been discussed above:
- We should only ever spank for offenses where the child has been told clearly that this type of behavior is wrong
- We should never administer it in anger, but always in a calm and loving way. A helpful way of achieving this is to always go into a different room than the one the offense took place in. This gives both parent and child a chance to calm down, and it also ensures that the child is not humiliated in front of others (James 1:19, Prov. 15:18, Prov. 29:11).
- We should always begin by explaining to the child what they’ve done wrong and why it was wrong.
- The child should be given the right to reply to these charges, and if there are real doubts as to whether they have done the wrong they are accused of, we should refrain from smacking. “Better that the guilty go free than that the innocent are condemned,” as the saying goes (Num. 35:30, Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19; Heb. 10:28).
- Spanking should be done on the bottom only and must be done swiftly.
- It should always be followed by a prayer of confession in which the child seeks God’s forgiveness, and this should be followed by the parent assuring the child that if their repentance is sincere, God’s forgiveness is free, full, and unconditional.
- If we lost our tempers in any of this, we should confess both to God and to the child as well, seeking their forgiveness.
- We should assure the child of our unconditional forgiveness and love, and further assure them that they are restored to fellowship with the rest of the family.
- If their sin involved others, we should get them to go and seek their forgiveness.
- The whole thing should be carried out in a spirit and atmosphere of love for the child, with the aim of bringing them to repentance and restoration of fellowship with their family (Eph. 6:4, Col. 3:21).