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Use the Rod, Lose the Child?

Spare the Rod

Spare the rod, spoil the child. It’s not exactly the wisdom of Solomon, but it’s not far off. Proverbs 13:24 echoes many of the other Proverbs when it says “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” Some Proverbs are difficult to discern, but this one not so much. The point is obvious: we are to faithfully discipline our children for the sake of our children.

But it’s not always so simple, is it? Where corporal (or physical) discipline was once considered normal and effective, today many people consider it nothing less than abuse. There are entire nations where it’s no longer legal, and other nations like my own where it remains technically legal but in all likelihood won’t for long. I’m thinking about this today because of an email I received from a reader: “We currently live in Europe where corporal punishment, if discovered, can result in having your children permanently taken away from you. There are many instances just in my country alone. What would you advise for us to do?”

I think this reader, like many people, feels “caught” between competing truths. God instructs parents to discipline their children and it seems fairly clear this involves some level of corporal discipline. But he also tells us to obey our rulers. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). We know God expects us to discipline our children and we know he expects us to obey our rulers. So what do we do when those two come into conflict?

I suppose the first step is to understand if there are limitations on our obedience—are there times when we can rightly disobey? As we read through the Bible we find that lesser authorities never have the right to contradict greater authorities. Therefore government does not have the right to tell us to disobey God. So if God says we must spank our children and the government says we must not, we need to obey God, not government.

The second step is to understand if Proverbs demands corporal discipline or merely the principle of discipline. This requires studying God’s Word and consulting with theologians (who, thankfully, have given us many wonderful commentaries and other volumes on the relevant texts). As we do that, we will likely find that most commentators see this passage as advocating discipline in general, not just one particular form of it. So while it certainly does call for discipline and while it certainly does permit corporal discipline, it does not necessarily demand it.

In Proverbs we are always looking for both principle and application. The greater principle is to faithfully discipline our children in ways that are effective to them. Some children would gladly take a spank in favor of time alone in their room which shows that perhaps time alone in their room is a more effective punishment. There is no one-punishment-fits-all approach. I think we can glean from Proverbs that in ideal circumstances, every parents would have corporal discipline as at least one of their options. But perhaps we can also glean that it’s not the only option. (And obviously when I speak of corporate discipline I don’t mean anger-filled beatings but restrained, physical discipline that is done out of love and never tips into abuse.)

There’s the world as we would wish it to be and the harsh reality of the world as it actually is.

We always need to guard against becoming spineless in the face of adversity, but the world is such that sometimes we need to be wise and exercise discretion. Sometimes we have to make difficult decisions. There’s the world as we would wish it to be and the harsh reality of the world as it actually is. When it comes to parenting, we may need to consider whether it’s wiser to spank our children and risk having them separated from us (to potentially be raised by unbelievers) or if it’s wiser to refrain from spanking them and therefore not bear the risk of having them taken away. This is a matter for every parent to consider prayerfully and according to conscience. Speaking personally, if I had young children in a country that had a track record of removing children from parents, I would likely refrain from spanking.

As Christian parents, we can have confidence that God is for us, not against us. This is true even, or perhaps especially, in those times we need to make tough decisions that go against our natural preferences. The decision to refrain from spanking our children in order to protect them from an overreaching government may not be our preference, but we shouldn’t fear that God’s blessings over us and our children will cease because of it. He is for us, so we have nothing to fear.

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