While surfing around the web I recently came across an article written a few years ago in which John Piper, a Reformed Baptist pastor and author, responded to the question “Would Jesus spank a child?” It was actually a video of him speaking, and I read the transcript. He said he thought if Jesus were married and had children He would have spanked His children. Since then I’ve been thinking quite a bit about his article and how I would respond to that question. I was a Reformed Baptist for the majority of my adult life, and I’m still “Reformed,” though not Baptist, but I have a different take on this subject. I’d guess I’m in the vast minority of Reformed Christians when it comes to my answer to that question, but I do know I’m not alone. Here are some of my thoughts.
Though Jesus didn’t marry and have children and we don’t have that specific example to follow, there are plenty of other examples in the Bible of God caring for His own. We can read about such things as how graciously Jesus discipled his apostles while on earth and read clear examples of God the Father parenting with gentleness. We can also look to our own experiences of how we have seen Him work in our lives. Through what I see expressed in the Bible about God’s character and about how He cares for His children, and through my own experience as a child of God, I believe that if Jesus were to have married and had children, He would not have struck His children nor done anything to purposefully inflict pain on them.
What we can be absolutely sure of is that He would have discipled His children with “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23)–those character traits are the fruit of the Spirit and part of who He is, plus I John 4:8b says, “God is love.” I do not believe that the fruit of the Spirit meshes with the idea of spanking, that it is not gentle or kind or peaceful or showing our children love to spank them or to otherwise purposefully inflict pain on them. I want to be clear that I’m not saying that parents who spank aren’t loving. I believe that many loving parents do spank, but I don’t believe that spanking itself expresses love.
The Bible presents a solid and true defense of the importance of discipline, and as a loving Father, God is very involved in our lives, instructing us, guiding us, caring for us. I don’t believe He creates painful situations to “teach us a lesson” or scare us into doing His will, though, of course, that doesn’t mean we won’t experience pain. We all know that life can be terribly painful. At times He allows us to experience the, sometimes quite painful, natural consequences of our sins, when they will be beneficial to us, while other times He graciously blocks or reduces those consequences, and many times we experience pain simply because we live in a fallen, sinful world. He always knows what is best for us, and I believe He orchestrates our life in ways that help us grow in holiness and become more like Him, but I feel that His intent is never to punish us. One reason I believe this so strongly is because there is no need for Him to punish us because Jesus took the punishment for our sins: Isaiah 53:5 says,
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. [emphasis mine]
I believe that instead of hitting His children, Jesus would have protected and gently guided them, like a gentle shepherd cares for his sheep. In John 10:11 He said of Himself, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. ” In Psalm 23:1, David said, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want,” and then went on to say in verse 4, “. . . I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” In Isaiah 40:11 we see a beautiful example of God’s care being compared to that of a shepherd: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”
We can also see an example of God’s compassionate care by seeing Jesus’ example of how graciously He discipled his apostles while on earth. Jesus modeled and patiently taught them–he gently discipled them–and we as parents are our children’s teacher: they are our little disciples. We can follow Jesus’ example with our disciples. A mama friend of mind named Sara once shared this comparison:
I always personally reference how Jesus treated his disciples – a group of unruly, uneducated, fishermen. He never yelled, hit, punched, belittled…yet they came to know and love the Lord with their entire beings – all through his gentle, firm, loving teachings. That is how I want to parent my children.
As defense of his viewpoint that Jesus would have spanked His children, John Piper brought up Matthew 5 where (in his words) it says, “Not a jot nor a tittle will pass away from the Law until all is accomplished,” and he said, “the Law says, ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child.’” He claimed that’s a paraphrase of Proverbs where it says (again in his words), “If you withhold the rod, you hate your son.” He believes that the Law says we need to spank our children and that since Jesus believed the Bible, He would have spanked. There are many things concerning with what Piper said. I’ll share a couple, and perhaps you’ll be able to think of more.
First of all, it surprised me that he would correlate a verse in the book of Proverbs with the Law, because the book of Proverbs is wisdom literature and holds a collection of wise sayings, not laws. Proverbs is indeed God’s Word, and we can learn beautiful truths and find helpful guidance from reading Proverbs, but the proverbs aren’t commands or promises or Law, and we need to carefully and prayerfully meditate on them to see what God would have us learn from them and to see whether or not and in what way they are applicable in our situation. It’s important to keep in mind that the book of Proverbs is written in a poetic style, sometimes painting very clear word pictures, such as “Like a bad tooth or a lame foot is reliance on the unfaithful in times of trouble” (Proverbs 25:19), and sometimes using hyperbole, such as in Proverbs 23:2 where it says, “and put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony.”
It also surprised me that Piper used the phrase, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” When I hear someone use that phrase I assume they don’t know the source of it, because it would surprise me if a parent or pastor who knew the source of that phrase would want to use it to apply to the topic of parenting children. The phrase comes from a 17th century satirical poem by Samuel Butler called “Hudibras.” In the poem, that phrase is referring to corporal punishment between adults in the bedroom (see Spare the rod. . . by Crystal Lutton). The phrase “Spare the rod and spoil the child” is a clear match with that poem for it says,
What med’cine else can cure the fits
Of lovers when they lose their wits?
Love is a boy by poets stil’d;
Then spare the rod and spoil the child.
The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible came out 1611, so it would have been used during the time of Samuel Butler. It uses the phrase “spareth his rod” in Proverbs 13:24, though it doesn’t say anything about the idea of “spoiling the child.” Here’s what the complete verse says in the KJV: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” I think it’s possible the author thought of that phrase because he had read that verse, but even so, as seen above, the meaning is not applicable to parenting. It would be good for those who cite “Spare the rod, spoil the child” as a paraphrase of that verse to pause and consider that as such it would an incomplete, inaccurate summary, one which both adds to the verse and misses much that is of importance in that verse. I personally will stick with the Bible verse itself, instead of using that phrase. I’d like to take a little time with you now to look at the verse.
I find the New International Version of the Bible easier to read, so I’m going to share the NIV translation of that verse here as well. It says, “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.“ Whatever you feel that Proverbs 13:24 means, you may notice that the verse is not law: “Whoever spares the rod. . .” is not a command. There is no command in the Bible spank one’s children, and many Christian parents and leaders believe that this is an issue of Christian liberty, or adiophora (things which are neither commanded nor forbidden in God’s Word). They believe that since it doesn’t explicitly tell us that we must spank our children that parents are free to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.
The idea of hating our children if we spare the rod is a saddening and scary thought, and sparing the rod is absolutely something to avoid. Some people take the verse to mean that when we don’t spank our children we are showing that we hate our children, and if we are doing something hateful to our children, then law or not, that would mean we are doing something wrong. Does it really say that, though?
It’s important to try and figure out what Proverbs 13:24 is saying. Let’s look at the complete verse again: “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.“ One thing to note is that it doesn’t say “spank” or any version of “hit/pop/whop your child on the bottom/thigh/etc. when they ____”
In the article Piper asks the question, “What worldview inclines a person to think that you shouldn’t spank a child? Where does that come from?” and his answer is, “Well it comes straight out of this culture, I think.” I actually think the opposite is true: to say that verse says to spank our children is reading our own cultural understanding into it. Though more and more people are speaking out against spanking, overall our culture in the United States is still one that is supportive of the right and the rightness of spanking, and the majority of children in the US have been spanked. In fact, a study that came out in 2010 found that corporal punishment is still used to discipline nearly 80 percent of preschool children. Also, spanking is more common in certain areas and among certain groups, such as it’s more common down South and more common among conservative, fundamentalist Christians.
As a fairly conservative Christian, I know how living in a Christian culture that says spanking is right and necessary can make it hard to consider that anything else could be true, but it’s important to not just follow what those around us do. It can be all too easy to get caught up in group think, but we need to pull ourselves out of the vortex of influence and read the Bible with fresh eyes, asking the Holy Spirit what it really is saying. The idea of the rod being either a hand or a soft, flexible object (or a paddle or a belt, etc.) used to hit our children is something that, if you see it there, you are reading into the text.
We see in the Bible that the rod is a symbol of authority. In Hebrew the word for “rod” is “shebet” (shay’-bet). It can also mean staff, club, scepter, tribe. Parents have been given authority over their children, and the use of the word “rod” speaks to the concept of authority. If in this verse the rod were meant to be an actual physical rod the parent were to lay aside and not use, consider what a rod actually looks like. Here is a picture I took of a shebet that belongs to my friend Crystal:
Seeing a shebet helped confirm for me that God isn’t asking us to hit our child with a shebet. If God isn’t asking us to do that, then what does it mean to not spare the rod?
To help explain that I’d like to share with you something my friend (the same one who owns the shebet seen in the picture above) once showed me. It was a portion of the film Joseph – King of Dreams where Joseph’s father fights off the wolves with his shepherd’s staff, his rod. That scene helps to paint a vivid picture of what it means to not spare the rod. I thought it was powerful when I first watched it, and I like to watch it every once in a while so help me remember the example.
I’ll describe the scene. Joseph stands with the sheep, his job being to watch and care for the sheep. After awhile Joseph lays down his shepherd’s staff, and a little lamb runs off. He picks up his rod and runs after the lamb and sees the wolves. Joseph then again lays aside his staff and grabs the little lamb and runs with it, the wolves in close pursuit. Suddenly his father shows up using the shepherd’s staff to defend them and fight off the predators. The wolves run away, and Joseph and the sheep are safe.
When Joseph laid aside the rod, he was “sparing the rod.” Figuratively we are shepherds of our children, and we need to carry our shepherd’s staff, our rod. Just as it is crucial that a shepherd not lay aside his rod, it is crucial that we parents not lay aside the rod of authority and discipline. This does not mean that we are to hit our children. A good shepherd does not hit his sheep with the rod, but rather reserves hitting for the predators who attack his sheep. In like manner, we as parents should not use the “rod” to hit our children, but rather we are to protect them, guide them, and defend them. That is what not sparing the rod means.
If we love our children we will be careful to discipline them, as the verse says, and our discipline does not need to and should not involve purposely giving them pain by spanking or punishing them. We can follow God’s gracious example, and we can be sure that He is always with us, watching over us, guiding us, caring for us. God is our Good Shepherd, and He doesn’t strike us when we start to wander, He comes beside us and lovingly directs us. As Romans 2:4 says, God’s kindness leads us to repentance.
And now I’d like to close with my favorite quote about the question considering what Jesus would do. It’s from Clay Clarkson in his book Heartfelt Discipline, page 176.
Your children are your disciples, so part of your responsibility is to model for them the character of Christ. Your children will learn what He is like from your example, and they will want to become like the Christ they see in you. Physical discipline is not a part of the biblical portrait of the Savior. There is good reason that you should find it difficult to imagine Jesus raising His hand to strike a child in punishment. It would contradict the biblical portrait of Jesus as the Loving Savior and the gentle Shepherd, laying hands on the children to bless them. But a punitive Jesus is in part, the picture you draw in your children’s minds when you use physical discipline. No matter how loving you try to make it, in a day of ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ it is hard to make the case that spanking is what Jesus would do.