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Is it a Christian’s duty to spank their children?

This week the South African Constitutional Court ruled that corporal punishment is inconsistent with the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, and cannot be used in private homes. Some churches and Christian lobbies are outraged, with Freedom of Religion South Africa arguing that parents should be given the right to discipline their children without the interference of the state. I have seen many, many Facebook warriors using words like “They cannot tell me what to do in my home”, “It is my Christian duty to discipline my child”, and “This infringes my religious freedoms”. The worst are those who say “I was beaten and it hasn’t done anything to me” – and I wonder if this desire to beat children isn’t evidence of spiritual damage?

So should Christians be free to spank their children? No one in their right mind would want to say that assaulting a child, or beating a child to a pulp,  is Christian. But what about spanking? What about delivering a corrective measure that brings a child up short? What about allowing teachers the latitude to administer such corrective action? Evangelical pastor and teacher John MacArthur defends this kind of spanking as a Biblical injunction:

Scripture does nonetheless prescribe the rod of discipline as a necessary aspect of parenting. In fact, Scripture flatly contradicts modern opponents of corporal punishment: “He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly” (Proverbs 13:24). “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of correction will drive it far from him” (Proverbs 22:15). “You shall beat him with a rod, and deliver his soul from hell” (Proverbs 23:14; see also 10:13; 19:18). [1]

However, quoting three texts from the Old Testament doesn’t make a Christian principle! There are many, many other Old Testament commands that we no longer reference in our lives as followers of Jesus. [2] It is for this reason that followers of Jesus recognise that not everything in the Bible is Christian. Jesus came to soften hardened hearts; grace, and compassion and love became the lens to re-read the collected commandments of the religious community. And so it is helpful to ask “What would Jesus do with Children?”. In fact we do not need to search too far to find an answer: The disciples of Jesus sternly rebuke the children – which is Biblically appropriate for their disturbance of the peace. Jesus by contrast, invites them into his space: “Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”” (Matthew 19:14). Jesus says nothing about spanking children. Not one thing. He does speak of welcoming children. He does speak of those who follow him welcoming the “least and the lowest” as belonging to the Kingdom of God.

So let me take a stab at this. I live in a country that is deeply damaged by violence. The South African government has pleaded that “We have to find ways of making our homes and communities safe for all, especially for women and children”.[3] I believe that it is impossible to wish for a society with safe homes for children and yet cling to the notion of hitting children at home as punishment. It is impossible to wish for less violence in our homes while wanting to inflict violence on our children in the home. As much as some argue that “Spanking should always be administered with love and never when the parent is in a fit of rage[4], the rage is all around us…. and if we are honest – it is within us! How do I know the limit to a “reasonable” amount of spanking? One person’s reasonable spanking will be another person’s abusive assault. Danny Huerta, writing in Focus on the Family, a Christian organisation seeking to “spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ through a practical outreach to homes”,  suggests that we limit ourselves in the spanking of children: “spanking is appropriate only between the ages of 18 months and 6 or 7 years of age”. [5] While he tries to justify this as a developmental need, I suspect that he came up with these numbers because as children get bigger it becomes more difficult to hit them. There is a moment when children are able to hit back! In truth, the more we think about this the more shocking the image becomes: Christian leaders encourage grown men and women to hit children while they are still too little to resist.

How about us all learning new ways of instilling respect. Hitting someone to discourage a violent spirit is counter-intuitive. Let us build relationships of love and respect through investing the time and the energy needed to grow solid foundations, with healthy boundaries and ethical Christian standards. Let us pray with our children – rather than praying in despair for them. Let us play with our children, instead of telling them to “go and play elsewhere”.

[1] John MacArthur https://www.gty.org/library/articles/A216/parenting-in-an-antispanking-culture

[2] For example, despite Biblical support, followers of Jesus  no longer bind a phylactery to our bodies (Deuteronomy 6:8), or avoid the mixing of fabric (Leviticus 19:19) or practice the stoning of adulterers (Leviticus 20:10). The Bible  outlines sources and legal status of slaves which Christians no longer observe (Leviticus 25:39-55).

[3] https://www.gov.za/issues/violence-against-women-and-children-0

[4] John MacArthur

[5] Danny Huerta https://www.focusonthefamily.com/parenting/is-spanking-biblical/

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“To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” Finley Peter Dunne (1867–1936)