Is the “rod” in Proverbs 13:24 actually an implement for disciplining a child? Does the Bible require corporal punishment for disobedient children?
This is a fair question, and an increasingly relevant one, as more and more western nations pass laws forbidding corporal punishment. (It was already against the law to spank when we lived in Sweden, way back in 1989-1992.) This can also be a contentious issue, and I’m aware that no matter how articulate my response, I’m unlikely to please everyone.
Views on parenting have changed drastically in recent decades, with important advances in psychology and neurochemistry. Behavior is now understood in a more holistic, three-dimensional way: the confluence of nature, nurture, and personal choice. Educators, like parents (and grandparents), are more aware of the damage that may come from shaming a child. They also appreciate that guilt is a poor motivator, for adults as well as for children. The Bible tells us to treat others with gentleness and respect (Ephesians 4:2)—are children not included? (And how about pets? Whacking a naughty canine on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper doesn’t seem to be as common today as when we were kids. We have learned better ways to train up a puppy.)
Many of us realize that we often “disciplined” out of fear. Perhaps we were afraid our kids might get sucked into the drug culture, or choose their friends unwisely. Sometimes we punished our sons and daughters out of frustration or anger (strong-willed children, especially). For kids “growing up in the church,” we may have had unrealistically high expectations (kids as exemplary mini-Christians). As we come to these realizations, it’s easy to allow the pendulum to swing too far. Our concern is to interpret scriptures like Proverbs 13:24 accurately and faithfully.
It’s time to define terms: discipline and rod. One satisfactory dictionary definition of discipline (as a verb) is “train (someone) to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience.” Discipline isn’t the same thing as corporal punishment, even though many people equate the two. Discipline need not be physical at all, in fact. Reinforcement can be positive or negative, physical or nonphysical.
- Positive physical reinforcements: a hug, a gift, or other reward.
- Positive nonphysical reinforcements: a word of praise, or the granting of some privilege.
- Negative physical reinforcements: spanking, or “time out.”
- Negative nonphysical reinforcements: reprimands, revocation of privileges, removal of favorite toys, or “unplugging”—no video games, internet, etc. (Not withdrawal of food and water!)
As the children grow older, parents will move increasingly from physical to nonphysical incentives and disincentives. The goal isn’t simply to change behavior, but to facilitate a change of heart (attitude, motivation, godliness). Parents need to take special care not to cause resentment (Ephesians 6:4). We need to take care lest we read one type of discipline (corporal punishment) intoall biblical passages on parenting, like Ephesians 6:4 and Hebrews 12:9-10.
Five different OT Hebrew words are translated “rod.” The one in the child-discipline category is šébet, which can mean shepherd’s staff, scepter, walking stick, weapon, or means of discipline. The NT Greek rhábdos (technically, hrábdos), depending on the context, can mean staff, sceptre, goad, stick, pen, shepherd’s crook, or rod. The semantic range of “rod” in both testaments is more or less the same.
Just as in English, one word can have multiple meanings. Consider “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). The Good Shepherd’s rod isn’t being used to punish the sheep—even though it’s true that his (painful) discipline can lead to peace in the long run (Hebrews 12:11-12). Monarchs don’t wallop their subjects with their sceptres. Context narrows down the possible meanings of a word.
Rod appears 9x in Proverbs, in half of those instances in the context of parenting (13:24; 22:15; 23:13-14; 29:15). Two examples should suffice: Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him (Proverbs 13:24). The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother (Proverbs 29:15). As we have seen, discipline doesn’t necessarily mean spanking, yet the most natural reading of these passages (and many others) envisions some sort of corporal punishment. Could “rod” be a metaphor? In 1 Corinthians 4:21, probably so. It’s difficult to imagine an apostle beating unruly church members. Yet few of the various proverbs seem to use “rod” metaphorically.
Through most of human history, and in most cultures, the proposition that a parent may not spank a child would be considered preposterous. It’s all too easy to arrogantly imagine that our civilization is superior in every way to past generations. Let’s not be too quick to assume we’re right. On the other hand, those who challenge corporal punishment make some good points. It’s never right to physically abuse anyone, including children. But is spanking necessarily abuse? Of course a heavy and stiff rod can do a lot of damage. The apostle Paul had personal experience of this, as he was severely beaten this very way (Acts 16:22-23, 33; 2 Cor 11:25); see also Exodus 21:20. The mobs that beat him were violent and out-of-control—certainly they weren’t flogging him in love.
But what about a lighter implement—might that be allowable for corporal punishment? The answer could depend on what sort of rod is in view: wooden or metal, flexible or inflexible, thin or thick, stick or switch. Is it not possible to administer discipline in love, without damaging the child?
Although (clearly) I don’t believe spanking is necessarily wrong, several considerations temper my confidence in this position. First off, there is no explicit mandate in the New Testament for parents to physically discipline disobedient children. That may be because this was expected only in Judaism, and things changed with the new covenant (though this seems unlikely to me). Perhaps it was a universal feature of family life in the NT world, an assumption never examined. Before insisting too quickly that all OT passages on discipling children still apply in NT times, we’ll need to address passages like Deuteronomy 21:18-21. (Should the elders execute out-of-control adult children?)
Numerous practices were assumed in the OT world—not biblically mandated. In the ancient world—and in the modern world, until fairly recently—slavery was a given. So was blood guilt (think cities of refuge from the avenger). And polygamy, warfare, and the divine right of kings. The OT regulated such practices—neither praising nor explicitly condemning them. Is it conceivable that it’s the same with spanking?
Proverbs are general principles, observations about the world, sayings and guidelines to make us wiser spiritually. Generally speaking, it isn’t wise to attempt to squeeze imperatives from maxims. (Should we look before we leap, or always throw hesitation to the winds?) A child trained up in the way of the Lord will normally stay on the path (Proverbs 22:6)—but not always. Proverbs do not offer ironclad guarantees.
Furthermore, there is no doubt that spanking violates the consciences of many parents. In such cases, it would be wrong to enforce a methodology of parenting where one or both parents have serious misgivings.
Form v. function
Form relates to the method or medium, function to purpose. Usually form is less important than function. For example, when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:14), was he establishing a rule for us to follow (1 Tim 5:10, etc)? I don’t think so. The function was hospitality and service. The outward form was the literal washing. Some groups preserve a token observance (such as an annual foot-washing ceremony), yet the custom is rarely necessary in the modern world of paved roads and closed shoes. Or take the holy kiss (Rom 16:16). The kiss is the form, the function the warm, special greeting itself. Do we sin if we fail to actually kiss our brothers or sisters in Christ? Are bowing, hugging, and shaking hands unbiblical?
So what about “Spare the rod, spoil the child”? All would agree that the function of the discipline is to cultivate godly character in children. Might not the form be variable—depending on the situation, the family, the child’s temperament, and even regional culture? As long as we understand the intent of God’s commands (function), will He not allow us latitude to make our own decisions regarding the practicals (form)?
I’ve suggested a few reasons for us not to be overly dogmatic about corporal punishment. Based on temperament and genetics, children respond differently to various rewards and punishments. Few respond to words alone (Proverbs 29:19); tangible consequences are necessary, especially in the earlier years. Yet even so, every human is wired differently—one size does not fit all. Whatever your conclusion, the “rod” (biblically speaking) brings guidance—and ultimately, security.
For more, please see the Restoration Quarterly article.