Bible-Based Defenders of Spanking Are Reading the Bible Wrong

The Bible’s instructions for corporal punishment are far worse than what spanking advocates imagine — but the ancient book is also pointing to an even better way.

Adrian Peterson takes the Bible’s word on corporal punishment more literally than do most evangelical Christians who condone spanking. Unless read in the light of its own time, the Bible’s advice is as ghastly as Peterson made it out to be.

The star running back’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, states that Peterson “used the same kind of discipline with his child that he experienced as a child growing up in east Texas.” From this it could be surmised that Hardin intends to mount a defense grounded in cultural differences based on geography and generation — which, based on conversations I’ve had as a New Yorker with friends raised below the Mason-Dixon line, might have some plausibility. It is, I suspect, a very different thing to spank a kid in Brooklyn in 2014 than it might’ve been in West Texas in 1994.

Thus David E. Prince, writing for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission website, accuses believers who reject spanking — like Jonathan Merritt — of “domesticating Scripture to fit the prevailing spirit of the age,” that is, an age that increasingly frowns upon corporal punishment. Bible-believing parents, he says, have a clear obligation to spank their kids.

But here’s the problem: in relationship to the Bible, contemporary American corporal punishment is already highly domesticated.

When evangelicals advocate for “biblical” corporal punishment, they do not mean a Peterson-esque beating. They envision something restrained and gentle, something involving, perhaps, a prayer beforehand, a quick painful snap that inflicts pain but no marks, with doses of comfort, love, and reassurance afterward.

According to William Webb in his book Corporal Punishment in the Bible, spanking that’s actually “biblical” — as opposed to contemporary American evangelical — has no upper age limit, can be up to 40 lashes, should be delivered to a person’s back (not his bottom), and should leave marks, because “blows that wound [or bruise] cleanse away evil; beatings make clean the innermost parts” (Proverbs 20:30). Finally — against virtually all evangelical notions of corporal punishment — the Bible seems to suggest that “a little righteous anger” mixed in with a spanking is a good thing.

That’s certainly not the kind of corporal punishment envisioned by evangelical leaders such as Chip Ingram on Focus on the Family’s website. Likewise, popular evangelical pastor and author John Piper writes, “Now, you don’t damage a child. You don’t give him a black eye or break his arm. Children have little fat bottoms so that they can be whopped . . . It is not beating. It is not abuse. There is a clear difference.”

While acknowledging the social scientific research suggesting that spanking may correlate with psychological harm, Piper and others are probably right to differentiate between a stinging swat that causes no visible marks and Peterson’s flaying of his son. There is, no doubt, a clear difference between a raging parent beating a child and a measured doling out of “biblical” (that is, American evangelical) corporal punishment.

In a move that annoys his critics on both the left and the right, Webb argues that in relationship to its own cultural context, the Bible’s prescriptions were actually redemptive: more merciful, more gracious than what the surrounding cultures were doing. Other ancient Near Eastern law codes actually called for mutilating disobedient children. America has already enshrined codes well beyond the Bible’s vision of corporal punishment, such that Adrian Peterson’s actions are criminal — not parental — including the 80 percent of American Christians who believe that spanking is a legitimate form of discipline.

Webb does not hope that Bible-believing parents will take up a heavier hand in disciplining their children; he is, rather, showing that a “plain,” literal reading of the Bible on the question of corporal punishment is nothing that contemporary American evangelicals would — or should — countenance. In other words, it’s not Jonathan Merritt or any other anti-spanking advocate who’s domesticating the Bible to fit the spirit of the age — it’s anyone who insists (as virtually every Christian spanking advocate does) upon the necessity of corporal punishment while also claiming that “the biblical model” of spanking is quick, non-marking, inflicted on the buttocks of young children only and never when the parent is angry.

I don’t believe that it should be a badge of pride for evangelicals to be “countercultural” on the question of spanking, persisting in doing it “because that’s what the Bible says.” If the Bible’s vision is, as Webb argues, redemptive vis a vis its own culture, what would a similarly redemptive approach to parenting in our own day look like? Nonviolence? Time for rest and worship and play? Policies that grant adequate parental leave? The possibilities are much more varied than a whop on the bottom.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Rachel Marie Stone
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