The heading to this section is obviously a reference to Proverbs, chapter 23, verse 13, which says:–
“Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.”
This verse is often quoted by those who support corporal punishment of children when they do something wrong. There is a similar verse earlier in Proverbs, at chapter 13, verse 24:–
“he that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”
Quite obviously, then, the Bible recommends disciplining children and includes the use of a stick or branch to do so. It also makes the point that the child will not die if this is done.
Unfortunately, however, we must acknowledge that there have been many cases when children have been beaten with rods and have died. Does this mean that the writer of Proverbs is wrong? He was quite adamant that a child who was beaten would not die, after all. Yet, almost every adult alive is well aware that they are strong enough to kill a child by beating him too forcefully or for long enough. The writer makes no allowance for that. He simply makes the simple statement that “he shall not die”.
Quite obviously, this verse cannot be understood without making some interpretation as to what it means that the child “shall not die” when it is clear that the child’s death is a possible outcome. Since I do not believe that the writer of Proverbs was deliberately obtuse, he must obviously have had something in mind when he wrote it, something that the people he wrote for, the ancient Israelites, would understand immediately without it being explained to them. So, the question is whether there is anything in the Bible which links children’s misbehaviour with dying. Of course, the answer is that there is such a link.
In the Mosaic law there is a section dealing with wrongdoing among children. It is found at Deuteronomy, chapter 21, verses 18-21:–
“If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.”
The final penalty for delinquency in those times was to be stoned to death. Not only that, the father and mother of the delinquent were obligated to initiate proceedings against their son, knowing that it would result in him being killed.
There are a few phrases in this text which can give us a better insight as to the circumstances. It gives a limit on when the parents may initiate this action. It says, “When they have chastened him”. In other words, the parents must have applied discipline in order to change the behaviour of their son so as to save his life. Only after he rejects that correction are the parents allowed to have him charged. It also refers to the kind of offence. It specifies, “he is a glutton, and a drunkard”. I presume these are examples rather than limits on the type of delinquency, but they do emphasise that we are talking about mature children. Ask yourself, how can a five year old boy reject his father’s discipline? How can a five year old boy be a glutton and a drunkard? Quite obviously, this section is not referring to young children but to mature, older children, perhaps even men, but certainly those in their late teens to late twenties. They would be old enough to fully understand the consequences of their actions, not minor children and infants who understand almost nothing.
When it says, “if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die”, it is referring to action the parents can take to make sure they do not have to report their adult children to the authorities in order to have the death penalty carried out. It is not a reference to the severity of the beating. It is just emphasising that almost anything is better for parents than being compelled to kill their own son.
Thank goodness we no longer have the death penalty applied in cases of juvenile delinquency, not even for children in their twenties. Can you imagine how frightening that must have been for the parents of delinquent children? They would surely have done almost anything to keep their children alive, including hitting them with sticks. However, since we no longer have the death penalty for such offences, there is no longer any need to be so harsh with the discipline. Remember, the hitting with a stick was to prevent them from having the death penalty applied to them. They are no longer going to be executed whether parents hit them or not, since we no longer have the death penalty for delinquency. There is no longer any need to use a stick for disciplining children.
In passing, it might be noted that in the Mosaic law there were a lot of offences, social and religious, for which the penalty was death by stoning. In modern society we no longer apply that penalty at all, and usually think of those few countries which still use it as being barbarically cruel. Stoning is not a quick death and it is painful, as you could imagine, and is considered to be the kind of “cruel and unusual” punishment that is forbidden in many societies. The death penalty is no longer used for most offences, the exception being for murder in a minority of jurisdictions.
To be consistent in application, if we are going to contend that one provision of the Mosaic law is still in effect (disciplining children by hitting them with sticks), then surely we must also contend that all other provisions of the Mosaic law still apply (executing adulterers, burning fat on an altar, etc.). If we do not then we are simply cherry picking what to keep and what to give up.
In Acts there is a simple statement as to what parts of the old law still apply. In response to a query about whether Christian men converts must be circumcised, as the Mosaic law required, the early Christian leaders in Jerusalem rendered the following decision,:–
“For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.”
The advice given by the apostle Paul in this area is somewhat different than that required under the Mosaic law, a law, I would remind you, that Jesus’ death fulfilled and made redundant as shown by god rending the curtain in the Temple in two. Paul said, in Ephesians, chapter 6, verse 4:–
“And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”
Paul’s advice was for “nurture and admonition”, not for hitting with a stick, nor even a hand. The time for that is past and Christians are now under a law of love for one another. That includes how parents and children interact with each other. Parents must ensure their children are looked after and grow up to appreciate Christian values, one of which is the rejection of violence for solving problems, as Jesus emphasised to Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:52, Luke 22:50, John 18:26).
In some faiths great emphasis is placed on keeping children under control, often referencing the requirement for a father to have his family in subjection, as mentioned in First Timothy, chapter 3. It is presumed that other Christian males should follow the same examples. Verse 4 describes what is required from bishops regarding their children, they should be:–
“One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity;”
and for deacons it says in verse 12:–
“Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.”
Advice to children is simple, as Ephesians, chapter 6, verse 1, says:–
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.”
An interesting point about these verses is that they require the children to voluntarily follow a particular course of behaviour. In other words, the children must be of an age where they can make a choice as to how to behave. That requires a certain degree of maturity but would certainly exclude toddlers and babies, both of whom are notorious for making noises and causing disruptions when in groups, primarily because they are not old enough to understand the advice. Hitting children under such circumstances only teaches them that going to the group results in pain, and why would any young child look forward to that? Patience with young children, and with older children as well, is required if they are to be successfully taught to be disciples. The purpose of Christian child raising is to gain the children’s souls for Christ, not to keep them quiet at all costs.
Jesus himself had something to say about this, recorded in three of the gospels. Luke chapter 18, verses 15-17 expresses it as:–
“And they brought unto him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of god. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of god as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.”
Note that it says these were infants, little children, not those of an age when they could voluntarily be in subjection to the parents. Jesus pointedly reprimanded his disciples for trying to stop these very young children being brought to him, making it clear that he wanted the noisy, disruptive babies and toddlers there and even using them as an example of how his followers should behave. It must surely be obvious that Jesus had no difficulty dealing with the noise and disruptions that toddlers bring and neither should anyone else. After all, is it not a fundamental aspect of Christian life to have love for one another? Surely that love would include the young children, but how can hitting them until they remain quiet be considered an act of love? Children of such a young age often do not understand why they are being hurt, only that the slaps and pain have something to do with god, and surely that is the wrong message.
There is another aspect to this that is often overlooked, although whether that is deliberate or because it never occurs to people that it applies I do not know. That is the requirement for Christians to be in subjection to the higher powers, the rulers or national governments. As the political governments of the world, Paul said that Christians must submit to their laws. The instructions he gave are found at Romans, chapter 13, verses 1-2:–
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of god: the powers that be are ordained of god. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of god: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”
This places on parents a requirement to submit to the laws of the world’s rulers and national governments. It is not optional, it is mandatory. When a nation passes legislation stating that corporal punishment, spanking and anything similar, may not be used on children, then a Christian must obey that law. It is not an option to still do it privately using the argument that god gave the parents the right to do so. They do not have that right when a country bans it since the country is exercising the authority that god allows it to exercise. Hitting children in countries where it is banned directly contradicts god’s express instructions and may well lead to god’s condemnation.
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