Spanking Children in Light of the New Covenant

A closeup headshot of a father speaking to his son. This illustrates the topic of spanking children in light of the new covenant by suggesting that nurture and instruction are to be preferred to spanking.

You fathers, don’t provoke your children to wrath, but nurture them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
(Ephesians 6:4)

Is spanking children Christian? Does spanking our children agree with the New Covenant, or are we to take a different approach? Image by giselaatje from Pixabay

Many Christians, especially in the United States, look upon spanking their children for disobedience as a mandate from God. Some also see it as a civil right. They sincerely believe that the Bible teaches that Christian parents must spank their children for misbehavior. But is this true? More specifically, is physically punishing children in line with the teachings of Jesus and His apostles? Does corporal punishment harmonize with the Gospel of grace? Is spanking children Christian? How are we to see spanking children in light of the New Covenant?

Some Disclaimers

I want to emphasize that I’m not telling people what to do within their family. What I intend with this article is to show you from Scripture what the New Testament directly says and doesn’t say about parenting and what the Gospel principles of the New Covenant imply about parenting.

I’m also not going to argue for or against the belief that the Old Testament teaches parents to apply corporal punishment to their children. There are certainly Old Testament Scriptures that can be interpreted as calls for parents to apply the “rod” (e.g., Proverbs 13:24; 22:15; 23:13-14; and 29:15). How literally that’s to be taken is debated. But I’m going to bypass this controversary because the Old Testament isn’t the standard for Christians. The real issue is whether the New Testament teaches Christian parents to spank their children.

New Testament Instructions for Raising Children

Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3

Many Christian books have been written on parenting, but the New Testament says very little. Paul gives one of the more extensive texts on the subject in Ephesians 6:1-4. Although it’s only three sentences, it does have implications:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with a promise: “that it may be well with you, and you may live long on the earth.” You fathers, don’t provoke your children to wrath, but nurture them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Ephesians 6:1-4

Paul says nearly the same thing, but more briefly, in Colossians 3:20-21:

Children, obey your parents in all things, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, don’t provoke your children, so that they won’t be discouraged.

Colossians 3:20-21

Both passages begin with instructions to the children. I want to emphasize that Paul tells the children to obey (hupakouō—“listen under” or “listen to”) their parents in the Lord because it “is right” and it “pleases the Lord.” Nothing here hints at the children obeying out of fear of getting a smack on the behind.

Paul addresses fathers because, as head of the family, the father is responsible for the way both he and his wife conduct the parenting. Paul explains in Colossians 3:21 why fathers are not to provoke their children to anger: “so that they won’t be discouraged.” The word “discouraged” is a proper translation of the Greek athumeō. “Disheartened” and “dispirited” also express what Paul intended by athumeō.

Some parents believe they need to break a child’s spirit. The Bible contradicts them. Paul teaches in 1 Thessalonians 5:14, “We exhort you, brothers, admonish the disorderly, encourage the fainthearted, support the weak, be patient toward all.” This certainly also applies to our children.

The Principle of the Fifth Commandment

In the Ephesians passage, Paul also appeals to the principle of the Fifth Commandment. I say the principle because the apostle is not telling the children to obey a Mosaic law. The Old Testament law says, “Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16 is very similar). Paul takes that principle and gives it a New Covenant application. Instead of referring to the promised land, Paul says, “that it may be well with you, and you may live long on the earth.”

What I think many people miss is that both the Fifth Commandment and what Paul says in Ephesians 6:2-3 look to the future of the children as adults. Such weighty consequences obviously aren’t the results of ordinary childish misbehavior. All children have little self-control, though they should be expected to develop this as they age. These instructions obviously apply to willful, persistent insubordination and rebelliousness that carries over into a character flaw in adult life.

In ancient Israel, children who dishonored and disobeyed their parents risked growing into adults who would do the same in their relationship to God and those around them. This collective behavior among the people of Israel eventually led to God evicting them from the Promised Land.

Under the New Covenant, children who willfully and chronically through the years disobey their Christian parents who act in the Lord’s authority are rebelling against the Lord. Under the New Covenant, such behavior evidences the possibility of the person being reprobate and out of God’s blessings. They are in danger of leading the kind of life that leads to early death. I want to add that, as long as there is life, there is hope of repentance.

What Lesson Do We Want Our Children to Learn?

What is the point of Christian parenting? Certainly, like all parenting, Christian parenting includes teaching a child to become a functioning member of society. But Christian parenting is distinguished by something unique.

Is that unique something of Christian parenting to teach our children the stern consequences of disobedience to rules, regulations, and laws? Is our goal to make them good legalists and moralists? I see nothing in the Bible that hints at such a thing.

So, then, is that unique something of Christian parenting to teach and to show by example the love, forgiveness, and grace of the Gospel? In short, are we to teach and to live the Gospel daily so as to put it into our children’s minds? Yes! This is what I believe Paul meant by “nurture them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

“Nurture” is from the Greek word, ektrephō. The original meaning of the word was “to fatten up.” But it came to be used to mean to cherish a child by pampering. That doesn’t sound like spanking to me!

“Discipline,” which people often mistake to mean punishment, is translated from the Greek word, paideia. This word simply means to educate children.

“Instruction” is from nouthesia. It comes from the words, nous, which means the “mind,” and tithēmi, which means “to place.” So, literally, it is what is placed into the mind. But nouthesia was used in the sense of a warning or admonition. Paul used it in 1 Corinthians 10:11 and Titus 3:10.

We mustn’t forget that this is to be a nurturing in the discipline and instruction “of the Lord.” There are differences of opinion among commentators over what this means, but I think that the most natural meaning is “the Lord’s discipline and instruction.” That is, parents are to nurture their children with the Lord’s teachings and warnings, what the Lord says. Christian parents are neglectful if they are not educating their children in the teachings and admonitions of Jesus Christ and, by extension, His apostles.

Is Spanking Children Christian? What about Hebrews 12?

So Great a Cloud of Witnesses

Pastors sometimes cite Hebrews 12 as evidence that Christian parents should physically punish their children. This is based on a basic misreading and misunderstanding of the context.

Hebrews 12 follows Hebrews 11 in which the writer lists many people who suffered greatly for their faith, and he ends the chapter by saying, “These all, having had testimony given to them through their faith, didn’t receive the promise, God having provided some better thing concerning us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40). Keep in mind the word “perfect.” It is teleioō.

Hebrews 12:1-2 then says,

Therefore let us also, seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

The writer is addressing first-century Jews who were suffering persecution. But the lesson applies to believers of all centuries, including us, and so I will word my explanation as if it is to us. So, taking inspiration from the faithful who suffered and died before us, we should run the race of the Christian life that is before us. And, as we run that race, we are to look to Jesus.

The Author and Perfecter

Hebrews 12:2 calls Jesus the Author or Captain—the Leader who goes before us to show us the way—and the Perfecter of faith. “Perfecter” is from teleiōtēs, which comes from teleioō. Remember that Hebrews 11:40 said that the Old Testament faithful could not be made perfect (teleioō) without us. Of course, this does not mean that we make them perfect. It means that they could not be made perfect until the age of the New Covenant saints and, specifically, the coming of the Perfector of faith.

Jesus “endured the cross.” “Endured” is from hupomenō. Remember that word also. We are to consider what Jesus endured so that we don’t grow weary or faint (Hebrews 12:3).

Scourges Every Son

The verses people cite concerning parenting begin with verses 5 and 6:

…and you have forgotten the exhortation which reasons with you as with children, “My son, don’t take lightly the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by him; For whom the Lord loves, he chastens, and scourges every son whom he receives.”

Hebrews 12:5-6

“Chastening” is paideia, “education” or “training,” which we saw translated as “discipline” in Ephesians 6. “Reproved” is from elegchō. It means “to correct.” Neither of these words has any necessary connection to physical correction. “Scourges,” however, is another story.

“Scourges” is the translation of mastigoō. It means “to flog or whip.” Of course, God doesn’t literally whip us. But this allusion to whipping is intended to make us think of something stern or severe that we may not like. The Old Testament saints whom Hebrews 11 refers to went through afflictions that they, no doubt, didn’t like. As we know from His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus knew He was about to go through an ordeal that His flesh rebelled against. But “for the joy that was set before him,” He endured it.

This now brings me to the point I want to make about Hebrews 12. Those who cite this as justification for spanking children as a chastening for disobedience are missing the point of these verses.

Hebrews 12 Is Not about Chastening for Disobedience

When parents spank their children, they do it because the children are disobedient. But did the Old Testament saints undergo their trials because they were disobedient? No. Did Jesus suffer the Crucifixion because He was disobedient? Of course not! Jesus “knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus was perfectly obedient. Scripture even explicitly tells us that He was “obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8).

So, why did Jesus have to suffer? Primarily, He had to endure the Cross to become our Savior. But, as part of his humanity and to be our High Priest who understood suffering (see Hebrews 2:10 and 5:10), He also learned something. By what He suffered, He learned that He would be obedient even under extreme suffering. It’s easy to obey and remain faithful when life is smooth. It’s when things get rough that our mettle is tested.

He, in the days of his flesh, having offered up prayers and petitions with strong crying and tears to him who was able to save him from death, and having been heard for his godly fear, though he was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which he suffered. Having been made perfect, he became to all of those who obey him the author of eternal salvation….

Hebrews 5:7-9

As with Jesus, the “chastening” and “scourging” our heavenly Father has us endure is not because we’ve been disobedient. Jesus’ atonement and obedience has completely wiped out our infractions and replaced them with His imputed righteousness.

Our tribulations teach us that God has given us faith that will endure even under trial: “It is for discipline [paideia—“education” or “training”] that you endure. God deals with you as with children, for what son is there whom his father doesn’t discipline?” (Hebrews 12:7).

Earthly Fathers

True, some earthly fathers spank in response to breaking their rules. But, I must point out that when referring to the earthly fathers, the author doesn’t use the word for “scourge.” He uses the word for education and training. Even so, the author’s point about earthly fathers is to show that they train their children as part of their role as fathers of their legitimate children. This may include correction that the children may not like, but it’s supposed to teach them to avoid disobedience in the future.

The writer of Hebrews doesn’t speak of what earthly fathers do as an example to Christian parents. He’s telling us that if even earthly fathers chasten their children, we should expect our heavenly Father to chasten us. But the motives of each differ. Earthly fathers respond to disobedience. God’s discipline is to teach us the endurance of our faith through the things that we suffer.

Christian Parents

Nothing in Hebrews 12 negates the direct teachings to Christian parents in Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3. While earthly fathers chasten according as they deem best, we are to nurture our children through education and example in the Lord’s teachings and warnings. The Lord’s teachings center on love, faith, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. The Lord’s warnings are to those who don’t exercise those qualities. And we are not to provoke our children to anger or discouragement.

Treat Unregenerate Children as under the Law?

I’ve heard some people express the opinion that since our children are not regenerated, they should be treated as being under the law. This doesn’t hold water. Our children may not be regenerated, but we are. Thus, the implication from Scripture is that we should set the example of grace to our children. God has forgiven us our great sins, so we should not now harshly treat these little ones (see Matthew 18:21-35).

God’s love, mercy, and grace toward His children isn’t based on works (2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5). It is unconditional. We mustn’t leave our children with the impression that our love is a reward for good behavior.

Physically chastening children teaches them law over grace and retribution over forgiveness. They see our painful enforcement of a rule as what we consider most important. Spanking can teach children that the way to solve problems is through violence. On top of that, it risks provoking children to anger and discouragement, the very things we’re to avoid.

Of course, children need rules. But the rules should stem from love and grace and be founded upon Jesus Christ. Instead of ruling through fear, wouldn’t it be better to explain what is loving, what is not, and teach them the Golden Rule? “Treat others as you want them to treat you” (Matthew 7:12a, Contemporary English Version). “Nurture them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” by explaining to your children that your rules are based on the Golden Rule and that your commandment is Jesus’ commandment that we love one another (John 13:34; 1 John 3:23).

Just as God wants us to bring our needs, concerns worries, and hurts to Him in prayer, parents should maintain an atmosphere in which their children feel safe to discuss what’s on their minds with their parents. We can’t guarantee that our children are elect, but instructing them in the Gospel and treating them with grace will help them grow to become loving people.

My wife and I have three children, all sons. They are now grown men of whom we are immensely proud. But something we’re not proud of is that, when they were children, we spanked them in return for their disobedience. We began this when we were still in the Worldwide Church of God (which heavily emphasized corporal punishment for children), but we continued it even after we left. Although God had revealed His grace to us, we simply didn’t see the connection between the New Covenant and parenting. Now, however, if we had to raise children again, we would not spank them.

“But it’ll be chaos! How am I going to control them?” If you’re thinking that, I have news for you. Even if you spank your children, you’re not going to control them. They are separate people with unique and individual minds. Sure, you can turn your family into a dictatorship and rule by terror. But I don’t think you really want that! Lead benevolently by love. Cherish your children with the teachings and admonitions of Jesus. Show them how to be motivated by love rather than fear. Let them feel free to ask questions and talk about their problems.

Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart; and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30

But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceful, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

James 3:17-18

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