A time to coax and a time to cudgel (pt. 1)

Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him. {Proverbs 22:15, ESV}

I take it as a truism that a generation (or two?) ago the Christian consensus on Prov 22:15 understood “the rod of discipline” to mean corporal punishment (i.e. spanking). I don’t know whether we could point to a Christian consensus today but I do know that, for various reasons, spanking is not as prevalent as it once was. My father use to tell us how my grandmother would send him outside to requisition the switch she would then use for his painful correction, and can I still remember a paddle hanging on my (maternal) grandparents’ wall in Maryland with a rhyme that went something like: Appeal to the intellect, Appeal to the Pride, When all else fails, Apply to the hide.

But times change and the spirit of the age incessantly seeks to shape the Christian mind. The serious Christian knows he must respond to verses like Prov 22:15 if he is to abandon the prudence of physical discipline with any legitimacy. The only recourse for such a conscientious objector is to demonstrate that phrases like “the rod of discipline” are misinterpreted by advocates of corporal punishment which brings us to the point of this post.

A young mom who, along with her husband I’m sure, is “not considering doing away with the belt” has questions about how to defend the position that spanking is biblical. The counter-argument that she’s encountered runs something like: (a) “the rod” in Prov 22:15 refers to a shepherd’s staff or stick (b) the rod/staff was used to pull/direct/coax sheep back into position but not to inflict painful punishment and/or (c) the rod/staff was used to strike and fend off predators but never to strike the sheep themselves.

Coax or cudgel–which is biblical? I’ll try to address this on multiple fronts (in multiple posts) but let me conclude here by observing that even if we limit ourselves to Proverbs, the Bible has more to say concerning discipline than just what we find in 22:15. How might these additional proverbs shape our understanding of the intended meaning of 22:15?

13:24 Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.

19:18 Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death.

23:13-14 Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.

29:15 The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.

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Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Associate pastor for education at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian and theological Luddite. A student of one book.

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