The Pope was recently criticised for encouraging fathers to spank their children. Peter Saunders, the head of Britain's National Association for People Abused in Childhood said, "Children don't need to be hit. We need to talk about positive parenting ... physical violence has no part in modern-day child upbringing". I think this view is profoundly wrongheaded.
Abuse gets the headlines but passivity is the silent killer of fatherhood
Of course, Saunders' use of the words "hit" and "physical violence" is loaded. However, the loss of spanking in the home has had catastrophic effects on the family and society. Equally catastrophic is the equivalence to abuse that opponents of biblical corporal discipline make. In other words, if you spank your child, it is unnecessary violence. This is a reactionary worldview against true misuse of authority. Therefore through fear of being considered authoritarian or abusive, and in a capitulation to culture, husbands and fathers abdicate the responsibility to assume and exercise biblical authority. Abuse gets the headlines but passivity is the silent killer of fatherhood.
So the loss of spanking is symptomatic of something far deeper: a loss of authority in the home, which corresponds to a loss of biblical fatherhood. Men are afraid and men are passive. When that happens the home becomes a democracy where those under authority are not disciplined, are given equal voice and in the end become the decision makers. We then see children who don't respect authority because they have never been trained by their fathers to do so.
The Bible, not personal experience is our guide to the validity of spanking
When you appeal to your own subjective experience and not to objective truth you do what is right in your own eyes. I was spanked as a child and I spanked my own children. I loved and respected my father, and my children love and respect me for disciplining them this way. Some people were never disciplined like this and others were victims of physical abuse. We all bring different experiences to the table.
There has always and will always be misuse of authority, but biblical authority is a good thing created and designed by God for the flourishing of his creation. So Adam and Eve were to rule and subdue and have dominion (Genesis 1:28). Husbands are heads in the home, with authority over their wives (Ephesians 5:23). Parents, and especially fathers, are called to bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4).
This includes corporal discipline for children. A reaction against spanking ignores the biblical premise that "Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him" (Proverbs 13:24). So we have a generation of children who are left undisciplined and unloved. Yes, it is un-loving not to spank your children when required.
Children are not born wise, they are born sinners. Children need boundaries. It is good for them to know that if they cross them there is a consequence. When they are young that consequence is sometimes a short sharp administration of pain through spanking. It should be precipitated by warning and accompanied by teaching, but if necessary it must be done.
God, the Father, disciplines (spanks) his children
The reason many people find spanking offensive is because their view of God is wrong. The writer of Hebrews gives us a picture of God as a father who brings suffering into the lives of his children, as an act of loving discipline. A few points from the passage:
(i) God disciplines all his children. "For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives." (Hebrews 12:6). God corrects his children and he does it with "every son". In fact discipline is evidence that you are a child of God, "If you are left without discipline in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons" (Hebrews 12:8). Discipline is a good thing. It is a bad thing if it is absent from the life of a Christian. God's discipline actually displays his love.
(ii) God's discipline has purpose: it trains for holiness and righteousness. "...But he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12: 10-11). God's discipline of his children is not vengeful. Mercy governs his attitude. He owes us punishment but instead trains us for purity.
(iii) God's discipline is painful, but temporary and necessary."For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant," (Hebrews 12: 11).It always seems unpleasant and painful at the time, but it is also necessary. Therefore,God's children are also commanded to endure his discipline. "It is for discipline that you have to endure" (Hebrews 12:7). We can be tempted to lose focus on the purpose of discipline so this is an encouragement to keep going through it.
(iv) God's discipline is the model for human fathers disciplining their children. "God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?... Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them..." (Hebrews 12: 7, 9). So understanding the Fatherhood of God rightly is the key to understanding biblical fatherhood.
Spanking is not anti- Gospel
The painful discipline of our heavenly Father is not anti-gospel and so the painful discipline of spanking our children is not anti-gospel. Spanking is redemptive not punitive, and it is the attitude of the father that governs this. Christ appeases God's wrath on the cross, so his discipline is never done in vengeance and anger but in holy love. And so it must be with earthly fathers. Fathers then model the character of God to their children when they practise corporal discipline.
Also, the gospel is the motivator for fathers to take the lead in wisely and consistently spanking their children whenever needed. Fathers must discipline in an age appropriate way, and simultaneously they must explain what they are doing and why in an age appropriate way. Remember that each child is different and needs different degrees of discipline, but the gospel shows us that sin is the biggest problem every child has; that God hates sin; that Christ died for sinners and wrath rests on all those who will not take him as their Lord and Saviour.
Pointing your child to a holy, loving heavenly Father and the merciful saving work of Christ his Son is the ultimate aim of spanking. God is the one true authority fathers are training their children to love and obey. The aim is heart change not simply behaviour modification. Spanking serves salvation and sanctification.
The loss of spanking is not "positive parenting": it is poor parenting. Moreover, the loss of spanking is indicative of a loss of true manhood. At its root, it is a failure of fatherhood. We need to recover a biblical view of God so that passive, paralysed fathers will stop being shaped by cultural views of masculinity, and embrace biblical fatherhood, and exercise loving authority for the sake of the gospel and their children.
Gavin Peacock is pastor of Calvary Grace Church, Calgary, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @GPeacock8.