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I’ve received several messages from readers who join me in opposition to violent discipline but claim that the Bible’s use of “rod” has been misinterpreted by fundamentalists—that it is really something shepherds use to guide sheep, or to measure them, or to simply keep them in line, and that this is what is being advocated for children as well. That’s the approach of the (excellent) Christian parenting author Dr. William Sears. If that approach dissuades a few more people from spanking, that’s a good thing.

The problem with the argument from scriptural misinterpretation is that the other side simply says, “No, you’ve misinterpreted,” and no real progress is made. It’s one of the main reasons scriptural arguments are ineffective: someone else simply says, “No, hate once meant love,” and we’re at a standoff.

Better to take a moment to establish how a given word is used in context than say what we’d prefer it to mean. In this case, the Bible does quite clearly advocate violence against children. Though there are rare exceptions (Psalm 23), the rod of the Bible seems quite clearly to be an instrument of smiting, beating, and whipping:

Exodus 21:20
And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod…

Exodus 17:5
…and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand, and go.

Numbers 20:11
…with his rod he smote the rock twice…

2 Samuel 7:14
If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod

Job 21:9
Their houses are safe from fear, neither is the rod of God upon them.

Proverbs 13:24
He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.

Proverbs 22:15
Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.

Proverbs 23:13-14
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.

Proverbs 26:3
A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool’s back.

Isaiah 9:4
For thou hast broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor…

Isaiah 10:24
Be not afraid of the Assyrian: he shall smite thee with a rod

Isaiah 14:29
Rejoice not thou, whole Palestina, because the rod of him that smote thee is broken

Isaiah 30:31
For through the voice of the LORD shall the Assyrian be beaten down, which smote with a rod.

Lamentations 3:1
I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath.

Ezekiel 7:11
Violence is risen up into a rod of wickedness

Micah 5:1
they shall smite the judge of Israel with a rod upon the cheek.

I Corinthians 4:21
What do you desire? Shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness?

2 Corinthians 11:25
Thrice was I beaten with rods…

Now seriously: Is the Biblical rod for leading, or for beating?

The fact that in addition to slavery, misogyny, and lots of other unfortunate things, the Bible does indeed clearly advocate beating children gives us one less reason to accept this deeply-flawed book as any sort of post-medieval moral guide—and that realization can represent genuine moral progress.

Once we dismiss the Bible decisively as any sort of useful moral compass, we can shake the cobwebs from our heads and turn to the growing body of research that shows spanking to be both ineffective and the source of ten specific negative developmental outcomes.

Editorial misconduct

Here is a very nice article by a Christian parent who decided to stop spanking. The editor found it necessary to add this irritating caveat:

Editor’s Note: For many Christian parents, there may be no more contentious subject than spanking. Parents on both sides of the issue find themselves constantly needing to defend their choice to other parents. To make matters more confusing, Christian parenting experts have come down on each side of the conversation, often using the same passages of Scripture to make opposite points. But in the end, every family must prayerfully seek God’s leading as they decide which discipline methods are most effective in shaping the character of each of their children.

The following article reflects one couple’s decision to stop using spanking as a method of discipline. We recognize that other families will have other experiences and we invite you to share your ideas and opinions on this subject in our online chat area.

Note that (unlike the article itself), reason is kept out of the ethical picture. Consult the Bible. If that’s unclear, pray. It is far better to encourage and develop moral judgment than to simply jump from one questionable authority to another.

More on James Dobson

Excerpts from The New Dare to Discipline by James Dobson.

“My primary purpose … has been to record for posterity my understanding of the Judeo-Christian concept of parenting that has guided millions of mothers and fathers for centuries.” p. 18

“You have drawn a line in the dirt, and the child has deliberately flopped his bony little toe across it. Who is going to win? Who has the most courage? Who is in charge here? If you do not conclusively answer these questions for your strong-willed children, they will precipitate other battles designed to ask them again and again.” p. 21

“Spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause genuine tears.” p. 35

Dobson recommends painful squeezing of the trapezius muscle on the neck to obtain “instant obedience.” p. 36

Dobson recommends using switches and paddles to hit children. p. 64

Dobson recommends starting whipping at age 15-18 months, and adds “there is no magical time at the end of childhood when spanking becomes ineffective.” p. 65

Dobson advises parents to hit toddlers when the toddler “hits his friends.” p. 66

If a child cries more than a few minutes after being spanked, hit the child again. p. 70

[Thanks to Dogemperor for this research.]

Sample of warnings by SOME churches telling parents they MUST spank

Corporal punishment instruction pamphlet issued by Bethel Christian Academy in El Sobrante CA includes the lovely paragraph “Parents who do not practice corporal punishment are depriving their children of the only method God says produces wisdom, and risk directly opposing God’s will.”

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.