Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Rod

I have been a bit schizophrenic concerning this post—putting it up, taking it down, and putting it back up. I hesitated to post it because I hate conflict, and I fear being labeled and misunderstood. I have found this particular topic oddly polarizing. But the issue has been on my heart for a while, and I think I need to post it. I hope it leads to thoughtful conversation not polarizing accusation. So here goes (again).

I’ve been reading an author that I will not name (because he’s not the point of this post) who has written a GREAT book on Christian parenting. I love the book and have underlined many things in it. But after much encouraging, helpful instruction, I got to a chapter about The Rod. The author quotes Scripture like Proverbs 13:24, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” Then he defines “rod” as restrained physical punishment and uses this verse to say those who do not spank their children (with restraint—he is careful to set up safeguards against angry retribution) are in sin.

I’m not sure if it is a weakness or strength, but I am a bit obsessive compulsive about correcting misuses of Scripture. After various experiences in my youth in which I blindly trusted whatever a spiritual leader said only later to find out that the Bible actually taught something entirely different, I am now a bit militant about sizing up what I hear from whatever religious leader today against Scripture itself. People say some crazy things and claim it is Bible, but I will NOT give up my belief that Scripture from start to finish, when accurately handled, is exactly what God meant to say and infinitely useful for equipping us in everything we face today.

All that to say, I cannot figure out Biblically why this author assumes the use of the term rod in Proverbs means physical punishment. I keep thinking of Psalms 23: 4, “Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” No one assumes the use of the term rod in Psalms 23 means physical punishment, right? The Shepherd isn’t spanking the sheep. If Psalms 23 said the Good Shepherd does not spare the rod, would we assume that He is hitting the sheep? I wouldn't. And it’s the same Hebrew word as Prov. 13:24. The Psalmist is comforted by God as his shepherd, symbolized by the shepherding rod and staff. He is comforted that there is someone walking with him in authority over him protecting him, guiding him, and leading him. If the Shepherd spared the rod, it would mean He has removed His hand of protection and instruction from the sheep. While I definitely see Scripture in which the term rod is used in conjunction with the idea of physical punishment (the verses always use a clear indicator of the intent), there is nothing inherent in the Hebrew definition that implies physical punishment. And there are many ways the term rod is used in Scripture that have nothing to do with physical punishment.

My study so far shows me that the Bible doesn’t forbid spanking children …

Proverbs 23:13 Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.


… but I don’t see where it prescribes spanking either. Let’s take the example of Proverbs 22:15, another verse often used to say the Bible prescribes spanking.

15Folly is bound up in the heart of a child,
but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.


The Hebrew words are the shebet of muwcar, meaning the rod/staff/scepter of discipline/instruction/correction. I fully agree with this verse and seek to conform my parenting strategies to it. God says I have a shepherding staff to guide my little sheep who will veer off in their own ignorance and folly if I ignore my responsibility. He has tasked me with guiding them and my figurative staff is discipline. We defined discipline in a previous post as proactive training in righteousness. (If you haven’t read that post, please read it and the comments that follow before finishing this one as this post builds on those foundational thoughts.) I discipline my children, instruct them, and correct them to teach them wisdom in the place of folly. God wants me to be like Him—to use the same shepherding rod and staff that comfort me in Psalms 23 to train my children in righteousness. I am not dogmatically opposed to spanking, but I think it is a gross leap in logic to use this verse in Proverbs to justify or command spanking. The term rod implies shepherding authority and accountability. God says that I have an obligation to engage my boys with my God-given shepherding authority over them. I cannot cop out and disengage. My sister and I just had a discussion about her temptation to be a lazy single parent, but though it would be much easier to cop out and let her boys do whatever they want all day, she knew she had a God-given obligation to shepherd them—to engage them, instruct them, reprove them, support them, redirect them, and so forth.

I was raised in the South and understand well the concept of spanking. I now live in the Pacific Northwest and understand well the views against spanking. My point actually is not to lobby for or against it—people can get really militant on both sides. I just want us to accurately understand what Scripture says on the topic and what it means by the use of the term rod. Do not read the “rod of discipline” and translate it as spanking. When you read “rod of discipline”, think shepherding staff that trains in righteousness. If spanking is your primary tool for doing that, I encourage you to expand your toolbox.

For me, this means thinking long and hard every time I discipline my boys about what God instructs me to do in that moment. My tendency is to be a hands off parent, but God has called me to proactively engage them. My lazy parenting is a sin according to Proverbs 13:24. Just this week, I have looked at my boys in the midst of a conflict and thought, how does God discipline His children? How do I reflect the image of Christ in my responses to these boys? How do I train them in righteousness in gospel-centered ways using my God-given authority as their parent? I am not there yet, but just meditating on what this should look like in my home has been a beautiful time of reflection on how my Father in heaven parents me. I encourage you that if you want to understand God’s instructions to you and I as parents concerning the rod in Proverbs, first meditate on His own example to us in Psalms 23 for a bit.

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.
4 Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
forever.

23 comments:

  1. I am glad you posted it. I think too often that we swallow the whole package of what someone teaches - getting to a child's heart while disciplining is certainly better than simply advertising a behavior modification plan for children. However, we as parents need to look to the Lord first for our guidance, not to a person's "formula." I agree that the rod (as in the spanking rod) is often proclaimed as the Christian parents first and primary tool of discipline. All too often young parents swallow the teaching without examining the Bible for themselves. We want a formula! And formulas just don't work in relationships. Anyhow, I'm very much still processing much of the "standard Christian parenting" jargon, and wondering how much has any validity for our family.
    Have you dealt with/thought about the line that says that we represent Jesus to our kids?

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  2. Thanks for the comment, Carole! I haven't heard much talk about representing Jesus to our kids. However, it's an intriguing idea.

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  3. I would be interested in how you would interpret Hebrews 12. Verse 11 describes discipline as "painful".

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  4. P.S. And that passage (Hebrews 12: 4-11 also speaks of God's discipline of us. I don't see that looking at Psalm 23 gives us a comprehensive view of the way that God deals with us.

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  5. The represent Jesus thing actually bothers me but I'm not really sure if it should or not. Look at it in this context (towards the very end of the post): http://takeyourvitaminz.blogspot.com/2009/05/some-helpful-parenting-advice.html

    Also, I love Tim Keller's sermon series on Joseph, in which he discusses the discipline of the Lord in Joseph's life. He says God uses just the right mixture of frost and sun to make Joseph "crack," or to work a contrite heart into him. That is what I think of when I read Hebrews 12's "painful."

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  6. Yes, discipline is many times painful--physically and/or emotionally. I can't post the link here to my chapter on God's discipline of His children from my book. But if you go to the book on Crossway's website (www.crossway.org), you can read chapter 8 for free. I may post an excerpt later.

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  7. Hi Wendy - I love reading your blog, and I often share your blog on my facebook page.

    Psalm 23:4. There is a lot that can be said on this. My understanding of this is that the sheep (us) are comforted by the rod and the staff, in the following ways. The staff is easy, it normally had a hook on it, and was used for pulling sheep out of bog, and thorn bushes etc. The rod is a little more difficult. I think the comfort that comes from the rod, is the comfort of knowing that God will discipline us as needed, for our own good. (as well as using it to fight off the wolves that come and attack us), He is God (the shepherd), he knows where we need to go to lay down in green pastures, and where the still waters are located. When we stray off track, a tap on the rump with his rod, will help to get us back in line, and on track again. I think the same principle applies to parenting.

    Yes the Psalmist is comforted by God's protection and guidance and authority, but also is comforted in the fact that he will put us back on the straight and narrow when we when have strayed.

    There is a huge difference between discipline and punishment. Read anything by Paul and Tedd Tripp about discipline is not punitive.

    Now you are right in saying, that it is not a sin to withhold spanking form your child. As parents, we have to decide the best form of discipline for our children, this may or may not include a spanking.

    The point of all discipline is restoration to the place where God wants them to be. It is about pointing them to Jesus, rather than having obedient children. Obedience is a by-product of a heart that is fixed on Jesus.

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  8. Thanks for reading and posting, Greg.

    And note to self--do not write an article on parenting unless you are fully prepared to be tested in every way possible by your children in the next 12 hours. :-)

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  9. P. S. Carole, the end of your link got cut off.

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  10. Ok. I read it, Carole, and I am uncomfortable with that wording as well. I am being conformed to the image and example of Christ and that is core to how I understand gospel-centered parenting. But we have to think deeply through our Christology to make consistent, appropriate application.

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  11. Wendy,
    Great insight. I did blindly follow Christian leaders and writers in this area of the "rod". They did use the term as spanking etc. It is always difficult as a parent to apply physical discipline in a loving manner & not out of anger. I did use spanking sparingly, but must confess it was always out of my anger, which is sin. You have provoked a lot of thought and I appreciate your blog. Now that my children are grown ~ & praise God serve and love Him ~ I now have a granddaughter and want to be an example of Christ to her. I will continue to pray and meditate on your insights.
    Blessings to you.

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  12. Wendy, I love your openness and humility as well as the content of your thoughts. Thanks for this. Have you ever read A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by Philip Keller? It's a really neat look - more practical than exegetical - at that psalm from a guy who was a shepherd in Africa for several years. He talks in detail about what the rod and the staff mean as tools of a real-life shepherd.


    Amy G.

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  13. Amy, I read that in college way too many years ago. I thought I had a copy but can't find it now. You're right--that should offer good insight.

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  14. Hi Wendy, thanks for sharing. I am so grateful for the wisdeom God gives you and am encourage to learn more rather than passively taking in information. I know we talked about this a few weeks ago, I am excited to show Tim as we are working through the decisions of what dicipline looks like in our home.

    In terms of reaching a child's heart, for example our 17 month old, and wanting to teach him first as you discussed and then restore, I sometimes feel like at this age, it's pointless. I know it's wrong, but do you have pracitcal applications for this? Thanks Wendy ;)

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  15. Thanks for commenting, Stephenny! It's hard when they are that little. My encouragement to you is that you are just sowing seeds right now. I think it's ok to use the words (in the most simplistic form possible) even if they don't understand yet. They'll still get the big idea over time. At least that's what I'm counting on!!

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  16. I know the book in question and agree absolutely - great book, lots of helpful stuff, but a misuse of the Bible at this point (and some others, but we won't go into this now! I'll be reviewing the book on my blog sometime, I hope!).

    I agree with you that Proverbs does make it clear that the Bible doesn't condemn physical discipline, but that Proverbs doesn't command it either.

    I'm also uncomfortable with the use of Proverbs as a source of absolute rules when it's a collection of wise reflection on life rather than promises and rules - see Tim Chester's comments on Proverbs. I reflected on this issue here and here.

    There's also a broader issue - e.g. when the Bible talks about "head coverings" for women we look for the principle underlying this (authority and submission) rather than the cultural practice. So whatever the "rod" means, the point of the proverb is not that we have to use an actual "rod", or even we have to use physical discipline (although we also shouldn't say it's necessarily harmful), but that we have to be careful to discipline our children.

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  17. "I just want us to accurately understand what Scripture says on the topic and what it means by the use of the term rod. Do not read the “rod of discipline” and translate it as spanking."

    Thank you! I must admit, it very much troubles me when in our GNAP* thinking, we automatically see "rod" or "discipline" and translate it to "spanking." That is reading our culture/subculture into the Bible, rather than carefully exegeting Scripture.



    *Generic North American Protestantism

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  18. I am a father of two beautiful godly children a 10 year old boy and a 12 year old girl. Physical discipline has been a useful tool in their upbringing. Although physical discipline is not the only way to discipline a child it may be necessary and right to do so when the child lacks understanding of consequences or does not respect any other form of discipline. Children are different and physical discipline is not always the right answer for every issue but I believe it is necessary for every child to understand physical discipline and that it is an option that may be used when necessary. Discipline with out love and understanding may produce obedience but it will not produce the fruit in their heart that hopefully you would be trying to teach them. One of my friends that I look to for wisdom council who has many children ranging from infancy to early 20’s. He had the obedience of his oldest children through strict discipline but he did not have their heart and when he was not present they would misbehave. As soon as they were old enough they moved out and rebelled. In gaining wisdom he has tempered discipline with greater love, grace, and instruction so his children will gain understanding in righteousness which should be the goal of all discipline. I have also seen the folly in threatening physical discipline and not following through or not being firm enough to be effective. The child doses not respect the parent or the discipline.

    It is a tendency in our society when something is wrong to overcompensate to try to make it right. Such is the case in issues such as affirmative action and child abuse. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Some believe In order to eradicate child abuse all physical discipline must be done away with altogether.I believe to fully understand scripture you must study all scripture has to say on a subject because translation dose not always give the right understanding. So I appreciate this opportunity to study especially this particular subject as I believe it is very important in raising godly children. In an attempt to try to understand discipline and the rod, references have been made that relate the rod to guidance or protection using other scripture.
    The rod has many uses in this case guiding sheep, protecting sheep, and disciplining children. And I would assume in guiding sheep a gentile nudge with the rod helped the sheep to go in the right direction. And probably sometimes a not so genital nudge.

    God also gives clarification in Proverbs of the rod and discipline which has been quoted in the original post. Proverbs 23:13 Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.
    God would not have instruction us to use the rod in this way if it was not good.

    We must resist though it’s hard to try to reconcile the word of God to our own thoughts or feeling. Being a Christian trying to be Christ like is the hardest thing I have ever tried to do. Not what I want, but what he asks of me through his word.

    In researching another topic I came across this site and was curious about the thoughts on this topic. I have never posted on a blog before or wrote anything else for that matter but I felt led to lend my thoughts. God bless and may he give those who seek the truth of his word wisdom and understanding beyond our ability.

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  19. I am unsure of my understanding of "rod." Like another commenter, I have heard the comforting rod also described as the shepherd's form of discipline.

    Regardless, I think it's accurate to say that a good parent does not neglect discipline- whatever that may mean. I've been a parent for a total of 7 mos, so clearly I'm no expert! (we haven't even gotten down to any real disciplining yet!) But I definitely am open to the concept of spanking- with very specific boundaries. Spanking is not the same as hitting a child out of anger, and is only beneficial when it suits the child, the situation, the age. There are so many factors that come into play. I know that I was spanked very infrequently as a child because I was very sensitive, emotional and logical. I was more thoroughly disciplined by words that made me understand my actions and be ashamed for them. Spanking didn't do as much. But up until the point of understanding? Perhaps in the midst of a tantrum? I don't see a problem at all, as long as one keeps one's motives in check.

    Your blogposts always make me think, Wendy.

    -Liz

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  20. Hi Wendy, I was googling around for different perspectives on "the rod" and found this post. Then I noticed the widget in the sidebar with PTfW- on my nightstand right now, actually! Regarding rods, here in the Middle East the shepherds use them on camels... and they just allow goats to wander wherever they want. :) Thanks for this post!

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  21. I read a book once, "A Shepherd Looks At The 23rd Psalm", it is a wonderful book, and talks at length about the rod and staff used by the shepherd in guiding and correcting the sheep. The rod helps to guide the sheep through the paths and rocks and such, and the staff is often used to turn and lift the sheep out of areas where they fell in and such. My words are not as good as the author's words...but basically he made the point in his book that the shepherd does not beat his sheep, he provides food, water, and makes them take periods of rest. He provides places of comfort, peace and safety. He guides them with the rod, and at times will have to use the staff (curled end) to lift, pull, and turn a sheep...but never does he beat his sheep. They are important and loved by the shepherd. He further used the example, as Christ did, that the Shepherd represents Jesus and the sheep represent us humans who are hard headed, stubborn and rebellious at times. I am not a theologian, but I did learn alot from this book...Thanks..

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  22. Thanks for the post. I have a 15 month old, so we're just venturing into how to train up our child. It's helpful to hear a different perspective on the rod!

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