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