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The Society for the Promotion of Reformation in Government

Paper No. 7

Right to Smack?
A Christian Defence of Corporal Punishment

(1) Introduction to Corporal Punishment
(2) The Standard of Corporal Punishment
(3) The Proof for Corporal Punishment
(4) The Reasoning behind Corporal Punishment
(5) The Context of Corporal Punishment
(6) The Abuse of Corporal Punishment
(7) The Enemies of Corporal Punishment
(8) The Politics of Corporal Punishment
(9) Conclusion

(1) Introduction to Corporal Punishment [Top]

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has urged governments to ban all physical punishments of children. The Royal College of Paediatrics and 140 British organisations concerned with welfare have joined this call. But the British Government has continued to uphold the 'right to smack.' Thus the whole issue of corporal punishment is set to become one of the most controversial topics of modern times. Even among professing Christians there is no unanimity. Whether inside the church or out, opinion is roughly divided into 'traditionalist' and 'progressive' camps on the subject, the former being inclined to support corporal punishment while the latter are inclined to oppose it. But what is the truth of the matter? It is the contention of this paper to demonstrate that there is a good case for the legitimate use of corporal punishment on a Christian basis, and that all arguments to the contrary are inadequate.

(2) The Standard of Corporal Punishment [Top]

Is it legitimate to employ corporal punishment as a means of disciplining children for bad behaviour? The answer given to this question will be the result of a judgement made about the rightness or wrongness of corporal punishment. Such judgements are always made on the basis of some standard of behaviour. If corporal punishment is in conflict with this standard, then it will be considered to be wrong. Some might use other words, such as 'uncivilised,' 'useless' or even 'evil' but in each of these cases corporal punishment is still essentially thought of as morally unacceptable or wrong. If, on the other hand, corporal punishment is in harmony with this standard, then it will be considered to be right. Some use other words, such as 'permissible,' 'necessary' or even 'good' but on each of these cases corporal punishment is still essentially thought of as morally acceptable or right.

People employ various standards in order to make such a judgement. Some use the standards of reason and logic. But although these can inform as to how to think about corporal punishment, they can not inform as to what to think of it. Some use the standards of experience and observation. But although these can provide various facts and figures about corporal punishment, they can not tell us how to analyse them. Some use the standards of feeling and conscience. But although these can give us some moral sense as to whether corporal punishment is right or wrong, there is no justification for believing them or expecting that one person's feelings will be like another's.

For Christians, however, the standard they employ in making judgements about the rightness or wrongness of corporal punishment is the same standard that they employ in making judgements about the rightness or wrongness of everything else: the Christian Scriptures. This means that the Scriptures are the final or ultimate standard concerning all matters of faith and obedience in life. Also, it means that all other standards must be subordinated to or tested by Scripture. The Bible possesses a supremacy which no other source of knowledge possesses. It is possible for humans to learn about corporal punishment from other sources, such as reason, experience and conscience. These all can furnish us with some methods, ideas and judgements. Nevertheless, we should be confined to a meagre and doubtful view were these not confirmed, reinforced and supplemented by the surer and fuller revelations of Scripture. Further, Holy Scripture must be the source of our views to a degree and in a manner in which nothing else is. It is to be our ultimate standard and basic foundation for thinking about corporal punishment. Because of the existence of sin in the world, humans can only gather a true knowledge of it if they study their general knowledge in the light of Scripture. In Scripture, the elements of God's original creation order, which have been obscured and perverted by the blight of sin, are republished in a correctly interpreted form.

There are many benefits in employing the standard of the Bible when judging the issue of corporal punishment. Firstly, reason would be given content and logic and axiom from which to work out a coherent view of corporal punishment. Second, experience would be provided with a pattern outside itself by which the facts of observation could be interpreted. Third, conscience would have an objective gauge by which to measure whether its instincts and intuition are correct, and if they are not, to change them accordingly.

(3) The Proof for Corporal Punishment [Top]

Passages in the Scripture which teach the legitimacy of corporal punishment are not a few.

In the lips of him that hath understanding wisdom is found: but a rod is for the back of him that is void of understanding.

Proverbs 10:13

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

Proverbs 13:24

Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying.

Proverbs 19:18

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

Proverbs 22:15

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 shall deliver his soul from hell.

Proverbs 23:13-14

The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.

Proverbs 29:15

A common complaint against appealing to the use of such verses is that they are all from the Old Testament rather than the New. There are several problems with such an objection. Firstly, it forgets that the whole of the Bible is profitable for instruction, including the Old Testament (2 Timothy 3:16). Second, it forgets that God himself is unchangeable in His will and demands, a point the New Testament makes by quoting the Old (Psalm 102:25-27 & Hebrews 1:10-12). Third, it forgets that Christ endorsed the Old Testament laws about punishing incurably and violently rebellious youths (Matthew 15:4-6 & Mark 7:10- 13). Fourth, it forgets that another passage from Proverbs which mentions corporal punishment is actually repeated with favour by a New Testament author (Proverbs 3:11-12 & Hebrews 12:5-6). Finally, it forgets those New Testament passages which imply a physical or corporal element in the disciplining which Christians receive from God (John 15:2; I Corinthians 11:32; and Revelation 3:19).

(4) The Reasoning behind Corporal Punishment [Top]

It is possible to categorise punishments by the nature of the 'harm' they inflict on the offender. Firstly, there is punishment which brings harm to the free movement of the offender (e.g. prison, probation, house arrest, prohibitions from associating with certain persons). Second, there is punishment which brings harm to the property of the offender (e.g. restitution, fines, property forfeiture, restrictions on employment and licensing). Third, there is punishment which brings harm to the reputation of the offender (e.g. shaming, resignation). Fourth, there is punishment which brings harm to the body of the offender (e.g. corporal and capital punishment [1]). Fifth, there is punishment which brings harm to the mind of the offender (e.g. psychiatric therapy and psychological readjusting).

Of these five methods, the first two are the most familiar, usually taking the form of imprisonment or fines. Everyone would admit that both these methods of punishment are in no way suitable for children. The first is unsuitable for children because of their undeveloped personalities and the possibility of further corruption by association. The second is unsuitable because of the simple fact that children do not have the property, or sufficient appreciation of the value of property, for this to be any real punishment. A similar reason could be given for the unsuitableness of the third alternative. This leaves the final two options.

Of these last two options, those who oppose corporal punishment in contemporary society generally chose the latter. Proposed alternatives to corporal punishment tend to range from the futile (e.g. repetitive verbal rebukes), to the dishonourable (e.g. negotiate rewards with the child), to the downright silly (e.g. give 'golden stars' to the child for good behaviour). Because of this, parents are being encouraged to use various 'psychological' punishments instead, which are calculated to have some sort of remedial effect on the child (e.g. ignore the child, withdraw approval from the child, isolate the child). It is no great shock that our image-obsessed and body-conscious society would far rather inflict psychological punishment upon children than bodily correction. The body, at all times, should be respected and worshipped, after all (or so the thinking goes). Such thinking sends out a clear message to our children: physical pleasure is of far more worth than emotional well-being. This is a message they are quickly learning.

It is often argued against such reasoning that severe psychological harm is a necessary consequence of corporal punishment, causing shame, resentment and violent attitudes in the child. However, it should also be noted that bodily correction is, in the final analysis, far more humane than mental punishment. Firstly, bodily correction is more immediate in administration than mental punishment. Second, actual bodily correction lasts for a shorter period of time than mental punishment. Third, the obvious results of bodily correction are easier to heal and rectify than those caused by mental punishment. Fourth, bodily correction enjoys more success as a deterrent and a restraint against disobedience than mental punishment. Fifth, bodily correction employs concepts which are easier for a child to grasp than mental punishment. It is a great irony, but true nevertheless, that it is the humanist opponents of corporal punishment who care less about the well being of children than those who advocate it. Also, the psychological manipulation of a child as punishment is just as likely to turn children into manipulative adults as corporal punishment is to turn them into violent adults. [2]

(5) The Context of Corporal Punishment [Top]

It is of vital importance to understand that those who believe in the legitimacy of corporal punishment do not believe in corporal punishment alone. The common caricature of corporal punishment is the Victorian vision of a small child receiving a cruel whipping for having committed some minor misdemeanour. On top of this, this child is usually starved of the joys of family life or the benefit of humane relationships. It can not be stressed enough that corporal punishment may never be taken in isolation as the sole element in godly chastisement of children. There are at least three other elements which should always be involved.

Firstly, there is the element of consistent example. Parents serve as models of behaviour for their children, either for good or evil. This is because parents are the authority figures with which children are the most familiar, in their formative years. It is therefore natural that children take parents as standards by which to judge what correct behaviour is. Children are chastised when they see that their own behaviour falls short of or conflicts with the example of their parents, providing that the example of their parents is a good one. But whether it is good or evil, parental example is certainly extremely powerful, and as such should be practised with the greatest possible care and consistency. If properly and self-consciously employed, the discipline of parental example may extend for generations (e.g. 2 Timothy 1:5).

Second, there is the element of verbal communication. This is the most obvious and usual way to discipline a child. It may take several forms, none of which should be neglected. The child should receive regular instruction as to how to behave, and the reasoning behind why such behaviour is considered correct and necessary. No less important than this is encouragement, as the parent reassures the child as to its progress from previous performances, motivates the child on to further advancement, and provides whatever support may be required should goals not be reached. Finally, reproof will also be required when the behaviour of the child contradicts set rules and tasks. This might consist of a verbal rebuke and a warning about the results of further disobedience.

Third, there is the element of conspicuous affection. This is not usually thought of as a means of disciplining a child but it certainly is, and needs to be present. Kindness and forgiveness deliberately shown by a parent to a deviant child is one way of bringing out a sense of shame in the child and regret for its wicked behaviour. When a child is made painfully aware that it has hurt and offended a loving parent it may resolve the more not to act in such a way again. As corporal punishment essentially involves the parent causing pain to the child it means that the child will therefore not forever associate the concept of pain with the parent, but rather the concepts of authority, maturity and love.

It needs to be emphasised that not only are these three different elements of child discipline along with corporal punishment, but that they are the indispensable context of corporal punishment itself. Corporal punishment should never be administered unless it is done within the context of the presence of all three of these elements. First, the child should never be punished for behaviour either that the parent is consistently guilty of, or that the child has not been consistently punished for in the past. The 'do as I say, not as I do' mentality should be utterly rejected by all parents, as children are sensitive to partiality or hypocrisy in such matters. Second, the child should always be informed as to why it is being punished. Ignorance, or overtly nonsensical reasons such as 'because I said so,' only lead to resentment and further rebellion. Third, the child should be aware that it is being punished not because it is the object of the parent's hatred, but on the contrary, because it is loved. For this to be the case, the parent must be honest about his or her motives for using corporal punishment. Corporal punishment should never be administered for the emotional satisfaction of the parent rather than the moral good of the child. Also, it is important that there is a time for emotional reconciliation after punishment has been administered.

(6) The Abuse of Corporal Punishment [Top]

From what has been said above, it is clear that corporal punishment can be abused if not administered within the correct context. It should also be noted that corporal punishment can be, and indeed has been, abused in other ways too. For example, corporal punishment is abused if it is administered to punish mental inadequacy rather than foolishness. God has been pleased to give different intellectual gifts to different people. There is no case of blame or fault involved if a child is intellectually unable to perform a certain task at home or school. Therefore there should never be a case made for employing corporal punishment in such circumstances. Rather, the correct response is patience and encouragement. Also, corporal punishment is abused if not graduated in nature. Some acts of disobedience are clearly not as serious as others and so do not require the same degree of punishment. For instance, although the same principle is involved, the stealing of ten pence is not as serious as the stealing of ten pounds.

Some have argued that corporal punishment should be banned because of the fact that it can be abused. Various such 'slippery slope' types of argument are constantly pressed against corporal punishment. For example, it has been argued that if corporal punishment is started young then the degree of punishment administered will have to increase in scale as the child ages. This is a necessary 'slippery slope' which will end in excess and abuse. But this argument is self-defeating, for as the child matures, so does its tolerance to pain. It is true that the parent has to punish it in a more rigorous fashion to compensate for its age, but the very reason for this is that the child is able to withstand more. Also, as the child matures, the parent will not simply administer corporal punishment in an increasing amount, but will rather increasingly employ the methods of reason and freedom restriction as well and instead.

Another 'slippery slope' argument is that there are some 'worst case' obvious abuses of corporal punishment which cannot be denied. Unless corporal punishment as a whole is banned these will continue unchecked. But this is a ridiculous argument. It would be just as easy - probably easier! - to argue that because there have been 'worst case' abuses of power by politicians and policemen that therefore Parliament and Scotland Yard as a whole should be banned. The proper alternative to an abuse of power is to have that power checked, not demolished. Although parental power is more primary than that of politicians with regard to children it is nevertheless true and good that the crimes which bad parents sometimes commit against children should be punished by the magistrate with the same rigour that a magistrate would punish any other crime.

Others have argued not only that corporal punishment should be banned because it may be abused in some extreme cases, but more fundamentally, because any degree or sort of corporal punishment is abuse in the very nature of the case. This raises the fundamental issue of what constitutes 'child abuse' in the first place. Regarding corporal punishment, a child can be abused in two different ways. First, if corporal punishment is administered, it might not be administered properly. Second, if corporal punishment is required, it might not be administered at all. Both these faults constitute child abuse and cruelty, the first by distortion, and the second by neglect. Children were abused more in the first way in times past. Now it is the second form of abuse that is dominant. The only way for both excesses to be avoided is to follow the standard of the teaching of the Scriptures on the whole matter. Otherwise, it is as just to choose to lash a child with a whip for an hour for disobedience as it is to choose not to punish it at all. Otherwise, parents might arbitrarily choose whatsoever punishment they desired.

(7) The Enemies of Corporal Punishment [Top]

People who protest against corporal punishment often claim that they do so because it is not 'nice' or 'civilised.' However, it is important to realise that the foundational reason is their espousal of a particular philosophy about the education of children. [3] This philosophy will contain a view of the nature of the child and how knowledge is to be imparted to it. Three distinct philosophies dominate Modern non-Christian educational theories. These philosophies contain certain doctrines which imply, if not insist, that corporal punishment is always surplus to what is required, either at home or in the classroom. In fact, if these educational philosophies are correct, corporal punishment is positively evil. Every non-Christian teacher or parent always holds, implicitly or explicitly, to one of these three philosophies.

First, there is Rationalism. Rationalism believes that knowledge consists of simple facts, such as names, dates, numbers and words. Learning these facts is what education is. There is no question of interpretation or application, as all truth is objective and for its own sake. This might be associated with what is now called the 'traditional education.' It contained no definite view of punishment, except that it tended to treat academic inadequacy as a punishable offence in itself. It is perhaps because of this error that the tide has turned so much against the concept of corporal punishment per se.

Second, there is the philosophy of Romanticism. Romanticist education is characterised by attempts to maximise freedom for the development of the ability and creativity of the individual child. Children are to express themselves freely, work at their own pace and find their own level. Thus Romanticism not only rejects the use of corporal punishment, but also tends to deny the need for restraint altogether. Restraint or discipline really represents a repressive domination by the adult community - whether parent or teacher - of children. Children themselves are thought of as essentially good. To permit the idea of restraint is to admit that the child is not originally good. The role of education, both at home and in school, is to preserve the innocence and purity of childhood against the corrupting influences of its environment.

Against this, Christianity starts from the basis of the doctrine of original sin and total depravity. All human beings are inclined towards evil from the very beginning of their lives (Genesis 8:21; Psalm 51:5; 58:3; Ephesians 2:3). Thus there is corruption in the heart and mind of children as well as in their surroundings. These doctrines are part of orthodox Christianity. Moreover, the Scripture explicitly and repeatedly relates the doctrine of the sinfulness of the human race from conception to the need for corporal punishment. 'Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him' (Proverbs 22:15).

Third, there is the philosophy of Behaviourism. Leaning heavily on the theory of evolution, Behavioural philosophy sees education as a process in which the child has to learn and develop by interaction with its environment. Out of this struggle will come discovery and progress. The school is the principal place where children learn to explore and evolve as a social unit. It is the belief of Behaviourism that science has disproved religion, and that there are no ethical laws beyond that which is useful to the majority of humanity for its present evolution.

Behaviourism can provide no moral basis for punishment. Rather, it treats children as animals whose behaviour is to be 'treated' if deviant. This deviant behaviour can be 'treated' by punishments which may be cruel, but which are more likely to be trivial and ridiculous. Against this, Christianity believes in a definite moral standard which not only clearly defines that which is right and wrong, but indicates a variation in punishments according to the seriousness of the crime. Ordinarily, the discipline of a child may include warnings and encouragements, physical correction being used only as a last resort. Also, Christianity has as the goal of punishments not the social conditioning of children but the reformation of their characters for good. 'Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shall deliver his soul from hell' (Proverbs 23:13-14).

(8) The Politics of Corporal Punishment [Top]

The whole topic of corporal punishment is a highly political one. [4] This can be seen from a number of angles. Firstly, there is the matter of children's rights. The whole area of human rights is one of the most talked about topics of today. It is also one of the most confused. Everyone claims a right to something which contradicts some other group's presumed rights. For example, the right of a free press versus the individual's right to privacy, or, in the abortion debate, the right to life versus the right to choose. Christians believe that only God has absolute rights, being the creator and governor of the universe. As such, he has given various laws to humankind which we are to obey. These laws thus place upon us a responsibility, but each responsibility relates to a corresponding right. For instance, because we are commanded not to murder, we have a right to life, or because we have been commanded not to steal, we have a right to private property. Responsibilities and rights are balanced in subordination to the law of God.

This applies to corporal punishment as follows. It means that children have both responsibilities and rights with regard to how they are treated by their parents. For instance, they have a responsibility to obey their parents, but they have a corresponding right not to be abused by their parents (Colossians 3:20-21). To make it more specific, if a father has a responsibility to punish his children when they rebel, then the children have a right to receive such correction. From the perspective of the child, the punishment administered by the parent is God's means of keeping it on the path of wisdom and righteousness, and away from the path which leads to hell. When the child reaches maturity, it will thank God for using corporal punishment to keep it from self-destruction. To take away corporal punishment is to take away the right of the child to this means of restraint and instruction. It is to neglect the child's right rather than establish it.

Second, there is the matter of legitimate government. [5] There are three main social spheres: family, church and state. According to Christian teaching, each has its own form of limited government, particular function and jurisdiction within society. No sphere may seek to control the others, encroach upon the God- ordained authority of the others, or perform the legitimate roles of the others. The lawful function of the family is the raising of children including the provision of welfare and education; the unlawful reduction of all of life into the family is called 'Patriarchalism.' The function of the church is the ministry of God's word and the maintenance of the Christian public religious worship; the unlawful reduction of all of life into the church is called 'Ecclesiocentrism.' The function of the state is public justice; the unlawful reduction of all of life into the state is called 'Totalitarianism.' While the first of these was common in ancient times, and the second was dominant in medieval times, it is the third that is the problem today.

Who, then, is in charge of instructing and chastising children? Who has been given this duty in Scripture? In today's society it would seem as if the child belongs to the state, and as if the right to punish the child rested on the authority of the state. The teaching of the Scripture, however, is very different. The main, if not the sole, task of the state is with public justice or law and order within the nation (Romans 13:1- 6). The task of instructing children is given to the parents of the children. Parents are to provide for their children (2 Corinthians 12:14), train their children (Ephesians 6:4), govern their children (1 Timothy 3:4, 12), and love their children (Titus 2:4). Just as the family government has no right to neglect any of these responsibilities, so the civil government has no right to perform any of these tasks.

Finally, there is the matter of civil disobedience. This is a problem which has to be faced if the two points sketched above are correct. First, it was argued that it is a parent's responsibility to give and a child's right to receive corporal punishment. Second, it was argued that the civil authorities have no responsibility or right to dictate otherwise. But what if they do? What if it comes to the point where corporal punishment, in all forms, both in the home and in the school, is banned and made illegal? Christians have different views on this question of civil disobedience. Some hold that we should submit to the authorities in all things, while others emphasise the subordination of the authorities to God's law. Whatever the case, all Christians are agreed on the truth that whatever God commands must always be our duty, regardless of the circumstances. Therefore, if it is the commandment of God that we use corporal punishment upon our children, and if the civil government forbids us from so doing, our attitude should be like that of the apostles who said, 'We ought to obey God rather than men' (Acts 5:29).

(9) Conclusion [Top]

Although the debate over corporal punishment is an increasingly fierce one, Christians should take hope in two facts. Firstly, Christians have a standard and blueprint to consult on the discipline of children: the Bible. Second, the Bible provides clear and authoritative instruction to the effect that the administration of corporal punishment is a definite Christian duty. As well as this, it is not difficult to show how the argument for corporal punishment properly administered is extremely reasonable, and that arguments to the contrary are faulty in philosophy and logic.

Enemies of the Christian discipline of corporal punishment exist in the spheres of education and politics. The former should be opposed by the establishing of independent Christian schools. [6] The latter should be challenged by individual prayer, relevant public sermons, letters of concern and articles of instruction in the newspapers, the organised lobbying of politicians, and the formation of groups to inform and unify such activities (such as SPRING). Peaceful action is required now, while there is still time. If no action is taken, the currently decreasing liberty we enjoy to raise our children according to Christian ideals will soon be a thing of the past. Then, the only choice of action left to faithful Christian parents will be disobedience to God, or jail.

[1] See Paper No. 5 Capitalising on God's Law: A Christian Defence of Capital Punishment, [here] published by SPRING.

[2] The reasoning here is extremely generous. In fact, the psychological manipulation of a child as punishment is far more likely to turn children into manipulative adults than corporal punishment is to turn them into violent adults. Why? There are civil laws and punishments to serve as impediments against violent actions, but none to check manipulative behaviour.

[3] See Paper No. 6 Integrated Education and the Christian Alternative, [here] published by SPRING, for a brief explanation of the Christian philosophy of education.

[4] For the place of politics in the life of the Christian, see Paper No. 1 First Principles - A Christian View of Everything, [here] published by SPRING.

[5] For a Christian vision of civil government, see Paper No. 2 Jesus Is Lord: A Christian Critique of Pluralism, published by SPRING.

[6] See Paper No. 6 Integrated Education and the Christian Alternative, [here] published by SPRING.

Copyright SPRING August 1999

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