Corporal Punishment

Pastor Matthew Watson

November 8, 2018

It’s out of style. Corporal punishment, that is, is out of style. And maybe for good reason. I still remember my parents using a belt (shhh, don’t tell the authorities!), my coach throwing halftime clothing hangers at underperforming players, a principal using a paddle on behinds, and my grandparents keeping an infamous ‘switch’ nearby for punishment. There’s an old saying, “spare the rod, spoil the child.” Of course, beating kiddos should never be in style. But corporal punishment need not be confused with abuse. 


A school in Georgia recently brought it back (with prior parental written consent); however, corporal punishment has nearly been eliminated from school administrative lexicons. There are studies that purport to show behavior can be effectively modified without whoopins’! I do wonder if we’ve lost something here—that is, the ability to tell and be told…a… flat…out… “No!” I’d like to share a few biblical insights about the “rod” of punishment for good in the Christian life. 


1. Jesus’ apostles were willing to bring a tense tone when needed


The word to the Corinthians church went like this: 


“I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Co. 4:19–21).


Gentleness was not effective. Arrogance described members. 


Jesus’s apostle gives them a choice between a harder or softer approach. If they self-correct the obvious immaturities among them (e.g., tolerating immorality, greed and tribalism), He will come with gentle love. If not, he will come with a tenser tone. Note that Jesus’ leadership never ruled out the option of a “rod.” He kicked over money changing tables and spoke tensely to Pharisees that tried to trap Him. Jesus didn’t likely use a literal rod during His first coming (though He will punish the unbelievers upon His second coming). But Jesus did use a metaphoric rod at His first coming—a tone of direct address. No one likes a tense tone. But wise leaders don’t rule it out! 


2. There is a time mere talk will not do the job. 


No doubt, as a preacher of the gospel and a full-time expositor of biblical texts, I value talk. 


However, I do not value mere talk. 


Imagine a parent of a wayward four-year-old little boy. The little boy knows not to walk close to the road; however, he keeps inching closer and closer. You’ve tried everything you know to do but he’s just not taking you seriously. He’s not responding to mere talk. You hardly ever have to use the rod, but this little boy needs to know you will. 


There needs to be a precedent set that the level of the tenser tone, the rod, is an option for a parent. “Little Johnny, don’t go any closer to the road,” can only be asserted so many times in so many tones of voice before the wayward boy receives the board of education, the rod of discipline. Why? 


Proximate danger awaits at the level of getting hit by a car passing down the road. More remote danger awaits in raising an undisciplined, rebellious, angry and unloved child who rejects any form of authority. Yes, I wrote, unloved. Why? Because it’s unloving to unleash a little heathen on society. Little boys grow up to man-sized bodies. They need to grow into man-sized morals and ethics. Love for your fellow citizens and your family and the child himself commands you to not spare the rod. Sometimes mere talk must be followed with corporal punishment—for love’s sake! 


3. Reserving the rare right to use the ‘rod’ is a great way to express your love for your child! 


The Word of God exhorts, “If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from ‘hell’” (Proverbs 23:14). Punishment with a metaphoric rod remains a loving category of corrective discipline. In fact, there’s no son that the Father doesn’t discipline (Hebrews 12:7). I don’t mean to turn this article into an apologetic for spanking your children. I do mean to write this article in defense of tenser-when-necessary tones in calling for behavior modification. There are times that those in authority must not only have the trump-card in discipline but are also willing to use it. The President of the United States doesn’t have the political football because he anticipates actually using it, but he does have it as a deterrent. There are far more appropriate and incremental steps a President can use prior to touching the so-called nuclear codes, but there is a nuclear option. In positions of authority, there is an obligation to maintain certain decorum, certain mores, certain behavioral standards. To ignore such a responsibility is to sully the position of authority you’ve been entrusted. 


This is never more true than in the church. 


For love of the member, for the good of the little ones, and for righteous witness to the world, church leaders must be willing to bring the metaphoric rod (that is, church discipline) of correction in rare occasions (1 Co. 4:21). 


I think, in context, the church forfeits its power when it won’t—kind of like how well-intentioned parents forfeit their power to shape their children when they won’t. We are well-intentioned, but sometimes, talk become mere. Punishment may be out of style, but it remains timeless.