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Corporeal Punishment, Child Abuse, and Christian Teaching

Oct 01, 2008 — Categories:

Dr. Ted Tripp, the senior pastor of Grace Fellowship Church, Hazleton, Pennsylvania, came to Seattle recently preaching the importance of corporeal punishment beginning with infants. According to Tripp, he is commanded by God to preach to parents to spank their young children on bare skin and then tell them you love them in order to teach them respect for authority.

Dr. Ted Tripp, the senior pastor of Grace Fellowship Church, Hazleton, Pennsylvania, came to Seattle recently preaching the importance of corporeal punishment beginning with infants. According to Tripp, he is commanded by God to preach to parents to spank their young children on bare skin and then tell them you love them in order to teach them respect for authority.

The critical question is:  what does this teaching have to do with child abuse?  I am not judging parents who choose to use corporeal punishment nor am I suggesting that all corporeal punishment is child abuse. But where is the line between the two? Given the huge number of children who suffer and die each year from physical child abuse, one might think that the churches and other faith communities would have an interest in discouraging physical punishment to help insure that the line is not crossed.

Relying heavily on the Book of Proverbs in Hebrew scripture, Tripp quotes the classic “spare the rod and spoil the child.” The actual verse reads:

Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them. (Proverbs 13:24 NRSV)

The meaning of this verse turns on the understanding of the “rod.” It was the shepherd’s staff which was used to guide and protect the sheep, as in “. . . your rod and your staff--they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4 NRSV) Any shepherd knew that beating your sheep with a staff was not healthy for the sheep nor did it teach them anything except to fear the shepherd.

For parents and teachers of children, there is no question that it is our responsibility to discipline children (Webster: “to train or develop by instruction”). For Christians, the best model we have is Jesus, the Good Shepherd himself, who guided and protected his followers and lifted up children especially as those to whom the kingdom of God belongs. (Mark 10:14 NRSV)

Even if we look further in Proverbs, we can begin to see the importance of a fuller understanding of our adult responsibilities for children: “Train children up in the right way, and when old, they will not stray . . . Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail.” (Proverbs 22:6,8) It is this potential for injustice by parents that worries me.

Tripp, widely known in evangelical circles for his teaching on Christian parenting, in his June 26, 2008, blog begins with verses from Proverbs and Ephesians on which to base his teachings. His quote from Ephesians 6. 1-3 is prooftexting at its worst:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother—which is the first commandment with a promise— that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.

In this passage, the writer of Ephesians repeats the Commandment to honor parents. But Tripp intentionally ends the quote with verse 3, neglecting verse 4:

And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

I can only assume that the writer of Ephesians was seeking here to correct the misuse of the commandment by parents who mistreated their children. So children are to honor their parents and parents are to raise their children with Gospel values and not provoke their anger. To abuse or mistreat children results in their legitimate anger at their abusers.

It is at least disingenuous if not down right deceptive to instruct Christian parents to strike their young children based on prooftexting and inadequate Biblical scholarship.

The mistreatment of children contradicts the teaching of the Gospel and is an act of injustice perpetrated on the most vulnerable among us. It can be very instructive indeed; it can teach children to fear those whom they love and on whom they are dependent. It does not teach them respect, compassion or love. It is, at best, confusing; at worst, it teaches that physical force is the prerogative of the biggest and strongest to enforce his will on others who are less powerful.

I remember so well the call from our local Child Protection Office: “We have a father here who beats his kids without mercy. We have tried to explain to him that this mistreatment of children is against the law. He said, ‘What do you mean, I can’t beat my kids?? I’m a Christian!’” Every time I remember this call, I feel anger and shame and I wonder, who is the Jesus this man follows?

Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune
FaithTrust Institute
www.faithtrustinstitute.org

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