This article is about disciplining children, specifically the spanking of children. The author also discusses civil law in this regard, as well as the injury to children in discipline.

Source: Christian Renewal, 2008. 3 pages.

Spanking Children and the Limits of the Civil Law

Happy too the children so trained in habits of obedience to their earthly parents that they learn almost instinctively to obey and honor God. (Hudson Taylor's father] felt … that Christian parents are placed at the head of the family as the direct representatives of him from whom every fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named'. To permit disobedience would be not only unfaithfulness to God, but cruel injustice to the children, wholly misleading them as to the character of the Heavenly Father with whom through life they have to do. His duty on the contrary was to train them to such prompt and loyal obedience to their earthly parents that they would be prepared to render like submission to the will of God … such obedience requires the exercise of the highest powers, faith, love, patience, self-control, and is a faculty not easily acquired. Unless they learned the lesson in childhood, they would grow up with unyielded wills, too wayward and undisciplined to be of use in the service of God.

From The Biography of Hudson Taylor

Child discipline was once a purely parental issue except in cases of outright abuse. But now highly vocal social lobbies are urging governments and the courts to pass laws that increasingly override parental control in the home. Now, for the first time, a US state is considering breaking ranks on the subject by outlawing the spanking of children by their parents.

Even more disturbing for a former Christian pastor like me, used to teaching on this very issue from the Bible over many years, are the growing number of voices purporting to make the spurious claim that such a ban would have the sanction of the Almighty himself. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Whatever arguments the Massachusetts bench will hear adduced, I am concerned that America – as the last true bastion of Western Christendom – does not lose sight of God's teaching on this critical subject. Though what follows is necessarily a clear biblical line on the spanking of children for those who respect the Judeo-Christian tradition, it has plain ramifications for all parents concerned at the pseudo-Christian arguments currently being mounted in the media by “child psychologist” Theresa Whitehurst in her book How Would Jesus Raise Your Child?

So then, are parents to be rendered powerless in the face of these lobbies and government “social engineering”? And does the law-abiding family have no alternative but to bow to the dictates of civil law? I suggest that the biblical answer to both questions is “by no means.” However, to understand God's instructions in this matter (to all mankind and in every age) and the limits of the civil law, we need to know where God's Word draws the line of authority.

Obeying Civil Law🔗

There is no question but that Christians are called to be the most law-abiding of citizens. Christian lives should be a model of holy living and obedience – first, before God as citizens of heaven and second, before civil authorities. The Bible makes this clear: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (1 Peter 2:13-14).

And again, “Therefore, whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.” And the reason too is made plain: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil … He is God's minister to you for good” (Romans 13:1-4). But does this mean that laws passed by the temporal authorities are to be obeyed in all circumstances?

What if the civil authorities legislated to outlaw Christian gatherings, as some Roman emperors did? Are we bound to obey – or should we answer to a higher authority and meet in secret, as the early Christians did? What if preaching the gospel were prohibited? These are not idle questions. Such prohibitions are current today in some lands.

When tested on this issue – the boundaries between divine and civil authority – Jesus defined a clear governing principle: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's” (Matthew 22:21). At a stroke, Christ proclaimed that to obey “Caesar” in all civil matters is to obey God himself (Romans 13:3-4). But beyond that he also made it clear that “Caesar” had no jurisdiction in spiritual matters.

A Biblical Perspective🔗

From a biblical perspective, the parent-child relationship is defined by the fifth Commandment and innumerable Bible passages associated with it. These require that children should “honour their parents.” The Bible also makes it clear that parents are to instil obedience – and that in some instances this may involve a measure of physical force. And it gives reasons that alert us to the danger of shirking this responsibility.

For a start we learn that “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction will drive it far from him” (Proverbs 22:15). And again, “Do not withhold correction from a child, for if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. You shall beat him with a rod and deliver his soul from hell” (Proverbs 23:13-14).

Here is the heart of the issue. Discipline, backed if necessary by physical chastisement, is not only important for the child's general welfare but is also bound up in some way with the process that leads to the salvation of the soul. We are told, “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it – (Proverbs 22:6). Here is a command (train up a child) coupled with a promise (when he is old he will not depart from it). The unspoken truth is that failure to obey this direction may result in a dissolute life – for which parents will in part be held responsible on account of their laxity.

No Injury🔗

Both the old priest Eli (1 Samuel 2:12-18) and King David himself (2 Samuel 13ff) had profound cause to rue their personal neglect of this biblical principle. That some of their children turned out to be dissolute and godless was squarely down to a lack of disciplining in the home by their parents.

At the same time, the Bible never sanctions the infliction of physical injury or abuse. As a leading US Bible authority John MacArthur makes clear,

Parental discipline should never injure the child. It is never necessary to bruise your children in order to … make your point. Spanking should always be administered with love and never when the parent is in a fit of rage … because it shatters the environment of living nurture and instruction that Ephesians 6:4 describes.1

Negating God's Law🔗

The fact that God has appointed all civil authorities (Romans 13:1) is a long way from saying that all civil authority will duly obey him. Even so, as we have seen, the Scriptures call us to submit ourselves to them in all temporal matters. But this does not extend to our submission to them in eternal matters, where (as in relation to child disciplining) they simply have no jurisdiction. When the eternal conflicts with the temporal, we are to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).

The Psalms warn us of temporal authorities who take it upon themselves to negate God's laws by making it difficult for godly citizens to obey God. The throne of iniquity …”devises evil by law”, says Psalm 94:20 (or as the ESV puts it, “rames injustice by statute”). In such instances the civil powers exceed their authority under God. The role of schools in helping to administer good and proper child discipline has, sadly, been greatly diminished in our generation. This makes it even more important to preserve the right of all parents to chastise and spank their own children when they deem it necessary.

As in all matters, the civil law must not overstep its bounds. If it does, Christians may well be called to civil disobedience for the sake of the gospel of Christ. Francis Schaeffer puts it thus:

God has ordained the state as a delegated authority; it is not autonomous. The state is to be an agent of justice, to restrain evil by punishing the wrongdoer and to protect the good in society. When it does the reverse, it has no proper authority. It is then a usurped authority and as such it becomes lawless and is a tyranny … The bottom line is that at a certain point it is not only the right, but the duty, to disobey the state.2


We have seen that it is the God-given right of all parents to chastise their children, including if necessary a degree of physical discipline. The church ought not to go cap in hand to the state, as it sometimes does, seeking special dispensations in moral matters or asking the courts to “allow Christians to practise their religion.” Rather, it should be in the business of pointing out to the civil authorities their responsibilities and limitations – and from whom their powers derive. Not only must we argue the logic of the moral position but also the blatant illogic of denying the right to discipline in a climate where child discipline in home and school is often at breaking point.

But whatever the civil authorities may or may not do, the Christian parent's abiding concern and first duty is to fear God, not the strictures of men. God instructs us all to obey the civil law at every point except where it conflicts with his eternal laws.

Whatever the Massachusetts court decides, those parents who hold key Judeo-Christian teaching more highly than the decisions of government and courts, should know the Bible provides a duty to civil disobedience whenever Caesar acts beyond his God-given jurisdiction and competence – and thus against God himself.

So as parents across the land wait to hear whether Massachusetts will be the first state to breach the national dam of parental rights, it may be instructive to wonder just how liberals, including liberal Christians, become liberals in the first place. A lack of proper parental discipline, perhaps?


  1. ^ John MacArthur, Successful Christian parenting: raising your child with care, compassion, and common sense (Nash­ville: Word, 1998) p.155.
  2. ^ Francis Schaeffer, essay on "The Limits of Civil Obedi­ence" in A Christian Manifesto (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, revised edition 1982) pp. 91 and 93.

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