To spank or not to spank? Benedict of Nursia and the Westminster divines speak


Corporal punishment is both a family and a state issue, in a time when more kids than ever are being subjected to physical abuse by parents and caregivers. Five years ago some political developments led me to devote one of Christian History‘s “Behind the News” online newsletters to this touchy subject. After laying out the issue, I looked at what Benedict’s Rule and the Reformed Westminster Larger Catechism had to say that bears on physical modes of punishment:

To Spank or Not to Spank?
A 6th-century abbot and a group of 17th-century Calvinist divines weigh in on the issue
By Chris Armstrong

June 1, 2004

In the post-Benjamin Spock era, fewer parents than ever seem to be favoring spanking as a method of discipline. One website cites a drop from 59% of American parents in 1962 to 19% in 1993 who use spanking as their main disciplinary method. Though the same source reports that in 1994, “70% of America adults agreed that it is ‘sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking,'” it notes that in also in that year, the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse found that “only 49% of American adults had hit or spanked their child in the previous year.”

Spanking is nonetheless still, if not the primary disciplinary method of choice, at least a backup option for many American parents—especially among the conservative Christians. But if trends across the ocean make their way to the U.S., parents who spank their children may soon face legal consequences. In a Europe in which many countries have already made spanking (termed “smacking” in England) against the law, the U.K. is now engaged in a heated controversy over whether to follow suit.

The recent lobbying (scroll to “U.K. spanking ban:”) in England to institute an anti-spanking law raises two important issues.

One is that in fact the innocent do need protection. Arguing that child abuse is linked to corporal punishment, British Labour MP David Hinchliffe and others say out-dated nineteenth-century laws allowing parents to exercise “reasonable chastisement,” including a degree of force, afford kids insufficient protection from outright abuse. At least one British child a week dies at the hands of parents or caregivers, says Hinchliffe, and child protection agencies seeking to reverse this violent trend are hampered rather than helped by the law.

Not everyone, however, sees the abuse problem as stemming from over-strict disciplinary methods. Leeds-based Caring For Life is a Christian ministry working on behalf of homeless young people, many of whom have experienced sexual or physical abuse. Senior Pastoral Administrator E. M. Smith is less ready to see spanking as the problem or legislation as the panacea. Smith says the desire to end all corporal punishment of children—because children are made in the image of God—”has to be balanced against the biblical view of humankind as not only created by God but also responsible to him. The removal of corporal punishment as one means of disciplining children may lead to an inability to control and thus protect children, or to children failing to develop the self-discipline necessary for their own safety” (E. M. Smith, “Children,” New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology [InterVarsity Press, 1995]).

This raises the second question: Does a biblical view of childhood and parental responsibility require that corporal punishment be part of our child-rearing style as Christians? And related to this, what level of sanction or punishment is necessary to train children up to Christian maturity? The current abuse and extremes in child discipline certainly represent what Christian parenting should not be about. As Smith puts it, “As the most vulnerable bearers of God’s image,” children “must be seen not as the property of their parents or guardians, but as individual unique human beings who are themselves responsible to God and who are entrusted to the care of their parents for a time. As such, children must be accorded the dignity which is richly and equally deserved by every human being, created in God’s likeness.” Such was certainly the attitude of Jesus (Mk. 10:13-16; Mt. 21:15-16).

It is easy for us to rebel against the style of our own parents—either becoming too lax so as not to repeat the sins of harsh discipline, or reacting to the laxity of some of our parents and careening into a hyper-strictness that will damage our children just as much. I once saw, in a study focused on teen abstinence education, a chart that correlated different levels of parental discipline with the likelihood that a teenage child would experiment with premarital sex. The results of the study were much as you would expect: Those teens whose parents were either over-lax or over-strict were most likely to get in trouble. The optimum point on the curve, where the smallest number of kids experimented with sex, was about ¾ of the way along towards the “strict” end of the continuum.

Whether this does or does not include spanking must be left to the individual parent: anti-spanking legislation is a patent over-reaction to a real situation of tragic abuse in which civil authorities have a legitimate right and duty to intervene with legislation. What is more important is that as parents we learn to mete out discipline appropriate to the task of forming mature, healthy people, and yet also make gentle allowances for our children’s human frailties and their individual quirks and needs.

This was the approach of one leading Christian 1500 years ago, and his words still carry wisdom for us today. Benedict of Nursia was an abbot (leader of a monastery—from the word “abba” or father) whose wise words on the subjects of discipline and obedience created the foundation for Western monasticism. Now Roman Catholic author Dwight Longenecker has realized that what Benedict intended as a manual for abbots and monks—his famous “Benedictine Rule”—has great value for ordinary parents. This is the premise of his book Listen My Son: St Benedict for Fathers (Morehouse Publishing, 2000).

“Compassionate discipline” is the best word for Benedict’s way of doing things. Legend has it that Benedict learned this approach the hard way. As Mark Galli and Ted Olsen recently told the story:

The first monks who tried to live under his direction hated his regimen—so much so they plotted to kill him. They put poison in a glass of wine and offered it to Benedict. Before he took it, he blessed it, as was the custom. According to the story told by Pope Gregory I (Benedict’s biographer), when Benedict made the sign of the cross over the wine glass, it shattered, and the wine spilled to the floor.

Benedict, Gregory wrote, “perceived that the glass had in it the drink of death,” called his monks together, said he forgave them, reminded them that he doubted from the beginning whether he was a suitable abbot for them, and concluded, “Go your ways, and seek some other father suitable to your own conditions, for I intend not now to stay any longer amongst you.”

We don’t know if Benedict was overly strict or if his first monks were simply obstinate. But years later, when Benedict wrote a rule of life for another group of monks, it turned out to be a model of monastic moderation and one reason monasticism blossomed in the West.

Longenecker’s book divides Benedict’s Rule into short daily readings and accompanies each reading with a commentary dealing with issues of fatherhood. I confess that I have not read the book beyond its introduction and early pages, but I know Benedict’s Rule well. Longenecker is exactly right to point fathers—or really, any parents—towards its pages.

Here is Benedict on the purpose of his Rule and of monastic discipline in general—and note that much the same thing could be said of the Christian family:

We propose, therefore to establish a school of the Lord’s service, and in setting it up we hope we shall lay down nothing that is harsh or hard to bear. But if for adequate reason, for the correction of faults or the preservation of charity, some degree of restraint is laid down, do not then and there be overcome with terror, and run away from the way of salvation, for its beginning must needs be difficult. On the contrary, through the continual practice of monastic observance and the life of faith, our hearts are opened wide, and the way of God’s commandments is run in a sweetness of love that is beyond words.

Thus Benedict reminds abbots and brothers alike that every one of them labors in the discipline of the Lord. He also insists that a gentle human discipline best mirrors that divine discipline.

He reflects this moderation again in his instructions to abbots on the matter of discipline. Yes, he says, it is sometimes necessary for the abbot to repress the sinfulness of “the shameless, the thick-skinned and the proud or disobedient” with “the corporal punishment of blows, bearing in mind what is written, ‘The fool is not corrected by words,’ and again ‘Strike your son with the rod and you will deliver his soul from death.'” But “the obedient, the meek and the patient” he should correct only with “verbal admonitions,” “entreat[ing them] to go forward in virtue.” The abbot “must show the tough attitude of a master, and also the loving affection of a father.”

There is, in short, no “one-size-fits-all” approach either to monastic discipline or, by parallel, to parenting:

The abbot … must realize … how difficult and arduous is the task he has undertaken, that of ruling souls and serving men of many different characters; one, indeed, to be encouraged, another to be rebuked, another persuaded, each according to his nature and intelligence. Thus he must adapt and fit himself to all.

But we need not stop our search for parenting wisdom at the 6th century, nor limit it to the Roman Catholic church. In their teaching on the fifth commandment (“Honor thy father and thy mother … “), the Calvinist divines who authored the Westminster Larger Catechism (1648) extended the terms “father” and “mother” to cover all relations of “superior” to “inferior” persons. Like Benedict’s rule, the questions dealing with parental responsibilities and failures reflects a balanced, wise treatment of the subjects of authority and discipline (bracketed numbers refer to Bible passages that are listed at the end of this article):

Q. 129. What is required of superiors towards their inferiors?

A. It is required of superiors, according to that power they receive from God, and that relation wherein they stand, to love,[680] pray for,[681] and bless their inferiors;[682] to instruct,[683] counsel, and admonish them;[684] countenancing,[685] commending,[686] and rewarding such as do well;[687] and discountenancing,[688] reproving, and chastising such as do ill;[689] protecting,[690] and providing for them all things necessary for soul[691] and body:[692] and by grave, wise, holy, and exemplary carriage, to procure glory to God,[693] honour to themselves,[694] and so to preserve that authority which God hath put upon them.[695]

Q. 130. What are the sins of superiors?

A. The sins of superiors are, besides the neglect of the duties required of them,[696] and inordinate seeking of themselves,[697] their own glory,[698] ease, profit, or pleasure;[699] commanding things unlawful,[700] or not in the power of inferiors to perform;[701] counseling,[702] encouraging,[703] or favouring them in that which is evil;[704] dissuading, discouraging, or discountenancing them in that which is good;[705] correcting them unduly;[706] careless exposing, or leaving them to wrong, temptation, and danger;[707] provoking them to wrath;[708] or any way dishonouring themselves, or lessening their authority, by an unjust, indiscreet, rigorous, or remiss behaviour.[709]

I find this a striking passage. Parents, the catechism is saying, sin against their children when they “correct them unduly,” “provoke them to wrath,” or slip into any other “unjust … rigorous … behavior.” Are you surprised, as I was, to see the tendency toward parental strictness (which I possess) decidedly not recommended or reinforced by these supposedly strict Calvinists? Frankly, as I read through this section of the catechism, I both said “ouch” repeatedly, and asked for God’s grace to come more closely into alignment with the biblical standard. (This and other sections of the Westminster Larger Catechism, along with citations and full text of the associated Bible verses from The Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics.)

Whether or not we conclude that corporal punishment must be a part of our parenting style, all of us must weigh the necessary stringency of parental discipline with the grace and mercy that our own Father shows us, and then decide how best to reflect these in our behavior with our children. Along the way, we could do worse than hear the voices of Benedict, the Westminster Divines, and many others among our spiritual forefathers and foremothers.

Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today.

Here are the biblical citations from the Westminster Larger Catechism excerpt above:

[680] Colossians 3:19. Titus 2:4.

[681] 1 Samuel 12:23. Job 1:5.

[682] 1 Kings 8:55-56. Hebrews 7:7. Genesis 49:28.

[683] Deuteronomy 6:6-7.

[684] Ephesians 6:4.

[685] 1 Peter 3:7.

[686] 1 Peter 2:14. Romans 13:3.

[687] Esther 6:3.

[688] Romans 13:3-4.

[689] Proverbs 29:15. 1 Peter 2:14.

[690] Job 29:13-16. Isaiah 1:10, 17.

[691] Ephesians 6:4.

[692] 1 Timothy 5:8.

[693] 1 Timothy 4:12. Titus 2:3-5.

[694] 1 Kings 3:28.

[695] Titus 2:15.

[696] Ezekiel 34:2-4.

[697] Philippians 2:21.

[698] John 5:44. John 7:18.

[699] Isaiah 56:10-11. Deuteronomy 17:17.

[700] Daniel 3:4-6. Acts 4:17-18.

[701] Exodus 5:10-18. Matthew 23:2, 4.

[702] Matthew 14:8. Mark 6:24.

[703] 2 Samuel 13:28.

[704] 1 Samuel 3:13.

[705] John 7:46-49. Colossians 3:21. Exodus 5:17.

[706] 1 Peter 2:18-20. Hebrews 12:10. Deuteronomy 25:3.

[707] Genesis 38:11, 26. Acts 18:17.

[708] Ephesians 6:4.

[709] Genesis 9:21. 1 Kings 12:13-16. 1 Kings 1:6. 1 Samuel 2:29-31.

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