Each week, it seems, stories of parents arrested for spanking their children make the news. Periodically, proposed bans on spanking are considered, but are typically shot down on grounds that such bans tread on parents' rights. Such bans are also met with opposition from some Christians who believe that since the Bible appears to require corporal punishment of children, bans on spanking would prevent Christian parents from living out biblical convictions. Leaders such as James Dobson, Wayne Grudem, John Piper, and Albert Mohler—conservative evangelicals, to be sure, but not at all of the Michael and Debi Pearl stripe—agree that Scripture requires parents to discipline their children corporally. A quote from Focus on the Family's website sums up their beliefs: "the Bible's word on discipline clearly demands that parents be responsible and diligent in spanking."

In a new book, Corporal Punishment in the Bible (InterVarsity), William Webb, professor of New Testament at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Canada, examines the Bible's strange and sometimes disturbing passages about corporal punishment, such as, "Blows that wound cleanse away evil; strokes make clean the innermost parts" (Prov. 20:30), and, "Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die" (Prov. 23:13). Webb, like the aforementioned scholars and leaders, once believed that Christian parents who sought to apply the Bible's teachings to their lives were more or less obligated to spank their children, and taught his seminary students the same. Over time, while parenting his three children (one of whom suffers from a degenerative brain disease), Webb grew aware that the Bible's texts on corporal punishment bore little resemblance to the restrained and lovingly limited spanking taught by Dobson and others. In seven important ways, he argues, pro-spankers have moved beyond the concrete, specific instructions of Scripture to a form of discipline that is, unquestionably by contemporary standards, ethically superior to what's actually on the pages of Scripture.

The seven ways that pro-spankers have unwittingly moved "beyond the Bible" include things like age limitation (most contemporary pro-spankers put an upper limit on the age-appropriateness of spanking; the Bible itself recommends spanking for all ages); the bodily location of the beating (while the Bible speaks fairly exclusively of beatings being applied to the back, contemporary pro-spankers recommend the buttocks or the back of the hand, places where injury is much less likely); the emotive disposition of the parent (while contemporary pro-spankers insist that spankings be administered in love rather than in anger, the Bible makes no such recommendation; if anything, it implies that some righteous anger in the application of 'the rod' is a good thing); and so forth.

Far from criticizing contemporary pro-spankers, Webb praises the ways in which their application moves beyond the concrete specificity of the Bible to fulfill what he calls its "redemptive spirit" (one he explored more fully in his well-known 2001 book, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals).

Webb's redemptive-movement hermeneutic (which I've referred to before on Her.meneutics) does a lot to explain some of Scripture's troubling texts while maintaining reverence for Scripture as the Word of God. In this book, Webb shows how even the most disturbing corporal punishment texts in Scripture—texts that call for a woman's hand to be cut off, for example—are, improbable as it may seem, redemptive when viewed against the backdrop to other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) laws and codes. Where Hittite, Babylonian, Assyrian, and other ANE beating codes call for hundreds of lashes, the Hebrew Bible places the upper limit at 40—hardly "redemptive" given today's sense of justice, but downright progressive in its own context. Webb sees in this movement reason to consider that putting aside corporal punishment entirely may, in fact, be a wise and biblically sensitive option. Just as opponents of slavery did not move to make slavery "better" but abolished it entirely, so parents and Christian leaders can put aside corporal punishment entirely as long as they fulfill the "abstracted/purpose meaning" of Scripture, which is simply this: teach, discipline, and guide children in the way of wisdom.

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In a sensitive and thoughtful postscript, co-written with Webb's wife, Marilyn, a highly experienced and qualified special-education teacher, Webb discusses their family's adventures in raising their kids largely without corporal discipline. Far from running wild, the picture that emerges is one of a disciplined Christian family where kids knew their limits as well as the limitlessness of their parents' love. Webb is guilelessly gracious to Christians who choose to spank, citing with gratitude how Focus on the Family's materials benefited his family. But he does clearly advocate for exclusively noncorporal punishment, believing that it affords greater dignity and honor to children, and aligns with the compassion of Jesus while providing an avenue for redemptive and peaceful Christian witness in our increasingly violent and punitive world.

Rachel Stone has written for Catapult Magazine about her and her husband's decision not to spank.