Dead children have a way of shocking the conscience and making us angry. Especially a dead child like Hana Grace-Rose Williams, a 13-year-old adopted from Ethiopia by Washington State parents.

Police found Hana's body starved and naked, wrapped in a sheet in her adoptive parents' backyard. They had denied her food for days, locked her in a closet, forced her to sleep in a barn, and required her to use a Porta-Potty instead of the inside toilet. She'd been repeatedly struck with a 15-inch plastic tube before she died.

Or a dead child like Lydia Schatz, a 7-year-old Liberian girl whose adoptive parents held her down for hours, beating her to death with a similar plastic tube for mispronouncing a word. Or a dead child like Sean Paddock, a 4-year-old who suffocated because his adoptive parents wrapped him too tightly in a blanket as punishment. After his death, Sean's siblings told police about their own beatings with one of those plastic tubes—a plumbing supply line.

A common theme among these deaths, besides the plastic tube, is the influence of Michael and Debi Pearl, authors of To Train Up a Child and founders of No Greater Joy Ministries. For years, their self-published book has flown quietly under the radar, selling more than 670,000 copies. According to a local district attorney, it was the Pearls' advice to use the plastic tube as a spanking instrument that gave license to Lydia Schatz's parents to beat their child.

When children die horrifically, we want to punish someone. And it has been a short trip from blaming the violence of the parents, to blaming the Pearls (who explicitly teach against the level of punishment these parents exhibited), to blaming the conservative Christian parenting culture.

It is a mistake to portray Christian critics of spanking as feckless liberals just as it is wrong to label Christian advocates of spanking as abusive fundamentalists.

New York Times told its readers that the Pearls' methods—"the same principles the Amish use to train their stubborn mules," Pearl brags—are popular among Christians. "Conservative Christians say [corporal punishment] is called for in the Bible," the paper said, admitting that "some conservative Christian parents reject the Pearls' teachings."

Actually, as William J. Webb writes in his recent book Corporal Punishment in the Bible (InterVarsity Press), the most prominent spanking advocates reject a lot of the advice in To Train Up a Child. For example, the Pearls cite Proverbs' repeated statement, "the rod is for the back," but mainstream spanking advocates say spanks are for the buttocks only. While the Pearls say, "There is no number that can be given" about how many spanks to give, James Dobson among others usually limits it to one or two. The Pearls say parents can spank children until age 18; Focus on the Family limits it to kids 5 and under. On his blog, Webb notes that the Pearls are surely more literal in applying Scripture's parenting rules than Dobson and others are. After all, the Bible does not put age limits on the rod, and seems to explicitly repudiate the repeated admonishment not to leave a bruise. "Blows and wounds scrub away evil," Proverbs 20:30 says, "and beatings purge the inmost being."

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In the end, Dobson's hermeneutic is more biblical, though not more literal, Webb says. We also believe it is more consistent with the full counsel of Scripture—in short, more biblical—to provide relief to people in pain than to actually "give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to him whose life is bitter" (Prov. 31:6, NASB). In the same way, it is more biblical to understand the praise of "the rod" as a reference to discipline than to limit its application to physical blows.

Many Christian experts argue that spanking is still wise and biblical. Albert Mohler has argued, "Modern advocates of 'time-outs' and similar forms of discipline miss the essential point that God intends spanking to underline the cause-and-effect relationship of disobedience and punishment." But Mohler seems to miss the point that the consequences of human disobedience are legion, and that God's first and ultimate response to his children's rebellion is not to treat them violently.

The Bible never forbids spanking. But Webb's case is convincing that the Bible does not require it. Pearl warns that "to give up the use of the rod is to give up our views of human nature, God, eternity." Mohler advises that "the attacks on spanking are thinly disguised attacks on parental authority." New Testament scholar Thomas R. Schreiner said Webb's views on spanking will likely lead him into "domesticating the Bible to fit modern conceptions." But it is a mistake to portray Christian critics of spanking as feckless liberals, just as it is wrong to label Christian advocates of spanking as abusive fundamentalists.

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Some Christian parents will advocate corporal punishment until the peaceable kingdom arrives. But such means should be employed miles short of abuse, without anger, and as an absolute last resort. Given the risks involved—children's bodies are more fragile that an angry adult can fathom—we encourage parents to explore more creative and effective ways to train up our children in the way they should go.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous articles on parenting and spanking include:

When Child Discipline Becomes Abuse | Inside the book that has recently been cited in three cases of child murder. (October 17, 2011)
Spanking in the Spirit? | In Corporal Punishment in the Bible, William Webb says pro-spankers like James Dobson and Wayne Grudem are less jot-and-tittle than they realize. (Her.meneutics, September 23, 2011)
Saved by Spanking | Reconsidering the controversial form of discipline in light of a new study — and timeless Scripture. (Her.meneutics, January 20, 2010)
The Myth of the Perfect Parent | Why the best parenting techniques don't produce Christian children. (January 8, 2010)

Previous CT editorials include:

No Taxpayer Is An Island | Elizabeth Warren is wrong, and right, about the role of government. (December 6, 2011)
Fighting Famine Isn't Enough | Some 2,000 Somalis die of starvation daily. Drought isn't the reason. (November 4, 2011)
Harold Camping Is (Sort of) Right | Jesus will put an end to this earth—but that is not the end of the story. (June 16, 2011)
No Adam, No Eve, No Gospel | The historical Adam debate won't be resolved tomorrow, so stay engaged. (June 6, 2011)
iPhone Apps and the Old Adam | A meditation on corporate confession for Ash Wednesday. (March 9, 2011)

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