On 19 October 2017, the High Court in Johannesburg judged that the defence of “reasonable chastisement” no longer applies to the corporal punishment of children by parents. In other words, spanking of children by parents is no longer protected under South African law. In the words of presiding Judge Reylene Keightley,

The removal of the defence will not prevent religious believers from disciplining their children. It is so that they may have to consider changing their mode of discipline, but in view of the importance of the principle of the best interests of the child, this is a justifiable limitation on the rights of parents. This is a case where I am satisfied that it is permissible to require religious parents who believe in corporal punishment to be expected to obey the secular laws, rather than permitting them to place their religious beliefs above the best interests of their children.

Well, here we are. After many years of parliamentarian drafts (threats) and pushback by both Christians and non-Christians, the High Court has chosen to ignore the Higher Throne. What now? How should Christians respond? What’s a Christian parent to do? These are serious questions, requiring sound answers. In this first of two articles I simply want to lay a foundation.

First, we should be clear that we condemn the mistreatment and the abuse of children. Christians don’t believe in “hitting” children. We believe in self-controlled, loving parents spanking their children with a view to shaping their hearts and therefore shaping their behaviour. And, for what it is worth, it seems to me that God has designed the bottom of the child as the “seat” of such learning. But we do not support physical abuse—of any kind.

The case which led to this ruling was, from what I have read, clearly a case of physical abuse against a vulnerable person. A father who is morally opposed to his son watching porn is also morally responsible to discipline with dignity. Kicking your child can never be justified. To try and justify such behaviour by the fig-leaves of an erroneous belief system is inexcusable. The reality is that we live in a culture where the vulnerable are very vulnerable. Abuse of children and women is rampant. So, yes, the government should speak to the issue of child abuse. There is a lot of child abuse that tries to hide behind the banner of corporal punishment.

The government is tasked with protecting its peoples, including children. (Would to God that they were equally committed to protecting children in the womb.) Romans 13:1–7 makes this very clear. Therefore, parents who physically abuse their children should face the legal consequences.

We should be careful with our vocabulary.

Second, we should never make light of the pain that a child experiences when they are spanked (and I am thinking particularly of biblical spanking). As a father I learned to appreciate what my father meant when he would say something like, “This is going to hurt me more than you.” If it doesn’t “hurt” us as parents, we probably have a heart problem.

Third, we should be careful about emitting more heat than light. We should stop with the bravado, such as, “The government had better not tell me how to raise my child!” and, “Just let the government take me to court!” Be careful what you wish for. Such responses are unhelpfully antagonistic.

Fourth, in the “debate” about corporal punishment, we need to do what we can to define the terms. As already mentioned, parents should not speak of “hitting” their children. The secularists will say, “You should never hit your child.” Of course, if what is meant is to angrily assault the child, then certainly we agree. But we can’t leave it at that. Rather, we need to be able to explain the difference between abusive behaviour and constructive discipline. Let me illustrate.

If I am walking down the street and someone attacks me with a hypodermic needle, the attacker has broken God’s moral law and should be arrested and punished. But if I am admitted to a hospital and the surgeon uses such a needle to apply medicine, no law has been broken. Motive, and approach, and damage (harm) make all the difference in the world.

The secularists argue that “violence breeds violence.” I don’t doubt that. But a parent who uses the rod, as God has designed it be used, is not guilty of violence against their child. Christians need to quit acquiescing to the emotive terminology of the secularists. The Christian parent is on the turf of truth. Let’s defend God’s definitions.

Fifth, parents need to move away from the idea that spanking is the be-all-and-end-all of parenting. It is not. Granted, the Bible does speak about the use of the “rod” as a means of discipline (Proverbs 13:24; 22;15; 23:13–14; 29:15). But when you look at the wider biblical scene, spanking—“the rod”—comes at the end of the process (excuse the pun), not at the beginning. I am concerned that parents too often make the rod the supreme mode of discipline and this can be problematic. If spanking is the go-to modus operandi of all discipline in the home, then we are not thinking clearly, because we are not thinking biblically.

Spanking, in the home, is like excommunication in the church: the last resort. Too many parents view the ubiquitous presence of the proverbial (and sometimes literal) “wooden spoon” as the sign of good parenting. Perhaps, but also, perhaps not. It seems to me that biblical parenting is rather portrayed as a nursing mother and as a patient father (1 Thessalonians 2:7–12). Parents are to instruct with their words, to reasonably establish clearly defined boundaries, and to patiently train their children. Certainly an important part of this training is the use of the rod when boundaries are transgressed. But though we are not to spare the rod, there is biblical wisdom in using it sparingly rather than predominately.

Sixth, when circumstances call for the use of the rod, parents must exercise their authority to do so recognising that they too are under authority. The rod of God’s word instructs us to be self-controlled when we discipline, lest we “provoke our children to anger” (Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:21). If a parent will not exercise self-control, sparing the rod for the time being trumps hypocritically disciplining the child for his or her lack of self-control.

Finally, the home has a “sovereignty” for which parents are responsible, and which the government needs to respect. Stay tuned.

Doug Van Meter

Doug Van Meter

Brackenhurst Baptist Church

Doug Van Meter is the pastor-teacher of Brackenhurst Baptist Church in Alberton, South Africa, where he has served since 1993.

Doug formerly served as a missionary to Australia and a church planter in South Africa before joining Brackenhurst, initially as an interim pastor, before being called by the church to a permanent position.