Biblical Child Discipline

Abusive Churches Misinterpret the Bible

Abusive churches or cults typically concentrate on Old Testament passages to support or promote authoritarian disciplinary measures for members. Proverbs 13:24 is one such passage that, if not properly understood, could lead to child abuse. It reads:

“Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.”

As with any passage of scripture, you cannot build a doctrine around just one verse. One must take into account the entire teaching of the Bible on a matter. The first thing I would point out is that this passage is from the Old Testament. While the entire Bible is the word of God, nevertheless the New Testament gives further enlightenment upon many issues. Hebrews 8:6 says that the New Covenant is a “better covenant” than the covenant of the Old Testament:

“But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, to the extent that He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises.”

Child Discipline Under the Better Covenant

Thus, for child discipline we should look primarily to the New Testament for instructions that will balance Proverbs 13:24, for that contains the record of the “better covenant.” In Ephesians 6:4, we read:

“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

The picture given here is of relationship between a parent and child that exudes love and care. Patient, nurturing instruction about right and wrong is essential and when discipline is necessary, it is never arbitrary, unjust or excessive. Love and praise are the best motivators, so punishment should be the exception rather than the rule.

Typically, if a child is brought up such that he loves, admires and respects his parents, he or she will be eager to please. When a child is brought up that way, often just knowing that they displeased their parent will cut them to the quick, in which case a simple talk is all that is necessary.

Punishment should be rare, and reserved for only those instances where there is willful and unrepentant disobedience. Even then, it should never be administered in anger or frustration, but calmly. In many instances, a serious talk that brings a child to genuine repentance is all the “rod” that is necessary.

Proper Discipline Imitates God’s Love

The entire Gospel message is an example of Godly discipline, which we should mimic. Hebrews 12:5-11 is another New Testament passage that describes how God disciplines us in order to keep us on the right track.

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

God much prefers that we repent and straighten up and fly right. Sometimes we don’t. In those instances God may, after a period of time, bring about events in our life that wakes us up and bring us to repentance. Whenever we discipline a child it should be like that: Give time and opportunity for repentance and change, and give corrective discipline when that does not  happen.

Under the New Covenant, God desires us to repent and be forgiven so that we do not experience His punishment. We see this with the interaction between Jesus and sinners. For example, under the Old Covenant, homosexuals and adulterers were stoned to death. The Old Covenant, in order to make clear the seriousness of sin, emphasized the consequences of sin.

But under the New Covenant the emphasis is upon turning away from sin and being forgiven. Under the New Covenant, Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”  We see a clear difference between how sin is dealt with under the Old Covenant and how it is dealt with under the New (better) Covenant. Sin is still serious, but in the age of Grace the emphasis is upon repentance that brings forgiveness and mercy.

The discipline of children should likewise be different under the New Covenant as well. The desire should not be to punish, but to bring a misbehaving child to repentance, so that grace and forgiveness can be given instead of punishment. Love and Mercy are the best ways to bring that about. Consider why we love Jesus? It is because he loved us while we were yet sinners. He allowed us to repent so as to escape punishment. We should do no less for our children. We must make room for repentance in their hearts by showing them the same mercy God has given us.

There are two errors that are made in child discipline. One is to be overly strict and mete out punishment in anger or self-righteousness. The other is to refuse to discipline at all. Either extreme is damaging to the child. Parents who always want to be their child’s “best friend” and fail to give firm but loving discipline when a child requires it is causing serious harm.

A Sacred Trust

That said, the emphasis should always be on encouragement to do right, and reward for well-doing, not on punishment for wrongs done. Let us realize that our children are placed with us by God and we are responsible for how we treat them. They are a sacred trust, and Scripture gives a solemn warning to those abuse their children:

“Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven…but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea…See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 18:4,6,10)


Comments are welcome…


  1. Subject very well explained, especially the differences between the Old and New Testaments. Hopefully will help any parent who is struggling to know what to do.
    I’ve worked with kids all my life and have usually found that the root of behavioural difficulties in adolescence began many years ago in infancy. Kids have to be taught right and wrong/ good and bad from the beginning in an age-appropriate way.
    Thank you Pastor Mark for explaining it so succinctly from a Biblical perspective.


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