The biblical case for spanking

I'm not sure what to think of a front-page New York Times story Monday that tried to connect the deaths of three children with a self-published book by Tennessee preacher Michael Pearl and his wife, Debi.

The Times reported that the Pearls advocate "systematic use of 'the rod' to teach toddlers to submit to authority."

The meat of the story:

Debate over the Pearls’ teachings, first seen on Christian Web sites, gained new intensity after the death of a third child, all allegedly at the hands of parents who kept the Pearls’ book, “To Train Up a Child,” in their homes. On Sept. 29, the parents were charged with homicide by abuse.

More than 670,000 copies of the Pearls’ self-published book are in circulation, and it is especially popular among Christian home-schoolers, who praise it in their magazines and on their Web sites. The Pearls provide instructions on using a switch from as early as six months to discourage misbehavior and describe how to make use of implements for hitting on the arms, legs or back, including a quarter-inch flexible plumbing line that, Mr. Pearl notes, “can be rolled up and carried in your pocket.”

The furor in part reflects societal disagreements over corporal punishment, which conservative Christians say is called for in the Bible and which many Americans consider reasonable up to a point, even as many parents and pediatricians reject it. The issue flared recently when a video was posted online of a Texas judge whipping his daughter.

I haven't read this book or others on the subject, but my GetReligion colleague Mollie says they often focus on biblical passages on physical punishment while completely ignoring grace and forgiveness in family relationships. Regardless, though, of what one thinks about the methods advocated by the Pearls, the trail of evidence linking the deaths to the book seems rather squishy. This line in the report stood out to me:

“If you find a 12-step book in an alcoholic’s house, you wouldn’t blame the book,” Mr. Pearl said in an interview.

But since the Times decided to do the story, I wish it had worked harder to explore — and explain — the religious beliefs involved.

Instead, we get a blanket statement that conservative Christians say corporal punishment is called for in the Bible. Later, that statement is adjusted a bit to suggest that "some conservative Christian parents reject the Pearls' teachings."

Crystal Lutton, who runs Grace-Based Discipline, one of several Christian blogs that oppose corporal punishment, said the danger with the Pearls’ methods is that “if you don’t get results, the only thing to do is to punish harder and harder.”

A GetReligion reader complained that the story focused on Lutton's practical objections rather than her theological concerns. The reader said:

I'm part of the linked Internet board (with the opponent quoted). She and many others are very articulate at explaining their theological objections, along with their practical ones.

As the reader noted, the article did discuss the Pearls' beliefs, albeit in broad strokes:

Much of their advice is standard: parents should be loving, spend a lot of time with their children, be clear and consistent, and never strike in anger. But, citing Biblical passages like, “He that spareth his rod hateth his son,” they provide instructions for “switching” defiant children to provide “spiritual cleansing.”

And this:

“To give up the use of the rod is to give up our views of human nature, God, eternity,” they write.

What do the Pearls mean by spiritual cleansing? How do their views of human nature, God and eternity play into using the rod as they do? What does the Pearls' church teach in general, and where does it fit on the larger spectrum of evangelical Christianity?

The Times leaves such questions unexplored. But readers do learn that the prosecutor in one of the death cases has no plans to charge the the book's authors. Imagine that.

Image of parents with child via Shutterstock.

Please respect our Commenting Policy