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This paper examines the current debate between the SAHRC (South African Human Rights Commission) and the Joshua Generation Church in the context of corporal punishment of children within the family structure. The discussion presented is confined to the South African context, which has an inhumanly high rate of violence towards children that range from physical abuse to sexual abuse.
The Current Debate
The current debate on corporal punishment of children brought to light by the SAHRC and its challenge to the Joshua Generation Church calls for a theological, psychological and sociological response.
The SAHRC has laid a complaint against the Joshua Generation Church (JGC) for its stance of using corporal punishment of children based upon the biblical injunction of ‘spare the rod and spoil the child.’ In response to the SAHRC senior pastor Andrew Selley wrote the following on JGC blog: “As a pastor who deals daily with people, I consistently find that children who are not/were not spanked, are the most boundary-less and broken. My belief in spanking is a deep conviction based upon my belief in God and His Word, on my own conscience and my observations of how life works.”
Selley’s sweeping statement is most unhelpful to the debate. He sets himself up as the expert on discipline and how life works, without giving a comprehensive exegesis of Scripture on the subject of corporal punishment of children, nor the psycho-social aspects of corporal discipline. However, more disturbing is his opinion that those who were not spanked are more boundary-less and broken. Selley fails to provide any empirical evidence of his opinion within the scientific methodology of qualitative and quantitative studies. Therefore, his opinion remains an observation rather than a scientifically proven fact. Such an observation is filled with subjectivity and cannot be taken seriously.
How should we define corporal punishment? How are we to discern what force to use in meeting our punishment? Psychologist Bradshaw (1996:147) defines physical violence as physical spankings; using belts, punching, slapping and/or slapping in the face; pulling on or yanking on a child; shaking and threatening with violence or abandonment.
A Hermeneutical Approach
The hermeneutical approach proposed in this paper embraces both an exegetical approach to Scripture, culture and the interpretation of Scripture, as well as embracing the disciplines of metaphysics, namely, sociology and psychology.
An Old Testament Perspective
Concerning discipline in the Old Testament Jaeger (1984:846) makes the following comments:
· There is no doubt that discipline did involve the use of giving the child a hiding. In fact, the Israelites did not believe in ‘education without tears.’ To the words of father and mother chastisement was added (Deut.21:18); children were trained on the theory that ‘the rod of discipline drives (folly) far from (a child)’ (Prov.22:15).
· On the other hand, some uses of this discipline implied a simple instruction and correction.
· In the Apocrypha this discipline is still heavy-handed; whips and scourges appear as synonymous with discipline (Ecclus.22:6; 23:2).
A New Testament Perspective
Jaeger (1984:846) draws the following insights within the context of Christian home from Ephesians 6:4 and Colossians 3:21. He argues that education here is focused more on the training by act, example, and word. In no way does he suggest that corporal punishment was done away within the early Christian family structure. However, there does seem to be a move away from the harsh corporal disciplinary acts displayed in the Old Testament era.
An Exegesis of Corporal Punishment in the Book of Proverbs
Proverbs 13:24, ‘The one who spares his rod hates his child, but the one who loves his child is diligent in disciplining him.’
The rod quoted in Proverbs was originally the shepherd’s rod. It was an oak stick about three feet long, tipped with flint or metal to beat away the wolves and to guide the timid sheep over difficult stream beds.
The NET (the Net Translation) states that failure to discipline a child is tantamount to hating him – not caring about his character.
Constable commenting on Proverbs 13:24 writes, ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’ This common maximum is often wrongly attributed to the Bible. (This maxim comes from a poem written by Samuel Butler in 1664). In reality the book of Proverbs, when taken as a whole, encourages its readers to use multiple levels of discipline ranging from pointing out improper behaviour to the use of corporal punishment.
Proverbs 23: 13-14 states, ‘Do not withhold discipline from a child; even if you strike him with the rod, he will not die.’ If you strike him with the rod, you will deliver him from death.’
Constable wisely writes, ‘Beating with a rod is not the only form of discipline advocated in Proverbs. It is simply one form used here as a poetic parallel to discipline…Other forms of discipline (reproof, temporary isolation, ‘grounding,’ etc.) may be more appropriate in some situations with children of differing ages and temperaments. These verses assure the parent that the child will not only survive the discipline, but he or she will survive because of it.’
Waltke (quoted by Constable) argues that the cleansing rod must be applied with warmth, affection, and respect for the youth. Warmth and affection, not steely discipline, characterize the father’s lectures (cf.4:1-9). Parents who brutalize their children cannot hide behind the rod doctrine of Proverbs.
It is clear that the main theme running through Proverbs is that applying the rod as an instrument of discipline is viewed as justifiable. What concerns me is the lack of evidence that corporal punishment does bring optimal correction to a rebellious/wilful child. Does corporal punishment guarantee that a child will only change through such means? What we must take note of according to Kaiser (1988: 181) is that a proverb is a statement and not a promise. Or as Kaiser warns that Proverbs 22:6 does not guarantee that bringing up a child in the ways of the Lord guarantees that he/she will follow God wholeheartedly. There are many heartbroken parents who did everything in their power to raise Godly children, but their children have chosen a different path and are anti-Christianity. In the same token choosing spanking as the only method of disciplining a child does not guarantee that the child will change its rebellious way.
How does this justification of corporal punishment of children in Proverbs apply in today’s South African culture of child abuse, rape, addictions (one or the main cause of physical abuse of children) and violence? We will return to this question in a moment. But first we must examine how these texts in Proverbs must be interpreted in our existing culture.
Culture and the Interpretation of Scripture
Is it possible that the entire Bible can be literally interpreted in our postmodern culture with particular reference to South Africa? Those of us who love the Word of God; love to preach and instruct from it cannot hide away from the fact, that there are very difficult texts that cannot simply be imposed upon the church and the culture in which it exists.
For the sake of our discussion let’s stick to the task at hand concerning spanking children according to Scripture in our culture today. How many parents in our society today can be fully trusted to spank their children while their anger and emotions are completely under control, so that, the measure of the discipline does not physically and emotionally damage the child? This is an important question in the light of South Africa having the highest rate in the world of child abuse and rape. The central issue here is not so much about corporal punishment but rather the parent’s emotional and mental state of mind while meeting out the spanking. From a psychological and sociological perspective it is clear that we are a society completely out of control, therefore, the majority of parents cannot be trusted with meeting out corporal punishment to their children. Disciplining children must pursue other avenues to bring correction other than corporal punishment.
Nor is abolishing corporal punishment in the home (where most physical abuse occurs) a threat to religious freedom. The SAHRC are looking at corporal punishment through the lenses of the high rate of dysfunctional violence against children within the family unit. JGC’s reaction to the SAHRC insistence on banning corporal punishment as a threat to religious freedom is short-sighted and futile. JGC is looking at the SAHRC concern with squinted myopic vision. The SAHRC armed with its disciplines of sociology and psychology is better equipped to voice their concern at the declining fabric of family structure through physical and sexual violence. The church needs to dialogue with the SAHRC and not react to her concerns.
Coming back to the theme of corporal discipline in Scripture Bradshaw (1996:47) wisely writes, ‘Almost nowhere in Scripture is there any widespread permission to spank children. A few isolated texts have been made into an entire pedagogical edifice. Society was also totally non-democratic in biblical times.’
This leaves us with the question which needs further robust debate: ‘Can the theme of corporal punishment in Proverbs be applied to our South African culture, which reflects a society that has traumatized its children through the means of physical violence, rape and murder?’ Given the sociological dysfunction of our nation the focus should rather be on finding alternative methods of disciplining children. To focus on a few verses of Scripture to justify physical discipline of children is tantamount to eisegesis.
Corporal Punishment from a Psychological/Sociological Perspective
Let’s begin with the response of the SAHRC through its lawyer Tammy Carter. In an email to JGC in response to a query from the church, Tammy Carter, Senior Legal Officer in the Western Cape Office of the SAHRC says: ‘… the SAHRC does indeed regard corporeal punishment (the infliction of physical pain) as falling within the definition of abuse maltreatment neglect and degradation. Your understanding is therefore correct. The SAHRC also argues that the infliction of psychological and /or emotional harm is included in this definition.’
A careful examination of the SAHRC’s definition clearly defines their understanding of the dysfunctional nature of South African society with regard to children. A nation traumatized by such high levels of violence against children has no option but to find different avenues of punishing children. It is my opinion that the church has a great role to play in this regard alongside the family of sociologists and psychologists who bear the brunt of child abuse through illegitimate corporal means of punishment.
Psychologist John Bradshaw (1996:145-146) writing on the subject of child abuse offers helpful insights into what exactly constitutes violence in the context of corporal punishment. Firstly, Bradshaw points out that no form of abuse is more binding than physical violence. The victim bonds to the abuser out of terror – terror for his or her life. Secondly, spanking a child that results in tears, pain and trauma is severely shaming and does have a negative impact of the self-worth of the child. Bradshaw (1996:147) writes, ‘The more victims think they are lowly and flawed as human beings, the more their choices diminish. They become bonded to violence.’
Thirdly, Bradshaw (1996:150) explains that slapping, jostling, pinching, shoving etc. are often done in public. It may be in public places or in front of brothers and sisters or older children. Shame is the feeling of being exposed before you are ready to be exposed…Children are frequently made to take their pants down to get spanked.’ Fourthly, a child who is repeatedly spanked for being naughty will develop learned helplessness or hopelessness.
As a pastor I have a deep love for the Word of God and proclaiming its truth, as well as preserving its purity. The Book of Proverbs does advocate that using the rod is a means to discipline children. But how we apply these proverbs to disciplining children in South Africa, given its practice of violence against children must be carefully and prayerfully debated. There are far more beneficial ways of disciplining children both for parents and the child than applying corporal punishment.
Senior Pastor of Joshua Generation, Andrew Selley and his wife Emma Selley. Selley is calling on the SA Church to act now to defend religious freedom.
A Cape Town church that is being investigated by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) over its doctrine on corporal punishment is calling on the Church to stand united against a Government attack on religious freedom.
The SAHRC is investigating a complaint against Joshua Generation Church (JGC) for teaching the Biblical doctrine of ’spare the rod, spoil the child’. But JGC Senior Pastor, Andrew Selley, who has consulted with religious rights attorneys, said the real issue is an attempt by the State to limit religious and family freedom, which if not opposed, could lead to the ‘outlawing’ of teachings of the Christian church and the Bible.
“We are calling on Muslims and Jews to act as well because it is about fighting for religious freedom,” Selley said in an interview today.
Churches and other religious organisations are asked to consider signing a support letter calling on the SAHRC to dismiss the complaint against JGC. They may place the letter or some variation of it on their letterhead and send it to GKC Attorneys, Attention: G Claassen, PO Box 119, Cape Town, 8000, or email it to: firstname.lastname@example.org. The correspondence should reach JGC by September 5 in order to give them time to include it in their response to the SAHRC which is due a week later.
This morning Selley said that to date there has been an ‘overwhelming response’ from individual supporters and that several big churches in Johannesburg have come on board.
Family Policy Institute Director Errol Naidoo today endorsed Selley’s appeal to church leaders, saying: “If Joshua Generation cannot teach what the Bible teaches on corporal punishment that means that the entire church will have to surrender its right to teach Biblical Christian principles, because if the Human Rights Commission or any Government agency can dictate what the church can or cannot teach it means the end of church autonomy.
“It is vital and necessary for the church to stand united against this totalitarian intrusion into its legitimate working.”
In an email to JGC in response to a query from the church, Tammy Carter, Senior Legal Officer in the Western Cape Office of the SAHRC, says: “… the SAHRC does indeed regard corporeal punishment (the infliction of physical pain) as falling within the definition of abuse maltreatment neglect and degradation. Your understanding is therefore correct. The SAHRC also argues that the infliction of psychological and / or emotional harm is included in this definition.
“The complaint relates to the situation where ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ is preached. There is no specific incident being complained of. My understanding is that by its lessons the church encourages and promotes the use of punishment rather than invoking positive discipline.”
In a letter to Christian leaders Selley addresses the SAHRC’s ‘maltreatment’ remarks. He says: “This amounts to a caricature of the church’s teaching in relation to the Scriptural basis of parental discipline and suggests that the church is encouraging conduct that would lead to ‘maltreatment, neglect, abuse and degradation’ by the simple fact of its endorsing corporal punishment. Such an approach interferes with a careful set of qualifications about parental discipline involving corporal punishment in the teaching of JGC and, in any case, in our view unduly entangles the State (in the form of the HRC) in the internal workings of both religion and family life.”
He also shares some extracts from JGC’s instruction manual on raising children that discuss the context for corporal punishment, urging balance, love, calmness and the avoidance of harshness. In a personal note on a JGC blog post Selley says: “As a pastor who deals daily with people, I consistently find that children who are not/were not spanked, are the most boundary-less and broken. My belief in spanking is a deep conviction based upon my belief in God and His Word, on my own conscience and my observations of how life works.”
Corporal punishment in the home is not illegal in South Africa but it has been outlawed at schools since 2006. The Government is currently working on draft legislation to outlaw spanking at home.
African Christian Democratic Alliance (ACDP) MP Cheryllyn Dudley, who met with JGC leaders today, advised the church to use the opportunity of the SAHRC investigation to inform the commission that it is aware of the problem of violence against children in South Africa and offers parenting courses and other guidance to equip parents to discipline their children in a safe, and non-abusive way.
Selley said the church will inform the commission of its responsible parenting measures as well as its community outreach projects aimed at protecting children.
“At the same time we hope that the church in SA will rally around us and tell the commission to back off,” he said.
The SAHRC investigation of JGC is the second recent case in which the State human rights watchdog’s activities have raised questions about an apparent agenda of attacking religious freedom. In April the SAHRC found Creare Christian Arts Training Centre in Bloemfontein guilty of discriminating against homosexuals for holding a Bible-based view that homosexual practice is sinful. Creare is appealing against the ruling which will be decided in the Constitutional Court.