Child Abuse: An Overview

Child Physical Abuse and Corporal Punishment

Many states have exceptions for corporal punishment written into their child abuse laws. These same states also have exceptions for children denied medical treatment for religious reasons written into their laws. Because corporal punishment is so frequently justified by referring to religious teachings and values, a discussion of those religious teachings and values is needed. Rev. David and Anne Delaplane very eloquently discuss the religious and spiritual dimensions of child abuse and neglect in their article Victims of Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, Elder Abuse, Rape, Robbery, Assault, and Violent Death, A Manual for Clergy and Congregations, Special Edition for Military Chaplains, Section I: Child Abuse and Neglect”.10 Sections of their article are excerpted here. Please go and read the article in full. It contains a section entitled, “Scriptural References About Children,” a list of scriptures useful for addressing the concerns of children and others in society who are vulnerable, starting with Genesis 21:16, “Let me not look upon the death of a child…”

The following is excerpted from Victims of Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, Elder Abuse, Rape, Robbery, Assault, and Violent Death, A Manual for Clergy and Congregations, Special Edition for Military Chaplains, Section I: Child Abuse and Neglect”.10


The issues of discipline and punishment always arise in any consideration of child physical abuse because this is the primary justification given as reason to beat, burn or cut a child.

For this reason there will follow a separate consideration of corporal punishment or discipline, particularly in the light of Biblical injunctions concerning the use of the rod. However, a statement on the subject by the Medical Director of a Child Protection Team in a Florida Regional Medical Center seems to fit, more appropriately in this definition section.

“For children in abusive families, ‘discipline’ is neither educational nor constructive. It does not teach proper behavior attitudes. It simply produces injury — either physical or emotional — that frequently requires some sort of medical intervention. ‘Disciplinary’ actions that leave marks are abusive actions.” (Tokarski, Penny, M.D., Orlando, Florida: Abuse and Religion

, Lexington Books.)

Child Physical Abuse and Corporal Punishment/Discipline

Although the phrase, “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” is not a Biblical text, there is no doubt that it reflects the meaning of two or three of the strongest Biblical Proverbs on child rearing.

These passages from the book of Proverbs read, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” (Proverbs 13:24, King James Version, KJV) “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.” (Proverbs 22:15, KJV) “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. If you beat him with the rod you will save his life from Sheol” (“soul from hell” Authorized KJV). (Proverbs 23:13, 15, KJV)

All other Biblical texts which speak of child rearing, with the possible exception of Hebrews 12:6 which speaks of “chastising” (“scourging” in the Authorized KJV), use more general, positive terms such as “discipline,” “nurture” and “train up.”There are those texts that would even seem to contradict the Proverbs texts, a primary example being Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the nurture and instruction of the Lord.”

Professionals who daily must deal with child physical abuse uniformly speak of the fact that most physical abuse results from attempts to punish or control the child, which attempt has escalated to produce physical harm. For this reason, many are concerned when religions, on the basis of the above quoted passages, advocate the use of the rod.

One pediatrician who works with physically abused children in hospital emergency room situations has said, “I do not understand that quote from Proverbs which says, ‘If you beat him with a rod he will not die.’ The fact is, many do die.”

All Biblical scholars, including fundamental Christian teachers, know that, on the surface, at least, there are apparent contradictions between various sections and books of scripture. However, the fundamental scholar, who believes in the literal inerrancy of the entire Biblical text, will resolve these by pointing out the differences of time, place and dispensation.

In the case of potential child abuse by physical beating, it becomes extremely important that such scholars do resolve these apparent discrepancies. Perhaps this could be done by pointing to the “New Covenant” emphasis upon the positive teachings which follow the model of Jesus’ treatment of children, or of the apostle Paul’s definition of love in I Corinthians 13. (Note: the reference here has been to Christian scholarship. It is of interest that there seems not to be as much emphasis on these “use of the rod” passages as justification for corporal punishment in the Jewish tradition which gave us these Proverbs.)

It is not the place of this discussion to deal with theological issues, however. The manner in which this is resolved theologically must be left to each minister, priest, rabbi or imam.

Child Abuse Introduction   |   Signs of Child Abuse
Child Abuse Statistics   |   It’s Under Reported
Effects of Child Abuse on Children: Abuse General
Effects of Child Abuse on Children: Child Sexual Abuse
Injuries to Children: Physical and Sexual Abuse
Effects of Child Abuse on Adults: Childhood Abuse
Effects of Child Abuse on Adults: Childhood Sexual Abuse
Definition of Physical Abuse   |   Signs of Physical Abuse
Definition of Sexual Abuse   |   Signs of Sexual Abuse
Definition of Child Neglect   |   Signs of Child Neglect
Definition of Emotional Abuse   |   Signs of Emotional Abuse
Abusers   |   Pedophiles
Child Physical Abuse and Corporal Punishment
Treatment for Child Abuse
Costs to Society
State Child Abuse Laws
Nationwide Crisis Line and Hotline Directory

Referring to this article:
“Child Abuse: An Overview” was written by C. J. Newton, MA, Learning Specialist and published in the Find (formerly Mental Health Journal in April, 2001.

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