We are all products of our times. Although we like to think otherwise, unless we evaluate our practices and traditions from a Biblical perspective, we are likely to be using the methods of secular society and adapting to the ways of the world. We are expressly told in Scripture that although we are in the world, we are not to be of the world. In fact, Jesus’ prayer for us to the Father was: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15).
When it comes to parenting children, the prevalence of humanistic thinking in our day is more influenced and directed by the world of child psychology than it is by Scriptural mandates. What’s more, because the concept of discipline is often reduced to corporal punishment, many professing Christian parents have ignored or abandoned Biblical methods in the training of their children.
What Is Discipline?
R.J. Rushdoony, in his Institutes of Biblical Law, devotes an entire section to this subject. He states,
An important and basic aspect of church law is discipline; it is also a very much-misunderstood subject in church, school, and family life. To illustrate this misunderstanding, the case of a pious couple with an erring and seriously delinquent daughter can be cited. Complaining because of her behavior, her unmarried and pregnant condition, and her contempt of their authority, the parents insisted that they had “disciplined” her regularly. She had been deprived of various privileges, and had been frequently slapped and spanked when younger. All of this was true, but the fact remained that the child had grown up radically undisciplined. The parents had confused, as all too many people do, chastisement or punishment with discipline, and the two are markedly different. Discipline is systematic training and submission to authority, and it is the result of such training. Chastisement or punishment is the penalty or beating administered for departure from authority. Clearly, discipline and chastisement are related subjects, but just as clearly they are distinct.1
In addition, the pendulum can, and often does, swing to extremes.
If You Only Have a Hammer, All You See Are Nails
There are parents who resort to chastisement and punishment as the primary (and sometimes only) tools in their toolbox. They mistakenly think that with enough force they can make their children good. However, as I always remind those I mentor, whereas you can control your children’s speech and behavior to a point, you cannot control their thinking. It is the job of parents to inform their thinking with the law-word of God as the basis.
Granted, force and coercion often are the quickest route to achieving one’s end. But they only work up to a point. If they are the only tools utilized, children are apt to come to the conclusion that might makes right, or money makes right, or age makes right. When those particulars change, you are left with someone who only has had those tools modeled for them. On the contrary, the systematic education in all aspects of life from a Biblical world and life view makes use of all the tools of teaching, correcting, admonishing, chastising, rewarding, and punishing. The law-word of God provides instruction for parents in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, exhorting them not to exasperate in the process.
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Eph. 6:4)
Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. (Col. 3:21)
Parenting by Humanistic Methods
Then there are parents who are intimidated by the critics of the Bible and refuse to utilize the means laid out in Scripture. Instead of applying the law of God even to the least of infractions, they employ worldly principles that only lessen the authority of the parents and fail to bring about the result of godly disciplinary actions.
When a child damages or breaks something, the principle of restitution is rarely invoked. If the child repeatedly demonstrates defiance and rebellion after appropriate instruction, parents will fail to use the rod of discipline as the Bible instructs. Instead, they do a version of our ungodly prison system and issue a “time out” or “send them to their room,” or “ground them.” In other words, their methods are environmentally informed rather than Biblically informed.
Rushdoony discusses the pagan roots of the prison system and the humanism behind it:
It came to be believed that imprisonment could have a saving effect on man, that punishment in the form of a loss of liberty would lead to reformation …
Punishment next gave way, in the humanist ideology, to rehabilitation, and prisons began to be converted into rehabilitation centers. Thus, in California, one class of prisons is known as a “correctional facility.” The “old doctrine … that the purpose of the criminal law is to exact from the criminal a retributive suffering proportionate to the heinousness of the offense” has given way to “the effort … to combine deterrence and public protection with restoration of the offender to a more self-sustaining role in the community.” This opinion reveals certain basic errors. First, criminal law is invested with a religious and messianic role, a duty to save criminals. This is asking of the law more than law can deliver. Second, it misinterprets history. Retribution is seen as exacting suffering; this was true of humanistic law, but not of biblical law, wherein retribution or vengeance is the prerogative of God and His instruments and involves giving justice where justice is due (Luke 18:1–8). Third, this opinion is individualistic, not social, and it concentrates on the person of the criminal, not the victim. Thus, Bennett notes, “The current trend in the disposition of offenders is unmistakably toward individualized penal treatment administered within the framework of a flexible criminal code.” Salvation is personal, and the law now concerns itself with saving the person of the criminal.
This personal frame of reference has led to the newer emphasis on mental health, on psychiatric treatment as the answer to criminality.2
And isn’t this exactly what parents are emulating when they fail to utilize the guidelines of Scripture? How many default to the inherent goodness of their children and write off bad behavior because their age makes them not responsible for their actions?3 By using deprivation or isolation as the means by which to inform the conscience of children, in the absence of clear Biblical teaching and consequences, we not only do them a disservice, but the society as a whole suffers.
Rushdoony’s comments fly in the face of modern psychological theory when it comes to bad behavior in general, let alone in children.
[W]e have seen that the [Biblical] principle is life for life, i.e., a punishment proportionate to the crime. This crime has no reference to the criminal or his mentality but only to the nature of the act. If death is the penalty for animals on the principle of life for life, then this is certainly true for men. Thus, on this principle, biblical law has no plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Neither is there any privileged status before the law for a minor.4
Churches that isolate children by removing them at the time of the sermon are asserting that children are incapable of understanding the truths of God. However, those who encourage children to be in attendance but allow for them to play or read or color or be disruptive in lieu of paying attention to what is being taught, are also delinquent in their view of little ones. Parents must prepare their children for instruction and attentiveness by modeling the behavior in their homes on a regular and consistent basis.
By missing the key ingredients of teaching with the purpose of understanding, and requiring feedback to make sure they have internalized the instruction, it is possible to concentrate on the wrong things. Many prioritize academic achievement, artistic ability, or athletic prowess over and above the importance of character. If a child exhibits arrogance, defiance, or disrespect, rest assured there is little fear of the Lord in that child. Whatever gains are accomplished in these other areas, they end up being undercut when the foundations have not been laid.
Thus, a child should be instructed at the earliest age that God’s law requires his parents to administer certain consequences for behavior. And these consequences can be pleasant or unpleasant. If a child obeys with an attitude of cooperation and respect, there should be rewards (a smile, a hug, an extra benefit). If the child is contrary, obstinate, or disrespectful, the appropriate consequence (a look, a spanking, and the elimination of a benefit) should be employed. But in both cases, there needs to be time spent in understanding the “why” of each. It is imperative that children are able to identify which commandment of God was violated in order to truly repent. Likewise, restitution should be enforced when it comes to damaging or taking something that does not belong to them. And if a child bears false witness about another, the Bible’s mandate in terms of perjury is important to instill and enforce.
On the Job Training
In my children’s read-aloud storybooks,5 I chronicle some of the events in my household with my children when they were growing up. I changed the names, but the circumstances recounted were real. As my husband and I were learning Biblical law, we endeavored to apply it to the circumstances of family life even though we knew we were far from being experts. When we weren’t certain how to proceed, we sought out advice from more seasoned Christian parents, who demonstrated good fruit in their parenting. And we continued to be students of the Word, recognizing that we would get better with practice but that we’d apply what we did know.
There are numerous times where resorting to the ways of the world would have been easier and less time-consuming. But that would just mean that I would be postponing important lessons that we all needed to learn. Aside from the benefit my children received, I was preparing for my all-important role as a Titus 2 woman, ready to teach younger women how to love their children by treating them like true children rather than illegitimate ones.6
And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“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. (Heb. 12:5–11)
God Keeps His Promises
Although the concept of God as a faithful promise keeper is often only discussed in the positive, it is important for children to learn, without a doubt, that He is faithful to administer His judgments as well. This does not eliminate the reality of God’s mercy, but it is important for children to learn at a very young age that God’s Word does not return to Him void (Isa. 55:11). That is why from the earliest of ages, regardless if they seem to understand or not, it is important that the full counsel of God is proclaimed to them. Catechizing children is a great way to steer the daily conversations of family life into the important doctrines of the Christian faith.7 Assume they understand, persist in your instruction, and before long you will see that they do!
The task of parenting is not for the weak of heart. However, if the ways of the world are used rather than the ways of the Lord, the results look a lot like the collapsing humanism surrounding us. As Christians, we are here to provide the Kingdom alternative.
1. R. J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1973), pp. 765–766.
2. Institutes, pp. 516–517.
3. A number of parents have told me that their pediatrician claimed it is pointless to discipline a child until the age of four, because they cannot discern right and wrong until then. This is unbiblical to the core.
4. Institutes, p. 231.
5. Teach Me While My Heart Is Tender and Family Matters are both available from chalcedonstore.com
6. Illegitimate children are often referred to as bastards. What is now a general pejorative term was originally rendered to comment on the undisciplined nature of one without the benefit of a father.
7. Let me recommend Rushdoony’s Good Morning, Friends as an excellent family devotional.