Adrian Peterson, Christians and corporal punishment…

shutterstock_55828699It was only a matter of time…from the CNN Belief blog:

There’s one detail about the Adrian Peterson child abuse charges that no one seems to be noting: his alleged crimes didn’t happen simply under the guise of “parenting” but rather “Christian parenting.”

But the NFL star’s Christianity shouldn’t be missed or undervalued in the sharp debate about his actions. Those of us who grew up in conservative Christian churches know all too well the culture that shapes the parenting beliefs of people like Peterson.

Today, the most notable proponents of spanking are American evangelicals. They not only preach the gospel of corporal punishment, they also impart messages that lay the foundations for abuses against children and the protection of such abuse by our legal system.

We have books about spanking. Popular Christian talk shows promote the benefits of spanking. Pastors preach and theologize spanking. Organizations like Focus on the Family offer parents resources about how and when to spank.

The ties between Christianity and corporal punishment are so strong that a large number of conservative Christians parents simple deny studies that suggest spanking does more harm than good.

Now, I’m not saying that evangelical churches are to blame for what Peterson did to his son. But the church isn’t innocent in the matter, either.

Peterson TweetMuch was made in certain media circles about Adrian Peterson’s first tweet (pictured at right) following his recent indictment in Texas for child endangering. Peterson has publicly identified himself as a Christian in media interviews, albeit a Christian with a messy and complicated personal life.

Those with negative views of Christianity will undoubtedly seek to use this most recent incident and the media discussion around the data suggesting that “born-again” Christians are more likely than Religious Gap on SpankingAmericans in general to view spanking as an acceptable discipline strategy with children. (see right, from FiveThirtyEight).

Allow me to share three questions for your consideration from my perch as a physician specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry who also serves in a disability ministry organization…

Is this our “hill to die on?”

I’ve been wrestling with this topic from a Biblical standpoint and from a professional standpoint. I started by going back through the Bible, digging into Strong’s dictionary looking up the definitions of the relevant words in Hebrew. Proverbs 23:13-14 was especially challenging. My ultimate take (without sharing 5,000 words of Bible commentary) is that this is a disputable issue among faithful Christians, and the question of whether Christian parents are required to use physical punishment in disciplining their kids isn’t foundational to our faith. Every verse is equally inspired and equally true…but not every verse is equally important. The big idea I see throughout Scripture is the importance placed upon parents actively engaged in the loving discipline of their children.

I don’t consider all corporal punishment as inappropriate or abusive, although I don’t recall an incident of using spanking in our home when our kids were growing up. They’re good kids who generally make pretty good decisions. I don’t believe my wife and I are in violation of Scripture because we didn’t use that technique. At the same time, I don’t have a problem with a parent who, in their best judgment with forethought, planning and good emotional control uses brief spankings resulting in temporary discomfort with a child engaging in potentially harmful behavior when evidence exists that spankings are helpful for the child in question.

I heard a great analogy while discussing this topic with one of our child fellows who worked for many years with traumatized kids in which she compared spanking/corporal punishment with medication…her comment was that spanking is like a medicine that may be helpful in certain situations, but isn’t something we’d typically use as our first choice when we have other medicines that are equally helpful or more helpful that lack the potential for serious adverse effects associated with spanking if kids get too large a dose.

In terms of the “big picture” of how we publicly live out our faith, do we as a Christian community want to allow the issue of whether corporal punishment is required by Scripture to define us when the potential exists for the issue to become a stumbling block to others who might be considering the claims of Christ?

Are kids with disabilities more likely to experience corporal punishment?

We need to consider that kids with our most common disabilities are much more likely to experience difficulties with self-control, emotional self-regulation and delaying gratification compared to their same-age peers. Many struggle with a lack of cognitive flexibility to consider a variety of responses when problems occur. Others have issues with applying lessons learned in one situation in a slightly different situation. I’d hypothesize that kids with less obvious disabilities are often the recipients of more corporal punishment, especially here in America.

Corporal punishment is still permitted in public schools in nineteen U.S. states. Data collected by the U.S. Department of Education suggests that kids with disabilities are significantly more likely to experience corporal punishment in school when compared with “typical” peers…

Corporal Punishment Disability

Here’s a paper published in The Lancet examining the worldwide prevalence of violence against children with disabilities. Note: While I’m not characterizing spanking as constituting “violence,” I would hypothesize that a greater risk exists for spanking to increase in frequency and intensity when kids have more difficulty with self-control. This analysis of seventeen studies across different cultures suggested that kids with moderate to severe disabilities are 3.56 times more likely to experience physical violence compared to “typical” peers.

If kids with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by corporal punishment, do those of us who serve as disability ministry leaders need to influence this conversation within the church?

Are we increasing the number of kids impacted by disabilities when corporal punishment goes too far?

Here’s a study of 25,000+ adults in Canada looking at the association between child abuse and mental health. Adjusting for socioeconomic factors and other interview-identified mental disorders, adults exposed to physical abuse as children were 2.3 times more likely to meet criteria for one or more mental illnesses compared to non-abused peers. Here’s data from the Adverse Childhood Experiences study conducted in the U.S., outlining a myriad of mental and physical health conditions experienced by those exposed to traumatic experiences in childhood.

Given the barrage of attacks Christianity faces here in the U.S. by those seeking to secularize the culture, the level of support among Christians for corporal punishment in the aftermath of the Adrian Peterson case will be used as a club against the church. How important is this issue to the foundational truths of our faith? How should pastors and other ministry leaders speak into this issue?

We better be prepared with an answer…soon.


KM Logo UpdatedKey Ministry is pleased to make available our FREE consultation service to pastors, church leaders and ministry volunteers. Got questions about launching a ministry that you can’t answer…here we are! Have a kid you’re struggling to serve? Contact us! Want to kick around a problem with someone who’s “been there and done that?” Click here to submit a request!

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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1 Response to Adrian Peterson, Christians and corporal punishment…

  1. Thank you again for your consistent and balanced approach in your advocacy for children, families, the church and Christ. Your love for God and the families you serve is very evident and your reminders to place Christ at the center of every decision we make as we work with the individuals He sends us, are light in an increasingly disturbing world.
    Thank you for your courage.


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