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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

Warn Them to Not Abuse Their Children


Do your church members physically abuse their children? Maybe you think it’s so few that you don't feel compelled to teach publicly what everyone knows: don't abuse your kids. At most it's one or two bad apples, right?

I'm not so sure.

I cannot say that I want to write about this topic, and I’m no expert. But I keep stumbling into abuse situations in one church or another. And in every case it's been a “model family” who abused their children in the name of what they thought was “biblical discipline.” In other words, I’m talking about well-meaning parents.

Sometimes anger was to blame. The parents confess that their temper got the best of them when their discipline left bruises. Then again, something about their overall approach regularly leaves cuts, welts, or bruises.

Sometimes a severe deficiency of wisdom was to blame. I heard of one couple who spanked their six-month old. Or another who would strike different body parts of their older children with a hard object. And all of these parents believed they were doing the right thing. 

Defining abuse would take another article. But like the Supreme Court justice said about pornography, you know it when you see it. You can see the frightened child backing away as their young eyes behold the grotesque ungodliness storming toward them.

Could this be a larger problem in Christian homes than we realize? I can’t imagine there are accurate statistics for this kind of thing. But whatever those statistics would show, I’ve become increasingly convicted that pastors, Sunday School teachers, and small group leaders need to teach parents to not abuse their children. And I think elder and deacon nominees should be asked if they ever have been abusive. I trust that many older and wiser pastors do, and I’m happy for men like this to chuckle at a younger man like me for finally waking up to what they’ve long known and practiced. Perhaps I only need to say it for today's generation.

Why today's generation? Western culture at large has become so undisciplined that churches are rightly taking more care in training parents to “raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” This is biblical. As the culture slides, Christian parenting should increasingly look different than the world’s, including in discipline.

I trust you’ve sat in a restaurant, as I have, and watched someone’s child assert dominance. The parent desperately tries to appease the child, but to no avail. You honestly feel sorry for both parent and child, wishing the parent knew that God had given him or her authority, because both parent and child are miserable together when God’s good gift of authority is abandoned. Christians, generally, understand that authority can be a good thing. God exercises authority for the sake of authoring life in others, and he means for us to do the same.

But friends, how capable of sinfully stumbling we remain. How quickly anger can get a hold of us. And how wrong our parental “wisdom” can turn out to be. We must not forget that all of us are prone to abusing authority. Do you think you’re exempt? Then I wouldn’t want to be your child.

Mark Dever often says that the abuse of authority is a particularly heinous sin. Authority abused, he explains, egregiously lies about what God is like.

Husbands, parents, pastors, employers, office-holders, be warned. God hates the abuse of authority, and he will punish it. He will bring justice.

Homeschooling parents, have you isolated yourselves and not invited other parents into your life to check yourself against? Double-income parents, have you piled so many things into your schedule that you have become short-tempered? Dads, do you labor all day to bring order to the office, and then blow a gasket when you find disorder at home? Moms, do you fear what other parents will think about your children and therefore feel the need to control them?

So back to where I began: Do you as a pastor assume that child abuse is so rare that it's not worth publicly addressing? I increasingly wonder if there is more abuse going on among “good Christians” than we realize.

Let me then plead with you: instruct your members, for the sake of the impatient and the unwise. Exhort them to not abuse any of the authority that God has given them, especially over weaker ones. How we damage their understanding of God when we do. Explain what wise discipline looks like. Depending on the forum, you should probably get into the nuts and bolts. It might seem obvious to never spank a six month old, but you just might serve several families in your church by speaking those words outloud. I have also told members who struggle with anger to never, ever, ever pursue discipline when angry--to decide that it's better "to let the kid get away with it," if you must, than it is to risk abusing them. You should also define abuse more carefully than I have done here.

Then encourage your members to build friendships in the church where they can confess even their really ugly sin to one another. Assure them of the elders love and desire to help them fight sin.

And, of course, watch your own life and parenting. Invite younger parents into your home. My wife and I have learned scads about discipline by sitting at the dinner table of older and godlier parents, and even joined them upstairs after dinner as they read to their kids and put them to bed.

God is so tender, and gentle, and long-suffering with us. What a privilege we have to model that with our children, and teach our churches to do the same.

Topics: Pastoring

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I believe all pastors, teachers, elders, deacons would be well served to read your article, as well as Rebecca Prewett's classic "Avoiding Millstones":

I grew up knowing that abuse.... I eventually came to terms with the sexual and physical abuse, then wrote a book about it
Coming of age.. we need to speak up, let our voices be heard, because God is not bad, people that Abuse in the name of God are bad. We need more churches to reach out to our wounded souls across America.


Thank you for posting this... it is a timely word for me to remember to discipline lovingly and graciously, and also to help those in my church. This is a fine line not often defined in church between biblical discipline and abuse, so thank you for starting the conversation.

Good and timely article. I wonder, though, about the question of whether it is always wrong to spank a 6 month old? It seems that Tedd Tripp in "Shepherding a Child's Heart" had a different perspective--that when a child is old enough to resist your directives, s/he is old enough to be spanked (not excessively, nor out of anger of course.) He even uses the example of a child on the changing table refusing to stop kicking. What do others think? At what age is loving corporal punishment appropriate, and conversely at what age/level of maturity does it cease to be effective?

To Guest: You don't spank babies.....period! It's pretty irresponsible for Tripp to give that kind of advice (i.e. spanking a baby on the changing table etc.)IMHO......you just don't know what some people will take and do with that. Obviously, there are some pretty unstable parents out there.

Thank you Mr. Leeman, so much for this post. I too wish that pastors would exhort the sheep NOT to abuse their children. It is so heartbreaking to me when I read news stories of children being beaten to death etc. and all in the name of "Godly discipline." We are supposed to be showing our kids the grace of God. How many times does He show us grace each and every day? How can we not extend this to our children? Child abuse should never be tolerated......ESPECIALLY among Christians!

I am a mother of nine, so I know what it is like to be frustrated with your children, believe me. But the older I get, the more I see the need to err on the side of grace. Whenever I start to get angry with my kids, I never feel godly. But when I show them grace and am patient with them, I feel like I am showing them a glimpse of their heavenly Father.

Thank you again, I hope pastors/elders are listening!

Can't help noticing how this dovetails with Bobby Jamieson's post on trying to "command success." Two books on spiritual parenting may help: "Give them Grace" and "What Children Need the Most."

This is such a good and timely article and I so appreciate your writing it. Unfortunately, there is a large demographic within the evangelical church that believes some of the more abusive methods of raising children is actually commanded in Scripture. I absolutely agree that this needs to be challenged and taught from the pulpit etc. As an older mom and grandmother to 12 little ones, I take every opportunity I can to encourage moms to build solid, grace-based relationships with their children. I have several good books I like to recommend and give as baby shower gifts: Grace-Based Parenting by Tim Kimmel, Families Where Grace is in Place by Jeff Van Vonderan, and Heartfelt Discipline by Clay Clarkson, which is soon to be re-released. We need to do all we can to challenge abusive teachings and behaviors and to present another way to disciple our precious children.

What is considered "spanking" and what is a "baby"? Is it okay to pat a 9 month old through his diaper when he refuses to stop putting his hand near the fire?

I think one could argue a little spat on the behind when the baby starts crawling will save quite a bit of real spanking later on in a child's life.

Jonathan, I wonder if the "rod" mentioned in Proverbs ever left a bruise on a child? Not that anyone should set out to bruise their child.

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Good insights. Thank you. I will pass this along to others!

“Fathers do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged” (Colossians 3:21).

Ways fathers discourage children:

Verbal abuse: Harsh criticism, a sarcastic and demeaning tone of voice, name calling.

Physical abuse: Excessive discipline, fits of rage leading to slaps or punches.

Moodiness: Irritability, emotional distance, bitterness and vengeance, constant complaining, mental preoccupation.

Inconsistency: Uneven discipline, broken promises, hypocrisy, unspoken expectations, irregularity of rules, fluctuation between unreasonable strictness and unpredictable permissiveness.

Favoritism: Choosing one child over the other. (Fathers sometimes unknowingly do this to their daughters when preoccupied with their son’s sports activities.)

Please also remind pastors to warn parents against verbal and emotional abuse. My mom's friends and the people at my church only saw the smiling friendly woman who volunteered for everything. They never knew the monster she was at home at times. Sometimes it was so bad that every muscle in my body would tense when she walked into the room. I hid from her because I never knew when she would launch into a verbal tirade of condemnation. Then at church she would be all smiles and sweetness.

I'm a woman but I still struggle with a misogynistic attitude toward other women. I get butterflies in my stomach when I attend a women's Bible study. It's getting better but I have a long way to go.

Pastors must warn parents not to exasperate their children just as Paul warned the Ephesians.

Thanks for this article. I think it would be great if maybe you could follow up by clarifying a bit more about verbal and emotional abuse. My mother had a serious anger problem and while she would sometimes spank us in anger often she would avoid this because she knew it would be physical abuse. However she would shout and scream abuse at us instead which had a serious negative emotional impact even though it didn't physically hurt.

I wrote my own article on this last year after the death of Lydia Schatz, who was beaten to death after she mispronounced a word in her home school reading lesson. This post continues to get a steady stream of visitors every week, showing that this is a very pertinent topic in Christian families. http://comewearymoms.blogspot.com/2010/02/child-discipline-or-child-abuse.html

Like my friend and fellow home school mom Karen Campbell (who writes at www.thatmom.com), I also highly recommend Grace Based Parenting by Dr. Tim Kimmel. I am in the middle of a series of reflections on this book. You can find them here: http://comewearymoms.blogspot.com/search/label/Reflections%20on%20Grace%20Based%20Parenting%20Book

What about sexual abuse? My dad was a leader in the church and no one believed any of what I said because they only saw what our family was like around other people. When a teen is suicidal all the time, begins spending a lot of time alone, no longer wants anything to do with church, doesn't want to go to school, etc, those are warning signs and everyone missed them in my life. Everyone stood with my dad and I pretty much lost my friends and extended family over this.

My advice to everyone would be to check your state's laws. I have heard of cases where parents follow the advice of experts only to have their children taken away because they were breaking their state's law.

I spent most of my life believing that spanking was commanded by the Bible. It wasn't until we were expecting our precious child that I began to read for myself. I discovered that whole books and parenting philosophies have been based on TWO verses out of Proverbs. One that doesn't mention children, and another that could be taken as hyperbole. The vast majority of Proverbs refers to "discipline" as verbal instruction, and yet whole generations have grown up in church feeling as if they are soft and weak if they don't physically dominate their children.

Have you ever read Debbie and Michael Pearl...dangerous advice.

re: Pearls, their books were given to us by family members we love and trust, who love God and adore their (very happy and well-behaved) children. It doesn't mean the Pearls are correct in all the details of their approach, but my point is that it can be very tough for a Christian parent in this century to figure out who exactly to listen to. Everyone who writes and teaches about Christian parenting claims to be basing their methods on Scripture...but they can't all be right, can they? And is there any room for disagreement here? Some say spanking is *always* wrong; others say spanking is *commanded* by God. Again, I just hope that we can help and encourage one another in pursuit of truly pleasing God in this area, and not get hung up on being accusatory and superior.

As a parent of 2 kids under 5, I have been very frustrated and confused by some of the 'Christian' parenting advice I have received. There are many Bible teachers I trust who disagree about exactly what appropriate discipline looks like. My plea to those of you who are older and more experienced is to please try and maintain an attitude of openness and compassion toward us younger parents as we try to prayerfully and humbly train our children according to God's will. I am honestly not sure about how all the details should work out regarding when and how spanking should be used, but I do know that the one thing which allows true abuse to occur is SECRECY. Parents need to be able to ask questions and openly discuss these topics without fear of being stigmatized as abusers if they reveal that they parent in a way their church does not recommend. I'm not saying that abuse should ever be tolerated; I just want to point out that there are many of us who are trying very hard to do this right and we need your HELP as brothers and sisters in Christ.

I'm very curious about how non-homeschooling parents "invite other parents into your life to check yourself against?" What exactly does this mean?

I am convinced that this is a huge underground problem among Christian parents. We will not be spanking our children for several reasons, but one reason is that I could not bear to see my husband do such a thing. It would be too much of a trigger.

I was the child of the "model" Christian family. My childhood had a lot of love and many positives. But traumas stick out in your memory over positives. I always had a hard time calling my experience "abuse." I tend to think of abuse as something that warranted a call to the police, and I'm not sure that it was that extreme. But being chased down by a raging parent, screamed at, and spanked by someone who was completely out of control messed me up in ways that I didn't understand till I was an adult. I always claimed I had been "spanked and turned out ok" and "it didn't make me violent." I don't know why I thought that...I got in fistfights with my siblings as a teenager and still struggle with my temper. I love my parents dearly, but it has been a struggle to build back a healthy relationship once I was able to realize how angry I was. It took years for them to admit they had done anything wrong...they were as repressed as I was.

And it's not just "spanking in anger." You can calmly and dispassionately hurt a child, especially when you have convinced yourself that it's "for their own good."

It is very good news that people are safe dnirug these continuing tragedies. We will continue to pray for the victims.You wrote, God’s merciful and powerful hands where your life by faith quietly rests,” comforting thoughts.

Hi! This is my first comment here so I just
wanted to give a quick shout out and say I really enjoy reading your
blog posts. Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that
go over the same subjects? Thanks a lot!

I am of the opinion that most christian families especially if they are first generation believers proably do a terrible job of parenting their children and their marraige is likewise.It can take decades before all things are new.

All churches should have parenting classes and marraige classes taught by educated professionals whose lifestyles have been found above reproach.

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