Apples, Rods and the Raising of Children

by Rev. Peter McIntyre - Clogher Valley Free Presbyterian Church
The Gospel affects every area in the life of man.
Apples, Rods and the Raising of Children
In modern Western society, parents often think twice before applying physical chastisement in correcting their wayward children. Certainly, even the most restrained parents who use this means of correction would be most cautious before exercising a discreet smack in public, because such an act could be misconstrued as being cruel. Even though British Law still allows the use of the "smack", such is the manner in which society has swung away from this mode of correction that attitudes have changed markedly over the course of a generation. More importantly, the Word of God, the unchanging oracle, still recommends physical correction and the use of the rod in correcting children. Yet, this is a power that must be wielded carefully and in love, that it may yield in our children what God's chastening is designed to produce in us, "the peaceable fruit of righteousness." The pendulum has indeed swung too far in the direction of non-discipline today, but in the past where there not cases when the pendulum swung over much in the other direction? I vividly remember teachers at my school abusing boys in a way that was certainly cruel, yet in the name of discipline. As a flawed creature, man often fails to maintain perspective and balance, especially in the raising of the next generation.

Martin Luther grew up in medieval society, times which were barbaric according to the judgement of our modern sensitivities. Luther, in later years, would reflect upon the roughness of his upbringing; and while he did not excuse the cruelty of his parents, he recognised that they had his best intentions at heart:

"My mother caned me for stealing a nut, until the blood came. Such strict discipline drove me to the monastery, although she meant it well."

"My father once whipped me so that I ran away and felt ugly toward him until he was at pains to win me back."

Luther's parents, Hans and Margaretta, were God-fearing devout children of the Church. They behaved as any other parents would have done in those ages. While their treatment of Luther appeared harsh, their one saving grace in his eyes was that they loved him.

The same could not be said of his schooling. Excelling in medieval education meant learning the art of Latin. Latin was the language of the Church, of law, diplomacy, international relations, scholarship and travel. Demerits and punishments were distributed for lapsing into German. At noon, the weakest scholar would receive a donkey's mask. Latin was often drilled into the pupil with the use of the birch as Luther himself described:

"At school, I was caned in a single morning fifteen times for nothing at all."
(Martin Luther)

Medieval life under the grim tutelage of a religious system that bred fear and superstition, created a graceless, unloving environment in even the best of homes. As Martin Luther came under the influence of the grace of God, and as he entered into a covenant relationship with one whom he knew to be his Heavenly Father, grace filtered down into the home, the family and the parental relationship. Luther's thoughts on disciplining children, therefore, ought to be pondered by every parent and aspiring parent. Of his own parents he reflected:

"They seriously thought that they were doing right; but they could not distinguish character, which however is very necessary in order to know when, or where, or how chastisement should be inflicted. It is necessary to punish; but the apple should be placed beside the rod."

He believed that the excessive caning he received from at hands of Hans and Margretta made him "timid", perhaps indicating that, in his opinion, this may have contributed to his frequent depressions. The allusion to placing the apple beside the rod is quaint, comical but inspiring. A word of encouragement can often do more good than acts of punishment. Perhaps pastors should think of this before inflicting their flock with harsh criticisms on a Sunday morning! Yet Luther did not claim the rod to be an evil writing in another place:

"We must whip children, but we must at the same time love them."

No doubt, he was here using the Heavenly Father as a model for the earthly. A true father, according to Paul, chastens his children, as God himself does (Hebrews 12). Yet the balance must be focused upon loving and developing good character, lest children are provoked to wrath. (Ephesians 6:4)

Did the Protestant Reformation produce a Reformation in domestic life and paternal relationships? Indeed it did, because the Gospel affects every area in the life of man.

References: "Here I Stand" by Ronald Bainton, History of the Reformation by D'Aubigne.
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