Most Christians, and for that matter most Americans, are woefully ignorant of any history beyond the last 20 years. It might surprise many modern Americans to know that for a man to physically discipline his wife was historically considered by societies and courts to be “within the matrimonial privileges of the husband” up until the mid-19th century with rise of Feminism.
Below is a late 18th century account of an Irish Judge ruling on the issue of a man beating his wife with a “switch”:
In the London Quarterly Review of Legal cases Vol 136, published in 1874, we read of a case that is referenced from a century earlier which established the right of husbands to spank their wives with switches:
“A Similar doctrine had been laid down by Dr. Marmaduke Coghill, judge of the Prerogative Court in Ireland, who in a suit by a wife for divorce on the ground that her husband had given her a sound beating, delivered a well-considered opinion that, with such a switch as the one he held in his hand, moderate chastisement was within the matrimonial privileges of the husband”.
In the famous Mississippi case Calvin Bradley v. State in 1834, the court ruled:
““By the ancient common law, the husband possessed the power of chastising his Wife…let the husband be permitted to exercise the right of moderate chastisement”
Then in 1850, Tennessee became the first state to outlaw wife beating in the United States. Other states would soon follow in passing laws outlawing wife beating.
But still some courts disagreed with the new trend of outlawing a husband’s right to “chastise” his wife. In 1864, the North Carolina Supreme Court gave the following decision in State vs Jesse Black:
“A husband is responsible for the acts of his wife, and he is required to govern his household, and for that purpose the law permits him to use towards his wife such a degree of force as is necessary to control an unruly temper and make her behave herself; and unless some permanent injury be inflicted, or there be an excess of violence, or such a degree of cruelty as shows that it is inflicted to gratify his own bad passions, the law will not invade the domestic forum or go behind the curtain.”
In the infamous 1871 Alabama case of Fulgham V. State the court ruled as follows concerning all physical discipline of a husband toward his wife:
“Since then, however, learning, with its humanizing influences, has made great progress, and morals and religion have made some progress with it. Therefore, a rod which may be drawn through the wedding ring is not now deemed necessary to teach the wife her duty and subjection to the husband. The husband is therefore not justified or allowed by law to use such a weapon, or any other, for her moderate correction. The wife is not to be considered as the husband’s slave. And the privilege, ancient though it be, to beat her with a stick, to pull her hair, choke her, spit in her face or kick her about the floor, or to inflict upon her like indignities, is not now acknowledged by our law”
Even after these rulings the practice of wife spanking continued to be common practice in America well into the 1950s. It was portrayed in old films and TV shows right up to the 1970s. It was during the 1960s and 1970s with second wave feminism that the “Domestic Violence” movement attempted to eradicate wife spanking completely from American society. Wife spanking would of course return as as sexual type of fun, but it was never to be used as actual discipline by a husband toward his wife.
So as we can see from the rulings above, the practice of a husband physically disciplining his wife was considered an “ancient” privilege until western society began rejecting it in the mid-19th century. So the question is were they right to do so?
The Bible, not Culture, Should Determine Our Morality
Even though wife spanking was practiced in most cultures for most of human history that does not automatically make it right. Culture, or the majority view on whether something is right or wrong, does not make it right or wrong. For us as believers we must measure every thing we think, do or say by the God’s standard of right and wrong which is the Bible.
When we look at the Bible and not our feelings or what our culture believes as our starting point it will literally transform our view of this world. We will see things we never saw before.
The Bible tells us:
“And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”
Romans 12:2 (KJV)
So, we are told that we are not to be conformed to what our world or our culture thinks is right but rather we are to renew our minds according to what God thinks is right. But then how do we know what the will of God is? How do we know what is moral by God’s standards?
“10 And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. 11 These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.”
Acts 17:10-12 (KJV)
“4 But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”
Matthew 4:4 (KJV)
The answer to the question of knowing what is the will of God is to look to his Word found in the Bible. We need to be as the Bereans who searched the Scriptures daily for the truth of God’s Word and once we find that truth we need to apply it to our lives no matter if it conflicts with our cultural upbringing or not.
What does the Bible say about Wife Spanking?
The Bible does not specifically speak to the situation of wife spanking and some believe because this is the case then wife spanking is forbidden.
But we must be careful when we come to the Bible and it does not address a specific case of behavior with either a positive example or a command. In these cases where we do not have a situation specifically addressed we must be careful of two extremes. One is the extreme that we can do anything we want if it is not specifically addressed and the other is if it is not specifically addressed than we cannot do it. Both extremes are wrong.
Instead we must look for general principles the Bible does teach that we can then apply to specific situations the Bible may not speak to.
For instance, the Bible does not say anything about phone sex and web cam sex. So, would we say it is ok for a man’s wife to have virtual sex through a web cam or phone with another man because the Bible does not address this specific situation? Of course not.
Instead we would look to this general truth taught in the book of Hebrews:
“Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.”
God only honors and allows sexual relations between a man and woman within the covenant of marriage. We don’t have to physically touch one another to sexually relate to one another. We can sexually relate to one through things like web cams, phones, texting and emailing as well. Any type of sexual relation that is not that of a man and woman within the covenant of marriage is not honored by God, but rather it is condemned.
Another area the Bible does not specifically speak to is physical abuse in the family. We don’t see the Bible specifically condemning men punching their wives or children in the face but we have this condemnation of masters toward their male and female slaves:
“26 And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake. 27 And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake.”
Exodus 21:26-27 (KJV)
How would a person get their tooth knocked out or their eye permanently damaged? In most cases it would be their master either punching them in the face or shoving them to the ground where they knocked their head on something causing the injuring. This tells us God does not approve of punching and shoving as acts of discipline.
So, while this passage in Exodus 21:26-27 does not specifically speak to marriage we can apply this as a general truth to marriage and the family. If God condemns masters doing these things to their slaves then he certainly condemns husbands and fathers doing these things to their wives and children who have more rights under God’s law than slaves.
Now we need to apply this same method of searching the Scriptures to this area of wife spanking.
Two Biblical Principles That Allow for Wife Spanking
While the Bible does not specifically speak to wife spanking (either specifically allowing it or specifically condemning it) we must ask the question “Are there general principles of the Scriptures that would speak to this issue?” The answer is YES.
Principle #1 – Husbands Have a Right and Responsibility to Discipline their Wives
The Bible tells us that husbands are the head of their wives “as Christ is the head of the Church”:
“23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. 24 Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.”
Ephesians 5:23-24 (KJV)
Not only are husbands the head of their wives as Christ is the head of the Church but God created marriage to model the relationship of Christ to his Church. Husbands are to model Christ’s headship over his Church by loving their wives as Christ loves the Church. One of the primary ways in which Christ loves his Church is in his spiritual washing of her:
“25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; 26 That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, 27 That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.”
Ephesians 5:25-27 (KJV)
This spiritual washing by Christ of the spots and wrinkles of his Church is discipline. Christ alludes to this same concept in the book of Revelation after rebuking his seven Churches:
“As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.”
Revelation 3:19 (KJV)
So, it is clear from the Scriptures that if a husband is modeling the relationship of Christ to his Church with his wife he has not only the right, but also the responsibility of spiritual disciplining his wife.
Principle #2 – God Allows Physical Punishment As A Form Of Discipline
The Bible tells us that God approves physical punishment as a form of discipline in the following passages:
“He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”
Proverbs 13:24 (KJV)
“13 Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. 14 Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.”
Proverbs 23:13-14 (KJV)
“If there be a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, that the judges may judge them; then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked. 2 And it shall be, if the wicked man be worthy to be beaten, that the judge shall cause him to lie down, and to be beaten before his face, according to his fault, by a certain number. 3 Forty stripes he may give him, and not exceed: lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then thy brother should seem vile unto thee.”
Deuteronomy 25:1-3 (KJV)
“Judgments are prepared for scorners, and stripes for the back of fools.”
Proverbs 19:29 (KJV)
“A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool’s back.”
Proverbs 26:3 (KJV)
As we can see from these passages of the Scripture – not only is physical discipline approved by God for children but it is also approved by God for adults.
When we take these two Biblical principles together we see that God has given men both the right and responsibility to discipline their wives and God approves of physical discipline for adults. Therefore, we can rightly conclude from these two Biblical truths that God allows men to spank their wives.
Objections to Wife Spanking
The primary objection to wife spanking is that such an action infantilizes women, or in other words it treats women as children. I receive comments like this one I did today all the time:
“Women are no more sinful than men, no less intelligent and shouldn’t be treated like naughty children. If a husband has authority to discipline his wife than a wife should have authority to discipline her husband. They should treat each other with love and fairness. Both are adults; none is a lesser being. A marriage should be a loving partnership.”
There are several false presuppositions in the statement above.
Spanking no more infantilizes a woman than a speeding ticket from a police officer infantilizes a man. Adults can and do discipline other adults all the time.
But some will answer my police officer giving a ticket analogy with “a speeding ticket is a piece of paper and the officer is not bending you over his knee and spanking you”. The reason for this kind of answer is because in our modern culture we look on any type of physical punishment with disdain. We think physical punishment, especially toward adults is “uncivilized”. But such thinking is at odds with the Bible.
Another problem we have is that we think wives are immune from discipline in the home because our culture teaches the false ideology of partnership marriage. Discipline in the home we are told is strictly reserved for children. So it is easy to understand with these false beliefs about physical punishment and discipline how many people might think wife spanking infantilizes women.
However, the Bible makes it clear in passages like Ephesians 5:22-33 and I Peter 3:1-7 that marriage is not a “partnership” but rather a patriarchy. It does not get any clearer than “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church” (Ephesians 5:23).
The fact that “both are adults; none is a lesser being” or in other words that both husbands and wives are fully mature human beings is irrelevant.
Does it matter that at my job my boss is an adult and I am adult? The fact is the owner of my company who is an adult has put my boss whose is an adult in charge of me an adult. It does not even mean that my boss is necessarily smarter than me. It does not mean I am less of a human being than my boss but rather it means I have a lesser POSITION than my boss.
And the fact is that the Bible is clear that as Christ is the head of the Church so too God the owner of humanity has put male human beings in charge of female human beings in marriage. It really is that simple.
I also agree that “Women are no more sinful than men” but that is not why God has placed men in charge of women. Read I Corinthians 11:1-16 and Ephesians 5:22-33. Really read it. These passages show it was no accident and it was not because of sin or God just rolling some cosmic dice that he placed men over women in marriage. These passages show that God created women and the institution of marriage to help men fully image God as husbands and fathers.
God made man to image him and by doing so bring him glory (I Corinthians 11:7). In order to help man fully image God’s attributes as a husband and father he created woman and by extension marriage for man (I Corinthians 7:9). God created marriage to create a model of the relationship of God to his people and in the New Testament era of Christ to his Church (Ephesians 5:22-33). Just as Christ loved his Church by giving himself up for her to wash her spiritual spots and wrinkles with the Word of God so too husbands are called to wash their wife’s spiritual spots and wrinkles, in others words they are called to discipline their wives (Ephesians 5:25-27 & Revelation 3:19).
No Scriptural principle or command forbids a man from using physical discipline as method of discipline with his wife. In fact, the Scriptures show God allows physical punishment of adults as a form of discipline in Deuteronomy 25:1-3, Proverbs 19:29 and Proverbs 26:3.
I have received many emails over the years from Christian women who willingly allow their husbands to use spanking as a form of discipline. What they have in common is that they have told me this is a humbling experience for them and reminds them of two things. It reminds them of their position before their husband that God has placed them in. It also reminds them that their husband truly loves them as Christ said of his Churches in Revelation 3:19 “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.”
I know a lot of other women who truly believe in Biblical gender roles and try very much to submit to their husband’s leadership and even non-physical discipline. But they struggle with this concept of wife spanking because in our modern culture spanking is only associated with children so they believe it is a husband treating his wife as his child instead of his wife.
I would encourage such women to reconsider these thoughts and not conform their thinking to the culture they have been raised in. I would encourage these Christian women to renew their minds according to the Word of God.
A Word of Caution to Christian Men Regarding Wife Spanking
But I want to close this with some words of caution on this subject of wife spanking.
Am I saying a man can do anything he wants to his wife and call it physical discipline? Absolutely not! See my article on “What Does The Bible Say About Abuse?” for more on that subject.
But even if wife spanking is not practiced in an abusive way we as Christian husbands need to exercise caution in this area. I have stated multiple times in this article that the Scriptures show that husbands have that right and responsibility to discipline their wives. But as in many other areas in life there is more than one way to skin a cat. The Bible does not command men that the only way they may discipline their wives is through spanking.
We as Christian husbands who are trying to being faithful to God by fully exercising Biblical gender roles need to realize there is a great persecution going on against God’s design of gender roles and those who would exercise them. I believe that because of the “present distress” (1 Corinthians 7:26), in other words the persecution of those who would fully exercise all their rights under the doctrines of Biblical gender roles, that we should do as Paul did and forgo exercising some of those rights (1 Corinthians 9:1-15).
I am not in any way saying we as Christian husbands should forego exercising our spiritual headship over our wives including disciplining them. In fact, if we don’t discipline our wives in one way or the other we are failing to image Christ in his relationship with his Church. Christ does not leave his church uncorrected or undisciplined and neither should we as husbands leave our wives uncorrected or undisciplined. But there are non-physical ways that we can discipline our wives. See my article “7 Ways to Discipline Your Wife” for non-physical ways that you can still exercise this right and responsibility as a Christian husband.
I think in this area of wife spanking that we as Christian husbands need to heed Christ’s admonition in Matthew 10:16 to be “wise as serpents”. While we do not need our wife’s consent to spank her anymore than we need her consent to discipline in her in any other way we need to realize that the wicked culture we live in is completely hostile to the teachings and exercise of Biblical gender roles. If you were to try and physically force your wife to receive a spanking you may accidentally cause serious harm to her in the process of forcing her to receive a spanking. Even if you can physically force her to receive a spanking without bringing any harm to her the fact remains under our legal system you could be arrested and brought up on charges if she were to report you.
So, my final word on this subject is this. Wife spanking is within the rights that God has granted to a husband as his wife’s spiritual head. I would never condemn any man for engaging in wife spanking as long as he did not engage in truly abusive physical behavior toward her. If wife spanking is done in a loving and controlled manner as all discipline should be done then this is holy and righteous before God.
Note: This article has been completely rewritten as of February 18, 2018 from it original posting on September 20, 2016. Because of this I have removed the previous comments and invite new comments on this updated version of the article.