Question: "Does the Bible really say that parents should have their rebellious children stoned?"
Answer: This is one of those “Yes, but…” questions that require serious explaining. Leviticus 20:9 says, “If there is anyone who curses his father or his mother, he shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his bloodguiltiness is upon him.”
First, a note on the last part of the verse. “His bloodguiltiness is upon him” basically means that he brought this punishment on himself. He knew what he was supposed to do, and he didn’t do it. Also, it is important to remember that the Mosaic Law was for God’s covenant people, Israel, living in a theocracy. The Old Testament Law is not in force today (Romans 10:4; Galatians 3:23–25; Ephesians 2:15).
Deuteronomy 21:18–21 expands on the law:
If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town. And they shall say to the elders of his city, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear of it and fear.
The context of a passage is crucial to understanding what it means. Taking these two verses by themselves, one could come away with a negative attitude toward God and His Word. In the Leviticus passage, this law is part of a section dealing with egregious sins, sins that would tear a nation and family apart. The trespass in question was not a casual, slip-of-the-tongue curse, but a deep-seated rebellion, an ongoing attitude of hatred that had to be dealt with severely. In other words, the punishment was not for minor infractions but for determined defiance.
There are several things to keep in mind about this particular sin and about the law:
The sin was ongoing and continuous. Deuteronomy 21:18 indicates that the punishment was only meted out after a persistent refusal to heed both father and mother and after all discipline had failed. The parents have tried to deal with their son in a loving, firm way, but nothing worked.
It was deep-seated sin. Verse 20 specifies that the son is stubborn in his rebellion. Not only is he recalcitrant, “he is a glutton and a drunkard.” This is not a case of a child who misses curfew or plays ball in the house. This was a true menace, a child who is causing trouble in society and grieving his parents, possibly to the point of endangering them physically and financially.
The punishment was not an impulsive act of anger or vengeance. Verse 19 says that the city elders had to oversee the case and determine the guilt of the child. It is only after the elders pronounced a sentence of death that the execution could take place. The law did not allow an angry parent to arbitrarily stone a child. A modern equivalent of this is when a parent sees news footage of his child committing a crime and subsequently turns the child in to the police. If parents know their child is acting in a way that endangers society, they are responsible to obey the civil authorities and report the crime.
The punishment was designed to preserve the nation. As verse 21 explains, the reason for this law was to purge evil from society and act as a deterrent to further rebellion. Israel was a nation chosen by God to be holy (Exodus 20:6). God gave the Israelites three types of laws: judicial, moral, and ceremonial. This is a judicial law. A child who was actively and deliberately rejecting the laws of the land needed to be punished judicially.
Which brings us to the last and most important factor:
Rebellion against one’s parents is direct rebellion against God. The 5th Command is to honor one’s father and mother (Exodus 20:12). Parents are a God-ordained authority. Disobedience to parents is disobedience to God (Ephesians 6:1-3). Throughout the Bible, there are only a handful of things we are told to fear: God (Proverbs 1:7) and parents (Leviticus 19:3) are among them.
The law requiring rebellious children to be stoned to death was meant for extreme cases to protect God’s people. It would have been heartbreaking for parents to bear the responsibility of initiating such severe measures. However, the Bible never records this law being enforced.