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What does the Bible say about corporal punishment as practiced by governments?

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There are three forms of corporal punishment (physically painful correction): that administered by parents, corporal punishment applied by the school system, and judicial corporal punishment overseen within the prison system or directed by court order. Such judicial corporal punishment might include scourging, such as Paul and Silas received in Philippi (Acts 16:23); beating with a rod, mentioned in Proverbs 29:15; and caning, such as is practiced in Singapore. The Bible neither promotes nor prohibits a government using corporal punishment, but it does have something to say about our attitude toward law and order in general.

With respect to our judicial system and the punishments it sanctions, the Bible admonishes believers to be subservient to the laws of government (Romans 13:1–7). “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:1–2; see also 1 Peter 2:13–14). This command not only means we adhere to the laws our governing authority has set in place, but also that we face the consequences for disobeying its laws.

Therefore, good citizenship requires adherence to judicial laws and subjection to the punishment they provide for. “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience” (Romans 13:3-5).

This is not to say that corporal punishment administered by a government is always appropriate. There are clear human rights abuses and times when corporal punishment amounts to torture. In Paul and Silas’s case, the treatment they received in Philippi definitely crossed a moral line. In such cases, believers should work to change the law and reform any system that allows for abuse.

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What does the Bible say about corporal punishment as practiced by governments?
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This page last updated: January 4, 2022