Tedd Tripp’s Shepherding a Child’s Heart

March 21, 2011 by Gail  
Filed under Mothering

While the premise of his book Shepherding a Child’s Heart has some merit, Tedd Tripp’s biblical interpretation is flawed, his theology is not consistent with covenant theology, and his practical methods completely contradict his premise.

When it comes to good biblical parenting advice, much is lacking in contemporary Christian resources. Many of the Christian parenting “gurus” employ secular psychology and slap Bible verses on, claiming their advice to be biblical. But most of the time it is behavior modification that addresses only symptoms and not the heart. This is where we applaud Tripp. He was one of the first to suggest that changing behavior without changing the heart is pretty much useless. The sin in the heart will be masked and may come out in another way, so no real change has occurred. Tripp also rightly asserts that the only solution to this problem is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that the parents’ goal should not be a well-behaved child, but one that embraces the gospel and continually grows in relationship with Jesus Christ. But sadly, this is where Tripp’s helpfulness ends.

Tripp’s use of scripture is not consistent with its literal meaning or with its context. After quoting a few Proverbs (Proverbs 22:15; 23:14; 29:15, 17) he concludes:

What is the rod? The rod is a parent, in faith toward God and faithfulness toward his or her children, undertaking the responsibility of careful, timely, measured and controlled use of physical punishment to underscore the importance of obeying God, thus rescuing the child from continuing in his foolishness unto death (130).

The use of the rod is an act of faith. God has mandated its use (131).

There is much debate amongst Christian scholars as to the exact translation of key words in these passages. The word for “child” (na’ar) has many uses, as does the word for “rod” (shebet). There is serious question as to the literal translation of these passages, let alone the cultural context.

Even if we decide to go with the literal interpretation that these Proverbs recommend the use of a literal rod for spanking a young child, we must consider the context of the passages Tripp uses to justify his conclusions, beginning with genre. The only text he uses to prove the absolute necessity of spanking is Proverbs. The Book of Proverbs is wisdom literature, not to be elevated to the authority of mandates from God. As with the genre of proverbs, “The proverb form, no matter the cultural background, presupposes the right circumstance for its proper application” (Longman, 48). Longman goes on to state that his grandmother when preparing dinner would say “Too many cooks spoil the broth” then when time to clean up, she would announce, “Many hands make light work.” These are both true, in the right circumstance, but are never to be taken as universal truths, or “brute facts” as VanTil would say.

If genre alone isn’t enough to demonstrate that elevating these wise statements to a direct commandment from God is unsound hermeneutic, the immediate context should be enough to show how this hermeneutic is absurd. One of the passages Tripp uses is Proverbs 23:14. Here is just the beginning of Proverbs 23 (NIV):

1 When you sit to dine with a ruler, note well what is before you,
2 and put a knife to your throat, if you are given to gluttony.
3 Do not crave his delicacies, for that food is deceptive.
4 Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint.
5 Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.
6 Do not eat the food of a stingy man, do not crave his delicacies;
7 for he is the kind of man who is always thinking about the cost. “Eat and drink,” he says to you, but his heart is not with you.
8 You will vomit up the little you have eaten and will have wasted your compliments.
9 Do not speak to a fool, for he will scorn the wisdom of your words.
10 Do not move an ancient boundary stone or encroach on the fields of the fatherless,
11 for their Defender is strong; he will take up their case against you.
12 Apply your heart to instruction and your ears to words of knowledge.
13 Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die.
14 Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death.

While it might seem obvious that riches won’t actually sprout wings and fly off like and eagle (v. 5) and that God is not commanding all people prone to gluttony to slit their own throats (v. 2), to interpret verse 14 as a commandment is equally ridiculous, not to mention hermeneutically inconsistent if you don’t interpret verse 2 as a commandment.

Another glaring misinterpretation of scripture has to do with a New Testament text.

We have always been guided by Hebrews 12:11, “No discipline is pleasant at the time, but painful. Afterward, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” If discipline has not yielded a harvest of peace and righteousness, it is not finished. On some occasions we have had to say to our children, “Dear, Daddy has spanked you, but you are not sweet enough yet. We are going to have to go back upstairs for another spanking” (174).

First of all, how does one define “sweet enough”? Is that a biblical mandate I am unaware of? And does behaving “sweetly” after a good beating demonstrate heart change?

But the real problem is that the Hebrews passage is being used as a proof-text for Tripp’s agenda. Hebrews 12 is a passage of encouragement. It is meant to bring hope to God’s children who are experiencing suffering. They are being reminded how much God loves them. The passage is not intended to be interpreted as a “How to Guide” for disciplining your children. But even if it were, if it holds some truths applicable in child discipline, where does it say that the righteousness and peace are demonstrated within moments of the discipline? And what about verse 10? “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.” Here there is a clear distinction created between God’s discipline and a parent’s. The parent’s discipline is sufficient to create holiness, only God’s discipline is. We can’t change our child’s hearts with repeated beatings, we have to trust that God will change the hearts in his timing.

Of course if the hermeneutic is faulty, the resulting theology is also poor. Tripp asserts, “[T]he function of the spanking is…to restore him to a place in which God had promised blessing” (173), then goes on to conclude:

The “why” is that God commands it. Additionally, spanking enables you to deal with issues of the heart….The heart is the battleground. The spanking comes only because it is God’s method of driving foolishness far from your child’s heart (175).

If what Tripp has done already isn’t disturbing enough, the fact that he equates the rod as a means of grace, actually the ONLY means of grace for a child, is in direct contradiction with the truth of all of Scripture. Salvation is by Christ alone, through grace alone, by faith alone. It is the Holy Spirit who works in the hearts of those God has saved — and he does not require physical beatings to achieve this purpose.

I certainly do give Tripp the benefit of the doubt that he does believe the truth of the gospel; I believe the mistaken emphasis on the necessity of the rod comes from his Reformed Baptist theology. He starts with the basic tenets of Calvinism (especially total depravity) but without the framework of the child’s special place in covenant community, he finds himself needing a way for the child to come to Christ. He sees the young child as unregenerate, someone who is outside of the Church family. This subtle yet insidious presupposition affects his interpretation; and churches that affirm the covenant community and the value of participation of all children of believers — as signed and sealed in the sacrament of baptism — should be wary of how this theological difference impacts his view of children, and the necessity of punishment rather than disciplining with grace. One illustration of this different approach appears when Tripp discussed the child from infancy to age four: “The most important lesson for the child to learn in this period is that HE IS AN INDIVIDUAL UNDER AUTHORITY.” (155) Sadly, there is no room for the gospel during this stage of life. In our homes we believe the most important lesson for this age as well as every other is that God loves you and sent Jesus to die for you. Romans 5:13 sums it up pretty well: “But God demonstrates his love for us, in that while we are still sinners, Christ died for us.” Why is this message not for young children? Another example of poor theology occurs just a few pages later. Tripp is discussing Ephesians 6:1-3. Interestingly he omits verse 4 — but that’s another topic.

1Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2″Honor your father and mother” which is the first commandment with a promise 3that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth. 4Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

Tripp correctly points out that this passage promises blessing for those who obey their parents. As parents care about the well-being of their children, it makes sense that the rules they set up are for the best interests of those children. And the children that obey are usually much better off than those who disobey. But Tripp interpretation goes too far. “The disobedient child has moved outside the place of covenant blessing.” (157) Thankfully I know that my place in the covenant is not dependent on my obedience or my righteousness, but on Christ’s righteousness imputed to me.

Tripp’s theological assumptions are also apparent in his lack of biblical categories for understanding behavior. Yes, it is true that we all are sinners and have deceitful hearts, but that doesn’t explain everything that we do. We know from the false conclusions of Job’s friends that not every bad thing happens because we have sinned. We live in a broken world, with broken bodies. And we also are victims of the sin of others. And sometimes when we respond in a manner that is out of accordance with God’s will, we do so out of despair rather than rebellion. We need correction, but in the form of gentle encouragement, not punishment. That’s why we have Matthew 18 for guidance — not everyone gets excommunicated on the spot. Sadly the only category Tripp allows for understanding the behavior of children is sinful rebellion.

When your child is old enough to resist your directives, he is old enough to be disciplined. When he is resisting you he is disobeying. Rebellion can be something as simple as an infant struggling against a diaper change or stiffening out his body when you want him to sit on your lap (176).

Where are the other biblical categories that could be used to interpret these behaviors? Because of the fall we have broken bodies. Is it possible that the child is in pain? Gas or colic, perhaps? Or maybe the child is hungry, or tired. Perhaps there is a tag in the child’s clothing that is scratching him. Or even worse, maybe the child was spanked the last time his diaper was changed and now he is afraid that he will be hurt again? The conclusion that rebellion is the only explanation is appallingly unbiblical.

Tripp’s definition of obedience is also troubling.

It means more than a child doing what he is told. It means doing what he is told; Without Challenge, Without Excuse, and Without Delay (160).

On the following page he continues his explanation that there should be no discussion of the command, no questioning or explaining, just blind submission. Was Jacob in sin when he wrestled with God? No, he actually receives the name “Israel” indicating that he has matured in his faith as a result of wrestling with God. And God uses this same name to identify his people — a people set apart and identified with the name which means “he strives with God.” Similarly we have to ask if Christ was in sin in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asked God to take the cup from him. If the simple action of questioning, or discussing the command is disobedience, then we have an imperfect Savior. There is nothing disobedient about requesting more information, expressing feelings, or even asking your parents to reconsider. We parents know that sometimes we don’t realize the implications of what we have asked our children to do. And after hearing more about the situation, we change what we have requested of our children. If we had insisted upon obedience based on our initial request, we would have been creating a bigger problem. It  is good that our children know that it is safe to question if they don’t understand or find a request unreasonable. Now if after the discussion is over they refuse to do what we have asked, that is disobedience.

If faulty biblical hermeneutic and theology that undermines the blessings of Covenant Theology are not enough to create serious concerns about the teaching of Tripp, the fact that his methods completely contradict his premise should suffice. He sets the stage in Chapter One explaining that behavior modification should not be the goal, but changing the heart (out of which the wrong behavior grows) is the Christian parent’s goal. But the two prong method he advocates is 1. communication and 2. spanking. Ironically all that spanking accomplishes is a simple Pavlovian response. Pain is to be avoided. Children quickly learn what is expected of them in order to be spared a spanking. And when they didn’t learn in time to prevent the spanking, they quickly learn how to respond once the spanking is over to prevent another one. Just because the child asks forgiveness and acts sweetly toward the parent, does not in any way demonstrate that the heart of that child has been changed. The Holy Spirit through the teaching of the Word of God is what changes our hearts, whether two weeks old or 98 years old. God can use situations in life, including discipline, to get our attention, but to assert that spanking has a direct connection to the heart is not only unbiblical, but completely illogical. For all his emphasis on heart change, ironically Tripp’s methods only accomplish behavior modification.

Although we personally do not spank my children, we do respect those who choose to use corporal punishment as one of the tools in their toolbox of discipline. We hope that we have expressed our concerns not with spanking per se, but with the faulty methods Tripp uses to promote spanking. At best his teachings are misguided, and at worst, they are quite dangerous. We trust that you do not want your flock to be shepherded in a manner that promotes poor biblical hermeneutics and undermines Covenant Theology.

The Mothering by Grace Team

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