Bible Answer

Is corporal punishment biblical?

We do mission work in Kenya where corporal punishment is still common especially in schools. They use verses such as Proverbs 13:24 and Proverbs 23:13-14 to justify this behaviour. I was wondering if you could help with the explanation or what “rod” means in the Bible. I thought it was meaning a metaphoric rod of correction, not an actual weapon.

This topic can be a very hard concept to address as there is much debate concerning what the Bible says or doesn't say about corporal punishment (i.e. parenting, school systems and/or governmental). Let's first look at the verses you have addressed:

PROV. 13:24 He who withholds his rod hates his son,
But he who loves him disciplines him diligently.
PROV. 23:13 Do not withhold discipline from a child;
Though you strike him with the rod, he will not die.
PROV. 23:14 You shall strike him with the rod
And rescue his soul from Sheol.

The original Hebrew translated here for "rod" is shebet which refers to a thin, small stick, usually in the form of a twig or branch (root). In this context "rod"  does, in fact, refer to a thin stick of some sort for the purpose of correction in a young child.

The purpose for this Proverbial wisdom is to affirm loving discipline based on godly principles: 

PROV. 1:7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
Fools despise wisdom and instruction.

A person who truly loves a child will provide discipline in order to guide the child towards sanctification and keep them from developing an evermore sinful life:

PROV. 3:11 My son, do not reject the discipline of the Lord
Or loathe His rebuke,
PROV. 3:12 For whom the Lord loves He disciplines,
Just as a father disciplines the son in whom he delights.
PROV. 3:13 Blessed is a person who finds wisdom,
And one who obtains understanding.

Withholding discipline from a child essentially sets him or her up for destruction, stemming from their sinful nature inherited through Adam:

ROM. 5:12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all mankind, because all sinned

Parents who discipline their children ultimately show love and a desire to shape them into responsible adults who love and serve Lord:

PROV. 22:6 Train up a child in the way he should go,
Even when he grows older he will not abandon it.

While this kind of discipline builds character, abusive or unfair punishment only frustrates the child, causing them to be more resistant to truth as Paul warns in Ephesians and Colossians: 

EPH. 6:4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
COL. 3:21 Fathers, do not antagonize your children, so that they will not become discouraged.

Godly discipline (corporal or otherwise) differs greatly from harsh, evil punishment administered by parents, corporal punishment applied by schools, and judicial corporal punishment within the prison system or government ruling. Throughout the Bible scripture demonstrates a God that disciplines those whom He loves, while training us through these means to make us Holy:

HEB. 12:6 For whom the Lord loves He disciplines,
And He punishes every son whom He accepts.
HEB. 12:7 It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 
HEB. 12:8 But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 
HEB. 12:9 Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits, and live?
HEB. 12:10 For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. 
HEB. 12:11 For the moment, all discipline seems not to be pleasant, but painful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterward it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.

Therefore, if we follow scripture in the area of corporal punishment, then we must also accept what the scriptures teach concerning love for others and placing others' needs above our own, and gently restoring those in the body who have sinned:

MATT. 22:36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 
MATT. 22:37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 
MATT. 22:38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 
MATT. 22:39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 
JOHN 13:34 I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 
JOHN 13:35 By this all people will know that you are My disciples: if you have love for one another.”
GAL. 1:1 Brothers and sisters, even if a person is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual are to restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you are not tempted as well. 
GAL. 1:2 Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. 
GAL. 1:3 For if anyone thinks that he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 
GAL. 1:4 But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting, but to himself alone, and not [b]to another. 
GAL. 1:5 For each one will bear his own load.
GAL. 1:6 The one who is taught the word is to share all good things with the one who teaches him.
1JOHN 4:7 Beloved, let’s love one another; for love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 
1JOHN 4:8 The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 
1JOHN 4:9 By this the love of God was revealed in us, that God has sent His only Son into the world so that we may live through Him. 
1JOHN 4:10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 
1JOHN 4:11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 
1JOHN 4:12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God remains in us, and His love is perfected in us. 
1JOHN 4:13 By this we know that we remain in Him and He in us, because He has given to us of His Spirit. 
1JOHN 4:14 We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.

The word of God makes it very clear that discipline as believers must not be done out of anger or hostility but out of love for another person, with the goal of encouraging them to love God more intimately. 

Furthermore, should the government endorse corporal punishment within the school system or judicial system the Bible encourages the believer to submit to the governing authority, including punishments they see fit for breaking laws:

ROM. 13:1  Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 
ROM. 13:2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.
1PET. 2:13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, 
1PET. 2:14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.

Because the Bible is silent on matters of corporal punishment, governing officials have the liberty to choose what best fits their culture and region. As a believer, we are to submit to their laws until the government's demands upon us run contrary to God’s word, then we must obey God while gladly suffering whatever penalty the government assesses for our disobedience. However, many governing authorities today practice corporal punishment as a direct form of abuse or torture; in this situation, a Christian may oppose the policies of a government or object to a leader's judgments so long as we do so using legal means. As for parents or those looking after children, abuse should never be tolerated and is never approved by God, quite the contrary. If you suspect abuse of a child, it is best to report it to the correct authorities.