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The Punishment of Rebellious Children (1)

The August 2013 issue of the "Covenant Reformed News" contained this article by Prof.Herman Hanko, answering a question about an important OT passage relating to rebellious children.

The Punishment of Rebellious Children (1)

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 states, “If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.”

In connection with these verses, a reader asks, “Did these things actually happen in the OT days or are the verses merely written to show us an example of something else?”

This is an interesting and very important question, one which is not so easy to answer. The difficulty is that the text requires that we interpret it in the light of several underlying assumptions. So I am going to tackle these assumptions first.

The first assumption is that this text is part of the law of God to Israel. Israel was typical of the church of God. But it was a theocracy, that is, a kingdom-church in which God was king. There is no way the kingdoms here in the world can be identified with the church: not even Scotland, England or the Netherlands. The church, though still in the world, consists of citizens of the kingdom of heaven. But, because the kingdom is heavenly, the full theocracy awaits heaven. The church and state are separate but we are members of both as elect believers and citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
Deuteronomy 21:18-21 is part of the law of God to govern Israel as a theocracy!

The second assumption is that Israel is not only a theocracy, but is also embraced in God’s covenant with the nation. God had said, when He established the covenant with Abraham, that He would establish His covenant in the line of generations (Gen. 17:7). Yet, while our children are born in the covenant, not all of them are true covenant heirs, for not all that is of Israel is Israel, as Paul makes clear in Romans 9:6. The text is dealing then with a covenant home and children.

While the principle of this text is universally relevant, the wicked world will not pay attention to it, no matter what. God is talking about the problem of how believing parents must deal with children who are born in the covenant but who prove to be rebellious and stubborn.

First, if these things are forgotten then we (as some do) view the United States of America or the country of S. Africa as the NT Israel. They are not! Second, if we do not put this text in its context, then we will have an uncovenantal view of the covenant that our children are unconverted at birth and that the best we can hope for is that someday, in their later years, perhaps, they will be converted. That idea is not only badly mistaken, but pretty much negates the teaching of the text.

Because God saves children of believers in the line of the covenant, parents are to train their children in the ways of God’s covenant and insist that their children walk in these ways (Prov. 22:6). Israel had to do this; we must do the same.

Hence, to answer part of the question: This actually happened in the Old Testament. It is literal. We must (and again, I say must) take Scripture at its word.

The first action parents must take (after their own faithful instruction and discipline) is to bring a rebellious and stubborn child to the elders. While the text does not literally state this, it is obvious, in the light of the broader teaching of the Word of God, that, when parents bring a stubborn child to the elders, they want the elders to talk with the child and point him to the sin of his conduct. That happened in the OT; it must happen now. My wife and I have had to make use of this command, and God has graciously used it for good.

In this text, stoning is required for such a son. But this requirement is part of the nation of Israel as a theocracy. The state has the power of the sword (Rom 13:4), that is, capital punishment—not the church! So when church and state are separate, the church has nothing to do with defining crime, judging crime and punishing crime by taking the life of the criminal. The church has no role in physical punishments of any kind—as Rome so erroneously and blatantly has insisted and still insists.

But the NT church has been given the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and they are in the room where the elders hold their meetings (so to speak). And so the church does have the right and calling to discipline such a child. But that discipline is shutting the door of the kingdom to one who fails to repent. That is worse than capital punishment, for it says that such a person who is disciplined cannot and will not enter Christ’s kingdom, since, unless he repents, he will be in hell, the place of everlasting punishment (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 31).

There is more to this question than I have room to expound. I shall have to beg your patience in writing another article on the same subject.  Prof. Hanko

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Additional Info

  • Volume: 14
  • Issue: 16
Hanko, Herman

Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)

Ordained: October 1955

Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965

Emeritus: 2001


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