How Hellish Is "Time Out"?

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Some commenters on the last post have raised the issue of “time out” as a tool for discipline, especially in light of my statement that extended periods of “time out” don’t communicate well the discipline of God over his children.

Some asked, “What about the exile?” Others noted, “Since godly parenting demonstrates belief in hell, why shouldn’t we employ a means that captures the isolation of hell?” Good points all.

First, the key issue in my argument isn’t with “time out” if by “time out” one means a short period of isolation in order to prompt the child to calm down or to reflect on the gravity of the situation. The key issue is extended periods of “time out” in which the regular discipline of the home is to remove the child from the life of the family.

There are homes in which “time out” is a means of social control in the household. Rather than disciplining and restoring, children are routinely sent into isolation for long periods of time.

Second, discipline isn’t punishment. God doesn’t punish his children. He disciplines them. This is the argument of Hebrews 12. Discipline pictures hell only in one way, that actions have consequences. This is why Jesus calls us to the self-discipline of the gouged-out eye or the cut-off hand rather than face the justice of God in hell (Matt 18:7-9).

Discipline isn’t condemnation though. There is no condemnation for those who’ve been adopted into the household of Jesus (Rom 8:1). The quickness of discipline is itself a sign of acceptance. Those who are perishing aren’t disciplined at all. They are given over to themselves, and their judgment comes upon them in the end (see, for example, the pattern of Esau, also referenced in Heb 12).

God’s discipline though is swift and purpose-driven. He seeks not to isolate but to drive the erring sheep back into the sheep-fold, to welcome the repentant son back to the table.

If “time out” in your house is a tool to prompt thinking, while the child waits for swift discipline and restoration, then have at it. If “time out” is a means of punishing the child by removing him from the fellowship of his family, then you’re removing him from the very means of discipleship he (and we) so desperately needs.

We live in a fearful and cowardly time. The crisis we face is not a crisis of clarity but a crisis of courage.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).