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Lucia and I have been talking about religious legalism among Christians. I phrase it that way because legalism in its most technical sense, is meriting God’s favor for salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9). The kind of legalism I’m talking about is not that.
It pertains to how a Christian lives out his sanctification in God’s world. The person is authentically saved but creates a code of conduct that is black and white, and if it’s practiced often enough, it will bind the conscience (1 Corinthians 8:7). The legalistic Christian can even map his code of secondary preferences over others, insisting or expecting others to live like him, which becomes the primary mechanism for determining whether he will associate with others.
If he follows (or closely follows) my list of preferences, I will fellowship with him. If he does not support my choices, I will separate from him.
This worldview is called the doctrine of separation. And, yes, legalism has its doctrine. One of the sadder commentaries about Christians is how some of them divide themselves up according to how they live out secondary issues (Galatians 1:8-9; Philippians 1:15-18).
At the heart of the legalistic problem is a misunderstanding of how sin functions in our lives. James said our temptations from sin and our decisions to yield to sin come from our hearts, not from external things (James 1:14-15).
John affirmed this notion when he said that worldliness is in the heart, not in the world (1 John 2:15-16). When he identified worldliness, he talked about pride and desires, which are in the heart. James and John learned these things from Jesus (Mark 7:15).
Temptation lures a person to satisfy his lusts, cravings, desires, and passions (all inward sins) through external things. If sinful lusts, cravings, desires, and passions were not resident in the heart of a person, the external things would not be a problem (Genesis 2:25).
My heart cravings are why I stay away from certain things. The things, in and of themselves, are not bad, but because of my wicked heart, I’m tempted to use those things to feed my evil heart. My heart is like a magnet that gravitates toward the things in the world.
Each person has to determine the condition of their heart and step away from the things that entice them to sin. The key to remember is that it’s not the “thing” that is the culprit. It’s the individual’s heart.
Not knowing the “heart of legalism” is where the authoritarian parent can run down the wrong rail. Being authoritarian is a good thing. We must live under authority. A dad must lead his family in an authoritative way. He must determine the direction and orientation of the home.
But if authoritarianism is his only modus operandi, he will scuttle the unique, individualized sanctification needs of his children. He will do this by creating a black-and-white world where adherence to his way of doing things is the only way in which his children will earn his favor.
(This, BTW, will set his “obedient” children up for how they relate to God. They will prefer a rule-based religion. His children that reject his authoritarianism will find a religion that is devoid of or minimizes rules.)
You could think of this parenting model as a big umbrella, an authoritarian umbrella. If the children stay under the umbrella, they will be fine, so the authoritarian parent would want you to believe.
If you do what say, you will be okay. However, if you go against my rules, you’ll be in trouble.
I suppose it would be good if the world and our children’s hearts functioned this way. But neither do. The authoritarian dad must give his children more than rules. He needs to nurture them. In a sense, an authoritarian parent is a lazy person.
He lays out the rules and mandates everyone’s allegiance. He legislates morality. If the family lives in an authoritarian culture, there will be “subjective evidence” that will support the authoritarian parent’s way of doing things.
Within that kind of culture, you will find children testing the limits of the rules. That is the way Adamic children are. We all push the boundaries. Of course, when children reared in legalistic homes push those boundaries, there are nearly always bad consequences. There is rarely a restorative plan; it’s almost always a punitive culture.
The authoritarian parent will say, “See, I told you if you don’t obey, this is what happens.” The other children who are more sensitive, timid, insecure, fearful, logical, or pragmatic child will salute Dad’s flag and never buck his system because the evidence is irrefutable.
You break the rules, you pay the fine. If you don’t break the rules, you will be fine.
Conditional love is an awful and destructive parenting model. It will keep most of your children relatively incarcerated and separated from the world while they are young, but they will not be equipped to engage the world when they step out from under their dad’s authoritarian umbrella. They will only know one way to live: Obey the rules–however, they determine those rules–which flex according to situations and peculiar preferences.
God has called us to a pneumatic life. We are to walk in the Spirit as He guides us. The Spirit teaches us how to live well in His world. He did not give us a hard and fast list of rules to follow. He gave us an organic relationship that factors in the uniqueness of each person, contextualized in a unique culture at a unique time in history.
Any parent with more than one child knows this, which is why it’s unwise to lay down a blanket list of rules (preferences) and make your children obey them while convincing them of the consequences if they cross your lines.
That model does not rear my children. It rears robots not practically equipped to live in the culture they are supposed to engage for Christ. The only kind of person they could engage is someone like them. That is you form a cult.
The authoritarian parent must be a nurturing parent. He teaches them clear “ways” (rules) to live, but he also discerns each child and helps each child overcome his (or her) unique Adamic brokenness.
You see an idea of this in 1 Thessalonians 5:14, where Paul talked about three different kinds of people, and he gave the Thessalonians three different ways to care for them.
What he did not say is all three people groups are to obey the same strict code of conduct. Yes, there are biblical ethics to live by, but there is more than that. We are relational beings who need specific care. If you don’t provide that kind of unique parenting, legalism is your only option, which should never be an option. It’s not God’s way.
One final thought: In John 2:24-25, we learn an amazing thing about Jesus: He knew what was inside of people, which enabled Him to relate to people. Jesus, who was functioning on earth as 100% man, not as 100% God, had human insight into the hearts of people.
That is also how you are to live in your culture. God gave you His Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17). You have been given God’s Spirit to teach you God’s Word (John 16:13). You have what you need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3).
The question is not do you have what it takes to parent your child biblically, but do you know how to shepherd your child’s unique heart according to God’s Word, as illuminated by the Spirit?
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).