Yesterday I was over at Growing Up Triplets talking about “Not Me! A Mother’s Look at Sexual Temptation and Sin in the Home.” Two of my sons, both in their 20’s, asked to do a follow up post to share their hearts on this topic. Today’s post is by Jake, a second-year law student at the University of Florida (even though he’s a solid Auburn fan) and brand new husband to Sarah. Since my kids’ posts are the most-read ones on this blog, I hope you’ll appreciate hearing from my mid-20’s son who kinda writes like a lawyer. Yep, I had to look up “prophylactic” because I certainly don’t remember that being in our homeschool vocab lists.
Yesterday, Mom made what I think is an important point, i.e. that prophylactic* rules parents set up regarding sexual and worldly temptations can never be entirely successful. Internet filters, guarding the remote, restricting the viewing of certain TV shows/movies or listening to certain kinds of music, keeping an eye on what friendships they develop and which stores in the mall they are passing will not stop the inevitable contact with sexually explicit messages and images all kids eventually encounter.
She later made an equally important point. Parents should set up internet filters, should restrict the movies their kids watch and the music they listen to, should distract their kids when walking by Victoria Secret and generally should protect their kids in reasonable ways. It was beyond the scope of the blog post to answer, but it begged the question: why? Why should we do those things? Isn’t making rules and standards for our kids “legalistic” as some purport? Why spend so much time protecting our kids if, ultimately, we can’t be entirely successful? Shouldn’t we focus our time and energy on preparing them for the inevitable worldly and sexual temptations that will arise?
To answer those questions Joey (one of my older brothers), Mom and I are going to write a three-part follow up series to Mom’s post yesterday. Our contention is that creating rules and standards for our kids insofar as it relates to worldliness and sexual temptations isn’t legalistic and is wise. I am writing today to address the issue of legalism; Joey will write part two addressing the issue of wisdom (from the perspective of the kid) and Mom will write part three addressing the issue of wisdom from a different perspective than Joey — namely, she’s the one with seven kids and fourteen grandkids.
Before I begin, though, I want to make several points at the outset.
1) Preparing your kids for the inevitable temptations that arise is at least equally (and perhaps more) important than attempting to protect them from such temptations. Nothing we say in this series should be construed as a criticism of any energy and dialogue spent for the purpose of preparing or helping your kids through such temptations.
2) Although the rules of the game don’t change as kids get older, the strategies do. In other words, to the extent that anything we say is even true, it applies only where it applies, and probably moreso to pre-teens and early teenage years than to later teenage years.
3) Actual, real legalism is the worst.
Having said all that, let’s talk about legalism.
WHAT IS AND WHAT ISN’T LEGALISM?
There is a somewhat fascinating way of thinking that’s going around that equates rules and standards with legalism. This is of course absurd, since the lack of rules and standards can be legalistic in exactly the same ways that rules and standards can be legalistic. So, then, what is legalism?
Author and teacher John Piper says the essence of legalism is when faith is not the engine of obedience and that the aim of legalism is trading with God value for value. In other words, legalism is when we pursue the law (a good thing) fueled by our flesh, rather than the Spirit (a bad thing). Legalism is when we attempt to trade our good works for God’s favor. Of course, “good works” in this context can mean abstaining from watching R rated movies or it can mean abstaining from judging others i.e for how they parent.
We can attempt to earn God’s favor by not watching or listening to things that are worldly or sexually tempting, and we can attempt to earn God’s favor by being loving and accepting to everyone and everybody. Whether we equate one of those as being more socially acceptable or desirable than the other is irrelevant; both can be attempts to earn God’s favor. In fact, people are often “legalistic” about things that, taken alone, are really good things. For instance, I shouldn’t shoot up heroin (RIP P.S.H.). But if I think that I am trading the good work of not doing heroin for the return of God’s favor and mercy, than I am being legalistic. That doesn’t mean, though, that I should start doing heroin. It means that my motivations for not doing heroin should be fueled by the Spirit rather than my flesh in a response to God’s mercy and not for the purpose of securing it.
That, of course, addresses what legalism isn’t; obedience is not legalism and neither is holiness. In fact, Jesus was pretty clear that if we don’t obey His rules we don’t love Him (John 14:15). As Kevin DeYoung has said, the word “therefore” is used liberally in the Bible. Grace, therefore do X. Grace is of course both foundational and preceding, but “do X” is not legalistic in and of itself.
LEGALISM AS APPLIED TO PARENTING
It seems, then, that making rules and standards for kids does not make the parent legalistic. Of course, it can be legalistic, just as anything can be. But I think it raises an important point: your methods of parenting, whatever they are, can always be legalistic. You might be attempting to earn God’s favor through the good work of restricting your kids access to certain Internet sites or TV shows. But you also might be attempting to earn God’s favor through the good work of allowing your kids the freedom to make their own decisions and then talking about it with them later. What makes your decisions legalistic is not your decisions; what makes your decisions legalistic is the reason why you made the decision. I think the notion that making rules and setting standards for kids is legalistic is problematic — not only because I think setting rules and standards is a good thing, but also partly because I think it is a radical misunderstanding of legalism.
Worldliness and the prevalence of sexual images and temptations is a pervasive issue that requires a nuanced and ironclad conviction as parents (something that I want to have when it’s my turn); avoiding cultivating the conviction of certain rules and standards for your kids because to do so would be a sign of legalism and fundamentalism is not a sign that you value grace and the Gospel. It’s merely a sign that you don’t understand legalism, and it might mean that you’re a legalist.
P.S. I looked it up and it means something that can prevent something negative: i.e removing a mole can prevent skin cancer.