Raising Legalists

March 30, 2010

Tuesday Re-mix – This is a popular post from last year, updated and resubmitted for your consideration and comments.

Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them… When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” John 21:20-22

When I work in a church where there has been a moral failure on the part of a leader, especially a pastor, I am always intrigued by the wide variety of responses from the church members.  They range from complete denial (pretending it never happened) to cries for the death penalty, and every imaginable consequence in between.  But the responses that break my heart the most usually come from some of the teenagers.

legalismOddly enough, it is often teenagers who are the most troubled by the moral failure and who are the most demanding that there be severe consequences.  I believe this is true because of the way they have been taught to think.  In many cases, they have been conditioned to believe that, for every good act there must be a visible reward and for every bad act there must be bad consequences.  And when either of those things does not happen, their world is turned inside out, creating chaos and confusion.  So, in an attempt to maintain some degree of “rightness” in their world, they are often the most vocal proponents of severe consequences in the life of the fallen leader.  I can’t blame them for that.  It is what their parents taught them.

You see, when we use behavior modification techniques to get our children to make right choices, this is what we get.  When our motives have more to do with obtaining right outward behavior than with teaching right lessons, when we are more concerned with outward results than with inward thought life, we end up with little legalists in the church.  That, after all, is what legalism is: an unhealthy obsession with physical punishment and consequences for outward behavior.

When I teach my children “don’t do this or these bad things will happen”, when fear of physical consequences becomes the primary (perhaps the only) motivation for good behavior, the I have pushed them down a philosophical pathway that is doomed from the beginning…because often, the “if, then” formula approach to life simply fails us.  Often, the pleasing physical rewards do not come and the severe physical consequences do not follow.  Then what?  We say, “Don’t have sex outside of marriage because you will get a disease or an unwanted pregnancy.”  Then, when they break that rule and those consequences do not happen, with what motivation have we left them?  What have they learned?

What if we taught our children to love God, and to feel His presence in their lives?  What if their primary motivation for right choices is their love for the Lord?  That, I believe, is the kind of Kingdom children we want to be raising.

Legalism isn’t being obsessed with the rules.  God made the rules, He clearly has His desires and preferences for us.  There is nothing unhealthy about knowing and following rules, nor asking others to do the same.  But it is the motivation that makes it either healthy or not.  It becomes unhealthy  when we presume to become the administrator of consequences, when we become more concerned about punishment or consequences that fit our own notion of justice than we are with the person being judged.  Legalism is when we insist on certain consequences in another person’s life so that we can feel better about our own life.  Legalism causes us to involve ourselves in Spiritual consequences which are not ours with which to worry.

When a leader fails (or anyone else, for that matter), the legalist says, “There’s hell to pay for this.”  The Christian brother says, “I still love you and will help you however you will let me…” and leaves the punishment to God.

I know I’ve painted an intricate subject with a broad brush here.  The line between Christian accountability and legalism is more often blurry than clear, and our fears of either extreme (legalism versus indifference) often cause us to react against any statements leaning one way or the other.  But, all things considered, it seem to me we could do a better job of teaching and understanding that line, even with our children.  I think our families would benefit.  I know our churches would.

© Blake Coffee

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