The Accidental Legalist

Dave Wiedis, Copyright 2010, 2017

Have you ever come across as rigid, legalistic, or even weird, when your intent was the exact opposite?  Have you ever impetuously said things that are misunderstood by your family and friends, or in a public setting and watched your credibility undermined?  

When my children were about ten and twelve I walked in on them as they were watching a seemingly innocuous show on the Disney Channel.  Believing that I was a wise, discerning father, my spiritual antenna went up.  I scanned the dialogue intently for any hint of immorality, or for some comment that I believed would plant a dark seed into the innocent, undiscerning hearts of my children.  Hearing a very subtle comment condoning premarital sex, I made my pronouncement:  “This show is insidious.  I don’t want you watching such filth.”

Some in the Christian world would admire my ability to discern the secular worldview in the subtle comment.  Some would applaud my diligence in guarding the hearts of my children. Today, with years of experience and the benefits of hindsight, I would say I acted foolishly.  My rash reaction risked having the exact opposite effect that I intended.  Indeed, I was guilty of being an “accidental legalist.”

How did my children respond to me?  In this instance, they looked at me in disbelief, puzzled by my anger, not understanding why I was condemning the show they were enjoying.  Perhaps they wondered whether being a Christian meant they could not watch the Disney Channel. Sadly, over the years, I probably repeated this type of behavior many times in different contexts and with different media:  A comment about MTV, a remark about a Super Bowl commercial, a threat to turn off cable if they could not use better judgment in the shows they selected.  Through repeated experiences, they came to believe that I was rigid and strict, “too intense” and “too serious,” to relax and laugh at what they considered harmless humor.  More tragically, they began to associate “Christianity” with a legalistic attitude that belied the joy, peace, and intimate relationship that I, for the most part, experienced in knowing Jesus.

Ironically, I’m no legalist!  I don’t condemn behavior that the Bible does not condemn, and, as best as I’m able, I don’t add to the biblical proscriptions. I occasionally enjoy a glass of wine and watch an R-rated movie.  In fact, true legalists make my skin crawl.  I want to run far away from those who would reduce Christianity to external behavior modification.  I have studied (and taught) Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  One of my favorite verses, which I take to heart seriously, is his admonition, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free, therefore, do not again submit to the yoke of bondage.”

So why the disconnect with my children?  Why did they see me as a legalist when my intentions were good?  Although my goals  were admirable, my approach with them was shortsighted, emotionally reactive, and counterproductive.  I simply wanted to protect my children from adopting secular values, and for them to recognize the destructive nature of subtle messages embedded in a secular worldview.  I also wanted them to love God, to love what God loves, and to eschew what he warns against.  We are to teach our children to love what is good and to hate what is evil.  Although I’m not a legalist in the Biblical sense, I played the role of an accidental legalist, and the impact on my children was essentially the same. They did not understand my rigid stance.  In fact, they hated it, rebelled against it, and ultimately, they did not want to have anything to do with a brand of Christianity that condemned things they enjoyed.    

My mistake was to forget that my children do not have the knowledge that I have, and have not had the experiences – both with the Holy Spirit and in life – that shaped me so profoundly. By demanding that our children conform to the behavior we expect without them understanding the rationale, we can come across as pharisaical.  We require an external conformity to behavior without the corresponding commitment of a heart transformed by a love for Christ.

Let’s get to the root of the problem using the Disney Channel show as an example.  Dozens of experiences and assumptions learned over many years informed the foundation for my conclusion that the TV show my children were watching was “insidious.”  

First, I have become more sensitive to my own sin and to the brokenness of the world as I have grown more intimate with Jesus.  Here is where my reaction was coming from: As a young man, I spent years dealing with sexual promiscuity.  In seeking companionship out of my intense loneliness, I went through a series of relationships, sinning in the process.  As with many sins, my promiscuity initially relieved my pain.  However, that relief was short-lived.  As time went on, I experienced a deeper loneliness and felt even emptier as a result.  As the prodigal son eventually returned to his father, I also eventually turned back to God.  True to God’s word, I had the wonderful experience of understanding God’s faithful comfort when I turned from my sin.  And that pattern of repentance and building a deeper trust in the cross continues to transform me.  My young children had not yet experienced God in the same way and therefore did not have the same lens through which to filter my comments.  

Second, over the years I learned that there is joy in obedience. Although I previously used promiscuity as a way to relieve pain, I started to see that it just brings deeper pain.  As I repented from my sin, I began to experience God’s peace.  Given the choice between acting sinfully or turning toward God, I began to choose His ways.  I began to truly grasp that His ways are the path to life, and sin is the path to death.  These lessons were not learned in a day or week or even a year.  They were learned gradually, over a long period of time, with failures and setbacks in between.  Forty years ago, the thought of premarital sex was romantic, titillating.  Today, my thoughts are filled with all the pitfalls explained in Scripture.  My children had not had years of this kind of experience and therefore could not have the same understanding I had.

Third, over the years I have learned apologetics, critical thinking, and how to detect underlying messages in seemingly innocent media.  Thus, when I read an article, watch a movie, or have a debate with an unbeliever, I am able to engage in a fairly sophisticated analysis of the topic, see the underlying message, and form a cogent response.  Young children do not have the same capacity to engage in such abstract thinking.

All of these experiences and knowledge accumulated over many years created a split second reaction: When I walked in and heard what I perceived to be a sexually promiscuous comment on TV, I associated this with loneliness, pain, and a path of disobedience that ultimately separates us from God.  And I reacted.  Without thinking, without an awareness of my fears for my children, and without even considering the impact of my attitude or my words, I spoke what was in my heart.  However, I did not communicate my experiences, my ideas, or my fears.  More significantly, I failed to engage their minds.  Of course, my children had no foundation -- no context, no background, and no experience to understand my point.  Of course they would see me as being rigid and uptight.  Why wouldn’t they?  Without understanding any of the bases for my statement, they simply heard me criticize them, and communicate the message, “Christians don’t watch the Disney Channel.”  

This same mistake gets made in a variety of ways. We unthinkingly make comments about culture, music, dance, theater, academics, and the behaviors that we insist are or are not “Christian.”  We forget that our children need to grow into belief, discernment and wisdom in the same slow and incremental way that we have.  When we lack humility and patience in demanding them to conform to our expectations and our standards of behavior, we push them to respond in either a rebellious or pharisaical way.  And then we chastise them or praise them, reinforcing these poor responses.

What is the answer?  Are we to ignore the cultural assaults on our children?  Are we to simply give them unfettered access to any media?  Of course not.  However there are a number of things to consider.

First, reflect deeply before you react.  Our reactions can really be  overreactions -- fueled by personal, emotional experiences that have impacted us deeply.  Our children don’t have clue about our internal experiences and can’t connect with them, particularly if they don’t know about them.  When we react quickly and unreflectively, we just end up coming across as rigid, intense and unthinking.

Second, understand that your children will remember your attitude and energy more than your words. If you are emotionally reactive, wait until you are in a better frame of mind and heart.

Third, if you have a strong opinion, wait for the appropriate time and explain it with gentleness and patience. 1 Peter 3:15 tells us to “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” The key: “with all gentleness and respect.”  This can apply to our children just as well as unbelievers.  

Fourth, provide your children with an understandable, age-appropriate explanation for your position.  Engage their minds and hearts with both intelligence and gentleness.  Rather than lecturing, try to ask them questions to get them thinking; help them come to the same conclusions.  Solicit their input.  For example, when passing a sexually suggestive billboard, my wife would ask our children, “What are they selling?”  “What do you think they want you to do?”  “Why does that advertisement show a beautiful woman?” Help you children think for themselves about these issues.

Finally, choose and fight your battles wisely and with confidence that is from our sovereign Lord.  We are bombarded with negative messages all the time.  If you addressed every potential message, you would be correcting your kids all the time.  That alone has its negative effects.  We can choose the right time to connect with our kids in a positive way.  We can do this without the use of guilt or manipulation knowing that it is only God who can truly change the human heart.  Emphasize the joy and pleasure derived from knowing God and experiencing His lovingkindness.  Ultimately having an intimate relationship with God is far more enjoyable than anything Disney or a secular worldview can offer!  We love our children well when we help set their vision higher by highlighting how much better, richer, engaging and transformational God's story truly is.