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3 Ways to Identify Legalism and Improve Your Parenting
Legalism is destructive. It is in opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But it can be subtle and therefore hard to know for sure when you are dealing with it. Let’s look at some ways to identify if you are facing legalism.
# 1: There is no Absolute
A legalistic approach involves setting up an absolute standard where one does not really exist. It focuses more on the externals (what you do or believe) than it does the internals (what is going on in your heart). Jesus described the legalists as, “white-washed tombs.” Usually, the legalist will develop a specific test that can be administered to determine if you are “in” with them or “out.” For example: Do you drink alcohol? Do you smoke? Do you read your Bible every day? Any such test is superficial because it is possible to get the right answer and still be lacking spiritual growth (or get the wrong answer, but still be growing). Unfortunately this approach can lead to teaching that it is possible to lose your salvation when you are not able to answer enough (or even one of the) questions the right way.
# 2: Distinctions are not Embraced
The legalist will be more focused on conforming others to their image instead of Jesus. Their goal is to clone everyone. This can even be taken as far as having everyone look alike (for example, everyone must dress the same). There will be a lack of acceptance of the diversity in the body of Christ. The legalist will tell you what you are supposed to believe. They will insist you act like they do and serve the way they do. They will say, “You must believe exactly what we believe, or you will not be considered in the group.” You will have to perform in order to be considered in the group. Membership in the group will be based on how well you are performing and looking like them.
# 3: Location Matters More than Direction
Legalists are not primarily concerned with your relationship with Christ. They will be more concerned with what you are doing rather than if you are moving closer to Christ. Someone focused primarily on grace will treat membership and maturity differently. With a grace-oriented paradigm, membership is achieved without having to perform. A baby is born into a family having been automatically granted membership. There will be an understanding that the baby needs to mature, but the baby will always have total acceptance. Any decent parent will not ask, “Is this baby worth keeping?”, but will ask, “Is this baby moving in the right direction?”
To avoid legalism, start with total acceptance of others, granting them membership. Then give them responsibility and authority depending upon their maturity. To determine maturity ask, “In what direction are they pointed and is there any movement?” Are they moving toward or away from Christ? How close are they to Christ? Don’t judge someone by how far away they are from Christ. Instead, assess the person’s maturity only for purposes of determining level of responsibility. This works well for the church family. And, it works well for the biological family. Parents are always to love, include, and accept their children unconditionally, but give out responsibility according to maturity.
- What does avoiding legalism have to do with better parenting?
- In what ways have you accepted the subtleness of legalism into your life?
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.
Matt Pavlik is a licensed professional clinical counselor who wants to see each individual restored to their true identity. He has more than 20 years of experience counseling individuals and couples at his Christian counseling practice, New Reflections Counseling. Matt and Georgette have been married since 1999 and live with their four children in Centerville, Ohio.