Avoiding Legalism in your home

If you were at Faith on Sunday, then you heard Pastor Steve Viars
speak candidly regarding the dangers of various types of legalism in the
church. Legalism is not defined by the existence of a rule or a principle to be followed; legalism is the evaluation of a person’s spirituality on the basis of their willingness to follow a rule or principle that is not found in Scripture. I think many of us understand how legalism works in the church, and how much damage is done through legalism.

So the question now becomes, how do I avoid legalism in my home? After
all, Pastor Viars said that we could have “house rules.” So how are “house rules”
not a euphemistic way of saying legalism?

Before I answer these questions, I want to state that this article is primarily
for parents. Children are expected to be obedient to parents even if they have
really dumb rules. While a child can be legalistic, in the sense that they judge
classmates or visitors at church, that is a subject not addressed in this article.

Instead, this article is directed at parents asking the question of
how I (as a parent) avoid creating a legalistic environment (and still
potentially having some house rules).

#1. Place primary emphasis on Scriptural Truth

House rules and Scriptural truth are not necessarily related. So, as
parents, your children should understand that your focus and your desire is
that each member of the family know the Scriptures and live out those truths.
For example, we need to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and
strength, and so do our children. That is why we pray, why we read the Bible,
why we give, why we run to Him in times of suffering and why we rejoice in times of

The Scripture also calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is
why we serve in community outreach opportunities, that is why we serve the
folks in our ABF, that is why we participle in the living nativity, or in the
counseling conference, or serve in children’s ministries.

When our children are asked, “What is it like to grow up in your home?”
May they say, by God’s grace, that “we live in a home that seeks to love Jesus
and love our neighbor in everything.”

Part of the way we avoid a legalistic tendency is to keep our focus on
the truth, found in the pages of Scripture.

#2. Explain the reasons for the house rules, and do not determine spirituality by the obedience to the house rule

A second way to avoid legalism involves two steps. The first is for each
parent to thoughtfully consider why they have the “house rules.” It may be that
after careful evaluation, there are NO good reasons for it, and the rule should
be eliminated. At other times, the parent still believes that there are good
reasons for such a rule to be in existence and therefore explains that
reasoning to everyone in the home. Let’s take an illustration:

Let’s say the Johnson family has a rule that when they go to church on
Sunday AM that everyone must wear business casual clothing (e.g., Dockers and a
polo shirt for the boys and capris with a nice top or a dress for the girls)
instead of shorts or jeans. The children object, “our friends wear jeans …
since when does clothing determine how one worships?” On the one hand, it is
easy to see that the children have a point. The Scriptures are clear that we
worship from the heart. But, maybe the parents remain firm for other reasons
such as (1) to clearly teach that going to church is not going to the park, it
is not playing at a friend’s house. Going to church is something very different
than the things they do the rest of the week. (2) it is a time to be serious
because it is a time to hear from God and a time to minister to others, and
there is an attitude about the Lord’s day and about corporate worship that
suggests we do something other than grab the first thing we see in the closet,
and (3) we [the parents] are concerned that you make the local church an
important part of your walk with God long after you are out of the home and we
believe that the more you treat it like a gathering of friends at DQ the less likely
you make the local church a part of your life when it is no longer convenient to

In this case, I think we can see that the Johnson’s have thought about
this issue and crafted an answer that makes sense. Their response is not simply
“because I said so.” The answer is carefully evaluated with biblical ideas and
truths supporting the propositions.

But here is the crucial second step. Neither the parents, nor the children (nor the families that disagree with the Johnson’s logic) can judge one another
and determine the spirituality of each person on the basis of the rule (either
its presence or lack of presence). So the Smith’s, who may not have the rule,
don’t accuse the Johnson’s of being legalistic [remember, that is using rules as
a test of spirituality] nor do the Johnson’s accuse the Smiths of being unspiritual
[because they don’t have that rule]. The house rule is simply the Johnson’s
attempt to wisely apply the command that they are to bring their children up in
the teaching and admonition of the Lord and to give a good account at the
judgment seat of Christ.

This step will not always create consensus within the family or how the families
work out living wisely in this world. These presentations will not always result in our children saying, “Thank you for your abundant wisdom! If God allows me to be a parent, I will do things just like you did.” But this process can bring about mutual respect,
deep Christian thinking, and a turn from legalism.

I would encourage you to evaluate each house rule by a similar grid.
If you, as the parent, cannot create a sound justification for the rule, then
maybe you should give it up.

#3. Encourage obedience to the house rules, but passion for the Scriptural Truth

The final point that I would like to make in this post is that parents
should place the primary focus on the Scriptural truth, and secondary focus on
the house rules. This does not mean the house rules are unimportant, as they
can certainly reveal to us ways in which a child still needs to grow, but the point refers
to which gets the priority. In some homes, the house rules dominate. It is more
important, for example, for the room to be clean than for the child to have a
pure and upright heart before the Lord. It is more important that laundry is
dealt with than a time of prayer or study of the Word. It is more important for
a child to wear certain clothes than it is for the child to meet someone new or
to serve in the church.

In other words, the house rules, while still important, are not the
main thing. Helping each child walk with Jesus and live worthy of the calling, is far more important.  We would all have a bent toward legalism if we are not careful. Yet, God’s grace can help us be wise parents without becoming legalistic ones.

What other things have you found to be helpful in your battle against legalism?

Rob Green
Pastor Rob Green oversees Faith Biblical Counseling Ministries. A seasoned counselor, Rob also teaches others how to counsel--through FBCM's training conferences and Faith Bible Seminary's MABC program.