Parenting Godly Teens, #8: Helping to Separate Legalism from Obedience


One of the thornier problems in raising teens is the oft argued question about tradition versus doctrine versus opinion. We may be tempted to think that our teens are simply challenging the status quo for its own sake — almost as a sacred “teen duty” — but the truth is that your teens are trying to grow up and understand their faith. You needn’t be offended by it; rather, you need to step up to the plate and help them. There is often a lot of misunderstanding — not just with the teens, but the parents as well — that leads to an erroneous and misdirected set of definitions and misunderstandings. These words and their definitions are crucial, if our children are to be and remain faithfully obedient to the Lord’s way. So, here are some definitions you might find helpful.

What is legalism? Too often the definition of legalism boils down to someone trying to make me do what I don’t want to do — never mind whether or not I really do need to be doing it. Legalism is not a biblical term. It is bandied about mostly in protestant, “faith only”, theological circles and among those who seek a “pass” on obeying God’s will. There is difficulty in defining it well, since there is no biblical definition for it and it seems to be used with a slightly different meaning by a number of theologians. But the essence of legalism seems to be a reliance upon works (rather than grace through faith, Eph. 2:8) to save. Judaizing teachers of Paul’s day, the Pharisees, and scribes are often categorized as legalists. But is it crucial to know that a call for obedience is not legalism. Hear the inspired apostle Paul’s teachings, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:1-4, NAS95). Before your teen gets the chance to use the charge of “legalism” toward your holding to the Scriptural standards about life, discipleship, morality, the church, or worship; make sure they know what you really believe about faith in Jesus and the grace He provides — and that holding to the faith once for all delivered to the saints is not legalism — “[Jesus Christ our Lord] through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake,” (Romans 1:5, NAS95).

What is tradition? The “tradition of the elders” (e.g., Matt. 15:2) that we see in the New Testament is nothing more or less than non-biblical, Rabbinic teachings that sought to be commentary on practical living of the Law of Moses. They aren’t bad in and of themselves, of course; but on occasion they were mistaken, in conflict with the Bible, and elevated in authority above the Bible. This is what Jesus criticized and what we must avoid. Every generation of God’s people, you know, has a set of traditions, which are neither good nor bad until they conflict with God’s word or become a requirement to please God. The problem, as parents deal with teens, is often a sloppy definition — born of a lack of deeper teaching — of tradition and doctrine. Speaking personally, there were a number of teachings that I, as a teen, strongly suspected of being little more than tradition, only to find out from better informed teachers that there was actually solid, substantial biblical ground underneath them. When your teen challenges a teaching, calling it a tradition, (1) don’t get your feathers ruffled, (2) know the difference between a tradition and a doctrine, and (3) help them discover (through your own teaching, or an elder or preachers teaching) whether it is a tradition or doctrine. Traditions can be waived, biblical teachings cannot.

What is an opinion or disputable matter?

“Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” Romans 14:1, NIV. “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.” Romans 14:1, NAS95.

In every community or group of people there will be differences in taste, judgment, and style. They are not biblical teachings. If you want to argue them, you won’t be able to go directly to the Scripture (except the passages about loving one another) for a “thus, saith the Lord” answer. Especially in American culture there are significant generational differences — we almost cultivate them. This makes it a challenge to get along in the Lord’s body, but it is not too big a challenge for God or His people and we are given the command to find a way to get along. Sometimes the challenges can be compromised, everyone gains something and everyone loses something. Sometimes I abandon my opinion because, “I love you more than my opinion.” Sometimes others change their position, because to me this issue is an important matter of conscience that might cause me to lose my faith or moral footing. Now this last one is sometimes the real challenge, because there are sometimes people who really don’t have a problem with conscience as much as they just are self-willed. And it is here that Christian love really has to work hard to discern whether a weak brother might really be caused to morally fall or whether we might be merely enabling someone to remain immature in Christ. Help your teen to work through this one, too —encouraging love and service toward the other rather than self.

What is obedience? Obedience is the natural outcome of love toward the Lord.   (Cont on pg 2)  It is seeking to genuinely die to self and become conformed to HIS likeness (Gal. 2:20). Sometimes it is seen in a rather juvenile fashion as “stuff I have to do, even though I don’t want to”. Obedience from faith and love, nourished in the ground of God’s grace toward us (Romans 5:6-10 and Romans 12:1,2) doesn’t stiffen its neck at God’s commands — it lovingly submits. Obedience that is defined as “stuff I have to do, even though I don’t want to” kicks dirt, looks for loopholes in God’s law, scorns those who call for obedience as legalists, and sees discipleship as optional. Sometimes new Christians fall back to this sort of mind, but for the mature: “For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf,” (2 Corinthians 5:14, 15, NAS95). Help your teen to understand discipleship, to avoid “loophole-ism”, and not fuss about lovingly serving the Lord in the way He seeks to be served.

Don’t shy away from approaching these issues with your teen. They may be thorny; they may demand that you think a little harder than you’ve thought recently; they may take extra effort and conversation; but it will be worth the outcome — faithful young adults steadily maturing in Christ, taking a Christian spouse, raising a Christian family, and serving faithfully in the Lord’s body, the church.


About parklinscomb

I'm a minister for the Rock Hill church of Christ in Frisco TX ( where I've worked since 2020. I'm a big fan of my family, archaeology, the Bible, and the Lord's church.
This entry was posted in Christian Leadership, Christianity, Parenting and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s