How to Raise a Theologian

Years ago a student who had attended one of my Bible courses on grace told me something that made me want to resign the ministry on the spot. “When my boyfriend and I have sex”, she said, “I can visualise the smiling face of Jesus lovingly looking down on us.” I gulped, and then enquired how she managed to do something like that. “You taught me this”, she responded. “You taught me to accept God’s grace and not be condemned by those things that I have not yet perfected as a Christian.”

I was horrified. Clearly I had created a monster. Or had I? Perhaps she would have done the same, albeit with another excuse, if someone else had preached a different message to her. I had some serious thinking to do.

Since that incident I have discovered that people who “pervert the grace of God” and use their “freedom to indulge the sinful nature” have been around as long as the gospel itself (See Jude 1:4 and Galatians 5:13). Even the apostle Paul has had to defend the accusation that he was teaching people to “go on sinning so that grace may increase.”

But I have also discovered something else: You cannot present grace to someone who is not looking for it. Put differently, only the person who has tried to live up to God’s standards but who has failed dismally can appreciate the grace of God. Presenting grace without first presenting God’s holy law leads to “cheap grace”, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously pointed out.

A Fine Balance

What this means is that the faithful presentation of the gospel is a delicate balancing act. There is a time for speaking about grace and a time for speaking about works. At times a preacher should sound like a liberal, and at times like a conservative. There is a time to say to an adulterous person “I do not condemn you” (John 8:11), and there is a time to take a whip and drive religious people out of their gathering place (John 2:15).

It is sometimes extremely difficult to discern which action is called for. And so we oftentimes get it upside-down, driving the adulterous woman out of the church in anger whilst saying to the religious hypocrites “I do not condemn you.” Even Paul struggled with this issue. To the divisive Corinthian church he wrote: “What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness? (1Corinthians 4:21)

There are ways and means to discern whether a situation calls for discipline or mercy. But that is not what I want to talk about. Rather, I want to approach the issue from the other side, that is, from the side of the person who is on the receiving end of the discipline or the mercy. I believe the question that we should ask is this: How can you train someone to detect grace when they need it and to recognise and submit to authority when they need to do so? A person who can do this will not experience rejection or hurt when corrected and neither will he/she abuse privileges when they are granted. Such people will take the burden of discernment off their mentor and decide for themselves when a situation calls for work and when it allows for rest. They will never turn grace into license or responsibility into legalism.

A Solid Foundation

As so many other things, the foundation for this type of discernment starts in the home. It is here where the child learns to respect authority as well as enjoy freedom. Children who grow up in healthy homes learn to respect their duties whilst knowing that they are loved. Discipline is not seen as rejection and allowances are not abused. Works and grace harmonise in their lives, and when they turn to Christ the harmony reaches its full maturity. The fact that God is both a sovereign King and a loving Father represents no contradiction to them. They understand that they are fully forgiven and fully responsible, and they see no tension between the two. In short: Their theology is balanced and well integrated.

A Simple Strategy

The term “a healthy home” is rather fuzzy, and so I want to propose a simple parenting strategy that I believe to be extremely helpful and practical in this regard.

A child is exposed to a parents love when his/her needs (not greeds) are met. When this happens the child feels cared for, secure and validated. Such needs originate in the child and are communicated by the child to the parent. The parent responds to the communication.

A child is exposed to a parent’s authority in the exact opposite manner, namely when the will of the parent is made known and enforced. This will originates in the parent and is communicated by the parent to the child. The child responds to the communication.

The principle is simple: When it comes to the child’s needs, especially the need for social interaction, amusement and fun, the child should be allowed to decide what he/she wants to do and the parent must play along. God has placed these needs in the child as an integral part of his/her unique identity and the parent should allow the child to make it known. These needs differ from children to children and should not be assumed by the parents. The parents may not impose their idea of fun or recreation (Johnny wants piano lessons but daddy wants him to play rugby). When children’s wishes are respected in this regard they feel accepted and normal, and they see their parents as part of their world. Dad may find himself rolling in the mud with Junior, but he can console himself that it is a small price to pay for a big reward.

When it comes to the parent’s authority, the same rule applies. The parent has the say and the child must yield. God has placed a divine, instinctive wisdom in parents for raising their children, establishing boundaries and enforcing discipline. The children need to acknowledge and respect this. When it comes to disciplinary issues, parents may not give in to children’s demands and think they are showing them love. This is the wrong place for it.

When Roles are Reversed…

A common characteristic of dysfunctional families is the reversal or confusion of the roles defined above. Parents oftentimes try and make up for their own failures by forcing their children to succeed in some or other field, regardless of the children’s own dreams or desires. Such children become mere extensions of the parent’s ego and feel robbed of their identity. Parents then wonder why their children rebel and join a pseudo-family (such as the drug culture) where they can just be themselves and be accepted for it. (In this regard I recommend People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck).

Likewise, children who grow up indulged and without discipline, or who must “parent” a sick/addicted father or mother from an early age, oftentimes end up spending their lives going from one therapist to the other.

In Closing…

To summarise: Be a friend to your children on their terms and be a parent on your terms. The one compliments the other. Children find it much easier to submit to the discipline of a parent who sees and accepts them for who they are. And they end up with a remarkable ability to integrate God’s authority with God’s love!

(This article appeared in the Auksano magazine)