I have been very hesitant to step into the latest Duggar mess. For those who don’t know, the Duggar family is the very large family featured on television’s “19 kids and counting.” The family is Christian, homeschooled, and followers of Bill Gothard.
Recently the news brought out some facts about the oldest son of the family, things that happened when he was fourteen and fifteen years old. It was obviously handled poorly, and now the whole world seems to be either attacking or defending the family. I won’t go into detail about the crime or about how it was handled. I will only say that I have known some families who have been through this, and that it is very difficult to “handle it well.”
However, when I first learned of this I happened to read the statement made by the boy’s parents. (This young man is now married with his own children. The events occurred 12 years ago.) The parents made the statement, to People magazine, that they were shocked when it happened.
“When Josh was a young teenager, he made some very bad mistakes, and we were shocked. We had tried to teach him right from wrong. That dark and difficult time caused us to seek God like never before.”
In that brief statement is a revelation. In just nine words, the Duggars summarize why legalism does not work to curb sin.
“We had tried to teach him right from wrong.”
When spirituality can be reduced to a list of things that are right placed against a list of things that are wrong, there will be no victory over sin. The desire to make spirituality a lazy process of list-keeping is what has harmed the church’s testimony in the world and the Christian’s ability to live rightly.
There are so many reasons this is true. First, evil has a draw upon the human heart. Putting something on a list and calling it wrong simply does not make it easier to avoid. In fact, there seems to be more of a draw once we identify something as wrong. We want to know why it is wrong. We want to understand the wrongness of it. We want to experience it so that we know what to stay away from. Even those who belong to Jesus are still drawn to evil by the flesh. The old ways are strong habits. If we have learned anything through our lives and by observing others, we should have learned that people find ways to do and to justify evil actions.
Second, no one knows who gets to write the lists. Most churches and teachers will claim that their lists come from the Bible—even when those lists contradict each other. Yes, the Bible does warn us against certain actions and attitudes, but some of the lists presented to us are far more detailed than anything the Bible teaches. The detailed rules of the Pharisees are nothing compared to the judgmental systems of some churches today. In fact, most lists are not published at all. People learn right and wrong by the acceptance or rejection of those around them. Sometimes people don’t learn that something is wrong until after they do it.
Third, the list of wrong things gets a lot more attention than the list of right things. We tell young men what they cannot do, but rarely tell them how they ought to handle the desires and stresses that come their way. We have long lists of sins, particularly in some areas, with almost no indication of what is right. One blogger recently wrote about the Duggar thing and suggested two boxes, one with wrong sexual practices and one with right. The one with the wrong practices was full while the one with right practices had only one, “Marriage.” But there are more than two boxes, because the listmakers will tell us all kinds of things that are wrong in the marriage relationship as well. It wouldn’t seem far out of line to say that almost all of our attention has been given to the things that are considered wrong. So much so that some young people have reported that the only sexuality they knew anything about was what they were supposed to avoid.
Fourth, there are no lists like this in the Bible. What? How can I say that? What about the Ten Commandments? If you read the Ten Commandments and understand the many rules given to the community of the people of God in the Old Testament, you will see what Jesus saw. There are only two rules. Love the Lord and love others. Jesus summarized “all the law and the prophets” under those two rules.
And Jesus said something else we should remember:
“Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12
We have called this the “Golden Rule.” It summarizes our relationship with others in a very simple and straight-forward way. We could call it respect or even love.
The legalist tries to live with a long list of things to avoid and strives to keep his own actions away from that list. But maybe that isn’t necessary at all. Maybe if we learned to respect others and to care for them, to treat them the way we would like to be treated, we would find that the lists are not all that necessary. Maybe if we taught our children, from the earliest ages, that others have value and a right to be respected, that no one should be abusers or abused, and that those who are weak should be protected by those who are strong—maybe the sins we say they should avoid just wouldn’t enter their hearts and minds.
You see, lists will never help us do right. Rules and punishments can only force certain behavior, not change our hearts. Legalism is about rules, learning right from wrong. Grace, or the gospel of Jesus, is about relationship. Relationship with God and relationship with others. The only thing that makes a difference is relationship. Loving one another is the answer.
Love God and love others. Those are the only rules we need.