“The Danger of Parental Legalism” September 26


Danger of Parental Legalism - Could you be guilty of parental legalism? Parental legalists often focus on behavior as opposed to the heart. If we make Christianity all about “the law,” we may fail to help our children understand their need for genuine heart change and a personal relationship with Christ.Could you be guilty of parental legalism? Parental legalists often focus on behavior as opposed to the heart. If we make Christianity all about “the law,” we may fail to help our children understand their need for genuine heart change and a personal relationship with Christ.

Also read about:

  • How and how not to communicate with a person who is acting like a fool.
  • And the foolishness of idolatry, even the kind you could be practicing.


Today’s Readings:
Isaiah 43 & 44
Psalm 110.1-7
Proverbs 26.5-9
Galatians 4.1-31


The Danger of Parental Legalism


Galatians 4.1-31:

The Importance of Getting to the Heart


I’ve been talking about legalism for several days now. Remember the Judaizers or legalists had come in trying to impose their brand of religion on the Galatians. As human beings we love having a set of rules to follow instead of allowing God to make a change in our hearts or the hearts of others.

Lou Priolo in his book The Heart of Anger talks about how we do this with our children. We make our rules (be in bed at 8.30; you can’t watch that TV show; no dating until you are 16; don’t talk with food in your mouth) on the same par with God’s commands (love God with all your heart; love your neighbor as yourself; do not lie; do not steal, etc.).

It’s not that children shouldn’t obey the rules their parents lay down for them (one of God’s commands is “children obey your parents in the Lord …” Eph. 6.1-3), but we must help our children understand that those are temporary rules for the household and not God’s law. Otherwise we run the risk of either making little Pharisees of our children or causing them to view Christianity as a legalistic religion instead of a relationship with Christ. Without that personal relationship with God, many of our kids will turn away from the things of God once they’re out of our homes.

Instead we need to lovingly teach our children to obey us as God’s temporary authority in their lives, while teaching them the truths and freedoms and principles of a genuine relationship with God and helping them see their need for the Savior. He is the only One who can ultimately change their hearts.


Danger of Parental Legalism - Could you be guilty of parental legalism? Parental legalists often focus on behavior as opposed to the heart. If we make Christianity all about “the law,” we may fail to help our children understand their need for genuine heart change and a personal relationship with Christ.

Today’s Other Readings:


Isaiah 43 & 44:

Idolatry … It’s Not Just Carved Images!


In chapter 44.10-17 Isaiah points out the foolishness of idolatry, including ours:

idol idolatry

10 Who would form a god or mold an image
That profits him nothing? …

12 The blacksmith with the tongs works one in the coals,
Fashions it with hammers,
And works it with the strength of his arms …
13 The craftsman stretches out his rule,
He marks one out with chalk;
He fashions it with a plane,
He marks it out with the compass,
And makes it like the figure of a man,
According to the beauty of a man, that it may remain in the house.
14 He cuts down cedars for himself,
And takes the cypress and the oak;
He secures it for himself among the trees of the forest.
He plants a pine, and the rain nourishes it.

15 Then it shall be for a man to burn,
For he will take some of it and warm himself;
Yes, he kindles it and bakes bread;
Indeed he makes a god and worships it;
He makes it a carved image, and falls down to it.
16 He burns half of it in the fire;
With this half he eats meat;
He roasts a roast, and is satisfied.
He even warms himself and says,
“Ah! I am warm,
I have seen the fire.”
17 And the rest of it he makes into a god,
His carved image.
He falls down before it and worships it,
Prays to it and says,
“Deliver me, for you are my god!”

But worshiping carved and molded images is not the only kind of idolatry. In the book of Ezekiel God rebuked the people for the idols that were in their hearts (Ezek. 14.1-8).

An idol is anything we want more than we want to please God. Even good things can be idols if they are not in their rightful place in our lives. If we think, “I must have a godly husband or I can’t be happy” or “I must have success in my career,” it’s idolatry.

It’s not wrong to want a godly husband, to pray for a godly husband, or to seek to be the kind of wife that draws her husband into a closer relationship with God (1 Pet. 3.1-2). It’s not wrong to be diligent and seek to do the best job we can. The problem is in the I-must-have attitude.

To think that wealth or power or position or popularity is going to make us happy in the long run is foolishness. It leaves many asking, “Is this all there is?,” because once attained, those things are empty of any ability to fill the real longings of our hearts.

Even things like wanting a godly husband or obedient children more than we desire to please God is sin. Sin will hurt our relationship with God (Ps. 66.18), leave us dissatisfied (Prov. 27.20) and lead to more sin (Rom. 6.19).


For His Glory


One more verse I’d like to mention is 43.7:

Everyone who is called by My name,
Whom I have created for My glory;
I have formed him, yes, I have made him.”

This verse describes our ultimate purpose in life … His glory!


Psalm 110.1-7:

The Coming Messiah


This is one of the Messianic psalms pointing to the coming of Christ not only in His first advent as Savior, but also in His second coming as King and Priest.

You can also sign up for special “Christian Living” posts Like this week’s “The 2 Essential Means of Christian Growth.”

The 2 Essential Means of Christian Growth - I've noticed that most people either find prayer a natural part of their Christian life or thoroughly enjoy studying the Bible. But rarely, have a met someone who says both come easily and naturally to them. Yet, it's the two of them working together that are God's essential means of Christian growth.

I sometimes LINKUP with these blogs.


Other posts on parenting:

“Parenting from the Foot of the Cross”
“Parenting: Are You Raising Rulers or Servants?”
“Parenting, Pruning & Praying for Our Nation”
“Could You Be Raising Little Hypocrites?”


This post may contain affiliate links, but I only recommend books and resources that I believe are theologically sound and beneficial to the reader. Thank you for supporting this blog and ministry by supporting my links!


Featured resources on Kindle or in books:

The Heart of Anger, The: Practical Help for the Prevention and Cure of Anger in Children by Lou Priolo

Lou Priolo has a remarkable gift for taking truths that many parents find difficult and elusive, and unfolding them with incredible clarity and simplicity. He wields the sword of the Spirit in a creative way, unravelling some difficult parenting problems that seem impossibly puzzling to many. And he reveals that raising children in a biblical manner does not have to be as hard as most people make it. The Heart of Anger is help for parents of angry children. It goes beyond the external manifestations of anger, and shows how to deal with the internal source of anger— the thoughts and motives of the heart (Heb. 4: 12). The book will also be helpful to parents who themselves struggle with sinful anger. This wonderful book will encourage struggling parents— even those whose children do not struggle with anger— and it will help fortify families against the onslaughts of an evil, angry age. —John MacArthur

Don’t Make Me Count to Three by Ginger Hubbard
Do you find yourself threatening, repeating your instructions, or raising your voice in an attempt to get your children to obey? Are you discouraged because it seems you just can t reach the heart of your child? Through personal experience and the practical application of Scripture, Ginger Hubbard encourages and equips moms to reach past the outward behavior of their children and dive deeply into the issues of the heart. Ginger’s candid approach will help moms move beyond the frustrations of not knowing how to handle issues of disobedience and into a confident, well-balanced approach to raising their children.

You can also Shop for Other Resources.


14 thoughts on ““The Danger of Parental Legalism” September 26

  1. Donna, this is so important.
    It’s easy for us, as believing parents, to mistakenly make our faith all about external obedience and good behavior. But God looks upon the heart. My heart aches for the parents in my circle who have LOST their children because they preached a false gospel to them — out of fear that they would be “worldly.”

    • I’ve seen that happen, too. I know we did a measure of that early in our walk with God. I just pray that in His mercy, He makes up for our lack. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I value your input!

      • I second everything Michele said. As a younger mom, I’m trying to pray every day for my kids’ hearts rather than enforce perfectionism and “toeing the line” which was what my parents did with me.

  2. I have witnessed a private Christian school that disciplines based on the child’s heart instead of just their actions. Your post reminded me of that and it is very important, but often over-looked. Thank you for the reminder!!

  3. Just last night I had a complex conversation with my little on about our freedom in Christ. We have to be people who don’t just insist on rules but stretch out to explain and reveal God’s law!

  4. Your thoughts about legalism in parenting have me wondering if I came across that way with my now young adult sons when they were under our roof. I know that I often expected them to tow the line I was defining for them in any given moment, Donna. Hmmm, this is something I’m going to ask them about and hopefully they will be honest with me. I also really relate to the “idol” of trying to gain happiness through my husband and marriage. I did a talk about that very faulty pursuit just last night. It was one of the worst lies (multiple lies) that I based my life and marriage on in the early days. Thanks for your thought-provoking post, my friend!

    • I know we came across that way at times with our kids, especially early in our walk with God. We have talked with our grown children about it, but it’s still very convicting. I have to remember the grace of God when I think about it. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, Beth. Blessings!

  5. Love your thoughts on parental legalism. I grew up in a home like that. I once heard that if we have the hearts of our children, they will desire to obey. This seems so true. God looks at our heart and uses love to change us. I get caught up sometimes in the do this and that and it only hardens their heart and mine. But when I focus on the relationship and love, both our hearts are softened to each other.

  6. I grew up with “When I say jump, you say how high?”. It was not a healthy environment at all. Since my kids were little, I’ve explained to them that when they obey me and their dad, it will be easier for them to obey God as they grow in their faith. Once in a while, one will have an objection to something and we would discuss the issue – I also want my kids to be able to disagree with authority in a respectful manner – or to be able to ask questions. I’d hear them out and then we’d talk about it. I’d ask myself if this issue was non-negotiable or if a compromise is possible. I’m not always this reasonable;) And my kids know that sometimes they need to obey ‘right now’ without further explanation.

    Thanks for sharing on Grace and Truth, Donna.

    • Hi Aimee,
      I think, especially as they get older, we need to work on relationships, respecting our kids just as we expect them to be respectful. When they know we love them, they will more readily accept instruction and obey with the right heart attitudes. Thanks for stopping by.

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