By Mark Galli
January 9, 2013
Many readers of the magazine I edit, "Christianity Today," are refugees from strict fundamentalist families. They've been raised in an oppressive and legalistic Christian faith, and in their adult years, they move toward moderate evangelicalism to escape the unhealthy strictures and, frankly, to heal psychologically and spiritually.
Legalism and authoritarianism are temptations in conservative Christianity, and strict obedience of children to their parents is one cardinal rule. Some biblical verses wisely point in this direction (for children certainly do need to be obedient in some situations: "Stay away from that stove" and "Hold my hand as we cross the street" come to mind). But this biblical injunction is a source of confusion for some Christian parents, some of whom fear that their children might reject the faith or turn out "worldly." Because of this, many parents, yearning for a sense of control, have a sincere desire to obey scripture as they understand it. Of course, some are simply control freaks.
Parents who are attracted to religion because it gives them a sense of control can sometimes act too authoritatively toward their children.
It would be easy to say this is a distortion of "real religion." But the fact that children are often oppressed in religious households suggests that there is indeed something in religion which tempts parents in this way. That temptation is the inherent human fascination with law and control. People become religious for many reasons, good and bad. One for many is that their lives are completely out of control morally and socially, and they see in religion a way to bring order to the chaos. Religion as inner police. Such adherents are attracted to religions, or denominations within religions, that accent discipline and obedience. This happens -- surprisingly -- even in Christianity.
This is surprising because the New Testament message is about freedom from law, and being grounded in grace. "For freedom Christ has set us free," proclaimed Paulin his most profound exposition of grace. The fact that even some Christians fail to grasp the radical nature of God's unconditional love suggests just how deeply we humans are embedded in a world ruled by law, expectations, duty, control and obedience. We naturally imagine that Christianity is just a nicer form of this basic reality. The message of grace is so radical that it is simply hard to hear it for what it is.
Where it is heard and lived, of course, we find people giving of themselves lovingly to all manner of vulnerable people: the poor, the needy, the lost, the alone -- and to children. It's one reason it is in the DNA of Christians to start orphanages. And it's one reason that children raised in Christian homes grounded in divine grace tend to not only be well adjusted but also to give themselves to the vulnerable their whole lives in extraordinary ways.
Like many dynamic institutions, religion can be a source of great evil or unparalleled good. When we grasp God's grace -- or better, when we discover that we have been grasped by that grace -- it makes all the difference for us, and for our children.
Mark Galli is the editor of Christianity Today. He is also the author of "Francis of Assisi and His World," among other books.