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Volume 10, Issue 3: Childer

Bound in Relationship

Douglas Wilson

Children are born into a covenantal relationship with their parents. Of course this relationship is supposed to grow and mature over time, but whether it does or not, the fact of the relationship is established at the beginning.

When growth and maturity are missing, the reason can always be attributed to sin. Whenever sin gets tangled up in any covenant relation, its effect is always destructive. Clearly, when such sins as bitterness, resentment, rebellion, and so forth are the sins involved, the destruction in the relationship is obvious. At the end of the process, parents and children find themselves unable to speak to one another, and everyone sees the problem.
But another kind of sin is less obvious in its destructive effects. This sin can destroy relationships where everything appears to be well-ordered, and everyone believes that all is fine.
A very common error (and one therefore hard to see) detaches authority from persons, and consequently comes up with a disembodied set of rules. This was the error of the Pharisees who studied the Scriptures because they thought that in those Scriptures (detached from the One who gave them) they would find eternal life. Jesus rebuked the folly and said that the Scriptures bore witness to Him (John 5:39_40). This same error was embraced by all the unbelievers in the Old Testament who, for some reason, could not see Christ in the Law (Rom. 10:3_4).
Now the same thing happens on a smaller scale in the home. When one of the parents says to do something, this frequently does not carry as much weight as when a List of Rules have been promulgated, written up, and posted on the fridge. A certain kind of mind likes abstracted law. This is because when the law comes from "nowhere," the person following it can be very scrupulous and tidy-minded about everything he does and yet, at the same time, not really be obeying anyone but himself. This is a veneered obedience-"with the look of real wood"!
Certain personalities like things in straight little rows. When such a personality is born into a home, this can certainly make life pleasant later on, at least in some respects. The parent who does not have to constantly get after a child to make his bed, or pick up his shoes, has one less daily task to hassle with. But this behavior on the part of the child is not necessarily obedience; it may sometimes be as willful and stubborn as outright defiance or rebellion.
Sometimes children impose this process on the workings of the home, sometimes the parents teach it, and other times the two work together in tandem to produce a bad problem.
This problem is often what lies behind certain forms of compulsive behavior in children. Compulsive behavior can be understood as submission to an arbitrary and sometimes irrational standard-detached from the requirements of the parents who love the child, and detached from the Word of a personal God. Love is not only the fulfillment of the law, love is the ballast of the law. Without love (i.e. without relationship in covenant), any herculean achievements amount to nothing.
The thing accomplished might be impressive considered in itself, but Paul dismisses it as worthless anyway. We often miss the point of his teaching on this. "And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing" (1 Cor. 13:3). We tend to read this as saying that great accomplishments are worthless in the presence of malice, spite, resentment, hatred, etc. But this is not what he says. He says that these great deeds are worthless when done in the absence of charity. The man who feeds the poor here may have nothing against them, but his effort is still worthless because it was conducted in an abstracted realm of rules, regulations, duties, and obligations. This is a constant temptation for "good" children.
When parents discipline in the personal way that they ought to, the obedience they receive is cheerful because it proceeds from personal loyalty. When parents allow the discipline to become something abstract and detached from covenant, which is to say, detached from a relationship of love, obedience becomes something hung from an invisible skyhook. A man may grow up in a strict home and live that way himself, yet not have any loyalty to his father. Because things were strict, there was conformity but no loyalty. But true obedience proceeds from personal loyalty.
Therefore the rules in a Christian home should be basic and should always be related directly to the relationships which God placed at the center of the home. This entire line of thought was suggested to me by my son, who had observed it in a family of our acquaintance. All the rules of the household plainly and obviously reduced to one-which was, obey your father. The children involved found a great deal of delight in doing so.
Just as a believer cannot look at the law without seeing Christ, so a child should not be able to look at a requirement of the household without seeing his father. The law and the man should blur together. And this is love.

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