Paul’s discussion of the Old Testament law in Romans and Galatians connects well with a practical life concern: How do we effectively parent our children? In particular, one question parents regularly face has to do with what part rules play in raising children. Since Paul actually uses the raising of children as an analogy to explain the role of the law (Galatians 3:24-26; 4:1-7; Romans 8:14-17), perhaps we should turn the analogy on its head and ask if there is anything we can learn about raising children from Paul’s teaching about the law.
What can we learn about raising children from Paul’s teaching about the law? Five things:
1. The Apostle Paul teaches that the Old Testament law gives definition to what is right and wrong (Romans 7:7).
By analogy, rules play a positive, though limited, part in raising children because rules help children learn to distinguish right from wrong.
For example, how many times has your child said something like this to you: “But you didn’t say specifically that I couldn’t…?” Rules help them learn what is right and wrong (in addition to helping them learn what is wise and unwise; but that’s a different blog post for a different day).
2. The Apostle Paul teaches that the Old Testament law shows how utterly sinful sin is—and that’s a good thing (Romans 7:12-13).
Similarly, rules play a valuable role in the raising of children because rules show how sin is really and truly sinful.
To illustrate this, let me ask you a question. If one of my four children at the age of eight had purposefully thrown a baseball through a neighbor’s window, would that have been sinful? Yes. But what if that same morning I had gotten on my knee, looked my child in the eye and said, “You are never to throw baseballs through neighbors’ windows,” and she had intentionally broken our neighbor’s window with a baseball an hour later, would that have been worse? Yes, it would have been “utterly sinful,” to use Paul’s language. And highlighting the sinfulness of sin is a good thing because it leads into the third point.
3. The Apostle Paul teaches that the Old Testament law has a primary function of pointing us to Christ (Galatians 3:22-24; Romans 10:4).
Similarly, rules in a family are not ends in themselves, nor are they the goal of our parenting. When combined with loving guidance from parents, rules function most importantly to demonstrate to children how much they need Christ to deal with their sin problem.
Teenagers exemplify this better than younger children (and may work better in the analogy as well, since rules are decreasingly effective in forming children as they get older). Teenagers who choose to disobey, break a rule, or even rebel will at times catch glimpses of the folly, hurtfulness, and wrongness of their actions, and parents need to be ready at such moments of insight to point their sons and daughters toward Christ.
4. The Apostle Paul teaches that a loving relationship between God’s children and their adoptive heavenly Father is the central goal of his redemptive plan, not living under the Old Testament law (Galatians 4:1-7; Romans 8:15-16). The law’s positive role in the present age is limited to showing us our sin and our need for Christ; anything beyond that is viewed negatively in the writings of the Apostle Paul.
Similarly, our primary goal in raising children is to help our children come into an ongoing relationship with God through Jesus Christ, which itself will lead to properly ordered relationships with others (such as with their parents, siblings, and eventually with their own children). Getting our kids to be moral, rule-keeping citizens is not the goal of parenting. The Pharisees were rule-keepers, but they were not in a right relationship with God.
Building a loving relationship with your children starts from day one. But anyone who has raised children will tell you that having a growing relationship with your child during the teen years will produce better fruit than any rules you place upon them (recognizing that some rules are still necessary and appropriate during the teen years).
5. The Apostle Paul teaches that a person who lives a Spirit-led life is not under the law; but through dependency upon the Spirit will do what pleases God (Galatians 5:16-26).
Similarly, our hope should be that a child who is full-grown, that is, an adult both legally and in fact, will live a Christ-centered, Spirit-led life, rather than either a pharisaical lifestyle on the one hand, or an antinomian (rule-rejecting) lifestyle on the other.
Two of my four children are young adults who have finished college and have transitioned well into adulthood. My role as a parent to them does not center upon rules—and in fact rarely includes them at all; it is based upon a relationship that has been fostered over the course of many years.
In these five ways, we can see how Paul’s analogy of child raising isn’t limited to helping us understand the function of the Old Testament law for Christians living under the New Covenant. Paul’s teaching about the Old Testament law also sheds some light on raising our children.