Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Law & Gospel in the Home

A warm welcome to today's guest blogger: Haleigh Morgan! 
I encourage all who are facing the difficult task of teaching children "right from wrong" well also showering them with the grace of God to read the article below.

-- Emily

I was recently asked by an online friend to chime in on the question of Law and Gospel within the context of the home. That is, how might we parents approach the task of parenting, knowing when we are to give our children Law and when we are to give them Gospel? 

Let me state upfront that I consider myself supremely unqualified to instruct others on just about anything, most especially on the monumental calling of being a parent. I can only speak from my own experience and what I know to be true from scripture and from our Confessions. As a sister in Christ, I can offer mutual conversation and consolation of the gospel. Beyond that, the reader may be cautioned to have loads of salt ready to go (with which to take anything written below.) ;)

In the question of law and gospel and how to parent in these terms are suggested a few additional ideas. First, we constantly run the risk of erring too much on the side of one or the other. If we are too focused on law, we become despotic legalists or “pietists,” thinking that if our Milly or Norbert could be taught to behave just so and say and do all the right things, then all will be right. The other side of this coin is antinomianism. When we err on the side of little or even no law, we run the risk of raising hedonistic, selfish tyrants whom not even we like being around. No loving parent knowingly and deliberately takes either of these two paths. Thus our conundrum. How do we, parents who are presumably very concerned that we fulfill our duties to God, to our children, to society, go about knowing which is called for in any given situation? If we choose wrongly at some time, will we forever muck things up, potentially scarring our child for life? These are questions that lurk in the back of our minds, keep us up at night, and make us second guess ourselves. Before we go any further, let me say, “Peace. God chose to entrust these children to you for a reason. He has equipped you to raise them, though you will most certainly not do so perfectly. Your own Father, who never fails, is working to love your children through you. He is their Father, too.” 

Ok. Now back to our regularly scheduled program.

I would like to begin any discussion of parenting within the context of Christian vocation. We are told in the Small Catechism that we are to examine ourselves in light of the Ten Commandments and of other scripture that outlines the duties attendant to the various estates established by God. These are comprehended in the 2nd table. These commandments establish how God would have us to fear and love Him in how we interact with our neighbors. (Luther’s explanation of each commandment after the 1st begins, “We are to fear and love God that we may…”) We are also told that love is the fulfillment of the Law. Thus, these commandments also outline how we love our neighbors and how God loves them through us.

The fourth commandment, in particular, relates to all rightful worldly authority, beginning with parents and radiating out from there to the civil realm and the Church. In the Large Catechism, we are taught that God holds all authority. He entrusts portions of that authority to the various estates so that people called to administer them may carry out their duties legitimately. The Church has the Office of the Keys – authority to bind or loose sins. Magistrates have authority to make civil laws and compel citizens to obey. But, “all (earthly) authority flows and is born from the authority of parents” (LC, 4). Civil fathers, “masters” (employers), and even spiritual fathers derive their authority and honor from the office given to parents.

What does all this talk of the 4th commandment, which speaks most directly to children of their duty toward their parents, have to do with a parent’s duty to his/her children? No vocation exists in a vacuum. Each is a diad. Governments are not governments without the governed. Citizens are not citizens in the absence of a country. A husband is not a husband without a wife; nor is a wife a wife without a husband. A pastor has hearers, and hearers have a pastor. So it is with children. All children, by nature, are born of a father and mother. There is no child ever anywhere (except Jesus) who didn’t have both an earthly mother and father. And, every mother and every father is a parent by virtue of the fact that they have received a child. So, when the 4th commandment addresses children and their duties, it also suggests something to parents. The command to honor our father and our mother enjoins all people to respect those placed over us in authority even as it enjoins those exercising authority to do so for the benefit and betterment of those placed underneath them.

So, what are the duties that a parent owes to her children? When is it time to lay down the law and when is it time to give them grace? Parents are first and foremost commanded to bring children up in the fear and admonition of the Lord. That is, we are aware that any authority we have as parents is not really ours but is God’s authority, and our very first responsibility as parents is to bring them to God. It is not only our rules in our home that we must train them to obey. “He does not assign this honor to [us], that is power and authority to govern, so [we] can have [ourselves] worshipped.” We are to provide physically for our children, but most importantly we are to “train them to honor and praise God.” This is not something that we may do or might do but must do. It is “not left to [our] pleasure and arbitrary will” but is “God’s strict command and order, to whom [we] must give account for it” (LC, 4). We also know that none of us can even begin to keep this 1st command (to have no other God, to fear, love, and trust in Him above all things) without first being regenerated and reborn of God. How does such rebirth happen for us, for our children, or for anyone? We are saved by grace through faith. How does faith come? Faith comes by hearing and hearing through the Word of Christ. Where and how do we receive this Word of Christ? We receive it through the proclaimed Word and through the Word combined with water and bread and wine. We must make sure that our children receive this, too. If we do nothing else as parents, this we must do. Bring them to the font. Bring them to the Word.

Give them Jesus.

Give them Jesus!

We must also train them to honor and respect us as God’s representatives to them. Since children are commanded to “honor their father and mother” we are simply not at liberty to allow them to do otherwise. God has not given us the authority to set aside this commandment any more than He has given us the authority to set aside the 1st, 5th or 6th or any of the others. Our will and word are entirely subordinate to God’s. “For if God’s Word and will are in force and being accomplished, nothing shall be valued higher than the will and word of parents, as long as that, too, is subordinated to obedience toward God and is not opposed to the preceding commandments” (LC, 4). So far the hierarchy is established as: 1.) God, 2.) Parents.

Third, we must train them also to function in civil society. That is, we must equip them to be useful, to be able to provide for their own children someday, and to have the skills and manners that contribute to a peaceful and orderly community. To accomplish this duty, we typically have to establish rules and routines for the household – expectations for work/chores, etiquette, lessons, study, practice, etc. – and both model and enforce these expectations. The family is a microcosm of the world. Children learn how to be a part of the greater community by first learning how to live in the community of the family.

So far this sounds very law heavy. Parents must DO. Children must DO. But, where is the grace? I am asking this question as loudly as you surely are. Here, I try to remember that every vocation is at its heart a picture of how God relates to us. Yet, it is more than just an illustration. It is real and material. God works among us through the estates (the vocations) He has established.

God’s work in the world is not simply an intangible, subjective, spiritual thing. It is very material. Remember, God is a God of means. He uses material means to accomplish His work among us so that we have objective assurance and can receive His work substantially, really, and truly – both physically and spiritually – because we are not purely spiritual creatures. We are material creatures with a rational soul. So, He works among us in a material way. God is hidden in vocation just as surely as He is hidden in the Means of Grace. This is not to say that parenthood, marriage, and citizenship are Sacraments in the strict sense. But we may safely say that they are “sacramental” and mysterious. Paul tells us that marriage is a mystery and that in speaking of marriage he is really speaking of Christ and the Church. Christ is hidden in marriage (Eph. 5). God the Father is hidden in the vocation of parenting. He provides for His children and brings them to Himself through parents. Parents bring children to the font and the rail and the assembly; they feed, and clothe them, and they train them up in the way that they should go. The earthly father doesn’t just symbolize something about God. But, in actuality, God is the real father. Christ is the real husband. The Church is the real wife and mother. Our earthly vocations are dim images of the real thing going on with God (paraphrased from Gene Veith, Interview on Issues Etc.4/16/12 #1and #2).

God doesn’t only provide 1st article gifts through us parents. He also has enabled us to participate in the giving of forgiveness and absolution (2nd and 3rd article gifts) – grace at its sweetest. It goes without saying that we participate in this not as primary actors. Faith, forgiveness of sins, these do not originate from us nor take their efficacy from us. But, God can and does use parents as agents of grace.

How does this grace look in the family? First, we must try to remember that if our child is already heartbroken and repentant over something, it does him no additional good to be given law. We don’t need to stand over him and remind him of the rule he has broken or the disappointment he has caused. He is already contrite. The Law has done its work. However, if he is being head-strong and recalcitrant, then law is what he gets – first God’s, then ours. 

Is this the face of contrition?

Second, we must try to distinguish between matters of immaturity and matters of genuine disobedience. Sometimes this can be pretty tricky. How do we know whether our child is willfully disobeying a command he could obey or if he is simply not understanding or is not yet mature enough to obey in that particular command? If we are certain that the child knows what is expected and has demonstrated that he can obey what he has been given to do, then willfully failing to do so is a matter of obedience. If he does not understand, does not have the skill or maturity to obey, then it would be cruel to respond with more law. Mercy is called for. 

Third, we also try to be very honest with ourselves about whether we have done our job of teaching and leading prior to resorting to punishment. Discipline sometimes requires punishment, but punishment is not always discipline. If punishment does not teach, it is not discipline. It is just revenge. It is easy to forget that something that may be terribly obvious to us and a matter of common sense may not be to a new, little person. Children are our disciples in that we lead and teach them what they need to know as they grow up. We must first give them the gift of loving instruction and nurture. This is discipline. If the child obstinately refuses the instruction, then it may be time to use punishment to redirect their heart and their actions back to the better course.

But, most importantly, we practice absolution. Parents and children alike must know that even when we royally muck things up, confession and contrition always receive forgiveness, no matter what. And the matter is done. Even if we know for a fact that tomorrow we will likely go through the whole thing again. We know that we can speak the comfort of the gospel to our brothers and sisters in Christ. This is the mutual consolation that Luther talks about. Our children are our smallest brothers and sisters in Christ. They need to receive our forgiveness freely, and they need us to remind them of the forgiveness that is theirs in Christ.

Ultimately, when in doubt, we must try to remember Paul’s instruction. “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.  For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’” (Romans 15:1-3, ESV) Diligently teach; graciously give. Bear with our children’s weakness and build them up. Let all that you do be done in love. (1 Cor. 16:14)

For further reading, if you are interested, Rolf Preus has written a fabulous post featured on Steadfast Lutherans titled “Steadfast Dads — Discipline”.

Father, use our hands to bless your children, our children.  Amen.

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