The R-Word

by Matthew Raley

I have found myself writing on parenting lately. The cloud that has settled in recent weeks over Michael Pearl's dangerous parenting system is one reason. Another reason is that I am working on a book about how God passes his fatherly virtues to men, and makes them sources of vitality for their families.

In developing this book, I've been interviewing my dad. I'm grateful for my parents and their firm, grace-filled love. So Dad and I have been talking about the trials of men in general, and how Christ transformed him through his struggles.

One of the issues that comes up repeatedly is Dad's colorful past as a rebel. In his youth, he rebelled against the Baptists -- a common enough target. But in the midst of his career among hippies, he realized that their counter-culture was just fundamentalist legalism on acid. He still had to look right and talk right and have acceptable opinions. So he rebelled against hippies too. After he began following Christ, he rebelled (in no particular order here) against contemporary worship songs, Arminianism, and Christian parenting books (irony duly noted).

He came by his rebellious tendencies honestly. His father was a professional baritone who seems to have fired a succession of voice coaches. Dad's mother found ways around church rules against playing cards and wine. His grandmother was shunned by the Amish for wearing straw hats. So the Raleys have a soft spot for rebels.

However, Dad told me in our interviews that his goal as a father was to lead my brother and me away from rebellion. He had two important intuitions. First, he saw that a father's role is to help each of his children form unique identities. But, second, he saw that all human identity has to be formed in response to God's authority. Rebellion perverts identity.

Dad recognized what most evangelicals have forgotten: rebellion is a sin.

Most evangelicals now think of it as a stage. Rebelling against authority is a necessary part of growing up. After the 1960s, many Christian parents feared they would make rebellion worse with too many rules, some almost abdicating their parental role when their kids turned 13. (12? 10?) To most evangelicals, the concept of rebellion as a sin is unmentionable -- as if it were uncouth to bring up the r-word in sophisticated company.

The Bible is clear on this subject. Samuel says (1 Samuel 15.23), "For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry."

Two fascinating things about this verse. First, the parallelism compares rebellion with presumption or insubordination as synonyms. Rebellion is the disregard or overthrow of authority. Second, Samuel compares rebellion with occult worship -- that is, with the attempt to control things that are only controlled by God. He is saying that a rebel strives through perverse means to gain power.

Rebellion in a child is no phase. It confuses personal identity with control. It is lawlessness animated by wounded pride.

There has been a change in parenting attitudes over the last couple of decades. A growing minority of young families are reasserting parental authority and influence. The increasing use of home schooling, and the rising popularity of replacing dating with courtship are evidence of this shift.

So are Michael Pearl's sales figures.

Parents who believe they should use the legitimate authority God has given them to nurture their children are absolutely right. Children need strong parents. Tools like home schooling can serve this aspiration well.

But parenting systems that employ behavior modification and promise total compliance are not the answer. Identity formation is a God-ordained process of maturing into adulthood. It is not rebellion. Parents need to recognize this process as a normal part of growth, and should not fear it or try to dominate it. There are profound differences between using authority and becoming an authoritarian -- differences of tone, methods, and goals.

We need to restore the r-word to our vocabulary because it clarifies many of these issues. The restoration needs to start with an examination of the sin of rebellion biblically -- what rebellion is, and what it is not. I will use the next several weeks here to lay out the case.