The world is shocked at the news of Josh Duggar molesting multiple girls when he was a teenager. After all, the Duggar parents went to great lengths to shelter their children from inappropriate influences in the world — from limiting their access to the internet to implementing a dress code of modesty and femininity. What’s more, they spoke publicly about their standards for sexual purity. They explained why Josh and Anna saved their first kiss for their wedding day, and why the couple always had chaperones.
More than the tawdry revelations of Lena Dunham’s inexcusable behavior toward her little sister, or the sickening accounts of abuse by Woody Allen or Roman Polanski, the Duggar scandal is shocking precisely because of the high bar they’ve set for themselves and the standards they’ve put on display.
Now, I have no interest in debating the facts of this case. It is heartbreaking, disgusting, and infuriating all at once, and even if we can all be thankful for God’s grace poured out on even the worst of sinners, we cannot minimize the long-lasting consequences of such behavior, especially when some of the victims were preyed upon by their own brother.
Instead, I’d like to point out a problematic, but fairly common assumption in many corners of evangelicalism — an assumption that needs to be challenged. It’s the idea that sin is something out there that we need to watch out for. The reality, however, is that sin is not primarily something we need to be sheltered from, but delivered from.
It’s easy for a Christian family that seeks to honor the Lord with distinctive, holy living to adopt this mindset:
“The world is evil, and our family is good. Therefore, we need to protect our family from the evil outside.”
Along these lines, training up children in the way they should go becomes primarily about sheltering our kids. We deliver our kids from evil by avoiding evil influences “outside” our home. We forbid certain television shows, monitor their internet usage, and avoid neighborhood kids. In some cases, we turn to homeschooling or Christian education.
The problem with this mindset is that it takes a legitimate aspect of wise parenting and twists it until it results in a warped view of children and society.
It’s perfectly fine to shelter your children from certain influences. It would be an abdication of parental responsibility to set no limits or standards in your home. In our family, for example, there are TV shows (even cartoons) that we don’t allow our kids to watch. We have standards regarding modesty and dress, the kind of language we use, and we send our kids to a Christian school.
There’s nothing wrong with setting limits and having standards, but neither is there something specifically Christian about these kinds of limits. Plenty of non-Christian parents wouldn’t let their kids watch a sexually-charged TV show, for example. Non-religious dads and moms may object to their daughter’s skimpy prom dress.
The problem for Christian parents isn’t in the desire to shelter children; it’s in the warped perspective that such sheltering can foster.
We begin to believe that sin and rebellion is a problem outside of our home, not inside.
We start thinking our kids are basically good and in need of moral direction, rather than recognizing that our kids are basically bad and in need of heart transformation.
We communicate to our kids that it’s “us” (good) versus “them” (bad) rather than helping them see our family’s role as one of service (“us” for “them”).
Then, when evil shows up on the inside of our home, we diminish its significance or hide it rather than bring it out in the open.
The reason we shelter our kids shouldn’t simply be that there’s evil outside, but also that there’s evil inside. The line of good and evil runs through every human heart, as Solzhenitsyn once said. No one is immune to temptation. No child is a tabula rasa. We’re born in sin and, apart from the grace of Christ, we’ll die in sin. That’s why we need a Savior who rescues us, not a shelter that protects us.
I’ve long appreciated this distinction from Eric Geiger regarding “defensive” and “offensive” discipleship. His words apply to parenting as well:
Defensive discipleship plays to not lose the hearts of people to the world because defensive discipleship believes the hearts of people are pure. Consequently defensive discipleship focuses primarily on protecting people from influences in the world, from anything that could corrupt the perceived purity of the heart. Defensive discipleship strategy is prevalent and ranges from teaching people to isolate themselves from the culture to constantly alerting people of the influences they should avoid.
While defensive discipleship may sound appealing to some, it is theologically inaccurate. Our hearts are not pure in need of protection; they are wicked in need of transformation.
Offensive discipleship is different. It seeks primarily not to protect people from the world but to empower believers to overcome the world. Offensive discipleship understands the power of the gospel, trusts the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, and knows that if Jesus brings His transformation, obedience will be the joyful result.
Certainly offensive discipleship includes some protecting as the apostle Paul warned about wolves threatening to hurt sheep, but protection is not the end goal— heart change is the goal.
God can bring good things out of horrible tragedies, and the Duggar scandal — as terrible as it is — is no exception. I hope that one good result will be a powerful reminder to good-intentioned evangelicals of the limits of “sheltering” and the need for the transforming grace of the gospel.