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For ‘PG-13-Rated’ Content in Stories, How Far is Too Far?

God’s word gives us the tools to address the errors of both legalism and leniency.
| Aug 6, 2019 | 5 comments |

When will we know the answer to the question, “How far is too far to delve into secular culture and adult content in stories?”1

When Christ returns.

No, that’s not a cheesy youth pastor joke. We’ll never stop talking about these things. There will always be another caveat to add, another angle we haven’t explored yet, another cultural development that throws a wrench into our precisely-drawn lines in the sand concerning swearing, violence, and sex.

Why? Because we all need to draw the line somewhere and suggest that others do the same. And if we do this with intellectual humility, that’s perfectly okay. It’s good—even a blessing to share perspective and wisdom. As long as we are truly trying to honor God with our lives and stories, some variance will take place. Christian freedom allows for it. James calls this the “law of liberty” (James 1:25, 2:12).

But let’s talk about the elephants in the room: legalism and leniency. I believe these are two things that we do have the ability to avoid in this life since the Bible gives us the tools to address them. I’d like to suggest some principles that may help us all show one another more grace as we try to locate the balance between the extremes of legalism and leniency.

Legalism usually takes two forms. First, it is the belief that following a set of rules makes one righteous before God. Example: Even through they have an unhealthy marriage, a Christian married couple may feel right with God because they aren’t divorced like all their friends.

One example from Scripture: the rich young ruler from Matthew 19.

Second, legalism is the making of new rules that do not appear in Scripture. This is often done when we move away from biblical principles directly derived from the Bible and make law from mere application of scripture. Example: “Read your Bible every day.” That is not a command in the Bible but usually derived from verses such as Psalm 1:2, “. . . and on his law he meditates day and night.”

Here’s an example from Scripture: Matthew 12, where the Pharisees criticized the disciples for picking heads of grain on the Sabbath which was misapplied application of the Old Testament command to keep the Sabbath holy.

In the first example, the couple had right action with sinful motive, and were dependent on their actions alone for righteousness. In the second example, someone created what they thought would be a helpful tool for sanctification, but ended up becoming a law for modern churches that is sometimes obeyed only to make people appear righteous before God (as in the first example).

(Note: I am not saying you should get divorced or that you shouldn’t read your Bible every day. After all, the fruit of the Spirit can spring from even the smallest seed of habit.)

Leniency is the rejection of the law—whether set down by God or man. Often times the lenient Christian makes an idol out of their own freedom. This can happen when one has a low view of scripture and the wisdom of people who appear to them as too traditional. Example: A man believes the gospel has set him free to smoke and drink freely, which dulls his conscience from seeing when those habits become sinful.

Example from Scripture: 1 Samuel 28, when Saul consults a medium against God’s explicit law to seek help from a deceased Samuel.

So what does this have to do with reading and writing fiction? Everything.

We wrongly think that people who are more restrictive and traditional are the true legalists. If someone reads Harry Potter and sends their kids to public school, there’s no way that person is a legalist, right? Well no, not at all. That’s how we fall into accidental legalism. We think we’re “safe” from Phariseeism because we’ve managed to avoid specific stances such as teetotalism.

But in reality, it isn’t the position held on topics such as this that signify legalism, but the attitude. Do you have enough intellectual humility to admit you could be wrong? By this measure, even the most lenient PG-13 storyteller could fall into legalism due to pride.

Of course we can keep talking about why we have specific restrictions on PG-13 content. That can be edifying to the story maker and consumer alike. Yet I think this conversation would greatly benefit from more often speaking of these things on a principle level. This will draw the discussion away from the what of the content to the why. It will turn the focus from man-made law to God-given fruit and virtues.

How do you know you’ve accidentally fallen into legalism or leniency? Ask yourself these questions.

  1. Do I look down on others that have different standards regarding the use of PG-13 content? Feelings of pride can mean you are unknowingly relying on your actions to make you righteous before God and man.
  2. Do I feel prolonged guilt when I watch or read something that offends my conscience? Although there is more than one source, lingering guilt could possibly mean you are relying on your own ability to keep the “law” for the sake of right standing before God. It lingers because you cannot keep this law perfectly, and you are not relying on the gospel of Christ that has already set you free.
  3. Do I keep rules such as “Do not read or write anything with swear words,” in the same way I keep commands that are actually written in Scripture? Keeping man-made laws casts sin upon a person who may not be in sin—whether yourself or another.
  4. Do I overlook wisdom and commands from Scripture when it doesn’t line up with my agenda for my story? Glancing over or twisting the Bible when it is convenient for us signifies a low-view of Scripture and is a dangerous slippery-slope away from God’s revealed truth.
  5. Do I choose to read or write PG-13 content because I feel entitled to that freedom? A feeling of entitlement to do as we wish without consulting God’s word may be spiritually harmful to yourself and others. It also creates an idol of certain kinds of freedoms God has not given us.

I hope you were able to pick out a theme through those questions: pride. It is the quintessential counting, “equality with God a thing to be grasped,” (Philippians 2:6). Let’s strive for true intellectual humility in these discussions, being ready to listen and admit when we’re wrong.

Look for a “sequel” to this article in the next Lorehaven magazine issue, fall 2019, where I will discuss my personal standards for PG-13 content.

  1. Thanks to Marian Jacobs for stepping in for E. Stephen Burnett this week. He’s adjusting to foster-dad life. And book-editing life. At the same time. We hope to resume the Realm Makers 2019: One Hundred Graces series next week.
Marian Jacobs writes about Jesus, monsters, and spaceships. Her work is featured at Desiring God as well as Stage and Story. She and her family live in Palm Springs, California.

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Travis Perry

This is a balanced discussion of a topic that rightly points out that it’s possible to error in the opposite direction of legalism and in turn be legalistic without even realizing it. And you are right, this is a topic worthy of discussion multiple times.

However, I look at your point number 2 with a sense of concern. Yes I can agree that feeling lingering guilt over sin confessed to God can be a problem–but the problem could have more than one cause. Perhaps it really could point to a legalistic reliance on self. Or it could be a lack of faith in God’s forgiveness. Or it could be the person feeling guilt is not actually confessing sin to God. Or it could be the person feeling guilt is continuing to repeat the same sin over and over and feels lingering guilt in a totally appropriate way–the Bible repeatedly tells Christians to put aside sin and the conscience has the role of leading a Christian to do that.

Romans 14 tackles the difficult issue of what happens when one Christian believer has a conscience afflicted by a particular action not expressly forbidden by Scripture that another Christian isn’t affected by. Note the Scripture does define someone who can face more without a sense of guilt as stronger and someone who can’t as weaker–but the Bible does not condemn a person who sets personal rules for himself or herself in order to avoid feeling guilt that others may not feel. In fact, the Bible allows for such rule setting and keeping (Romans 14 and some other passages lay out how that’s supposed to work). The specific examples of the time were keeping Jewish holidays and eating meat that had been offered to idols (verses eating vegetables only), but the same thing applies to PG-13-related content.

Someone who feels continual guilt about a particular action, a sin that has been confessed in faith to God, then that person should in fact stop doing it according to Scripture. If a person establishes a rule for himself or herself to help keep away from guilt, the Bible does not call that legalism if the person only applies the rule personally and allows others to set their own standards within the bounds of things the Bible does not expressly forbid. (On keeping holidays specifically in verse 5: “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind.” EACH is allowed a personal stand on the topic.)

I personally cannot watch brief flashes of female nudity or near nudity as occurs with some PG-13 films without having a problem. Cussing I dislike and avoid but I don’t really feel much actual guilt there–it just seems unneeded to me and even dumb. I can and do sometimes watch movies with cussing–but if something has any female nudity, like Game of Thrones on HBO, I avoid it like a plague, without commanding that everyone else needs to do so in all cases.

And according to the Bible, I’m doing exactly the right thing–protecting my conscience by avoiding things that trigger it because I personally have a problem that I should care more about eliminating than pretending it’s no big deal.

In a world awash with entertainment, I think we may in fact have a culture represented on Speculative Faith that is more likely to ignore personal sin in order to enjoy a story than to establish legalism. Though, yes, no doubt we have some legalists or legalistic thoughts lurking. But being vigilant against personal sin and sensitive to your own conscience and actively avoiding those things that you know (I’m using the generic “you” here) may cause you to sin, whether they trip up anyone else or not, and in fact perhaps setting some personal rules to avoid sin, NONE of that is legalism, correctly speaking. It’s behavior, again, that the Bible specifically allows for and protects. Please refer to Romans chapter 14 (key verses 12 and 13) through verse 6 of chapter 15.

We each stand before God as our own person and each will be judged by God individually. Each Christian should be aware of our own conscience and be sensitive about violating it. Each of us should also avoid making extra-Biblical rules we apply to Christians other than ourselves to force them to do what we think is right. Doing that, forcing or pressuring others to follow a specific standard–that’s the kind of legalism or legalistic thinking we need to warn about and actively avoid. (As opposed to being sensitive to our own conscience.)


Point #2 stuck out to me as well…perhaps what might be called “guilt” could actually be conviction of the Holy Spirit…as in stop doing what you are doing. I feel like we are too free with excusing such convictions today.

Travis Perry

DG I talked about the role of the conscience and being sensitive to it but I spoke incorrectly. I should have said “conviction of the Holy Spirit”!

Thanks for keeping me on track. And I appreciate your comment.

Sarah Witenhafer
Sarah Witenhafer

Great post! The only way I will be able to navigate such issues as a writer is to sit with my Father and listen.

Brennan S. McPherson

What a great article. Thanks, Marian!