Grace-Based vs. Shame-Based Families and Churches

families-where-grace-is-in-placeI have to confess that in my mission to confront spiritual abuse with grace and truth, I often write blog posts against aberrant doctrine or practices, rather than casting a vision for what God calls us to.

Is it true that the purest form of Christianity is to define ourselves by what we are not? Is the practice of negative theology—the fancy word for it is “apophatic” theology, which means “to deny”—the holiest and best way to approach faith? Most cults operate this way.

Or should Christians be defined by who we are—looking more and more like Jesus Christ?

In Families Where Grace is in Place, Jeff VanVonderen lays out two systems of living. One is a graceless system filled with shame and crooked messages. The other is grace-full. Since the New Testament says that we are saved “by grace” (Eph. 2:8), let’s spend some time casting a vision for what a grace-filled family and church should look like.

The following list is quoted and paraphrased from VanVonderen’s wonderful book. I commend it to you as an excellent template for how families and churches should function in grace.

Ten Signs of a Grace-Filled Family or Church

1.)  Out-loud affirming (vs. out-loud shaming). In grace-full families or churches, members are told they are loved and accepted, capable, valuable, and supported out loud. People are not mind readers. Verbalize praise and let people know that they are loved and accepted.

2.) People-oriented (vs. performance-oriented). People are valued because of who they are, not because of what they do. Each person is made in the image of God and therefore has infinite value and worth. In grace-full families and churches, people are separated from their actions. If someone misbehaves, you can say, “I don’t like how you are acting,” rather than “I don’t like you.” Let them know that you like them, but that the behavior needs to change. Subtle distinctions make a world of difference.

3.) Out-loud rules and expectations (vs. unspoken rules). In a grace-full family or church, rules are there to serve people, people are not there to serve rules. For rules to serve well, everyone needs to know what they are. If the rule favors certain people (adults over children, or men over women, or elders over flock) or is just too silly to be spoken out loud, then get rid of it. It is not okay to hold people accountable for rules they don’t know exist. Don’t expect them to follow double-standards.

4.) Communication is clear and straight (vs. code words). If you want someone to take out the garbage, say “Can you please take out the garbage,” rather than, “I wish someone would take out the garbage.” Children are very literal. They are great observers but poor interpreters. Say what you mean and don’t make people guess or feel guilty or shamed.

5.) God is the source (vs. idolatry). God is our need-meeter, vindicator, defender, and the last word about our worth and acceptance. We are not valuable or acceptable because of our job, our performance, our church attendance, our clothing, or our education. Other people can say whatever they want about us, but they don’t decide the truth about us, God does.

6.) Children are enjoyed (vs. giving the kids a hard time). In grace-full families and churches, kids are free to be kids. They don’t have to act like mini-adults. Normal, healthy kids are messy about the process of growing up. Parents don’t have to feel threatened or take it personally when their children mess up. They aren’t broken and you don’t have to fix them. They are simply exploring life, constantly engrossed in the process of finding out what’s real. That’s why kids ask so many questions. Answer their questions.

7.) Responsibility and accountability (vs. fault and blame). People are responsible for their choices and should be held accountable for them. But this is different than blaming or faulting people as a way to punish them and shame them in order to control their behavior. The difference is between punishment and discipline. Punishment focuses exclusively on behavior modification and our ability to control others. Discipline focuses on helping the person learn from their mistake, and it empowers them to make healthy choices. Discipline may or may not involve consequences. Sometimes just talking through a situation is corrective enough. Punishment inflicts pain with no benefit. But discipline involves forgiveness. It lifts the weight of guilt off of the other person and lets them know that they are loved and accepted.

8.) “Head skills” are used for learning (vs. “head skills” used for defending). In grace-full families and churches, thinking is used for the purpose of learning how to live life. In shame-based families it is used to defend, to blame, to make excuses, and to get out of being responsible. All in order to avoid being shamed. Think about our American legal system and you get what this means. In shame-based families, the question “Why did you do that?” is impossible to answer correctly, since your reply will be analyzed and criticized no matter what. In grace-full families, “Why did you do that?” is a simple inquiry to understand why something was done. If we can identify faulty thinking then perhaps we can help change the thought-behavior process which results in sanctification.

9.) Feelings are valid and useful (vs. weak on “heart skills”). Feelings are not right or wrong, they simply exist. They tell us that we are interacting with the world around us. The choices we make based on how we feel are right or wrong, not the feelings themselves. Grace-full families and churches recognize that feelings are opportunities for members to connect with one another, to complete unfinished relational business, or to support one another in making wise choices in response to how we feel.

10.) It’s okay for outsides to match insides (vs. empty people learning to act full). In grace-full families, what is real is more important than how things look. Having a safe, unconditionally accepting place where outsides can match insides is really the only way to find out if there are inside needs and problems that must be addressed. Life is seen with a process perspective rather than an event perspective. This means that people don’t have to react, or attempt to “cure” behavior forever. Because God is involved, you don’t have to panic: the story isn’t over, even if it doesn’t look too good right now. Unacceptable behaviors are about poor choices, not about our value and acceptance as people. Because that is true, grace-full family members don’t have to fix one another in order to fix themselves.


We can choose to define ourselves, our families, and our churches by what we don’t do: negative theology. Churches or families who function this way spend more and more time focusing on rules and regulations, external behavior, and living in fear and shame. They spend a lot of time judging other people, or else they get mired in morbid self-introspection. Their view of God is of a mean-spirited cosmic kill-joy just waiting to pounce and punish.

Or we can choose to define ourselves by what grace looks like in our lives. Grace, that marvelous, transformative, saving reality which is given as a free gift through Jesus Christ. People who walk in grace are full of joy, charity, and confidence. Their view of God is of a merciful, involved, compassionate, just Redeemer who already took the penalty for their sins: past, present, and future.

Is your group shame-based or grace-based?

5 comments on “Grace-Based vs. Shame-Based Families and Churches

  1. Stephen, what a great encouraging post and proactive!
    One thing that I have noticed AND….have started changing in my OWN behaviors is how I am reacting and responding to my own children (oh yea, I’ve caught my, I wish, statements plenty of times) .
    The ” I wish”……is a popular code word for “you disappoint me….”/ ” I am ashamed of…”.
    My daughter, who is 19, is really struggling right now with her own choices with responsibility and spiritually/physically also- instead of railing against her about her poor choices we are now taking a different approach of encouragement/love and not allowing her to get to the place of depression and apathy by getting a counselor, physical exercise, good nutrition, and putting in boundaries. I think taking a more proactive and positive approach is usually the best way of motivating people to work to their best that God has given them. The shameful approach demeans and takes away the dignity of that person.
    Now again there are people where this approach does not work because they choose not to anymore or they manipulate (personality or narcissistic disorders). This is where we can just say “sayonara, adios, goodbye”.

    • Oh Faith! I’m so encouraged to hear your approach. That sounds very wise. I know that when I release somebody and let them take responsibility for their own actions while I lovingly stay engaged, it takes a lot of pressure off of me and them. And I love that you are thinking holistically in terms of health. People are complex beings. We err when we only address the “spiritual” problems. And you’re right, if someone doesn’t want to be helped, then that is their issue and their life. They can go self-destruct somewhere else.

  2. You know, you’re detailing something I haven’t seen much emphasized in critiques of the graceless fundi camp—‘idolatry.’

    Huge Idolatry behind the shame-based approach to life—huge!

    Good stuff, Steve, thank you!

  3. This was a great article. Especially about feelings. I grew up in a family that didn’t allow you to express feelings…no validation. Church was rule oriented and shame based.

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