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Question on Theonomy and the Worship of False Gods

A reader named “Sonny” wrote with this question:

I read a file I got from your site about Theonomy and found it very helpful! But I was a bit confused at one point because of my understanding of what seems to be the implications of what I see in Romans 13 about how the civil magistrates are supposed to execute wrath against those that do evil and because of what I’ve read from Greg Bahnsen [a notable theonomist].

At one point you state that people of other religions would be able to freely worship and then you say this:

“Thus religious expressions which contradict the Ten Commandments would not be publicly tolerated.”

So then how is it possible to freely worship when one of the Ten Commandments says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” and when the Bible seems to prescribes punishment for those who do worship other gods?

Exodus 22:2- says, “He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the LORD only, he shall be utterly destroyed.”

Thank you very much and God bless!

- Sonny


Dear Sonny,

According to God’s law, public idolatry was not to be tolerated in Israel. However, private opinion, belief and worship occurring within the family sphere was not to be intruded upon. Thus not everyone living within the borders of Israel were worshipers of the One God, Jehovah. But all were constrained to honor God publicly or else hold their pagan beliefs in private. For instance, foreigners were not required to observe the feast days.

I’d apply this same standard to modern practice. It is impossible for the civil magistrate to enforce private faith, nor should he try. The responsibility for preaching the Gospel and persuading the hearts and minds of practitioners of false religion and unbelievers is with the church. Individuals can take up the cause of evangelism, but it is not a prescribed duty of the civil magistrate.

Now some would ask, “Does this mean that there could not be a synagogue on Main Street”? Then the question gets more complicated. The leaders of the Reformation were divided on this. Some early Protestants followed the lead of Roman Catholic countries in persecuting and banishing Jews. By the 1600s, however, Oliver Cromwell and many of the Puritans saw in Romans 9-11 the destiny of the Jewish people to be reingrafted to the vine of the Church. So Cromwell allowed the Jews to return to England and practice their faith after over a 100 year banishment. The Jews also found refuge in the American colonies that were structured more after a biblical law ethic than old Europe. The first Jewish synagogue appeared in New York in 1655.

It becomes even more complicated when mosques are considered. Is a mosque near Ground Zero a sacrilege because it defames the memory of those murdered by Muslim fanatics on 9/11/2001? Or should Christians oppose any mosque being built on on Main Street, USA because it is blasphemous to chant to Allah? I would answer yes to both questions. The real question though is whether the state can regulate the practice of religion on privately held property. My answer to this would be that people can hold their beliefs in private and practice their faith without harassment by the civil authorities. But public displays of idolatry should not be allowed.

The early American colonies put this into practice. Even in cases of pagan rituals, there was relative tolerance compared to Christian Europe. In over 100 years of Puritan New England history, 16 people accused of witchcraft were actually executed by Puritan magistrates. We should compare this to Europe where it is estimated that tens of thousands were put to death for witchcraft during the same time period.

When more Anglicans immigrated from England, the numbers of people executed swelled during the time of the Salem Witch trials. Twenty more executions for witchcraft were added in the space of a few months. Contrary to revisionist history, the Salem witch trials (which actually took place in the modern-named town of Danvers, Massachusetts) were instigated, not by the Puritans, but by an Anglican pastor who wished to deflect an instance of fortune-telling coming from within his own household.

The Salem witch trials were in reality put to an end by a Puritan congregation in the neighboring town of Beverly who saw that folk superstition and not biblical law was at the heart of the testimony offered during the trials. Even Cotton Mather, whose book on witchcraft was used as testimony in the Salem witch trials, argued that since witchcraft was an “invisible” crime it could not be prosecuted on the testimony of “two or three witnesses” as the Bible requires. Even so, Mather argued that witchcraft laws ought to be on the books to encourage the fear of God.

The error made by many critics of theonomy is that they assume that since the modern liberal state is authoritarian on almost every matter, leading to totalitarianism if left unchecked, then a “theocratic” state would be totalitarian as well and that it would lead to mass executions of innocent people. But what we are speaking of is not a civil nation run by a church, but all government – civil, ecclesiastical, familial and individual – reformed on the basis of God’s law. Most of God’s law ought to be enforced by the family, the church and local community pressures, not by civil magistrates.

Only a small minority of biblical laws carry civil penalties. All biblical crimes are sins, but very few sins are crimes. God’s people are expected to love the Law and be self-governing in striving to obey all of God’s commandments. When we look at the so-called Ten Commandments, we see that the violation of every commandment could be punishable by death until we come to “You shall not covet.” Then we also see in the case laws that all violations of the Ten Commandments have exceptions depending on the severity and the circumstances of the crime. So a civil magistrate in a biblically ordered society has some leeway in how he will enforce the law in these capital cases.

The irony in debates over theonomy is that most of our current civil code is directly influenced by the Bible. Wherever God’s law is followed, it creates public peace. Wherever biblical law is not followed, it always creates controversy and crisis. Whenever man’s law and God’s law are in conflict, we ought to side with God’s law.

Difficulties in interpretation are due to difficulties with the interpreter, not with God’s Word itself. The ultimate issue is whether we as a society will stand for God’s law or man’s law in determining our civil and criminal code.

Your comments are welcome!

Textile Help

The Silent Scream (DVD) Eight Languages

“When the lives of the unborn are snuffed out, they often feel pain, pain that is long and agonizing.” – President Ronald Reagan to National Religious Broadcasters Convention, January 1981

Ronald Reagan became convinced of this as a result of watching The Silent Scream – a movie he considered so powerful and convicting that he screened it at the White House.

The modern technology of real-time ultrasound now reveals the actual responses of a 12-week old fetus to being aborted. As the unborn child attempts to escape the abortionist’s suction curette, her motions can be seen to become desperately agitated and her heart rate doubles. Her mouth opens – as if to scream – but no sound can come out. Her scream doesn’t have to remain silent, however … not if you will become her voice. This newly re-mastered version features eight language tracks and two bonus videos.

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Languages: English, Spanish, French, South Korean, Chinese, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese

Running Time: 28 minutes

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A Revival Account: Asbury 1970 (DVD)

What is true Revival and Spiritual Awakening?

Discover the answer in this eyewitness account by Dennis Kinlaw, President of Asbury College, Wilmore, Kentucky, who recounts the story of a visitation of the Holy Spirit in 1970. This is the presentation that has continued to spark the flames of Revival in the hearts of people around the world. Contains eyewitness footage from the Revival at Asbury College in 1970 in Wilmore, Kentucky.

Certain to challenge you to greater holiness and a deeper commitment to full-scale revival. Original news and private footage has been included. If you are a student who longs to see a spiritual awakening at your school, you must see this video!

“This simple video does a wonderful job of conveying something of God’s heart and power, Everyone we have ever shown this to has received an immediate impartation of faith for revival and the power of prayer.”
— Bob and Rose Weiner, Weiner Ministries Int’l

Running Time: 40 minutes

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Dr. Francis Schaeffer - How Should We Then Live? (DVD)

Special Two-Disc Set!

After 40 years of intense study and world-wide ministry, Dr. Francis Schaeffer completed his crowning work of scholarship – to present profound truths in simple film language. Dr. Schaeffer’s brilliant analysis of the past and predictions for current trends have proven so uncannily accurate that this amazing series still feels contemporary almost three decades after its initial release. Ultimately, Schaeffer concludes that man’s only hope is a return to God’s Biblical absolute, the truth revealed in Christ through the Scriptures.

Available for the first time on DVD, this documentary spectacular also includes intimate in-depth conversations with Francis and Edith Schaeffer. With the on-disc study guide, this presentation forms a unique course of comprehensive study. While this series forms an innovative analysis of the past, this outstanding work is more than history. Each episode focuses on a significant era, yet speaks clearly to 21st-century man with answers for modern problems.

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Dr. Francis Schaeffer - A Christian Manifesto (DVD)

That Swiss Hermit Strikes Again!

Dr. Schaeffer, who was one of the most influential Christian thinkers in the twentieth century, shows that secular humanism has displaced the Judeo-Christian consensus that once defined our nation’s moral boundaries. Law, education, and medicine have all been reshaped for the worse as a consequence. America’s dominant worldview changed, Schaeffer charges, when Christians weren’t looking.

Schaeffer lists two reasons for evangelical indifference: a false concept of spirituality and fear. He calls on believers to stand against the tyranny and moral chaos that come when humanism reigns-and warns that believers may, at some point, be forced to make the hard choice between obeying God or Caesar. A Christian Manifesto is a thought-provoking and bracing Christian analysis of American culture and the obligation Christians have to engage the culture with the claims of Christ.

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God's Law and SocietyGod's Law and Society (DVD)

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God’s Law and Society powerfully presents a comprehensive worldview based upon the ethical system found in the Law of God.

Speakers include: R.J. Rushdoony, George Grant, Howard Phillips, R.C. Sproul Jr., Ken Gentry, Gary DeMar, Jay Grimstead, Steven Schlissel, Andrew Sandlin, Eric Holmberg, and more!

Sixteen Christian leaders and scholars answer some of the most common questions and misconceptions related to this volatile issue:

1. Are we under Law or under Grace?
2. Does the Old Testament Law apply today?
3. Can we legislate morality?
4. What are the biblical foundations of government?
5. Was America founded as a Christian nation?
6. What about the separation of Church and State?
7. Is neutrality a myth?
8. What about non-Christians and the Law of God?
9. Would there be “freedom” in a Christian republic?
10. What would a “Christian America” look like?

Perfect for group instruction as well as personal Bible study.

Ten parts, over four hours of instruction!

Running Time: 240 minutes

Watch over 60 on-line video interviews from God’s Law and Society.

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