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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!

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