First Amendment or First Commandment? Choose whom you will serve.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), has recently published an article lauding the distinctly American value of religious pluralism. Given that the stated purpose of the commission which he heads is to be, “the moral and public policy agency of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination,” Moore is intending to influence the massive SBC and other Americans with this article.

In the article, Moore poses the question, “must a person who believes Jesus Christ is the only way to God defend religious freedom for Christians and non-Christians alike?” and then proceeds to defend that very idea: that we as Christians are duty bound to seek legal protections for non-Christian religions. Given the unfortunate recent support of mosque-building efforts by the SBC, this doesn’t come as a surprise.

A word of clarification: I stated that religious pluralism is a distinctly American value and while I readily recognize that it is now a commonplace state of affairs outside of the Islamic world, that was not always so. Particularly in European nations, nationally established churches were once the rule of the day. A single “catholic” church in covenant with God as a nation more closely resembles the Israel of the old Covenant administration and as the Church today is true Israel by faith, we ought to set that historic church (Israel) as our example of God’s will being done “on Earth as it is in heaven.”

And that is the crux of this article. God’s Law clearly states in Exodus chapter 20:

“And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:1-3).

Recognizing that Mr. Moore would have no argument with the text on its face, it seems the problem is how Mr. Moore seems to believe this law should be understood in its application, particularly in its obligations to a righteous magistrate. More on that in a moment.

A major problem with Mr. Moore’s article is that while he rightly calls for the Gospel to be our means of seeing the souls of men saved so that they might enter into covenant with the triune God, he does not lament the national sins of our laws that enable and embolden paganism. Moore instead celebrates the offense to God’s Holy law as if it were a virtue. This is not what one who truly wants the Father’s will to be done “on Earth as it is in Heaven” should seek and endorse.

For example, Moore espouses the good old American civil religion as a moral good:

Religious freedom means religious freedom for everyone, including those who reject our gospel.

Some who are reading right now may be asking exactly what Biblical examples of the application of this law looks like in a covenanted nation (since that is our stated “ideal”), particularly given Moore’s citation of supposed examples of such from Scripture. But the problem is that Moore’s examples are of unrighteous pagan rulers and not of a covenanted people and their righteously covenanted magistrate:

There is precedent in the Bible, of course, for a religion using the state to force people to externally conform to it. Those examples, though, are those of Nebuchadnezzar, and of the Beast that John saw rising out of the sea (Rev. 13), not the church of Jesus Christ.

On the contrary, when Scripture gives historical examples of righteous behavior on behalf of the leadership of the church and the righteous magistrate, we see something entirely different – the church unified in expunging idolatry from the land:

2 Chronicles  23:
16 And Jehoiada made a covenant between him, and between all the people, and between the king, that they should be the Lord’s people.
17 Then all the people went to the house of Baal, and brake it down, and brake his altars and his images in pieces, and slew Mattan the priest of Baal before the altars.
18 Also Jehoiada appointed the offices of the house of the Lord by the hand of the priests the Levites, whom David had distributed in the house of the Lord, to offer the burnt offerings of the Lord, as it is written in the law of Moses, with rejoicing and with singing, as it was ordained by David.
19 And he set the porters at the gates of the house of the Lord, that none which was unclean in any thing should enter in.
20 And he took the captains of hundreds, and the nobles, and the governors of the people, and all the people of the land, and brought down the king from the house of the Lord: and they came through the high gate into the king’s house, and set the king upon the throne of the kingdom.
21 And all the people of the land rejoiced: and the city was quiet, after that they had slain Athaliah [a pagan priest] with the sword.

2 Chron 24:2
And Joash did that which was right in the sight of the Lord all the days of Jehoiada the priest.

A denial of the righteous magistrate and the nationally covenanted church leadership’s shared responsibilities to rid the land of threats to covenantal faithfulness to God is inconsistent with what God calls righteous.

Clearly, we are not a covenanted nation today – a lamentable state of affairs. We lack the benefits and blessings of a magistrate that is morally accountable to Christ and His church, for example. From the adoption of the U.S. Constitution as the law of the land, we have been living in a state which codifies unrighteousness by going against God’s law, which is moral and true in all times, and by tolerating false religions. Until this grievous national sin is addressed with the proper recognition of Jesus Christ as the source of governing authority and not the pretended autonomy of “We the People”, this can never rightly be called a Christian nation. And since we are not in a covenanted nation today, we don’t expect that secular people would lament the wickedness of these laws which are celebrated as natural rights.

As a confessing Presbyterian, I believe Scripture’s teaching on the obligations of the First Commandment for God’s people are well taught in the Westminster Larger Catechism:

Q. 104. What are the duties required in the first commandment?
A. The duties required in the first commandment are, the knowing and acknowledging of God to be the only true God, and our God; and to worship and glorify him accordingly, by thinking, meditating, remembering, highly esteeming, honoring, adoring, choosing, loving, desiring, fearing of him; believing him; trusting, hoping, delighting, rejoicing in him; being zealous for him; calling upon him; giving all praise and thanks, and yielding all obedience and submission to him with the whole man; being careful in all things to please him, and sorrowful when in anything he is offended; and walking humbly with him.

1 Chr. 28:9; Deut. 26:17; Isa. 43:10; Jer. 14:22; Ps. 95:6-7; Matt. 4:10; Ps. 29:2; Mal. 3:16; Ps. 63:6; Ecc. 12:1;Ps. 71:19; Mal. 1:6; Isa. 45:23; Josh. 24:15, 22; Deut. 6:5; Ps. 123:25; Isa. 8:13; Ex. 14:31; Isa. 26:4; Ps. 130:7;Ps. 37:4; Ps. 32:11; Rom. 12:11; Num. 25:11; Phil. 4:6; Jer. 7:23; Jas 4:7; 1 John 3:22; Jer. 31:18; Ps. 119:136; Mic. 6:8.

Celebrate pluralism? No, rather we are to be, “sorrowful when in anything [God] is offended.” Considering the answer to WLC Question 106, which states, “God who seeth all things, taketh special notice of, and is much displeased with, the sin of having any other god; that so it may be an argument to dissuade from it, and to aggravate it as a most impudent provocation,” we ought not provoke our Lord by celebrating that which He is much displeased with.

Of course, we are dealing with more than just the first commandment being violated by this pluralism.

Q. 108. What are the duties required in the second commandment?
A. …the disapproving, detesting, opposing, all false worship; and, according to each one’s place and calling, removing it, and all monuments of idolatry (Acts 17:16-17; Ps. 16:4; Deut. 7:5; Isa. 30:22).

In conclusion, just as God’s law strictly required Israel to remove idolatry from the land, we should seek to do so as well. Until we are a Covenanted nation, that takes the form of the sharing of the Gospel with all peoples. Once the Gospel has transformed a nation and moved them to covenant for Reformation of the land, we should then continue to see God’s kingdom will enacted among us and hold the magistrate accountable to punish idolatry in the covenanted land, not celebrate our willful breaking of the first commandment by tolerating paganism and idolatry among us.

Perhaps what is most disappointing about this is the lack of faith that seems to be evidenced when we think the church needs to ally itself with enemies of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be preserved by the State. So, what is the true purpose of religious liberty?

“The final cause [of political association] is also the conservation of a human society that aims at a life in which you can worship God quietly and without error.” Althusius, Politica 1.30

Confessional Resources:

WCF Chapter 19.1-5; 23.1 and WLC 104 – 10

(c) Royal Academy of Arts; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Jehoiada (c) Royal Academy of Arts; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
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