Should government punish false worship or coerce true worship? | Tom Hicks

by | Oct 18, 2022 | Civil Government, Practical Theology, Systematic Theology, Theonomy?


To frame the issue more precisely, the question is not whether a society or nation ought to worship the one true God rightly. Societies should certainly worship the one true God according to His commands. Furthermore, the question is not whether false worshippers deserve punishment. God will certainly punish them temporally in this life as well as eternally in the life to come, if they do not repent. Additionally, the question is not whether societies are inherently religious. They are. Groups of people will inevitably embody some form of religion, and it certainly ought to be the one true religion.

This question has to do with the limits of human authorities and more particularly with the jurisdictional boundaries of the civil government. Does the civil government have the authority to punish violations of the first table of the moral law of God? Does God give the state the power to punish false worship, blasphemy, and heresy, and does God give the state the power to promote, enforce, or coerce orthodox worship?

Baptists, Independents (Congregationalists) and American Reformed Christians have generally spoken with a unified voice on this question. They have insisted on religious liberty for Christians and all human beings. Here are some of their arguments (I’ve used David VanDrunen’s book, Politics After Christendom, as well as historic Baptist sources):


First, it is evil to try to coerce a person’s conscience through external force because God alone is Lord of the conscience. External coercion in no way advances the kingdom of God, but only turns people into hypocrites who pretend to worship God, but actually disobey Him in their hearts and lives. Isaiah 29:13 says, “This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” Jesus said, “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36). Christ’s kingdom is not a kingdom of outward power or force.

Consider seven of the consequences that come from the civil coercion of worship.

First, unbelievers will be led to lie and to worship God when their minds are already convinced otherwise. God is displeased with false worship. He warned, “This people praises me with their lips but their hearts are far from me” (Matt 15:8; Is 29:13). Second, external laws that coerce formal worship can only produce external pharisaical obedience, and can only create a nation of hypocrites. Third, human lawmakers will inevitably make laws that enforce false doctrine and worship because human beings inevitably err. Fourth, when the civil authorities change and the laws change, the state religion will also change. But the true religion does not change. Fifth, religious laws will attract dangerous wolves to the leadership of the church in order to influence civil government. These wolves will harm God’s true people in the church. Sixth, it will interfere with missions, since foreign nations will strongly oppose missionaries who intend on changing their government and punishing their native religions. Seventh, it will provoke the people of false religions to persecute and suppress Christianity in order to preserve their own worship and culture.


Second, God alone can cause a sinner to forsake false worship and become a true worshipper. The Lord Jesus is clear when He says, “No one can come to me, unless it is granted him by the Father” (Jn 6:65). Government coercion can never regenerate a sinner’s heart to make him forsake his idols or worship God faithfully. God alone changes the hearts of elect sinners through effectual calling, turning them into true worshippers. Since government enforced worship is utterly impossible, the regulation of worship is outside the jurisdiction of the government.


Third, the Bible explicitly teaches religious liberty. Religious liberty means that people should be free to worship according to their consciences as long as they do not cause material harm to others. Now religions that promote violence, or those that are so contrary to the customs of a nation that they destabilize that society, resulting in civil unrest, may be chastened for the sake of good order. But the civil authority should not aim to erradicate false religions or promote the true one by the power of the sword.

The Parable of the Weeds

One important text that teaches religious liberty is found in Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, which is the parable of the sower and the field. It says Christ sows the wheat, who are sons of the kingdom, but the weeds are sons of the evil one. Christ teaches that the field is the whole world, not the church. He says that no one should try to pull up the weeds before Judgment Day because in trying to root out the weeds, they might also pull up the wheat.

Matthew 13:24-30 says:

“[24] He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, [25] but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. [26] So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. [27] And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ [28] He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ [29] But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them[30] Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”

Note that Christ says not to gather up the weeds, but to allow the weeds and the wheat to grow together until harvest time, which is judgment day. Then Christ gives the interpretation. Matthew 13:36-43 says:

“[36] Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” [37] He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. [38] The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, [39] and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. [40] Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. [41] The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, [42] and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. [43] Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.”

Often this parable is interpreted as being about the visible church. But Christ explicitly says that the field is the world. Only the good seed are “sons of the kingdom.” The weeds are the “sons of the evil one.” Thus, the world is composed of believers and unbelievers, and no one should try to root out the unbelievers from the world until judgment day.

Christ Rebuked the Disciples for Wanting a Wicked Town Destroyed

Another passage is Luke 9:51-55, where the disciples wanted Jesus to ask God to rain down fire on a wicked town that refused to believe in Him. But Jesus rebuked the disciples. Christ didn’t want to bring temporal judgments or destruction on cities that refused to worship Him. Here is the account in Luke 9:51-55.

[51] When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. [52] And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. [53] But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. [54] And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” [55] But he turned and rebuked them.

Clearly, our Lord did not intend to destroy cities who opposed Him prior to the day of judgment.

Christ’s Kingdom is Not of this World

Yet another passage about religious liberty is found in John 18:33-37, where Christ teaches His redemptive kingdom does not grow by state power.

“[33] So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” [34] Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” [35] Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” [36] Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” [37] Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

Christ said that if His kingdom were of this world, then He servants would be fighting. The kingdom of Christ cannot grow by coercive means. How does the redemptive kingdom grow? By the means of the preaching of the Word and God’s sovereign Spirit alone. Therefore, the temporal power cannot be ordered to an eternal redemptive end. Christ’s redemptive kingdom grows by one power only: The Word, when the Spirit adds His blessing.

Christ’s Kingdom Does not Use Weapons of the Flesh

2 Corinthians 10:3-6 teaches that Christ’s redemptive kingdom does not wage war according to the flesh, but by the proclaimation of the truth alone, which destroys arguments and opinions. It reads:

“[3] For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. [4] For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. [5] We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, [6] being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.”

Here again, temporal powers cannot be arranged so as to advance the redemptive kingdom. When Christ established the new covenant church, He did it without any civil power at all. The early church grew against all opposition without the assistance of any temporal power to punish heretics. Therefore, if Christ established and grew His church this way originally, why should we think He grows His church differently now?


Fourth, the Old Testament theocracy has been abolished. The old covenant judicial law had punishments for blasphemy, idolatry, and false worship which served particular purposes until the coming of Christ (Gal 3:23-25), but the old covenant is abolished now that Christ has come (Heb 8:7, 13; 10:9). Furthermore, the harsh penalties of the Old Testament theocracy (Acts 15:10) were types of eternal judgment (Heb 10:28-29), and were intented to perserve the line of Christ until the coming of Christ (Gal 3:19), but they were never given as a universal moral norm for all nations. See here for a refutation of theonomy (the idea that the old covenant judicial law is morally binding upon all nations).


Fifth, the civil magistrates of Gentile nations lack any biblical or natural authorization to compel people to be members of a particular church or to worship God rightly. The civil jurisdiction is restricted to outward matters of the body, and they have no power over inward matters of the soul and conscience (see Neh 9:37). Beliefs, convictions, and personal speech are matters of the conscience and soul, not the body, and therefore out outside the regulative authority of civil governments.


Sixth, in Genesis 9, God established a common covenant with the whole world that does not enforce the first table. The Noahic covenant is a common covenant because it’s shared in common with believers and unbelievers. In this covenant, God only gives society the power of the sword to punish murderers, and by implication to enforce lex talionis, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, for all crimes that injure fellow citizens. In Genesis 9, God does not give society the power to punish idolaters or to enforce worship, though God the Creator should be recognized by the civil government.


Seventh, in Romans 13, Paul never mentions the first table. It teaches that civil government has the power to punish those who do evil (Rom 13:1-4), and it lists commandments from the second table of the moral law, but not from the first table (Rom 13:9). While one could argue that Paul was simply supplying a partial list, there seems to be an implication that only the second table is in view when it comes to punishable civil offenses in a Gentile culture.


Eighth, right government of a society does not require its rulers to be experts in the Scriptures, but non-Christian cultures can and have flourished. Consider the great historic kingdoms and empires that had no Christian witness, and yet they were able to maintain order and generally uphold the law of nature as it pertains to the right functioning of society. The early Romans and Greeks are such examples. The pagans know by nature what is right and wrong and outwardly seek to practice it for their own good due to the nature of the world God has made (Rom 2:14-15; cf. 1 Cor 5:1).


Ninth, if civil government is given the power of the sword to punish heretics and coerce orthodox worship, serious problems will arise in a society. We know this from the historic records of societies where it has been tried. The government will make martyrs out of heretics and wolves, amplifying their voices and doing great harm. There will be endless bitter and divisive battles as to what constitutes orthodoxy, which must be imposed by force. And government coercion of the conscience will limit the freedom of theologians to study the Scriptures, since orthodoxy and right worship would be determined by the state. Further a state with power to command worship and legislate the conscience would have the absolute right to rule all things and would inevitably be corrupted and become tyrannical in our cursed world.


Tenth, if you look at the OT prophetic denunciations of pagan nations like Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon, the prophets do not pronounce judgment upon them for idol worship. Rather the prophets judged pagan nations for great injustices in their societies. The prophets condemned Israel for idolatry, but not the pagan nations. This implies that it isn’t the responsibility of pagan societies to coerce obedience to the first table.


Eleventh, the golden rule applies in that since you wouldn’t want the state to force you to worship in the way it determines, you shouldn’t want the state to force others to worship in the way it determines either. Christ teaches, “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt 7:12). If you wouldn’t want people coercing you to worship their god or gods according to their consciences, then you shouldn’t try to coerce them to worship your God according to your conscience.


Baptist History on the Relation Between the Church and the State

In 2014, Ronald Baines wrote a wonderful article in the Journal for the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies, where he shows what historic Baptists believed about the relationship between the institutional church and the civil government.

He cites Daniel Merrill, an early Particular Baptist, who wrote, “the kingdom, which the God of heaven set up, has never needed, so has never debased herself by soliciting, the secular arm to enforce the mandates of the Church…Of the civil authority she asks no more, than to have it stand out of her sunshine. That Cesar, in agreement with the ordinance of heaven, would look well to the management of Caesar’s kingdom, and leave it with the Lord to manage his.”

The Shaftsbery (Vermont) Baptist Association said, “kingdom of heaven…is not defended by carnal weapons” and “forms no alliance with the kingdoms and states of this world, but is distinct from them.”

The Philadelphia Association wrote, “Christ’s kingdom needs no support from union with the governments of this world; that the more distinctly the line is drawn between them the better.”

Isaac Backus anticipated objections to this position. He said it was not that the unbelief or false worship of the citizenry was acceptable to God or the Baptists; rather God did not ordain the civil government as the means for addressing the unbelief of those outside the church. He said, “The question between us [that is between Baptists and paedobaptists] is not, whether it be the duty [of citizens to trust Christ and worship Him rightly]…but it is, whether that duty ought to be enforced by the sword, or only by instruction, persuasion and good example?”

Backus went on to say, “the church is armed with light and truth, to pull down the strongholds of iniquity, and to gain souls to Christ, and into his church, to be governed by his rules therein; and again to exclude such from their communion, who will not be so governed; while the state is armed with the sword to guard the peace, and the civil rights of all persons and societies, and to punish those who violate the same. And where these two kinds of government, and the weapons which belong to them, are well distinguished, and improved according to the true nature and end of their institution, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other: but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued; of which the Holy Ghost gave early and plain warnings.”

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Are all sins the same? | Tom Hicks

Are all sins the same? | Tom Hicks

“Is it true that all people are equally sinful? If someone has sinful anger in his heart, but never acts on it, is that person really the same as someone who has sinful anger in his heart and then murders his whole family?”

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