For several years, this writer has been troubled by an antinomian streak in the theonomic movement. While many antagonists have falsely branded the movement as "legalistic," I am convinced that there is actually a more serious problem in the other direction.
"What, you can't be serious?" some may respond. "How can you accuse reconstructionists of an antinomian tendency, when their expressed purposes continually support the law of God?"
Well, the matter is not quite that simple. It's true that the reconstructionist movement accurately proclaims many precepts from God's law. Notably, the Word of God does condemn abortion, homosexuality, institutionalized theft by government taxation, etc. Further, the reconstructionist emphasis on Christian education is quite timely.
Still these theonomic positions share a common characteristic. They are all directed against practices in contemporary culture which are popularly denounced by the larger "evangelical" community as a whole. As such, they gain much attention. Further, these concerns are rooted in the second table of the law the last six commandments which deal principally with a man's duty toward other men.
So what's wrong with this emphasis? Nothing, per se, unless it becomes the occasion for neglecting other vital parts of God's law. And that is my fear, brethren. I believe reconstructionists have adopted a selective use of the law. In other words, many theonomists exalt popular second-table issues, doing injustice to first-table matters which contain man's preeminent duties toward God.
The purpose of this article, then, is to note several areas where theonomists seem to be neglecting the law. To the extent that these criticisms are valid, I appeal to these brethren to give heed to the whole counsel of God's Word, and repent where there have been sins of omission.
Idolatry is a polluted stream from which flows both individual condemnation and the decay of society as a whole. At the head of the ten commandments stands the exclusive claim of the Lord: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Ex. 20:3).
This command has an individual focus, for every man is summoned to repentance and faith in the living God. The command also has a corporate aspect, requiring God's people to guard against outside influences which undermine the purity of the faith. For this reason, the Lord forbade the Israelites to make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land. "Thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor with their gods. They shall not dwell in thy land, lest they make thee sin against me: for if thou serve their gods, it will surely be a snare unto thee" (Ex. 23:31-33; cf. Ex. 34:13-15; Judges 2:2).
The New Testament counterpart to the first commandment is found in the exclusive claims of Christ Jesus: "Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Thus, the lordship of Christ is preached with no apologies, and it provides the impetus behind the great commission: "All power [authority] is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go therefore...." (Matthew 28:18-19).
The great commission requires making disciples of all the nations, "teaching them to observe all things" commanded by Christ (Matt. 28:20). A summary of the gospel commission is also provided in Luke 24:47, declaring "repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations."
Therefore, the gospel is not merely a truncated message containing five easy steps to salvation. Neither is the gospel faithfully proclaimed if repentance is omitted, or if the hearers are allowed to retain idolatrous worship.
The apostle Paul enjoins Christians to be separate from corrupting influences (2 Cor. 6:11-18); and he calls down the curses of God upon any who pervert the purity of the gospel (Gal. 1:6-9). Thus, Paul excludes the Judaizers from the Christian community, even though the Judaizers profess faith in Jesus, and in spite of the fact that the Judaizers might make nice allies against the statist practices of imperialist Rome. (Let us also remember that the Roman government tolerated abortion, infanticide, homosexuality and idolatry. Although Paul denounced these sins, he never compromised the purity of the gospel in efforts to counteract such rampant lawlessness.)
These biblical concepts were clearly understood during the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers sought to eradicate the false religion of Rome, and disseminate the pure gospel throughout the world. Yet, they also guarded against the insidious influences of the Anabaptists. It was a religious war on many fronts; and the Reformers saw the necessity of maintaining the purity of the gospel, in spite of concurrent struggles against Papists, Anabaptists, and blatant infidels.
But today, we have a new breed of Reformer. There are theonomists who seem bent on patronizing Papists and Charismatics (the modern Anabaptists), while pursuing an agenda of social and political reconstruction.
The question of common ground is bound to arise. For example, pro-life Protestants often find themselves together with Roman Catholics in opposition to abortion. So a dilemma is created. What principles should govern our dealings with Roman Catholics who share our opposition to abortion, homosexuality, etc.?
In December 1983, an article appeared in the Chalcedon Report entitled, "On What Common Ground Do We Stand?" by Jean-Marc Berthoud. "Whilst differences should be frankly and lucidly recognized, so as to avoid all confusion," he says, "points of common agreement should be clearly and carefully defined."
And what points of common ground are advocated? The author gives us a list of "minimal points" of agreement which includes the following remark: "The doctrinal formulations of the Seven Oecumenical Councils, Nicea (325), Constantinople I (431), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680-681) and Nicea II (787) should all be accepted without mental reservation."
This proposal is preposterous. Some of those later councils have never met even general acceptance among Protestants. The Second Nicene Council, for example, ratified the use of icons, relics, and adoration of the saints. At best, Mr. Bethoud's remarks bespeak naiveté and grievous insensitivity to crucial matters pertaining to purity of worship.
In a related vein, Pastor Joe Morecraft described his vision for a reconstructed America. Speaking to Bill Moyers, on the t.v. program, "God and Politics," Morecraft made the following statement: "Everybody's going to benefit. Whether they're Christians, whether they're Protestant Christians or Catholic Christians or Jews or whatever they be, everybody will benefit from having a Christian culture. Where Christian principles reign supreme, where people in places of leadership recognize the supremacy of God, there will be more freedom, more prosperity, more security for every law-abiding American." ("God and Politics: On Earth as It Is in Heaven," P.B.S., 23 December 1987.)
Is this the millennial kingdom? Are we, indeed, headed for a society where truth and error dwell side by side in wondrous harmony and prosperity? By "Catholic Christians," does he mean those in the Romish communion persons who, by scriptural definitions, are classed as lawless idolators? If so, then what is meant by the term "law-abiding"?
Meanwhile, great appeals are directed toward the Charismatics. Charismatics exist in large numbers, possess an enormous media presence (radio and t.v.) and have much money to contribute to popular causes.
One prominent theonomist has advocated a strategy of cooperation, using the illustration of a three-legged stool, in which each leg of the stool provides essential support for the whole. In order to pursue the reconstruction of America, he sees the three legs of the stool to be: (1) the theological leadership of Presbyterians; (2) the media of the Charismatics; (3) the large numbers of the Baptists.
Of course, it is hard to get a firm fix on Charismatics, since the Charismatic movement extends beyond structured confessional denominations. Yet it is safe to assert that they generally do not preach the gospel of God's sovereign grace. The doctrine of free-will (the Pelagian heresy) is rampant among Charismatics.
Further, Charismatic views on continuing revelation undermine the Protestant principle of sola scriptura. This is a foundational error.
Some Charismatics advocate a prosperity gospel which says, in effect, Christ died to make you rich. Their more crass practitioners resort to sensational claims of miraculous healings; others peddle a variety of religious artifacts, and we wouldn't be surprised to see scripture toothbrushes in their autumn catalog of merchandise.
Therefore, we are not merely a little disconcerted to read Pastor Morecraft assert: "This is what is making the Christian Reconstructionist Movement so influential.... God is mixing the LIGHT of the Reformed Faith with the HEAT of the Charismatic Movement" (Counsel of Chalcedon, Dec. 1987, p. 7).
Now, I am not saying we should isolate ourselves from all contacts with Roman Catholics and Charismatics. Indeed, our encounters with these people are a real test of our faithfulness to the great commission. We should call them to repentance; to renounce their affiliation with Rome; to forsake their false worship.
Will we seek to press the claims of the true gospel, or will we be content with a theological détente, in order to forge an alliance for social and political aims? It is one thing to seek an audience in order to present the truth in its fulness; it is quite another to make a truce with errorists.
Roman Catholicism has not changed. It is a wicked ecclesiastical system which substitutes idolatrous worship and human merit for the true gospel of Christ.
Similarly, many Charismatics assert a free-will gospel and subjective worship in the place of biblical truth. It is a false religion. The Reformers uniformly maintained that advocates of free-will hold to a soul-destroying error.
Is God honored when such crucial differences are minimized for the sake of a political agenda? Further, it will be a tragedy if the trustees of the true gospel remain mute concerning those who murder the soul (such as Papists), while exerting so much effort against those who kill the body (i.e., abortionists).
Moreover, historic post-millennialism linked the progress of Christ's kingdom to the spread of the gospel. But today, many reconstructionists equate kingdom growth with the diffusion of a social and political agenda throughout professing Christendom. Formerly, the kingdom was progressing toward an era of the universal spread of the gospel. Now, it seems destined to become an ecumenical haven for Papists, Anabaptists, and pandering Protestants alike. Otherwise, how can we account for the failure to confront the Romish and Charismatic heresies head-on?
This negligence contravenes both the first commandment and the command of Christ in the great commission. Therefore, it is nothing short of bald antinomianism.
This lawlessness does not stop with a tolerance of false religion. It also includes laxity toward corruption of worship: second commandment issues.
Whereas the first commandment prohibits false gods and false religions, the second commandment tells us how God is to be worshipped. The commandment does so in a negative manner, by forbidding the worship of God through means of human invention.
The second commandment does not simply forbid the construction of idols to false gods; for in that case it would merely be a repetition of the first commandment. Rather, the second commandment guards against attempts to represent or worship the true God by false means. It forbids man-made "aids to worship"; it enjoins the proper worship of God as appointed in his Word. This is the historic Reformed understanding of the command. As the Westminster Larger Catechism (#109) states: "The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counselling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons ... corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it...." (Cf. Heidelberg Catechism, #s 96-98.) This doctrine is often referred to as the regulative principle of worship.
Various theonomists have undermined the regulative principle. The Tyler reconstructionists repudiated it outright in the early 1980s. The most visible expression of their hostility to the regulative principle came in a series of articles published in the Geneva Papers, a monthly newsletter issued by the Tylerites. In issues #21 #29, James Jordan openly denounced the regulative principle in order to pave the way for his advocacy of Anglo-Catholic and Lutheran conceptions of worship, including a defense of clerical attire, the sign of the cross, an ecclesiastical year, public healing services, etc.
Although Mr. Jordan's remarks may represent the most extreme among the theonomists, other reconstructionists have also backed off from the regulative principle. For example, several years ago, I had a conversation with a prominent theonomist who told me he thought the position of Calvin (and the Westminster Confession) was wrong with respect to pictorial representations of Jesus. Of course Calvin and the Confession classify "pictures of Jesus" among the graven images prohibited by the second commandment. Although this man was a minister in a denomination which publicly affirms the Westminster Confession, he was willing to defend the didactic use of "pictures of Jesus."
But private conversations alone are not the only indication of problems in this area. A reconstructionist book on God and Government sports a graven image on the cover. And recent issues of the Chalcedon Report have contained several artistic renderings of Christ, also in violation of the second commandment (see the January, Feb., and Mar. 1988 issues).
The regulative principle is also disregarded by the unbridled subjectivism of the Charismatic movement, where private expression is substituted for worship by God's appointment. Thus, we are troubled to read Pastor Morecraft's remark, "I particularly pray that Calvinists and charismatics will influence each other in their doctrines of worship. They need our regulative principle of worship and we need their joyous involvement of the total person, spiritually, emotionally, and physically in the worship of God" (Counsel of Chalcedon, Dec. 1987, p. 7).
What should we make of a statement like this? It is theological double-speak. To blend Reformed light and Charismatic heat is a prescription for "strange fire" indeed. We don't need Charismatic influences on our worship. If our worship is lacking, it is precisely because we are not fully governed by God's Word which speaks to the whole man. In short, we need more commitment to the regulative principle among Reformed churches.
Doubtless, the Charismatics do need our regulative principle. But if they ever do adopt the Reformed regulative principle, it will eliminate nearly everything distinctive within Charismatic worship: the blithering nonsense, falsely called speaking in tongues; the self-aggrandizing showmanship of Charismatic preachers; the false doctrines; and musical entertainment which is more suited to a discothèque.
Since I have already spoken of the evils of the Charismatic movement above, I shall not dwell on it again here, except to underscore that the movement undermines the law of God on several counts. Thus, patronizing attitudes toward the Charismatic movement are a form of antinomianism aiding and abetting lawlessness.
One other first-table issue merits attention: the keeping of the sabbath. In this realm, theonomists again present us with troublesome inconsistencies.
Several years ago, a theonomic pastor told me he hoped the sabbath would not become a divisive issue among reconstructionists. It seems some of the brethren were especially fond of watching those football games on Sunday afternoon.
Later, I perused Gary North's fire-breathing essay on "The Economics of Sabbath-Keeping." Now here's a man who tells you plainly what he thinks about sabbatarianism. While presenting some valid questions, North resorts to caricature, in order to ridicule sabbatarianism and discredit the position of the Westminster Confession. (See "The Economics of Sabbath-Keeping," by Gary North, published as an appendix to The Institutes of Biblical Law by R. J. Rushdoony, pp. 824-36.)
On another occasion, I attended a conference at the prominent reconstructionist church in Atlanta, Chalcedon Presbyterian Church. During my visit, I was given a very nice rationale on why it is appropriate to routinely resort to restaurants on Sunday after church, in spite of the fact that the fourth commandment mandates a rest for servants and the "stranger that is within thy gates" (Ex. 20:10).
I mention these experiences because they raise another perplexing question about the commitment of reconstructionists to the first table of the law. Is this not another case where theonomists display an inadequate adherence to God's law?
Many critics of the reconstructionists, especially dispensationalists, are themselves blatant antinomians. For this reason, they fail to perceive the most glaring weakness within the movement. Further, the Presbyterian critics of theonomy are usually among the most unconfessional men within the denomination. Hence, these Presbyterian detractors are not fond of discussing issues related to confessional integrity.
But the time has come to raise these uncomfortable issues, for the sake of the church and the sake of the movement. The reconstructionist movement includes many trends which are both antinomian and unconfessional. We call upon the leaders of the movement to address these issues: How do you integrate the first commandment into your reconstructionist appeals to heretics? How does purity of worship fit within your agenda of reform? How should the fourth commandment be upheld in the contemporary situation?
We will be listening for answers to these questions. Yet, until these issues are addressed, in conformity with the whole counsel of God's Word, the reconstructionist movement remains seriously flawed.
Meanwhile, contemporary readers would do well to remain wary of a movement which is like the "double-minded man ... unstable in all his ways" (James 1:8).
Copyright © 1988 by Kevin Reed
Presbyterian Heritage Publications
P.O. Box 180922, Dallas, Texas 75218