Ecclesiastical Anti-Nomianism: The Church’s Rebellion
“And as they did not study to have knowledge of God, God delivered them to a worthless mind to do what is not lawful, being filled with all kinds of unrighteousness, wickedness, greediness, and evil. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and meanness. They are gossipers, slanderers, and haters of God. They are insolent, proud, boastful, inventors of evil, and disobeyers of parents. They are without understanding, covenant breakers, without affections, and without mercy. They know the decrees of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do them, but also approve of those who do them.”
Having been delivered up to a “worthless mind,” those who worship the creation rather than the creator do what is not lawful, the end result is that they do those things that are not lawful. One might expect this to be the case with those who live outside of the church, but sadly, it is common to see lawlessness within the church itself, most commonly in the context of Christian worship.
If lawlessness is the result of a “worthless mind,” then perhaps we must ask the question as to what constitutes a worthless mind — or perhaps, more idiomatically translated, a “worthless worldview.” The term in question is the Greek word ἀδόκιμος (adokimos), which is the word δόκιμος (dominos) with the “alpha-primitive.” The alpha simply turns the word into its negative, like “theist” and “atheist” or “moral” and “amoral.” If you have followed along with the essay on anti-gnosis, you will recognize the verbal form of the word in question: δοκιμάζω (dokimazo). Thus, δόκιμος (dominos) refers to something that has been tested and found to be true, reliable, or otherwise genuine. In turn, ἀδόκιμος (adokimos) refers to that which has been examined and found to be false, unreliable, and inauthentic.
How can a worldview such as that be tested? Shall we not judge a tree by its fruit (Matthew 7:15-20)? In the passage above, Paul gives us an extensive list of bad fruit that comes out of a mind that is worthless. These things, in the context of the passage, are things that are unlawful in the eyes of God. Now, when speaking of the law, the Greek word we usually expect to see is νόμος (nomos), hence the word “antinomian” above. In church history, antinomians are those who have rejected the Law of God and have abused Christian liberty as a form of license, permitting any behavior about which their conscience does not condemn in them.
In the text before us, Paul chooses a different, but related term. Here he speaks of that which is μὴ καθήκοντα (me kathekonta) or that which is “not appropriate” or “not befitting” for a person to do. The nuance is slightly different in that it almost exclusively deals with one’s conduct (where law often extends far beyond conduct to principle). Nevertheless, how does one examine conduct to discover whether it is appropriate or befitting of persons? It is (and must always be) that we go to the law. As Paul will write later in Romans, he did not know that certain things were sins were the Law not to have instructed him (Romans 7:7). One might suggest that these things that are “not appropriate” are more of a reflection of cultural norms and should not be seen as a reflection of God’s Law. Paul puts this notion to rest in the last verse of this passage when he states that those who do things such as that which he has listed are worthy of death. Only Law is capable of assigning capital punishment for its infractions. If we betray a cultural norm, at worst, we shall be looked down upon as an outsider, a persona non grata, or a pariah. Talking too loudly, putting your feet on one’s table, failing to take your shoes off, or eating with your hands may be considered uncouth in many places, but not something worth being put to death. Law, on the other hand, has the power to demand your life in nearly every civilized society.
Notice, though, in Paul’s writing here that it all stems back to worship. People have chosen to worship the creation rather than the creator and thus, their worldview is corrupted and they refuse to obey the Law. In fact, not only do they do such things as Paul has listed, but they encourage others to do them. They promote lawlessness.
Since Paul’s focus is on worship, we ought to turn our attention back toward the church. Truly, everything that has breath is called upon to praise the Lord, but the church, having been given the Scriptures, is in a unique position to instruct the world in what worship ought to look like. At heart, that means he church most model said worship. David writes that in being forgiven from sin, the proper response is to teach others the ways of God so that they turn back to Him as well (Psalm 51:13). David also writes that when God sends out his light and truth to us, the response is worship as well (Psalm 43:3-4 — note, that as Psalm 43 does not have a superscript of its own in the Hebrew text, but the LXX assigns it Davidic authorship). How shall the world know what worship “in Spirit and in Truth” happens to look like if the church shall not practice such worship itself?
That raises the question as to what constitutes worship in Spirit and in Truth. Sadly, were one to take a poll of pastors from across the United States or even the world, answers would vary greatly. Many people have bought into the notion that worship is a subjective experience that is designed to make them feel closer to God. And, while right worship ought to draw us closer to God, to treat it as a subjective matter makes worship about the individual and not about the God who we are supposed to be worshipping. Further, if worship is about God, then we ought to go to God’s Word to determine what ought to be part of worship and then constrain ourselves to those things.
When the delegates to the Westminster Assembly gathered to tackle this question, they prayerfully searched the Scriptures to determine those things that God commands to be a part of his worship. Their conclusion is that the Scriptures instructs us to worship with six, very specific elements (WCF, Chapter 21). First, we are to pray with thanksgiving as helped by the Holy Spirit. Second, the Scriptures are to be read with godly fear. Third, the Word is to be clearly preached — in the word of many Puritans, the congregation is the “schoolroom of Christ.” Fourth, the preaching is to be heard with understanding; in other words, we are to pay attention to the Word as it is preached so that we may put it into practice in our lives. Fifth, the psalms are to be sung with a grace-filled heart. And sixth, the sacraments are to be practiced as instituted by Christ. Certainly, a window is left open for occasional vows, oaths, fasts, and special thanksgivings, but they were seen as being used (as with Paul’s collection for those suffering in Jerusalem) as necessity dictates.
All other things, though they might be done with a clear conscience during the normal activities of our week, are not worship and thus, do not belong to the congregational practice when we gather on the Sabbath Day for worship. Reformed theologians refer to this as “the regulative principle of worship,” reflecting on the notion that God orders our worship and regulates it by His word and not by our preferences. Or, to put it another way, God’s Law governs everything we do…especially our worship.
And thus, those who seek to mold worship after their own preferences or likes, those who incorporate elements into worship that do not fit neatly into these categories commanded by Scripture, and those who would incorporate practices found in heathen worship are fighting against the Law of God. They are “ecclesiastical antinomians” and are rebelling against the God of Heaven even as they try and worship that very same God.
And so, the church faces the criticism from the anti-theist of existing to serve its own needs — being greedy for money and providing opium for the masses. When we worship the way we want and the way that makes us feel good, rather than how God commands, how can we blame the anti-theists for their castigation? More importantly, what will be said to God when those who promote this entertainment and human-centered worship stand before His castigation? That ought to make one’s knees tremble. That ought to drive us to the repentance from those elements we have introduced and to embrace those elements we have ignored. Peter insists that judgment begins at the household of God (1 Peter 4:17). Paul encourages us though, that if we would judge ourselves truly (with the Scriptures as our rule!) then we would not be judged (1 Corinthians 11:31).
If we wish to have a compelling witness in this unfaithful world, shall we not begin with the examination of our worship? Shall we not begin by ordering our worship according to God’s Word rather than according to our preferences? Nevertheless, there will be many who will not be able to let go of the idols they have created — to their art, their drama, their therapeutic sermons, their entertainment, their singing of human songs rather than inspired psalms, their movie-screens, and the glitz and glamor of performance because they are comfortable. And, in doing so, our witness will remain uncompelling, suspect, and without authority.