I recently received an excellent question concerning how the church today is called to deal with false prophets and worship of idols. This question came about in response to a recent sermon at our church on 1 Kings. I'll first recount the question and then provide my answer.
I have a question regarding the false prophets leading others into idolatry. Based on the Bible verses we talk about today regarding how false prophets should be exterminated because they are leading others into idolatry, are we Christians called to do this? For example would that apply for "priests" from different religions?
Are we called to a “Holy Crusade” against these “priests”? Or because of our current governments and laws do we not obey God in this matter anymore? Or is this something special you have to be called to do like Elijah? This topic is very interesting on how Christians have adapted the "turn the other check" and "don’t look that way" stances towards other religions and false Gods. It is almost like we can’t defend our faith as we are supposed to. Just wanted your insight on how this commandments would apply in today’s world and if in some way the coming of Jesus changed it?
This is a good but very complicated question. I will try and give a thorough but brief response. I will however need to provide some general clarity to the passages in question (Exo 22:20, etc) before addressing the practical questions.
1) These passages are referring to social and political justice.
This is very important to remember. The same law of God that speaks about killing false prophets speaks "you shall not murder". What is the difference? And how do these two commandments not contradict each other? First, there are significant difference between the Hebrew words that are used. So contextually the same word isn't even used. The purpose in different words is because one law says to the individual "don't kill" while the other commandment speak on a nationalist level. The nation of Israel as a whole unit had the responsibility and commandment to keep clean and pure their religion from idol worship. This will be crucial to modern application.
2) These passages are political commandments and not religious requirements.
At first this might be confusing. Many of us have accepted for a false unity in the religious and political structures of Israel. But the truth is that the distinction between "church" and "state" might actually be even wider in the example of Israel. Only the tribe of Levi could serve in a religious capacity. And only a few elected leaders served in a political sphere. But the two never mixed. In fact the Scriptures are clearly against any attempt for the two to mix (1 Sam 13:11-14, etc). Yes, God permitted in the law for the political realm to bring judgement on false religious practices but they were not in charge of religious practices. In a similar fashion, God did not command of the religious institutions (the priests) to enforce proper worship. Instead He required this of the people under political laws to enforce the political laws. This has crucial application to the church.
So how do these two points help these commandments apply to our modern situation?
1) The church is never responsible for the killing of false prophets.
Of all the entities the church might be it can never be the political state. Because of this, the church could never be responsible for the enforcement of political commands in Mosaic Law. This would mean the church can never assume a "Holy Crusade". All previous attempts to do this in history were sinful and secular attempts to serve man. I might even be so bold as to say that the Crusades and Inquisition were nothing short of demonic worship of the power of the state. Instead, the church is built on the reconciliation of the world to Christ. We're about the gospel. Like the Levites, we are about presenting sacrifices (in our case we point to Christ and our sacrificed lives) and not carrying out political commandments. We have church discipline as our method for keeping our churches clean but we do not yield the sword that the government yields.
2) Government may be called to enforce the Mosaic Law. But they would need to allow unconverted people to leave such a state.
There are a few minority views in Christianity that believe that governments should return to the Bible for their source of rules and ethics. Theonomy is one of those minority views. There has been little discussion of it in the church at large because it is usually only found within the postmillennial ranks. It has been discussed very little on this blog but that might change in the future.
Working on the assumption that Theonomy is even a valid view (which I will not fault anyone for disagreeing with), if a nation were to accept a form of Theonomy, this would require some very faithful study of God's word to see what principles are being taught in the law. This would avoid some false application of the mere letter of the Mosaic Law (e.g. many laws about farm animals might have no application unless we saw them as principles about our houses, cars and jobs). If such a faithful study were to occur, it could only occur after the gospel has been successful in its ministry to a nation. In the case that a nation were to turn to Christ and accept the law as its new standard, there would be some new general concerns that address the current questions.
One of the first things that would be necessary is for the government to permit individuals time to leave the country before enforcing these laws. This would exist for the case of individuals who still rejected the gospel despite the majority of the nation converting. These law should not be forced upon them and they should be allowed to leave the country. In a similar way, it would be unlawful for a nation to attempt to force this on other nations. This again would refute any attempt or discussion of a "Holy Crusade". A God-fearing nation could send missionaries to other nations and the gospel may prevail in those countries. But only under those circumstances should the law of God spread in conjunction alongside and within the complete power of the gospel of Christ.
I hope these points are helpful in your continuing study. Let me end with a comprehensive recap. The church should never participate in holy crusades. The church must be principally about the gospel. If a nation were to turn to the gospel, they might accept God's law as their new standard. If such a nation were to exists, they would be allowed to enforce their laws but could never force their laws on unwilling subjects.