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The Dangers of Syncretism and Idolatry

In the Old Testament Law, God gave his people very specific instructions about how they were to relate to the people around them, including in their culture and worship practices.

Deuteronomy 12:2–8 reveals important principles in this regard. God commanded that the people destroy the places where pagans worshiped, including their altars, their pillars, their images, and even the names of the places. This is clearly more than simply insisting that they worship Yahweh rather than false gods; this is also stark evidence that God rejects worship that imitates pagan worship in any way. Everything in pagan culture embodies religious commitments, and those elements that are imbibed with pagan religious meaning must be rejected for use in worship. One might ask why they had to destroy, for example, the altars and pillars; wouldn’t these be useful even for the worship of the true God? Yet God commanded that they be destroyed. He summarized his desires with the words, “You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way.” Instead, they were to listen to his instructions and find a place of his choosing for their worship.

Yet the people disobeyed these principles even as they waited at the foot of the mountain for Moses to return from receiving the law tablets. The golden calf incident is a terrible failure for this newly formed worship community, but unfortunately one that foreshadows many other failures in the days and years ahead. Fearing that Moses would never come back, the people demanded a physical representation of deity, just like the pagan nations had. Aaron complied, forming a golden calf, similar to the practice of both Egypt and Canaan, and the people celebrated with an orgiastic festival (v. 6) so noisy that sounded to Joshua’s ears from a distance like “a noise of war in the camp” (v. 17).

Most people likely assume that the Israelites’ problem here was one of worshiping a false god. Yet a closer look at what happened reveals something different. The common assumption is usually based upon the fact that most English translations use the term “gods” in Exodus 32:4–6 to describe what they desired to worship—“These are your gods, O Israel,” the people said. This is a legitimate translation of the Hebrew term Elohim in this texts, a plural reference to deity common in the ancient near east.

However, that very term (in its plural form) is also used elsewhere to unquestionably refer to the true God, and other clues in the text indicate that the people were actually trying to worship the true God. One clear example is what Aaron says in verse five: “Tomorrow shall be a feast to Yahweh.” Clearly, the attempt here was to worship the true God through the golden calf. Moses made this fact explicit when he related this event at the end of his life in Deuteronomy 9:16: “And I looked, and behold, you had sinned against Yahweh Elohim (the LORD your God). You had made yourselves a golden calf. You had turned aside quickly from the way that the Lord had commanded you.” His final statement describes exactly what was so wrong with what they did—they did not follow God’s commands regarding worship.

Their motivation may indeed have been noble. They may truly have been attempting to show honor to the true God by erecting a symbol of strength and nobility in his name. Yet what this event makes clear is that God rejects worship of him in improper forms. He has the right to tell his people how he wants to be worshiped, and his people must follow those instructions to the letter. This event is also an illustration of a problem that will plague Hebrew worship for a long time—syncretism. They mixed true worship with false. They were attempting to worship the right object, but they were doing so not only through means that God had not prescribed, but also through means they copied from the pagan nations around them. God always rejects this kind of worship.

Another example of this principle is found in Leviticus 10:1–3, after the tabernacle was completed. Here Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu are severely punished by God for their worship. What was their problem? Their failure was not in that they attempted to worship a false god or that they attempted to worship the true God in a manner he had forbidden. Their sin was that, as the text says, they “offered unauthorized fire to the Lord, which he commanded them not.”

This account emphasizes that God is concerned not only with heart motive—although that is certainly central—nor is he simply concerned that people worship him alone—although that is, of course, true. He is also concerned that his people worship him in the right way, which includes not worshiping in ways that he has forbidden or inventing new ways to worship that he has not commanded.

God alone has the authority to establish worship practices.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

6 Responses to The Dangers of Syncretism and Idolatry

  1. How come the modern church seems oblivious to this? How many churches have full-on bands, complete with drums, electric guitars, keyboards, etc., situated on a stage in front of the church, with singers, usually dressed just like their worldly counterparts, holding microphones just the same way, leading the “worship”? If this were in only some of the churches, we could write them off as cults, but it is everywhere, including the most mainstream of the mainstream churches. Can anyone explain this? Is there any hope of ever getting out of it? Is there anything ordinary Christians (uninfluential) can do?

  2. I believe that one key reason that so many churches have gone astray is because their leaders and their people have accepted the wrong teaching that all instrumental music is either neutral or amoral or it is good, but it is never ungodly and cannot be ungodly. If one believes that there is no such thing as ungodly instrumental music, then one believes that he is free to use the instrumental music of the ungodly in worship however he sees fit.

  3. I pray daily that the Lord will bring revival to His Church and clear out all the false teachers, false doctrines, false worship, false Bibles, foolishness and worldliness, and bring us back to the true faith.

  4. It does however seem to be an equally dangerous leap to judge against forms of worship that are not prohibited. Yes in the example you cite “offered unauthorized fire to the Lord, which he commanded them not”

    Exodus 30:9 “You shall not offer strange incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering; nor shall you pour a drink offering on it.” This is the prohibition against “strange” fire. Where does modern worship equate to a prohibition? Isn’t this a fallacy of faulty generalization? Are we causing true believers to doubt that their own sincere form of worship is in fact faulty?

    “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea”

  5. The only person who can know for sure that his worship is sincere is the person himself. I wonder how many really are sincere? Why is it that when pastors are confronted by people who are unhappy with the band and worldly dress and behaviour of the so-called worship leaders, their response is, “If we don’t do it this way, people will leave the church!” Does that sound like genuine worship? And do we have the right to take a worldly medium and press it into service for the worship of a holy and righteous God, just so that we can appeal to the masses? Apart from anything else, just compare the words of the great hymns with the lyrics of the modern worship songs. There is just no comparison in terms of genuine worship. Furthermore, we know that we become like the Person we worship. As we look around the modern Church, do we see young people and older people too becoming more Christ-like in their attitudes, behaviour and goals? How many of our young people are dedicating their lives for missions or other Christian endeavours? Yet this was the mark of the Church in the past. I think it is indeed “strange fire” that is being offered in many churches today.

  6. How many hymns do you know? I know literally thousands, and I’m learning new ones all the time. Many years ago, when my Mom and I were attending a church where the preacher was a liberal and we were new Christians, my Mom once observed, “It’s amazing how faithful the hymns are to the truth, in spite of the heresies that have plagued the Church”. Of course, she was right, and I have never forgotten what she said. I was only a teenager at the time. There may be some hymns which are not theologically sound, but they are very much in the minority. The large majority of the hymns are faithful to the truth. My Mom and I, as new Christians, survived spiritually on two Scripture readings and four hymns each Sunday (of course we were having our own devotions as well)and after two years the minister was replaced by one who really did preach the truth. The same cannot be said for the modern choruses, and the Church is denying to young Christians the solid grounding they need in the faith – which they could get from the hymns, which unfortunately are no longer sung. And by the way, this is NOT a preference. You need to look seriously at the facts.

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