Idolatry & Injustice

One of the hallmarks of the Protestant Reformation, in addition to the recovery of justification by faith as a crucial articulation of the gospel, was the reformation of the worship and liturgical practices of the church. The reformers understood that the retrieval of core doctrinal truths required a broader reformation of the formative worship practices of the church. For centuries leading up to the Reformation, the introduction of extra-biblical liturgical practices had obscured the good news of sheer grace in the very worship and proclamation of the church. The reformers were deeply concerned with right worship and were vigilant about the sorts of things that, according to Scripture, would render the worship of the church unacceptable to God.


But this concern for authentic, acceptable worship is not at all unique to the Reformed tradition. Though various Christian traditions do vary (rather widely) as to what specific conditions must be met for worship to be authentic; that certain conditions must be met is shared by all. Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff puts it this way:


Almost everyone in the Christian community operates with some view as to what would deprive liturgical actions of their authenticity .... [Some would say] liturgy loses its authenticity when the words are not said with full conviction and attention. Others would say [it is] when those who engage in it do not hold the right doctrines, or when the liturgy departs from the apostolic tradition, or when it is led by someone who is not validly ordained or who performs it in ways not authorized.


... Though we differ in our view as to the conditions that must be satisfied ... almost everyone in the church has some view on the matter.


For me growing up in an immigrant Korean Presbyterian church, it was the sincerity with which we spoke or sang or prayed that made our liturgical actions authentic and therefore acceptable. Sound doctrine, confession of sin, prayers of devotion--these were all quite important to us, to be sure. But at the end of the day, they didn't mean much unless we said them with all our hearts. The right worship of God--worship that is acceptable to him and conforms to his word--is a matter all Christians take with great seriousness, for good reason.


An important question, then, would be to ask what, if anything, do the biblical writers have to say on this matter? Does the Bible have anything to say on what conditions, if unmet, render our worship inauthentic? This is an immensely important question that merits deeper reflection. It is precisely the question that Wolterstorff poses in a remarkable essay found in a collection of his essays entitled Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Justice, Church, and World. In it, Wolterstorff states his conclusion quite plainly:


In the biblical writers one also finds such views [on true worship]. A prominent theme in them is that liturgical actions lose their authenticity when those who participate in the liturgy do not practice and struggle for justice.


Even more pointedly, he goes on to state that "liturgy practiced in the absence of justice is so seriously malformed that God finds it disgusting." Right worship is indeed something to be taken quite seriously.


But the point is not to be missed. If we allow biblical writers to speak into this question for which we all have formed traditional answers, we must allow God’s word to reshape our assumptions and sensibilities. So, for example, if we allow the prophet Amos to speak into this question, he pronounced thus saith the Lord:


I hate, I despise your feasts and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies …

Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream” (Amos 5:21, 23-24)


Or consider Isaiah who portrays God approaching Israel at worship, saying:

Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:5b-6)


Or add to the chorus the prophet Jeremiah who shows God warning Israel of being too self-assured in the face of injustice because of the rightness of their worship:


Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever (Jeremiah 7:2-7).


So, if we allow the biblical writers to speak for themselves, then the conditions that, if not met, render our worship inauthentic are not so much these other things we tend to imagine them to be, as important as they are. But according to the biblical writers, worship is rendered unacceptable when worshipers are ignoring the biblical demands of justice in their social, moral, and economic lives. That is a remarkable statement. And if you were like me in my first encounter with this insight, it is a startling and convicting conclusion.


Yet with just a bit of further reflection, this in truth should not come as a surprise. After all, what are the two most common themes that the Hebrew Prophets speak consistently against? In what ways do the children of Israel most consistently stray from covenant obedience? What are the twin sins that wind in and out, back and forth, intertwined with each other throughout all of Scripture? They are the dual sins of idolatry and injustice—the two tables of the Law, the two greatest commandments, etc. Worship of any created thing other than the One True God necessarily and inescapably entails the mistreatment of those made in the image of God. The mistreatment of created things, particularly those made in the image of God necessarily and inescapably entails the worship of a false god. Where there is the smoke of injustice, there is the fire of idolatry. Where there is the fire of idolatry, you will find the smoke of injustice. There is a deep intrinsic logic that inseparably connects the two—they are the two sides of the same proverbial coin. To quote Wolterstorff again, according to the biblical writers “liturgical actions lose their authenticity when those who participate in the liturgy do not practice and struggle for justice.”


This is why in our work in East Harlem and in our reflections here at Until Zion, we see the ministry of word and of deed to be intrinsically tied to one another. We see them both as being essential and not incidental to the very nature of the church. To be a gospel-driven church is to seek to worship the God of Sovereign Grace rightly as he has commanded us in his word which, among other things, is for our worship to be an expression of a life poured out in the cause of justice and reconciliation.