The Second Commandment and the Church

“You shall not make for yourself an image…”

Do you remember the worship wars of the ‘90s? People were ready to burn their church down because a drum set ("Satan sticks") appeared on stage. Today, people may accuse a church of diffusing the world’s essential oils through their fog machine. I’m not trying to make a case here for fog machines. But I’m also not trying to make a case against them. That’s the point. The worship warring is one of the chief ways the church falls afoul of the second commandment today.

Traditionally, Christians distinguish between the first and second commandments in the following way: The first commandment is about worshiping God alone; the second commandment is about worshiping God in the right way. In the second commandment, God enumerates the ways he does not want Israel worshiping Him, namely through creating some image or likeness of God, and worshiping that (though the principle extends much farther).

Because Christians know God’s zeal for proper forms of worship, it makes sense that worship wars are constantly breaking out. Two Old Testament priests, Nadab and Abihu, made the mistake of getting a little too casual and presumptuous in how they worshiped God, and it did not turn out well. (Leviticus 10) So perhaps angry emails, passive aggressive comments, and political maneuvering are understandable or even "in-bounds" when it comes to protecting forms of worship. After all, it is done in service of the lofty motivation of serving God’s glory and honor.

The difficulty, in our New Testament era, is that the parameters of true worship are indeed narrow, but they are also sparse, leaving many things unspecified. Jesus drives this point home in his conversation with the Samaritan woman. He brushes aside her reference to their own worship war (What was the best place of worship?). He does this not to shut down the conversation, but in order to ask the right question:  How should we worship God? “In Spirit and in truth,” Jesus says. (Jn 4:24)

If you’re able to discern from that maxim a hard and fast policy on multimedia usage, you’re a better exegete than I. As we cast about the New Testament for other indicators of best practices in worship (I Cor 14:26-40, Eph 5:19, Rev 5, 7, 19), we find a pattern emerging; acceptable worship is marked by clear, controlling purposes, but relatively few prescriptions. Christians have historically celebrated God’s wisdom in this—that He marks out distinctive worship practices for his people, while simultaneously uniting true Christians over all times and places whose particular forms of worship look wildly divergent.

To the extent that God does lay out explicit boundaries around worship, Christians need to take pains not to bind others’ consciences outside of those boundaries. Otherwise we find ourselves deserving Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees, “In vain do you worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Mt 15:9) It is one thing to believe strongly in a particular liturgical flow, or song selection, or style of preaching. If you truly have no preference when it comes to these things, it merely means you live in unreflective ignorance or apathy, neither of which should be confused with humility. On the other hand, it is quite dangerous to ultimatize those preferences as if they are the bar of orthodoxy.

A statement like “I just can’t worship in a church that doesn’t…” should finish with either "preach the Word," "administer the sacraments," or "exercise church discipline." Anything less risks breaking the 2nd commandment. 

With those limited restrictions in mind, we would do well to consider one final implication of the second commandment. The prohibitions of the second commandment may strike us as strange, and perhaps overly detailed. (If you’re not supposed to make any carved images, couldn’t we just assume this includes carved images of trout and salmon?) We need to bear in mind that Israel would have faced strong, persistent temptations to do these things because that’s how their neighbors worshiped.

When we look around today, what are the ways our neighbors worship? The most potent secular forms of worship, the rituals which most tap into feelings of self-forgetfulness and transcendence usually come through political rallies or entertainment spectacles, such as concerts and sporting events. Therefore, we do well to exercise caution imitating these forms of worship in ways that would diminish from our dependence on God’s Spirit and Truth.

Previous articles in this series:

"The First Commandment and the Church"

"Idolatry and the World"

Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, FL. 

Related Links

Podcast: "What Happens When We Worship"

"The Spirit of Puritan Worship" by Joel Beeke

"Worship that Smells" by Aaron Denlinger

"What Happens When We Worship?" by Jonathan Landry Cruse

"Worship: Evangelical or Reformed?" by Robert Godfrey

On Reforming Worship, edited by David Hall & Jonathan Master