Pastor Brian Schwertley on ecclesiastical abuses of Christian Liberty

Brian Schwertley

Sadly, the biblical concept of liberty of conscience has often been misunderstood, neglected or simply cast aside throughout the history of the church. The pharisaical Jews in the days of Christ made up all sorts of rules and regulations that had no basis whatsoever in God’s word. Their arbitrary laws were silly and burdensome. “For example, they made rules as to what dishes should be washed in running water and what dishes should be washed in standing water.” They made rules regarding how many steps could be taken on the Sabbath. They required all sorts of ritual washings of hands, posts and dishes. They made rules regarding where to wash pots that had meat and dishes that had had milk products. The Talmud contains many such regulations.

The Pharisaical perversion of ethics and worship with man-made regulations also corrupted their theology. They abandoned sola Scriptura (cf. Dt. 4:2; Pr. 30:5-6; Josh. 1:7-8) and developed the idea of an authoritative unwritten tradition that functioned as a coequal authority to written revelation. (They believed that when Moses received the written revelation on Mt. Sinai, he also received a very lengthy unwritten [oral] revelation. This oral revelation was then supposedly passed down to Joshua, the seventy elders, the prophets and the great rabbinic teachers generationally until it was committed to writing in the Talmud.) This supposed co-equal authority was used to interpret the written revelation and thus became more important to the Jews than the Bible itself. Their traditions overturned (i.e., made null and void) the teaching of Scripture and were used as a tool to manipulate and oppress the people. Therefore, Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?” (Mt. 15:3); and, “And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mt. 15:9).

Roman Catholic churchmen also deny people liberty by imposing all sorts of human innovations in worship as well as a multitude of man-made rules and regulations. The following Romanist doctrines and practices cannot be proven from the Bible: the sign of the cross; the sacrifice of the Mass; the celibacy of the priesthood; confession to a priest; the immaculate conception and perpetual virginity of Mary; prayer and adoration to Mary and the saints, special relics and places; fasting before Mass; pilgrimages; monks and monasteries; nuns and nunneries; the papacy; a hierarchy of Cardinals, archbishops and bishops; transubstantiation; justification by an infused righteousness; purgatory; indulgences; baptismal regeneration; the use of crucifixes, statues, pictures of Christ and other idols in worship; the supposed sacredness of blessed cathedrals; the priestly garments; the religious use of incense; the liturgical calendar; the religious use of choirs and musical instruments; the celebration of Christmas; holy water; genuflecting before the crucifix; kneeling to receive the hosts; extreme unction; all the sacraments except baptism and the Lord’s supper; the exorcism ritual; papal infallibility; canon law; the placing of the apocrypha in the canon of Scripture and many other such things.

Like the Pharisees before them, the Romanists justified their human traditions, their non-authorized additions to the Bible by positing a second source of authority along side of Scripture. The Council of Trent says: “Seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions” (4th Sess.; 1546; see also the Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, 8; 1962-1965; and The Catechism of the Catholic Church [New York: Doubleday, 1994], p. 31). In both Judaism and Romanism, human tradition as a source of authority has been used to render the teaching of Scripture null and void. Therefore, both religions are apostate, heretical, superstitious and demonic.

Anglicans and Lutherans also impose many human traditions upon congregants without biblical authorization. The reason for man-made worship practices in these churches is that both give clergy, through their creeds, autonomous authority to decree rites and ceremonies (e.g., see the 20th and 34th articles in the 39 articles of the church of England; also read Article 7, Of the Church in the Augsburg Confession and Article 10, Of Ecclesiastical Ceremonies in The Formula of Concord). Such an authority gives the leadership arbitrary power over other men and thus has led and will always lead to ecclesiastical tyranny. Further, when men participate in these invented, humanistic practices, they are not honoring God who never devised such things (Jn. 7:31; cf. Dt. 12:32) but rather are paying a religious homage to man. The Bible calls all such rituals will worship (Col. 2:23 AV) and vain worship (Mt. 15:9). Man-made rituals, popish and medieval superstitions and all such human devices, Paul says do not lead to sanctification (Col. 2:23; cf. Jn. 17:17).

This sinful lust for autonomous power in worship and arbitrary humanistic control over other men is not limited to ritualistic churches. Modern evangelicals also love to rob men of the liberty they have in Christ from man-made worship, rules and regulations. The whole modern church growth movement is predicated upon the idea that men can manipulate the ordinances and content of the worship service at will to please the unchurched. Thus, if plays, skits, comedians, Christmas pageants, rock videos, musical soloists and pop-psychology style sermons bring people in, then by all means biblical worship must be cast aside. The source of authority in such a scheme is not the Bible alone but rather the “Bible a little” or the “Scriptures sort of”, plus autonomous ideas of sinful men. Such worship in principle is no different than the ritualism of Rome. Both give church officers an authority independent of Scripture. Both ultimately flow from a human philosophy of pragmatism (i.e., whatever we think will work, ought to be done). Both forms of worship are syncretistic. That is, they both are combinations of Christianity with paganism. Roman Catholicism was forged in the syncretistic atmosphere of the middle ages and thus is full of the mysticism and high church paraphernalia that impressed fourteenth century illiterate peasants. Modern evangelicalism was largely forged in the contemporary American culture where success, pragmatism, entertainment, bigness and crassness are king. Thus present-day evangelical worship often has more in common with the Johnny Carson show or a rock concert than the worship authorized by God in the Bible. Both are humanistic in that both pay homage to man (i.e., man’s wisdom, man’s inventions, man’s devices, man’s imagination) in worship rather than solely to God. Both lead to the corruption of biblical doctrine. Roman Catholicism’s worship of man is intimately connected to their satanic scheme of salvation by faith plus human works or merit. The will worship of evangelicals is also intimately connected to their synergistic free will understanding of salvation.

The biblical and historical pattern is quite clear. Liturgical autonomy and chaos lead to or are connected with doctrinal and ethical chaos. If men think they can arbitrarily add to or detract from the worship that God has instituted in His word because they like their own inventions or want to please nominal Christians and unbelievers then why not change the doctrine also? This scenario has already happened to some degree in mainline, liberal Protestant denominations which adhere to a different doctrine every decade depending on what the latest secular philosopher says or the latest theological fad. Similar serious declension is also common among evangelicals where counseling, teaching and preaching are saturated with pop-psychology, self-esteem nonsense, business models of leadership, sociological theories of church growth, hedonistic Hollywood self-worship garbage and crass entertainment.

Reformed churches are also certainly not immune from violating Christian liberty. Many have been influenced by high church sacramentalist views of worship (e.g., David Chilton, James Jordon, Steve Wilkins) and have embraced the liturgical calendar, the idea of holy, special places of worship like cathedrals, the use of the sign of the cross, paedocommunion and so forth. Such people hate the regulative principle of worship because it severely limits their ability to impose their human inventions upon other believers. A number of professing Reformed believers have been led back to the apostate papal church and the Eastern Orthodox church by the writings of and influence of these dangerous heterodox teachers.

Other “Reformed” leaders and pastors (e.g., John Frame) have embraced Arminian-Charismatic so-called celebrative worship. Most men who advocate the new worship forms and content do not openly reject sola Scriptura in the sphere of worship, they merely redefine it in order to render it meaningless.

Unwarranted intrusions not only affect worship but also church government. Many evangelical pastors and even a number of Reformed pastors and elders govern the church as if they have an arbitrary authority that is independent of Scripture. Therefore, denominations set up all sorts of unauthorized bureaucratic organizations that have no connection with Scripture whatsoever: women’s presbyterials; youth groups and youth pastors; women’s missionary fellowships; Sunday school organizations; lay congregational leaders; mission boards and so forth. Often participation in such groups is either explicitly or implicitly mandatory. In other words, pressure is put on people to conform to things not taught or authorized by Scripture. Such organizations and the pressure to support them is clearly a violation of Christian liberty. People have even been persecuted for not placing their children in the so-called youth group even though youth groups are a very recent innovation in church history. Further, it is quite common today to see conservative presbyterian sessions, presbyteries and synods base disciplinary decisions upon pragmatism instead of biblical justice. In other words, men will base their decision not directly on biblical principles but upon what they think will be best for the church. Thus, people are denied biblical justice in the name of peace or compassion or love or fairness or church growth or money.

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