Gimme That Old Time Interfaith Religion

God is no fan of religious syncretism and idolatry:

Most modern westerners want nothing to do with religion, but if they must have it, they much prefer syncretistic religion. They are happy to say all religions are the same, all religions lead to God, and we can pick and choose those bits from all religions that we happen to fancy.

So they do not mind healthy doses of interfaith dialogue, and things like Chrislam. As to the former, see the 73 articles so far written on it here:

As to the latter, see this for starters:

No Christian who actually reads the Bible will ever be lulled to sleep by these false moves at religious peace and harmony. While we do want to get along with our non-Christian neighbours, that does NOT mean we should want to jump into bed with them, religiously speaking.

Just a few obvious passages – out of many – can be mentioned here to show that the one, true living God brooks no rivals, will not share his throne with another, and does not favour ecumenical shindigs that are little more than acts of idolatrous rebellions:

“You shall have no other gods before me.” Exodus 20:3

“I am the Lord; that is my name;
    my glory I give to no other,
    nor my praise to carved idols.” Isaiah 42:8

“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’.” John 14:6

“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” Acts 17:16

But since I am going through the Old Testament book of Numbers again, let me look briefly at a pretty strong text when it comes to things like religious syncretism and the like. It makes it quite clear what God thinks about these sorts of things. The first nine verses of Numbers 25 discuss Baal worship at Peor:

While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. And the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.” And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.

And the last nine verses speak of the zeal of Phinehas:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.’” The name of the slain man of Israel, who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, chief of a father’s house belonging to the Simeonites. And the name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was the tribal head of a father’s house in Midian. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Harass the Midianites and strike them down, for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the chief of Midian, their sister, who was killed on the day of the plague on account of Peor.”

Some obvious caveats

This is all pretty strong stuff so I must first state the obvious. I am of course not calling for idolaters and religious syncretists to meet a dire end as did these Israelites. The truth is, some things stay the same between the Testaments while some other things do not. The character of God is of course a constant. His holiness is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. His hatred of sin and idolatry will ever remain, as all of Scripture makes clear.

But the idea of capital punishment for any number of Old Testament crimes is another matter. I happen to think that utilising the death penalty today for things like murder is appropriate. However, here we had things like idolatry also meriting death.

While some Christians today (eg., theonomists) think the civil laws and penalties for ancient Israel apply to us today, most believers, including most in the Reformed camp, do not. That idolatry and the like is a serious sin is not in question. But whether secular governments today should be putting people to death for this sin is quite another matter.

But as always, we must take the spirit of the matter into consideration. It is quite clear that God is no fan of idolatry, idols, or religious syncretism. We should not be either. A bit of commentary on Numbers 25 can help to demonstrate this.

Image of Leviticus, Numbers (The NIV Application Commentary)
Leviticus, Numbers (The NIV Application Commentary) by Gane, Roy (Author) Amazon logo

Roy Gane, like most commentators, reminds us of the importance of this story following on from the attempt of Balak to get Balaam to curse Israel in the three preceding chapters. He writes:

Balak and Balaam utterly failed to derail God’s people through a sophisticated and esoteric strategy of cursing (Num. 22-24), but the cow of idolatry succeeded because the way to a man’s heart has always been through his eyes and his stomach. The fact that apparently unattached women just happened to get close enough to the Israelite encampment to make their charms known and then invited the Israelites to their cultic banquet (25:1-3) betrays a strategy of seduction, employing allurements of sex and food (cf. 25:18).


Unfortunately, Balaam’s mission of perdition did not die with him. Peter refers to this prophet for profit as a paradigm of later false teachers who are immoral and greedy: “They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness” (2 Peter 2:15). In the Apocalypse, a letter to the Christian church at Pergamum includes the words: “Nevertheless, | have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality” (Rev. 2:14).”


When it comes to the deceptive inroads of apostasy into the church, Christians may need to face corporate conflicts head-on. Like the proactive priest of Numbers 25, Jesus demonstrated this. When he drove out those engaged in business at the courts of the temple, “his disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17). The rest of the verse from the psalm cited here reads, “and the insults of those who insult you fall on me” (Ps. 69:9). Like zealous Phinehas, Christ identified with God to the extent that there was no difference between defending the honor of God and that of himself.


When God’s people are in imminent danger of losing their connection with him, it may take the swift, accurately focused, decisive leadership of a faithful and wise (not fanatical and unbalanced) person to “spearhead” a defense. We are not living under a theocracy that metes out capital punishment, so a modern “Phinehas” must make his or her point verbally rather than with a spear. But there may be occasions that call for removing flagrant sinners from membership in the church so that the Lord’s honor, people, and work can be preserved (e.g., 1 Cor. 5).

And Iain Duguid says there are three lessons here for us:

In the first place, it shows us that sin is never a private thing. In our society we have elevated privacy into a fundamental human right, and most people regard consenting sexual relationships between otherwise uncommitted adults either as normal and appropriate or at least as no one’s business except those personally involved. Yet, in this case the sins of these particular individuals had ramifications for their whole families, and indeed for the whole covenant community. Sin is never a private matter: our sin affects other people, directly and indirectly.


Having said that, though, we also need to be clear that the primary issue in this story is not sex, but idolatry. The sex may lead to the idolatry, which is why intermarriage with the nations around them was forbidden to Israelites. However, the sin that resulted in the death penalty for so many people in Israel was not sexual immorality – it was idolatry. Israel’s abandonment of the true and living God was the crime that merited their death….

He continues:

The second thing that this chapter reminds us is, as we have seen so many times in the book of Numbers, that the wages of sin is death. In Israel’s experience this fact was literally true for the Simeonite and the Midianite woman. Their sin resulted in their death, just as the wider sin of the people resulted in the deaths of 24,000 people. Those who failed to believe in the wrath of God had its reality graphically demonstrated in front of their eyes. Their personal experience should also serve as a graphic picture to impress upon us this same spiritual truth.


Why do we need this truth repeated so often and so vividly? The answer is because the doctrine of the judgment of God is one of the fundamental target of the devil’s assault. He began to question it right away in the Garden of Eden when he said to Eve, “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4)….

And lastly:

Third, this passage reminds us that discipline pursued out of a passionate zeal for God’s honor is vital to the spiritual health of the community. When Moses and the other leaders in the community failed to act, the judgment on the people of God was profound. Only when one young man stood up and acted to do what the Lord had said and to remove the blight from the community was there a change in the people’s fortunes. It is important to note that Phinehas was not acting as a private citizen in executing God’s judgment. There is no support here for independent action against anyone we may believe to have offended God. There is no warrant in this passage for bombing abortion clinics or shooting evil men. As the son of Eleazar, Phinehas was in charge of the Levites who were responsible for guarding the sanctuary against defilement (1 Chronicles 9:20; Numbers 3:32). Taking action to defend the sanctity of the camp was thus part of his job description, and he fulfilled his duties faithfully as an officer of the people of God in dealing with this particular abomination.

These are important and sobering truths that we dare not shy away from.

[1987 words]

10 Replies to “Gimme That Old Time Interfaith Religion”

  1. ISV Prov 26:2
    Like a fluttering sparrow or a swallow in flight, a curse without cause will not alight.

    Indeed, the Balaam saga is a powerful illustration of how to ‘curse’ a people without cursing them.
    Enticing them into behaviour that is cursed will do an even better job, and breaks the Divine protection contingent upon ‘without a cause’.

    It worries and sickens me when I see the religious compromise within the church and society. There is just so much syncretism that is unrecognised by church goers, and Bible readers, that it is scary; and we ourselves have to be ready for God to show us where we might still be trapped by what we do not understand or see, what we have hidden in our own hearts.

    I say, “what we have hidden in our own hearts”, for there is the principle of following our conscience “whatever is not of faith is sin”. The Balaam issue was not so much about innocent ignorance but of giving ones-self to that which is known and understood to be unacceptable, or of being careless about a questionable issue.

    Phinehas, as is said in the quote had ‘zeal’, and while he had zeal for the nation, everybody should have that zeal about their own behaviour.

  2. I wonder if it is consistent, to advocate capital punishment for murder but not for the other crimes described in the OT. It may be that the theonomists’ arguments should be properly refuted (if possible) rather than just dismissed. The argument against capital punishment – for any crime – that impresses me most is that we are unfit to have it.

  3. Thanks John. But three brief things in reply:

    1. Those who want all the punishments for capital crimes that were part of Israel’s civil law are free to make their case for doing so. And theonomists of course have done just that, so see their works if you want more.

    2. This post of course was NOT about capital punishment nor theonomy, so I was not ‘dismissing’ anything. I simply mentioned this matter in passing. An introductory piece on the Christian reconstructionists can be found here:

    3. And I have made the case for the death penalty for certain crimes in great detail elsewhere. See these 26 articles for example:

  4. Here’s the problem that I have with your article, Bill: Conservative interfaith collaboration does exist and in some vital areas, it is thriving. In the United Kingdom, the Society for Protection of Unborn Children, that country’s largest and oldest pro-life group, there’s a thriving Muslim Division that enlists that faith to fight alongside Christians for the rights of the unborn child. In Canada, conservative Muslims and Sikhs have collaborated with conservative Christians against the introduction of same-sex marriage and transgender presence in schools.

    In today’s multicultural and multifaith western societies, we need to be pragmatic. First generation immigrants are often social conservatives. They can be excellent allies because they are worried that their historic religious and cultural values are being eroded by corrosive western social liberalism. Interfaith collaboration need not lead to syncretism, but the reinforcement of shared conservative social values that to some extent, we hold in common.

  5. Thanks Rhona. But as often happens with your comments, you can completely miss the point of my piece, and move on to something quite different, thus confusing and conflating various issues. What you are talking about is known as co-belligerency. It is about working with others on some limited objectives. As I have said over and over again, yes, I favour that. I have written often on that. Yes, I will stand with an atheist or a Muslim at a pro-family rally for example. And since you mentioned that you like Francis Schaeffer in an earlier comment, then you should know what he said about such things. See this piece for example for more detail:

    In it he said this: “A co-belligerent is a person who may not have any sufficient basis for taking the right position but takes the right position on a single issue. And I can join with him without any danger as long as I realize that he is not an ally and all we’re talking about is a single issue.”

    However, what this article is discussing has nothing to do with co-belligerency. It is about the uniqueness of the Chrisian gospel, and how it radically differs from other world religions. As I said clearly in the piece, it is about refuting the bogus and non-Christian claims that all religions are the same, that all roads lead to God, and that we can freely worship false gods and idols. That is religious syncretism and interfaith recklessness that no biblical Christian can take part in.

  6. Thanks once again for a very insightful and sobering article Bill. It serves to bring us back to what it really means to be a follower of Christ. Interestingly, I have just finished reading ” “Gospel Truth, Pagan Lies” by Peter Jones, which contrasts 5 points of monism (the pagan lies) with The Gospel truth. We are certainly living in very challenging times. Thank you for your continued commitment to biblical truth.

  7. I’m glad you clarified that, Bill. However, some people appear to confuse syncretism with allowing religious freedom. Recently, overt here in New Zealand, we experienced an horrific terrorist attack on two Christchurch mosques nearly five years ago now. Fifty one innocent people died in their place of worship. While most Christians across the spectrum of belief, including evangelical believers and leaders, expressed their horror at what had happened and their deep condolences to the Christchurch and New Zealand Muslim communities, there was a quite unpleasant outburst from some of the more extreme Pentecostal churches.

    What does it cost us to express compassion, mercy and civility at such tragic times? Nothing at all- in fact, it is what we are enjoined to do as Christians. It doesn’t mean that we are accepting the legitimacy of Muslim religious beliefs within our own personal lives, but engaging in pastoral care toward those others. Nor do my Muslim friends want me to, or expect me to.

    No doubt some people will refer to the plight of some Christians in Muslim majority nations. Yes, of course we should take heed of their situations, but let us not assume that there aren’t good and civil Muslims out there who are horrified and disgusted at the abuse of their faith to condone persecution, tyranny and violence. And let us not assume that there are not Christians who have engaged in similarly shameful travesties of our own holy teachings to condone analogous persecution, tyranny and violence against Muslims. The former Yugoslavia comes to mind, and so does communal violence in Nigeria- because yes, sometimes our own coreligionists have behaved in a sub-christian manner (although some Muslim friends tell me that they’re equally disappointed in their coreligionists behaviour in the same country).

  8. Thanks Rhona. But I am afraid you have done it again! While the issues you raise may be important, they are not germane to my original topic, and so they end up confusing and conflating matters. What was this post about? I would have thought it was clear: it was about what God and Scripture say about idolatry, false religions, false gods, and how we break the very first commandment if we seek in any way to promote these things. As I clearly stated, yes we try to get along with our non-Christian neighbours, but never at the expense of falling into idolatrous worship of false religions. From Genesis to Revelation that message is crystal clear, and we need to affirm it as well.

    Nowhere in my piece – or in any of the 6500 pieces found here – have I said we should not champion religious freedom, that we should use violence against others, or that all Muslims are terrorists, etc. But again, those things were NOT what my article was about.

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