Can you imagine killing one of your family members, maybe your brother or sister? I know we all fight with our siblings and parents from time to time. But can you imagine actually raising your hand to kill someone close to you? For Christians this is a horrible thought. We know all the commands to love our family members. We know that he who does not care for his own household is worse than an unbeliever (I Timothy 5:8). We know that the Bible tells us that part of the gospel is to turn fathers to children and children to fathers (Malachi 4:6). And yet despite all of this Biblical teaching we have these verses in Deuteronomy 13:
If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him. Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. And all Israel shall hear and fear and never again do any such wickedness as this among you (Deu 13:6-11).
An Israelite who led another Israelite away from God was not to be spared. It did not matter how close the relationship was. They could be your closest friend. They could be a sibling or a spouse. They could be a parent or grandparent. Notice the phrase, “You shall kill him.” Not only was that false teacher and apostate to be killed, the family member was to initiate the stoning. There are several things worth noting in this passage.
Our loyalty to God trumps all other loyalties. It does not matter how close they to you. It does not matter how thick your bloodlines are. Love for God is supreme. This is part of the reason the family member had to cast the first stone. Jesus said the same thing.
For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me (Mat 10:35-37).
In addition to loyalty to God, the passage also indicates that the purity of God’s people trumps our feelings about someone. No matter how much we love someone, we should not allow them to draw people away from God and hurt his covenant people.
It shows the seriousness of idolatry. The family member in our passage is not just encouraging sin. He is encouraging a particular type of sin: idol worship. Idol worship is rarely the rejection of God. It is usually the idea that we can worship God alongside someone or something else. The most obvious offender today is a professing Christian who believes that all religions led to heaven. Also a professing Christian who believes that sexual sins are not really sins at all. But there are more subtle forms of idolatry where Jesus is mixed with money or power or America or family. Idol worship was a capital offense in Israel.
When idol worship is dealt with God’s people learn to fear Him. Our temptation is to treat false teaching with kid gloves. We do not want to come off as unloving. We do not want to overreact. Yet God is clear. When sin of this magnitude is dealt with swiftly by God’s people, it draws his people nearer to him.
But How Does this Work Today?
It is easy to ignore a passage like this. We read it and cannot see how it fits our modern age. We don’t kill idol worshipers any more. Many are not even sure what constitutes idol worship today. We read and casually move on. But all Scripture was given for our admonition and instruction (Romans 15:4, II Timothy 3:16).
The key to interpreting a passage like this is to find the basic principles at work and apply them to our lives. What we have in this passage is an Israelite, a member of God’s people, secretly, not openly, enticing another Israelite to leave God altogether or at the very least put God in with a bunch of other gods. When that happens the Israelite being enticed should expose that person, no matter how close their relationship, so they can be disciplined and Israel purified.
Put in a modern context here is how it would work. The point here is not non-Christian family members. This is about professing Christians, in particular those in your church. The purpose is to keep the people of God pure from false teaching, in particular false teaching that is deep and corrupts our view of God and leads people away from God. So when a church member secretly, as in at a small group study, over dinner, after church in the parking lot, or in a private chat room, knowingly encourages people to abandon orthodoxy you should let your church leaders know. It does not matter how close a friend that person is. The elders should then confront that person about their false teaching. If it is true and they refuse to turn from it the slow process of excommunication should begin
There are some folks out there who would get the wrong end of the stick and run to the elders with anything they disagree. “Hey, I heard Mrs. Smith say she thought Jepthah sacrificed his daughter. He clearly didn’t. You need to rebuke her.” What should you go to elders with? Here are some questions to ask. First, is the person knowingly promoting the teaching? It is clear in the Deuteronomy passage above that the person is leading others away. They are not unwittingly buying into a lie. They are not simply misinformed or immature in their thinking.
Second, would the doctrine the person is promoting lead to heresy. Any doctrine that messes with Jesus, the Trinity, God as our Father, salvation by grace through faith alone, the Bible as our final authority, the doctrine of the resurrection, etc. has the potential to become heretical. Heresy is a belief that puts someone outside the faith. There are not very many of these. But if you heard a woman in the parking lot encouraging her friend to pray to “Our Mother” then you would probably want to investigate that. Or if you heard a close friend say, “There are other ways to God besides trusting in Jesus.” Or “I am looking into the idea that Jesus will not return. Maybe all the prophecies were fulfilled at the destruction of Jerusalem.”
Third, this also applies to a person who is promoting practical heresy. Here the question to ask is, “Would this action if promoted and encouraged, put someone outside the faith?” The most obvious example in our culture is sexual sin. A professing believer who secretly promotes sexual sin, such as sodomy, fornication, adultery, or pornography should be outed. I have a married professing Christian friend who believes that pornography is a good outlet for his sexual desires. He doesn’t just struggle with porn. He believes it is a good thing. If you hear someone talking like that you should let the elders know. But there are other sins as well, such as theft, which would do the same thing. If you hear of a friend who thinks it is funny to lie about his overtime the elders should know. If you hear a fellow church member talking about getting drunk on a regular basis you should let the elders know. Sins like adultery, sodomy, theft, and drunkenness keep people out of the kingdom and they hurt the church body (I Cor. 6:9-10).
The point of the Deuteronomy 13 is that no matter how close someone is to you, if they are leading you away from God they need to be exposed. This passage does not apply to people outside the church, though of course we need to be careful of their influence. Nor does Deuteronomy 13 apply to most differences and disagreements in our churches. Most differences do not rise to the level of orthodoxy. But some do. These can be teachings that corrupt the basics of the faith or actions that will lead people to Hell. When you hear a fellow Christian at your church secretly promoting either a doctrine or a practice that is unorthodox you should let your leaders know even if they are your closest friend.