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In the Gates

The Appeal of Paganism

Abiding Principles from the Ceremonial Laws: Worshiping God (2)


Believers must take care to keep their worship free of pagan influence and practice.

When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? – that I may do the same.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way…” Deuteronomy 12.29-31

In its most basic form, “paganism” refers to the worship of anything other than the one true God. The Apostle Paul explained that people who do not worship God will worship some form of a creature, something they have chosen to invest with ultimate significance, and toward which they bend their most earnest devotion and strength (Rom. 1.18ff). The question is not whether unbelievers worship, but what they worship. Being made in the image of God, human beings look toward transcendent realities – things or experiences beyond their present grasp, but which they imagine and hope to attain – as an organizing principle for their lives.

Ancient Israel was surrounded on three sides by pagan peoples. These peoples shared some deities in common, while they held on to others which seemed to them more important, depending on their geography, history, and needs. All these false gods required various forms of devotion which were conducted at various places and according to certain protocols and procedures. Undoubtedly the strangeness, or perhaps even the beauty or mystery, of these practices would have attracted the attention of the people of God from time to time. Other, more “practical” reasons for adopting, or at least, tolerating, pagan practices may also have been present (cf. 1 Kgs. 11.1-8). It may even have seemed, to some Israelites, that these pagan practices “worked” to a certain extent. After all, did they not, in dispossessing the pagan peoples, acquire riches in the form of herds and fields and fortified cities? Had not the gods of these pagan peoples provided for them, at least up to the time of Israel’s invasion of the promised land?

The appeal of paganism – whether spiritual, aesthetic, or pragmatic – continued to confront Israel. Thus God commanded His people to “take care” that lest they should fall to the allure of paganism and begin to adopt or incorporate any of their practices into the worship of God. The verb here is intensive, and its focus is on the people of Israel, on what’s going on in them: “cause to guard yourselves!” The desire to embrace pagan ways can appear to have spiritual value: “guard yourselves!” Pagan worship has certain aesthetic appeal: “guard yourselves!” Surely some practical benefit can accrue to us vis à vis our pagan neighbors if we simply adapt our ways to theirs a bit: “guard yourselves!”

There is no acceptable reason before God for embracing any aspects of pagan worship and bringing them into the worship of the living God.

For a fuller study of the pattern of worship revealed in Scripture, order the book, The Highest Thing, by T. M. Moore, from our online store. These studies and brief essays will help you to see how the pattern of sound worship, which began in the Law of God, comes to complete expression in the rest of Scripture. Pastors, we’re getting ready to start the next season of The Pastors’ Fellowship. Write to me today at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for information about how you join in these online discussions. Our theme for the coming series is “The Worldview of God’s Law.” There is no charge for participation, but you must reserve a place for these monthly gatherings. Subscribe to Crosfigell, the devotional newsletter of The Fellowship of Ailbe.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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