“Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” – 1 Jn 5:21
Reading the prophetic books of the Old Testament for the first time, I was almost a bit annoyed by the constant warnings against idolatry. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and others constantly bring up how bad idolatry is and how silly idol-worshippers are, bowing down for statues they themselves have made.
I was like, yeah yeah, I get it. Idols are bad, move on please. I thought that not worshipping other gods than God was lesson one of Christianity, the most fundamental ethic of them all, and so constantly repeating it throughout Scripture felt unnecessary. In my view it was as if the driving instructor would constantly remind you to sit behind the wheel when driving an electric car.
Others must have felt the same way, because when the topic of idolatry came up in my church, people started to forcingly convince themselves that they were idolaters somehow. We’ve all stolen, been jealous or murdered sometime, at least if you define the latter as being angry which Jesus seems to do in Mt 5, and so to make sure that idolatry wasn’t something we could just say that we happily avoid, our youth pastor told us that an idol is “everything that you put higher than God”. It could be money, sex, power or Pokèmon. And you didn’t have to worship it, just immerse yourself into it.
This view of idolatry isn’t without complete merit, Paul clearly equated idolatry with immersing oneself with other sins in Ephesians 5: “No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” (Eph 5:5). And the consumerism or patriotism of the Western world can be described as civil religions that are idolatrous: consumerism has malls as temples, advertisements as idol images and fashion as rituals; patriotism has constitutions as holy texts, flags as holy symbols and commitment to the military as human sacrifice.
Yet, this can easily be exaggerated. One of the worst examples I’ve seen was when a pastor was writing on Facebook that he watched a lot on a TV series of some sorts, then suddenly exclaiming “I am an idolater!!!” It was ironic of course, but it really showed how weird it is to equate spending lots of time doing something, to actually worshipping a god.
Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely distractions that we should avoid. In fact, wealth overall, and all the cars and TV shows and big houses it brings, is something Jesus warns us for, saying that it is opposed to God (Mt 6:24) and that it chokes what God wants to do in us (Mt 13:22).
But there’s no need to hastily call everything that isn’t sound for our spiritual life idolatry, when there is actual, real idolatry all over our societies, including in many churches. Within the liberal mainline denominations, idol worship pops up everywhere. In the Church of Sweden, where I was saved ten years ago, priests invite reiki healers, buddhists and hindus, psychics, Muslim imams and many others to “teach” and “guide” their flock about spirituality.
You know what Hosea would have said about that? “Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God. A spirit of prostitution is in their heart; they do not acknowledge the Lord” (Hos 5:4).
What’s even more insane is that many of these liberal Christians who do practice real, idol-worshipping idolatry, at the same time talk about idolatry as this figurative practice of spending to much time watching movies or playing baseball. It’s like if a person argues that meat-eating and the dairy industry are the new forms of slavery, while owning and abusing a real, human slave.
We don’t need to invent new definitions of idolatry when people, even so-called Christians, are practicing the same old-fashioned idolatry that the Bible condemns over and over again. See, that’s the reason God wanted the Scriptures to constantly remind us of this sin. Even if it should be the most basic thing, His children still need to be aware of that worshipping idols really is a terrible idea.
N.T. Wright says the three great gods of modernity are Money, Sex, and Power. They used to go by names such as Mammon, Aphrodite, and Mars (among others), but they are all three still alive and influential in the modern West. In recent times, he has amended the list with a forth – the neo paganism(s) of Nature etc…
In my worldview, idolatry is pretty much at root of all sin. We were meant to bare the image of God, not worship other images. And worship is all about assigning value to objects. Some worship is ecstatic and Charismatic; some worship is mundane. You make love with your lover worshiping – assigning value to her body and to the feelings of joy you can induce in it – and that is extremely ecstatic. On the other hand, you work at a grocery store walking down the bread aisle with a price gun assigning value to each unit – a very mundane form of worship.
When you find your worship is mis-assigning value, according higher value to lesser things than is warranted in God’s creation, you are distorting the worship and the creation and elevating things (and yourself) above God. You are missing the mark – the definition of sin. And the things you mis-assign that value are idols. And the mis-assigned value is your idol worship.
That’s the way I see it.