On Idolatry

In the Judeo-Christian scheme of things, idolatry is perhaps the defining sin against the one true God. An idol is anything that we dedicate ourselves to, and centre our lives around. It is a substitute for the true God. There are perhaps as many false gods as there are people. Whatever a person sets his heart upon in exclusive loyalty, that becomes his god.

In the Old Testament false gods and graven images went hand in hand. It was pretty clear when people were not worshipping Yahweh, but instead were following after idols. These were often wooden or stone objects which people actually bowed down to.

Today we are a bit more sophisticated, but we are no less idolatrous. Instead of a wooden statue, today we worship all sorts of other false gods: work, wealth, comfort, sex, power, material things, fame, looks, prestige, self-esteem, and so on. We are just as determined to chase after false gods which will ultimately fail to satisfy.

Atheists and other god-deniers are clear examples of idolaters. They reject the God of the universe, and choose to instead worship themselves, their own intellect, their own abilities, and their own values. Self becomes enthroned, while the real God is dethroned. They tell God that they will call the shots, not him.

We are, as C.S. Lewis wrote, rebels who need to lay down our arms. We need to see that we are at enmity with the God of the universe, and that we need to raise the white flag of surrender before any ceasefire can be arranged, and reconciliation talks can begin.

As Lewis once said in an interview, speaking of his own conversion from atheism to Christianity, it was as if “I heard God saying, ‘Put down your gun and we’ll talk’.” Peace talks cannot begin until we come to the table with open hands, with weapons surrendered.

Our job as believers is to persuade unbelievers that the hostilities must cease, not from God’s side, but from our side. The church is here to represent the king of the universe, and to retake territory from the other side. As Lewis said in Mere Christianity:

“This universe is at war. It is a civil war, a rebellion, and … we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel. Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”

Our job as believers is to be iconoclasts. We are to shatter the false images of God which abound, and point men and women to the only true God. We are to challenge every false god and every false belief, and lead people to a saving knowledge of the living God.

As Vincent Miceli in The Gods of Atheism said, “Moses failed to write the following commandment: ‘Thou shall not be an atheist.’ Instead his first commandment read: ‘I am the Lord thy God . . . Thou shalt not have strange gods before me.’ It was as if Moses had written: ‘Atheists are not godless men; they are men addicted to false gods.’ Thus, the battle of love to which the Christian is honourably called today is the struggle to liberate his atheist neighbours from enthrallment to false gods and to help these neighbours find the True God.”

Christian atheism

Christians should be the very opposite to idolatrous non-believers of course. We have acknowledged our need, recognised that we are creatures who have spurned our creator, that we have no ability to save ourselves, and that we desperately need the grace of God to set us free from the orbit of self, and to get us back on track with God.

But sadly Christians can effectively live as any atheist can. We can end up living for self as much as any non-believer. We can create all sorts of false gods which we dedicate ourselves to. Even good things, religious things, can become idols for the believer.

This should come as no surprise. God’s people have always had to fight the tendency to revert to idolatry and the pursuit of other gods. Israel had a recurrent problem with this. Even though enjoying a close covenantal relationship with Yahweh, Israel was constantly prone to turn from the living God to dead and useless idols.

The very first Commandment of course made clear that this was not to be: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3; Deut. 5:6-7). And the second commandment forbids the creation of idols (Ex. 20:4-6; Deut. 6:8-10).

These two commandments underlay, and are the basis of, all the other commandments. Yet Israel would ignore them continuously. Just after the Exodus, the Israelites quickly embarked upon the manufacture of idols. The golden calf episode of Ex. 32 is simply the first of many such occasions.

It took the tragedy of exile some 900 years later to finally cure Israel of the sin of idolatry. But the New Testament writers also warn us about idolatry, often using Israel as an example. And in both testaments a common way of describing idolatry is in terms of adultery and marital/sexual unfaithfulness. Political treason is another image often used.

Australian theologian Brian Rosner remarks, “Although it is difficult to reduce biblical teaching on idolatry to a simple formula, one element common to both models, the marital and the political, is worth noting. In both cases the notion of exclusivity is central: in one the exclusive claims of a husband to his wife’s love and affection; in the other the exclusive claims of a sovereign to protect and provide for his subjects and receive their trust and obedience in return. Thus idolatry is an attack on God’s exclusive rights to our love, trust and obedience.”

Or as Michael Horton puts it in his book on the Ten Commandments, God “is indeed an exclusivist. . . . That means that God will never share the stage. He refuses to simply be a part of our life; He must have a full and complete right to our whole life and existence.”

Far too many Christians however are satisfied to give God just part of their life. But this will just not do. God settles for nothing less than exclusive devotion and dedication. This is not so hard to understand. No genuine spouse will tolerate the occasional dalliance of his or her partner. There is no such thing as a little bit of adultery, or being mostly faithful.

A husband or wife will expect complete and exclusive loyalty from the spouse. God is no different. As Jewish writer David Klinghoffer says in his treatment of the Ten Commandments, Shattered Tablets:

“The word jealous, which the Bible uses in speaking of God only when the context is idolatry, sums it all up. Where there is no possessiveness, there is no love. What wife would be pleased if her husband could never be moved to jealousy, no matter how forwardly she might flirt with other men? God doesn’t actually feel jealous anger – being perfect and unchanging. He is above being moved by human actions, but he does act in response to polytheistic provocations in a way that reminds us of the spouse consumed with passionate possessiveness. This is the one sin for which God has no tolerance whatsoever.”

If I would have told my wife at our wedding that I would be more or less faithful, and would basically remain true, she likely would have called off the wedding. Yet how often do we Christians treat our Lord in similar fashion? We come to him in brokenness and repentance, but soon the honeymoon wears off, and we tend to go back to our old ways.

This is simply idolatry, and it must be ruthlessly weeded out. It will only consume us if we do not take action. As Robert Spender notes, God’s instructions to us is to “destroy idolatry, or be destroyed by it”. God knows that if we live double-minded lives with divided loyalties, we will not only display our rebellion to Him, but we will harm ourselves as well.

God is too committed to us to allow this to keep happening. If we do not remain vigilant against the idols in our lives, God will step in and do the work of iconoclasm for us. It is a great mercy that he does so. He loves us too much to leave us in our waywardness. So let us commit to working together with God to make him the supreme and sole loyalty in our lives. Anything less will render us indistinguishable from our unbelieving friends.

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13 Replies to “On Idolatry”

  1. And socialists and Marxists are idolaters too: their god is the state. As I used to say when Gough Whiltlam was around, the new religion is “Praise Gough from whom all blessings flow.” It’s still the same, “praise the State from whom all blessings flow.” That is both the doxology and creed of Socialism, and that is why a consistent Christian cannot be a socialist.
    Murray Adamthwaite

  2. I have a very simple definition for idolatry, stemming from the basic question: what is an idol for?

    It is for giving answers which we expect, in place of answers from God.

    So mis-reading the Word by erasing parts we dislike and/or twisting the remainder is core idolatry.

    Given the chaos which inevitably results, it is not difficult to understand why God despises idolatry so completely.

    Leon Brooks

  3. Murray’s comment on Socialism is interesting: the Disciples practiced socialism as it was intended to be: none counted any property as their own.

    That spirit of community must be the perennial envy of mundane Socialists.

    Leon Brooks

  4. Hi Bill,
    The golden calf passage in Ex 32 is somewhat more subtle than first meets the eye. In Ex 32:5 Aaron said, “Tomorrow, shall be a feast to the Lord” where the “Lord” is Yahweh in the Hebrew!

    It is worth remembering the context whereby the Israelites had just spent 400 years in Egypt where the ‘gods’ were all in idol form and so, whereas the golden calf to us is shocking and an obvious idol, to them it would have almost been normal. They were so absorbed in the culture of their day that they could actually call an idol by the very name of God. To them, this idol WAS Yahweh.

    What this highlights is how many (most?) Christians have absorbed the ‘gods-of-our-day’ – in whatever form – into their life. They too are so absorbed into the modern culture that they have lost their discernment and so cannot SEE that the gods they worship are idols and are comfortable to think they are actually worshiping God.

    Roger Birch

  5. Thanks Leon

    Of course the situation described in Acts 4 and 5 concerning the early church really had nothing in common with modern notions of socialism. It was a temporary measure to meet a time of crisis, and it was fully voluntary, as Acts 5:4 makes clear.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. Thanks Roger

    Yes, quite right. And then there is the interesting biblical theme of people becoming like the idols they worship. For example, Hosea 4:16 tells us Israel is like a stubborn cow, referring back to the golden calf episode. See the important study by G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship (IVP, 2008).

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Leon (Hi again!) and Bill,
    Acts 4 & 5 is a passage often used by “christian socialists” to justify communal living, but the property remained privately owned. The people had been changed by the Spirit, and adopted a strategy to meet the needs of the times.

    This is vastly different to man-made rules abolishing private ownership. There are a number of passages in Proverbs which warn against the common purse, which is used as a metaphor and symbol of evil intent.

    John Angelico

  8. Bill, John, thanks for pointing out the differences in approaches to socialism. I intrinsically recognised those differences but have never seen them directly pointed out.

    John, I remember you from Kingsley Educational, so am unsurprised to see you still active in many ways. (-:

    I still have a snapshot of John Taylor Gatto’s website on my laptop (helped him untangle that one day).

    Leon Brooks

  9. A spin doctor of Tony Blair, Alistair Campbell, famously said that in Britain “We don’t do God.” The assumption, nay the proud claim, of all secularists and atheists is that they are 100% neat materialists. In other words, all “religious” are in some way escapists into the irrational into the transcendent. If secularists were able to consistently demonstrate that they did live as materialists, like animals in the field, or chimpanzees that are content merely to say “Here I am in this field, eating this grass and that it is all to existence,” then their claim might carry some weight. But they do not walk the talk. Animals, though demonstrating “tooth and claw” do not demonstrate either the heights or depths of human behaviour.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uhSSAv3o4M&feature=related (Slip knot)

    Secularists, unable to accept the meaninglessness of a materialist world make a transcendent leap into sex, art, music, drugs, violence, the occult, homosexuality, alcoholism, suicide and obsessive behaviour. In other words, the only escape from the meaningless of material existence is a leap into virtual reality, compensatory obsessions, comfort or stimulation that will blot out the pain of man’s existential isolation.

    However, it does not even have to be any strong stimulant such as the above, it can simply be the dulling experience of business, or sitting in front of a flickering screen, or staring into the dying embers of a fire, late into the night. These distractions and diversions are often pursued, not because they bring pleasure or happiness, but simply because they bring forgetfulness and oblivion, in other words a transcendence of reality.

    Yes secularists are religious all right.


    David Skinner, UK

  10. Hi David,

    Your observation that secularists seek an escape from reality through various amusements is also captured in our language.
    Consider the etymology of the word “amuse”: a-muse, to be without thought or reflection.

    Mansel Rogerson, Melbourne

  11. Mansel, thank you for reinforcing the truth of Romans chapter1:22ff that connects idolatry with loss of conscience and finally loss of reason: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.”

    In the UK the fate of the British people to be able exercise their conscience is being given the appearance of being debated in the Houses of parliament, when in fact, reasoned debate counts for nothing. The thugs in government, such as the Eagle twins, are forcing through an innocuous sounding clause 58 of the Coroners and Justice Bill that will do away with not just the freedom to criticise or offer less than enthusiasm for homosexuality – but at a stroke – freedom of conscience. http://gay.pinknews.co.uk/news/articles/2005-6149.html

    The government is forcing us to hate good and to embrace that which is evil. Only a megalomaniac would have the audacity to control a person’s emotions. To make it a crime to feel hatred is assuming a level of omnipotence only formerly reserved for God. But not even he would invade or violate a person’s free will.

    Sadly, during this debate people are more concerned about the loss of freedom of speech and freedom of expression, rather than the freedom to think.

    Soren Kierkegaard once said, “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”

    For those interested in the pathology of Britain’s contempt for reason, they might be interested in visiting the debate that occurred only last week in the House of Commons, for although the good guys clearly won the argument, MPs were either “whipped “ or beguiled into voting away their own freedom. http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.com/pa/cm200809/cmhansrd/cm090324/debtext/90324-0007.htm (Scroll down to column 188 and Coroners and Justice Bill)

    David Skinner, UK

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