This is why I write about the topics that I write about. This is why I’m so concerned with idolatry.
Let me be somewhat autobiographical.
As a new Christian, I was very arrogant in my faith. I had memorized a lot of theological propositions, apologetic responses to perceived threats, and all the right evangelical catch-phrases. Because of all that, I thought that I knew Jesus and the scriptures. I felt that I was a harbinger of truth, and believed that the things I had learned were exactly what I’d find in the Bible.
But then someone questioned one of my deeply held beliefs.
This person was a fellow Christian. They did not attend the church I was attending, so at first, I dismissed their questioning. But after a bit, I looked into it and discovered that they were right. This belief that I was clinging onto so tightly wasn’t in the scriptures at all. In fact, there seemed to be a lot in the Bible that was directly against it.
And this began my lifelong, and often painful, quest to try to figure out what other assumptions I hold that might actually be anti-Jesus.
What is Idolatry?
When we think of idolatry today, we often picture golden calves or child sacrifice. This was Israel’s idolatry. But it isn’t ours.
And the modern-day idols that are sometimes brought up in Christian preaching aren’t exactly idolatry either. I remember hearing a lot about how wrong it was for Catholics to have a statue of Mary in their yards, or how some churches bought into something called the “prosperity gospel.” Don’t get me wrong. These are idols for some people. But often, these aren’t idols for us.
What is idolatry, then? Consider these three things:
Idolatry comes from our best intentions
Idolatry always comes from our best intentions. That is, we always will think that it’s the right choice, the best option, or the thing needed. And often, we’re blind to the idol’s grip on our own soul. We need outside perspective to help us see past its allure.
Take, for example, the narrative of Judges 17:1-13.
This story starts with a man named Micah returning stolen silver to his mother. Delighted with it’s return, Micah’s mother commissions the silver to be made into a household teraphim. A teraphim is an idol. Specifically within the ancient Near East, these were small household figures that were often depictions of local gods or a family’s ancestors. And they were primarily used for purposes of luck. If your family had a teraphim in the house, you’d feel that your odds for blessing were higher. But Micah and his mother, here, don’t seem to be making a teraphim with the hopes of worshipping other gods alongside of the one true God. They seemed to have understood this act as appropriate and good, and especially so after hiring a Levite as a priest over his shrine.
Micah created this shrine out of his best intentions. He thought he was doing a good thing. His shrine and teraphim were likely very beautiful and wonderfully crafted. They were likely the talk of the town, and he was probably lauded as a very pious man for creating such. He inherited generations of theological and moral decay which blinded him to the reality of his idolatry.
But this has also happened to us as well.
We are all products of our cultural upbringing and unconsciously carry along with us deeply ingrained beliefs of what’s right and wrong, especially when it comes to expressions of religion.
That’s why it is so very important to do the hard work of looking critically at all of our assumptions to see what might actually be idolatry in disguise.
Idolatry involves an inappropriate association of the one true God with anything that humans have created
Aaron and the Israelites made a golden calf at the foot of Sinai in Exodus 32.
But this calf wasn’t a representation of a different deity. The people’s big sin in this moment was that they had inappropriately associated something created with the one true God. In Canaanite religion, the storm god Baal rode upon a bull. And within Canaanite art, Baal is depicted as sitting on a bull as his throne. Bulls were often found inside shrines and upon high places, not so much to represent gods, but to represent the thrones which those gods sat.
This is what Aaron and the Israelites were doing. They were creating a throne for the Lord. They likely thought they were doing a good thing. But YHWH God had very specific ways in which He wanted to be worshipped. This was not one of them. He did not want to be associated with any man-made idol.
There is another good example of this in the New Testament. And this one’s a bit more striking, actually.
The book of Hebrews was likely written to a group of Jewish converts who were struggling to let go of the parts of their “Jewishness” that was putting them at odds with fully following Christ. Hebrews is loaded with all kinds of rhetoric which portrays Jesus as better than the prophets, angels, Moses, and the Temple; His sacrifice is also a better one than anything offered within the Temple. And Hebrews 12:18-29 serves as a sort-of rhetorical conclusion to these arguments. If these Jewish converts were going to hang on to these former things, or the shakable things, they run risk of being consumed by God’s fire. They run risk of becoming idolaters.
Think about that argument a little bit.
What the writer of Hebrews was asking these Jewish converts to do was to disassociate with that the Lord himself once associated with. The Temple was once the place where God himself dwelled. It was a good thing. But the Temple, as well as other Israelite boundary laws, were no longer the way that God wanted to accomplish His purposes in the world. He had relaunched His people, the Church, as a trans-territorial trans-national people group who no longer were a part of just one nation. For them to cling onto that former way in which God operated was idolatrous and dangerous.
I cannot speak for all churches, but I know that many of the churches I attended when I was younger committed idolatry in this way. I did too. I have made many inappropriate associations. I’ve assumed that God is for certain things merely because I am for certain things.
Why do many American churches fly American flags in their sanctuaries or outside their buildings? Why do many American churches sing national or patriotic hymns on the fourth of July? I once attended a church where it was customary to host a patriotic puppet show for the children there, teaching them to value the country that we assume God to be associated with. But why do we assume this? If God’s new people, the Church, is trans-territorial and trans-national, that means that God does not associate with one nation in any special way.
We love to associate God with our nation (no matter where we live, America or elsewhere) because we love our nation. And there’s nothing wrong with loving one’s nation. But we need to be careful not to blend our love for our nation with our love for God. Because, when we do so, we too are the recipients of the warning that the author of Hebrews gave to his listeners (Hebrews 12:25-29).
Idolatry is mostly our problem
Idolatry is mostly our problem, and not an outside one.
I say this because when idolatry is spoken about, it’s often posed as the problem of those outside the Church. I’ve heard many sermons preached where pastors, wanting to get their congregations fired up, say something like: “now our world is an idolatrous and godless place, right?” To which the congregation offers up a hearty “amen.”
That is, we often think along the lines of there being a lot of evil in the world in which we are responsible to change. But the Bible doesn’t exactly present idolatry in this way. Scripture is much more concerned with the evil that’s inside us, or that which is preventing us from being conformed to the image of Christ.
To this point, consider 2 Timothy 4:3-4.
This is a section of scripture that’s often applied in an inappropriate way. What Paul is warning Timothy is of false teaching that is likely to arise within his church. Just like the false prophets of Jeremiah’s day, God’s church might be tempted to follow teachers who are willing to say whatever’s nessecary to find favor and a following.
Paul is not talking about the idolatrous practices of the surrounding culture. He is concerned with the worship of false gods, but Paul knows that the idolatry that could captivate the minds of early Christians isn’t the worship of foreign gods. No, the idolatry they run risk of falling for is much more subtle, which makes it all the more dangerous.
And this is still a huge danger today.
Thinking that idolatry is only an outside problem distracts us from looking for it in the right places. We can get so busy pointing our finger at outside culture that we forget to inside our own hearts.
This is where I am at. I know that I am an idolatrous person. I know that I have assumptions which are unbiblical. I’m currently trying to discover what those are so that I can do the difficult work of changing my own thought patterns to better conform to Jesus’. This is why I write about the topics that I write about. This is why I’m so concerned with idolatry.
 Barry Webb, The Book of Judges (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 425.