The Tragic Dumbing-Down of “Idolatry”
Ask an American pastor what “idolatry” is, and you’re likely to get a lecture about bass boats.
And that’s a problem.
While it is true that in the broadest sense the term “idolatry” means placing anything before God – money (Job 31:24; Matt. 6:24), possessions (Luke 12:16-21; Col. 3:5), pleasure (2 Tim. 3:4; Col. 3:5 again), food (Phil. 3:19) – in each case the real object worshipped is not the “stuff” but the self. It is man making himself his standard, man deciding for himself what is right and wrong, man manifesting his own “law” in actions which serve the illegitimately enthroned self rather than the risen enthroned Christ.
Condemning the new 70” he’ll watch golf on next Sunday morning entirely misses the point: if you took away his TV, he’d still be an idolater – of self – and by condemning the wrong idol, you treat symptoms but withhold the cure.
It gets worse. Today’s America is filled with idols of the traditional sort. False gods ranging from the graven images of immigrant animists to the imageless Allah and the Socialists’ deified state bombard us and our children daily. These are real idols, complete with competing laws, contending ontologies and contradictory understandings of creation, all opposing the truth of the jealous Creator God.
You have likely heard no sermons lately on any of these, the principal subjects of God’s first two Commandments. But you’ve heard plenty about placing too much value on your next vacation.
Hence, bass boat theology – while occasionally a useful and appropriate metaphor – cheapens the Bible’s teaching and dumbs down today’s church, which strains at that gnat while ignoring the camel of one of the most idolatrous ages in history. So it is very important that we clarify the narrower (i.e., more accurate) meaning of idolatry, and begin to preach properly against it.
What Is Idolatry?
First and foremost, idolatry is about sovereignty: who is King? Man’s starting point in dealing with this question, from the Garden to this day, has been whether God is to be trusted. Satan’s temptation of Eve may have consisted in suggesting she elevate her law-making above God’s, but it rested in this: “Hath God said?” Did He really mean it? Will there really be consequences? Is His Word really reasonable? Is His Word really true?
Idolatry is first about calling God a liar. It’s about substituting our own ideas for His revelation.
But sovereignty is more than that. As with Eve, for whom the specific questioning regarded God’s command and the specific idol was not Satan or an image but herself, our idolatry always takes a similar ethical form. Covetousness may well be idolatry, as Col. 3:5 teaches, but only in the sense that it is its manifestation: what is really in play is man substituting his own law for God’s.
This no true Sovereign can abide; hence the warnings of the Second Commandment. Sovereignty is inherently the right to make law, the right and power to command obedience. Idolatry, therefore, is a rival claim to sovereignty: a claim to the right to make law, to say what is right and wrong, “to know good and evil”.
This counterfeit right can be vested in Baal, or Allah, or the Communist Party, or oneself. What it cannot be vested in is a television or a bass boat: those, if sinful at all, are simply manifestations of the worship of another, different idol.
But there is a secondary aspect to idolatry: magic. And magic requires a definition.
Magic is not a Vegas act. It is the attempt to use some ritual or form to manipulate and control the supernatural. It is the sin Moses committed in the Wilderness of Zin (Num. 20:8): since God had earlier commanded striking the rock in order to bring out water (Ex. 17:6), Moses wrongfully assumed that the power lay in the ritual of striking rather than in the omnipotent Giver’s grace.
Magic is inextricably bound up with idolatry. One of the great evils the First Commandment necessarily prohibits is the concept of continuity between God and His creation; and man, forever preferring to worship some creature rather than his Creator, inevitably produces idols in this “Chain of Being”.
In so doing, he may well carve an image to serve as a sort of supernatural lightning rod, localizing and concentrating an ultimate power to which he may thereby gain access. Or just as likely today, he may, in deifying the state, create a legislative process which gives him the power to confer blessings and curses as though he were a god. He may teach others that state-worship as well, encouraging them to forsake their God for a modern Pharaoh or Caesar. Whether an animist or a socialist, man always seeks his own power and exaltation at God’s expense, always with the same sad results.
So the First and Second Commandments are not principally interested in our diversions, but in our loyalties. We must worship only the Triune God. We must take His Word as wholly true and wholly binding. We must seek closeness to Him relationally and ethically (Matt. 6:33), not metaphysically or ontologically.
Understood this way, not only is the broader use of the term idolatry a pale shadow of God’s point, but a sad dumbing-down of both the commandments of our God and the exposition of His Word. The consequences are tragic.
When Pastor Joe preaches weekly (weakly?) against the sin of Bubba’s bass boat, Bubba knows better. He’s no fool: he knows he doesn’t worship the boat, no matter how many times that book-smart preacher says so. He may not conclude, as some might, that the preacher is exegetically lazy and wouldn’t know ontology from proctology. But he does know the man’s teaching is off base.
Next Sunday, he won’t be in church. He’ll be on the boat.
In the process, he’ll likely miss a presentation of the Gospel he dearly needs, because after all, Bubba has a bigger problem. God will abide no rivals: if self is on the throne, Christ is not. The pastor who focuses on symptoms misses the disease, whether the needed cure is regeneration or a simple foot-washing.
But Bubba’s gone. And how many souls are lost to this annoying rhetorical sloppiness?
Even worse than leaving, Bubba might come back. Convicted of the evils of his boat, he’s sold it now. Indeed he’s sold everything he owns, and given it to the poor. Bubba doesn’t know that Christ’s teaching to the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-23) was not against wealth per se, but against self-sufficiency and pride. Bubba just knows bass boats are bad.
And so now Bubba is proud of his Biblically-prohibited asceticism. Very proud. And very lost, just as before, but now with the blessing of his pastor.
“To the Greeks as a Greek”
The needs of today’s America will not allow for a “broad” definition of idolatry. The pride and self-sufficiency of our age, combined with the ancient idolatry of the immigrants in our “melting pot” and the philosophical idolatry of our postmodern countrymen combine to require more rigor, more focus, and much more clarity as we disciple the flock. Failure in this regard can only produce at best shallowness, at worst unintended additional sin.
When dealing with God’s First and Second Commandments, we must do better.
This article was originally published as part of my Beyond the Church Door series in the Florida Baptist Witness.
Posted on Rod Martin’s website.