Ministry Journey Blog

Thoughts on Ministry

10 May

The trouble with Idolatry in the Church

Posted in Uncategorized on 10.05.14 by Merlyn

Written for Fuller Seminary’s Burner Blog for Pastors and Leaders.

by Rev. Dr. Marcus J. Carlson

The Trouble with Idolatry in the Church

Idolatry is not a new challenge. The assumption that idolatry was limited to Old Testament idols and that the commandment against idolatry is irrelevant is dangerous and inaccurate. Idolatry is alive and well in our culture, but also in the church as well. While there are far too many forms of idolatry to examine here, and while we all struggle with idolatry in some from and to some degree, there are three types of idolatry that have a significant impact on the church today.
For many churches, tradition is an idol. Whether it is their denominational tradition, liturgical traditions, the traditions and habits of the individual church, symbols, practices or other forms of tradition, tradition has become more than an important constant and a part of our history and identity, it has become an idol. In many churches tradition is worshipped, protected and held in higher regard than God. God becomes secondary to our understandings, traditions and practices, the very definition of idolatry.
Another idol in the church is consumerism. The church has embraced consumerism so much so that it has driven and shaped its identity. Often guised as sensitivity, contextual ministry, service and other things, our desire to attract, please and retain people is undergirded by our fear both of conflict and the departure of church members. We have embraced a people-pleasing gospel. Other than the products and services offered, there is little distinction between the church and the neighborhood fast food restaurant. Fear, competition and conflict avoidance have taken the place of discipleship, Biblical preaching, leadership and theological reflection.
A third form of idolatry in the contemporary church today is relevance. In our heart felt desire to reach those not connected to Christ or His church, our focus on being relevant has been elevated to the highest of values. We celebrate relevance deemed as effective based primarily on attendance, programming and busyness as if these values are Biblical values. While we must minister within the context in which we find our churches, we fail to recognize the Gospel is relevant to all cultures, contexts and periods of history. Using the tools of the culture in a contextual, Biblically appropriate way rooted in theological reflection is not heresy and can be a gift to both the church and the culture. Worshipping relevance and allowing culture to shape and lead the church is heresy, poor leadership and idolatry amongst other things.
Idolatry is sinful, but not just because of the Ten Commandments, the rest of Scripture or the reality that it takes our focus off God. Idolatry is also very problematic for our churches with some significant downfalls that we must consider. First and foremost, idolatry takes the focus off of Christ and the Kingdom. Spreading the Gospel and living the Great Commission cannot be done in any long-term, effective capacity without a focus on Christ and the Kingdom. Secondly, idolatry can ruin the church. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, when we take our focus off the main thing (Christ) we not only lose the main thing, but the secondary thing that we put our focus on loses its true value as well. Finally, idolatry in the church is problematic because it requires absolutely no trust of the Spirit. While being in control appears to be helpful in the church, it does not create an environment where we trust the Spirit. Trust is our one great act and is required in order for the church to be guided by the Holy Spirit.
We have many gifts, all of which come from God. These gifts when used well, Biblically appropriate and undergirded with theological reflection can become great tools for the Church and the Kingdom. When these gifts become our focus, they become idols and not only do they tear down the Church, but ruin the gifts God has given us. Idolatry is not just an Old Testament problem, nor is it limited to popular culture. It is a very real problem in our churches today, one that must be confessed and redeemed.

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