After Church – Some Thoughts On Idolatry

I realize that this will be posted on a Monday, and usually such things were posted before on Sundays, but I would rather this one kept in the appropriate archive than lost to the wasteland of Monday Update’s ephemerality.


For whatever reason, I’ve heard the word “idolatry” thrown around rather flippantly, and mostly in reference to “putting other things before God”. In the current cultural context, this is one of the meanings associated with idolatry, but history shows us a far different picture than we might imagine.

First, almost every reference to the idea in the Bible contains, in addition, a direct reference to the worship and veneration of religious objects. That might seem an obvious distinction, but in no sense do the New Testament books which use the associated koine Greek words talk about the symbolic nature of such objects; rather, they mean the direct, intended veneration of an object. This has proved to create quite a controversy between Protestant and Catholic/Orthodox theologies, since Protestants tend to believe that the very use of any objects, symbolic or otherwise, in a religious context is what Paul decries. Catholics, on the other hand, are more likely to allow iconography of the saints and of Jesus Christ Himself; they see the images as an aid and a help to worship. Much of the contention rests in Exodus 20:2-5, as part of the Ten Commandments refers to the use of imagery:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of [a]slavery.

“You shall have no other gods [b]before Me.

“You shall not make for yourself [c]an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God,visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,

Of course, note that the word “idol” does appear; as far as Jewish texts go, there’s no specific definition of idols or idolatry, but general commands do exist against the practice in various contexts. Various Biblical characters also display utter horror at any kind of idol worship (Abraham destroys his father’s idols, just for one mention, but plenty of others follow). The Hebrew Bible prohibits the worship of idols (or images), the worship of polytheistic gods by use of idols (or images), the worship of animals or people, and the use of idols in the worship of God.

While you might personally decide these all fall under a general category of “worshiping things other than God”, they remain specific commands in specific contexts. We know that most idols were used in contexts where God forbade acts used in their presence, including sex rites and child sacrifice, so these are often assumed parts of such provisions. That’s where we get the idea that prostitution represents unfaithfulness, and hence why we also see idolatry as a form of spiritual prostitution. We should also remember that, at the time of these books, the image and the god were seen as one and the same; only later did the distinction emerge between god and image (which, as you might suspect, made the idea of an incorporeal, all-powerful God a difficult concept to grasp for the general Israelite public), as we can see in 1 Kings 18 when Elijah’s dare sees followers of Baal call the god without the need of an idol.

Obviously, your opinion on the issue will come down to interpretation and personal belief. People throughout the ages have noted that, for example, the Ark of the Covenant was adorned with images of heavenly beings (cherubim). As well, different sorts of honor can be afforded different places in the thought of the believer as to whether or not objects can be venerated in a highest worship sense due the Creator, or simply a respect of holy actions committed by the saints (ultimately, such acts derive from God regardless, as they might say).

Colloquially, then, it has come to mean the veneration, adoration, or intentional focus on something other than God (at least in American evangelical Christianity), and so that is commonly the use that we see it in. My greater question is, do we find this sort of distinction helpful? Let’s say we use it in the context of “focusing on God” rather than on “other things”. What, exactly, do you mean when you say “focus on God” or “spend time with God”?

These phrases mean entirely different things to different people, in the same way different denominations describe their relationship with the Creator in different ways. An evangelical Protestant will describe their understanding of God’s working in the believer as a “personal relationship”, and yet I would call the Christian faith unlike any relationship that I have ever had in normal human life. Add that there’s never any mention of a “personal relationship” anywhere in the Bible, and you’re working on interpretive implication, not definite proof, of such a thing. Such terms become cultural denominational touchstones over time; rather than emphasize God’s transcendence and sovereignty, modern evangelical churches emphasize God’s immanence in the here and now. Of course, neither approach is necessarily wrong through and through, but it does betray a certain bias towards one aspect of God over another.

In the modern sense, then, idolatry has come less to represent the abhorrent worship of other gods, and more the notion of self-identity, and how spend my time with God. In my experience, idolatry seems less associated with its original meaning, still a reality if we mean in reference to other religions, and more in line with the modern secular notion of “self”, a description of a psychology problem that needs remedy. God becomes – for lack of better terms – internalized, and thus “taken down to our level”, so to speak. One does not deny here the idea of God’s love towards human beings, or that He wants to know them, but one can certainly over-emphasize the concept to the point of absurdity. Idolatry, thus, is now symbolic of something far more mundane put into dramatic terms.

I.e., time spent doing things you enjoy could be considered “idolatry”; playing video games for long periods of time is idolatry. Doing things with the wrong intention is idolatry. Spending time with God, however ambiguously one wants to define that, solves the idolatry problem. And yet, in all this, we are still utterly, solely focused on how utilize my time, still obsessing over our faults and the thing we should do to “strengthen” the relationship. This modern terminology can, at times, diminish the very God we serve in our minds, effectively robbing Him of His Lordship over our lives. What seems at first a necessary change becomes yet another excuse to focus on ourselves and a descent into pride over our own spirituality. The trap is real, and we set it for ourselves time and again when we beat ourselves up over whatever sin we just committed (whether it was really sin or not); the spiritual battle becomes a respite from the banality of an ordinary Christian life, which isn’t half as dramatic as people want that narrative to be.

This is what makes it so interesting to read Christ’s words. He does not often command the disciples to think, but to do. God expects mistakes; you will mess up. The problem is in obsessing over these mistakes; you will learn the proper balance over time if you need it. Faith is a journey, not a destination, corny as that may sound, and to stop because you stubbed your toe means won’t get you going very far. Many worse troubles lie in the horizon, and yet Jesus tells us to, simply put, not care:

26 “Therefore do not fear them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 27 What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops. 28 Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in [x]hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a [y]cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.

Matthew 10

Fear God, and everything will fall into place. It doesn’t require any fancy internal wrangling to get to that conclusion; we just find ways to go over, around, and above the fence. I’ll take that over an obsession with idolatry any day, thank you very much.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • John Kelly

    How do you feel Colossians 3:5 fits into this?

    • Zachery Oliver

      Think of it as the contrast to the above. The problem is not that idolatry of a sort does not exist (Paul is using the word in a metaphorical context, at least where our modern context is concerned, less so for his readers), but the identification above is that we are failing to identify real “idolatrous” behavior, thereby making it difficult to see the forest for the trees.

      This verse is also dependent on your Bible translation as well (the NASB says that these things “amount to” idolatry, while the ESV says that these things “are” idolatry, which are two different emphases entirely).