Stepping In: An Introduction to Idolatry

An important part of the Subversive fulfilment approach is an understanding of idolatry. The subversive part of the term comes from the fact that even our dreams and desires are idolatrous. We cannot simply offer the possibility to people that their life will find fulfilment in Christ, we must start by showing them that in their dreams and desires, their lives are orientated the wrong way, away from the true and living God and towards false gods. Mission must involve a call to repentance, a call to turn from false gods and idolatrous worship to whole hearted worship and devotion to the true and living God

Idolatry is a heart issue

In Deuteronomy 6 we are introduced to the first and greatest commandment on which the whole of the Law hangs.

”Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”[1]

This means we are  love him with your whole being, with all that we are. This is an exclusive form of love. What does this love look like? Well, the first two of the Ten Commandments flesh this out by telling us:

“You shall have no other gods before[ me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments.”[2]

It is helpful them to understand the fall of Genesis 3 in terms of idolatry. In Genesis 1-2 we discover that  God makes a good world, he makes humans to live in the world and to look after the world for him. He provides for them: food, help, the work itself and boundaries/rules enabling them to know how to live in his world under his rule and blessing. The provision of rules and boundaries is exemplified in the command to not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Idolatry starts with a distorted caricature of the true God

In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent. The nature of the temptation is an attack on God’s goodness and greatness. His goodness is attacked as the truthfulness and motives for his commands are undermined. Blocher comments

“The snake’s attack on the truth of God’s word is launched in an indirect manner, by imputing hidden motives that God’s revelation passes over in silence, by subjecting the terms of the covenant to ‘the hermeneutic of suspicion’. Even when he is so bold as to contradict the terms of God’s words, ‘DYING you shall not die’ (v4), there is still ambiguity. The unusual placing of the negative leaves open the possibility of understanding it as: ‘It is not proper death that you shall undergo’; in other words, dare to experience the trivial death-like change that will bring you the experience of full humanity.”[3]

Similarly, God’s sovereignty is undermined as his ability to communicate clearly is questioned “Did God really say…?” and as it is implied that he has something to fear from human  rivalry. The idea that we humans could seriously rival him for his power and his glory is treated as reasonable instead of ridiculous.

Therefore, sin starts when we start to believe lies about God. This reflects the third commandment’s instruction not to take God’s name in vain.[4] It is worth spelling out exactly the nature of the god imagined in the conversation between Eve and the Serpent in Genesis 3:1-7.

  • This is a god who cannot communicate clearly to us. We cannot be sure about his revelation.
  • This is a god whose word cannot be relied upon -he does not speak truthfully, what he says will not come true
  • This is a god whose motives cannot be trusted – he is not acting for our good but to restrict us
  • This is a god whose sovereignty cannot be depended upon. God is presented as acting out of fear.

Now, it is irrational for Adam and Eve to believe these things about the living God. It is not as though they have only known about God at a distance, they have personally encountered him as he has walked and talked with them in the garden. Yet, sin’s idolatry starts with our decision to believe lies about God. 

Romans 1:16-32 shows how humanity chooses to suppress the truth about God (v18) and exchange it for a lie (v25. The truth is that God has clearly revealed who he is to us. We have actively chosen to disbelieve the truth and instead believe lies about him. Dan Strange commenting on Romans 1 notes first of all that revelation is unavoidably clear, it is not something we had to tease out and discover for ourselves, it “does not simply slide off man ineffectually like a raindrop glides off a waxy tree leaf.”I Secondly he observes that Idolatry is a hostile and violent act as we wilfully suppress the truth about God.[5]  Strange likens the language of suppression in Romans 1:18 to

“ a child playing with an inflatable ball in the water.  She tried to hold the ball under the water with all her might and thinks she has succeeded, but the ball always pops up to the surface again for the child to try again and so on.”[6]

This is important because the God we reject is in fact a false god and not the true and living god. We have already created an idol by accepting a distorted caricature of YHWH.

Sin and idolatry is therefore, first and foremost an offense God’s honour. Calvin puts it like this

“At the same time, it is to be observed, that the first man revolted against the authority of God, not only in allowing himself to be ensnared by the wiles of the devil, but also by despising the truth and turning aside to lies. Assuredly when the word of God is despised, all reverence for him is gone.”[7]

This gives us some sense of what it means to take God’s name in vain, it is not simply using “God” and “Jesus” as swear words. God’s name represents his character including his power, love and covenant faithfulness. When we deny these things, we empty God’s name of its meaning. God is replaced with a powerless idol.

This also means that people can on one level be religiously orthodox in that the claim to worship the one true God. They don’t worship physical idols, they belong to churches, they sing Christian hymns and offer “Christian prayers” that conform to orthodox liturgy. However, if the image of God they have in their heart is the one described above, then they are worshipping an idol. 

This is relevant to our urban subversive fulfilment task for three reasons. First of all, because I am going to keep insisting that the work must start with our own hearts. Jesus tells us to remove the logs from our own eyes before tackling the splinters in others. Subversive Fulfilment is not just a missiological or apologetic devise but also a means to self-evangelism. We start by searching out our own hearts and preaching the Gospel to ourselves. Still more accurately it means allowing God’s Holy Spirit through Scripture to search out our own hearts and to disagree with us.  Do I have a faulty understanding of God? Is my own heart idolatrous?

Secondly, because a lot of Gospel work in urban communities is not about starting from scratch. Churches already exist on estates and in inner city communities. As well as church planting, there are great opportunities for mission through church revitalisation. Some of us will end up pastoring existing churches that have become introverted and fossilized. Revitalisation must start with a challenge: “has the church become idolatrous even whilst appearing orthodox, has it lost sight of God’s greatness and goodness, his sovereign power, his faithful love and his amazing outpoured grace?”

Thirdly, we will be meeting people who have some form of Christian heritage. This will include white working class people who attended a church school, whose grandparents went to church and whose parents were sent to Sunday School. There will be a legacy here and we may well find some points of contact as they remember prayers, Bible verses and hymns. -But the picture they have of the God they heard about may be false.  It will also include immigrants from cultures where there is at least some form of Christian heritage including South American cultures with Catholicism and Pentecostalism and African cultures also with a mix of Christian heritages. Again, we will meet people who at least on some level seek to know and worship the God of the Bible but may have a distorted understanding of who he is.

Idolatry means that we worship the Creature instead of the Creator

Romans 1:22  goes on to tell us that we have exchanged God’s glory for the worship of creatures. Of course once our image of the true God is a distorted, idolatrous caricature, then it  is much easier to give up this god for idols than it is to give up the real thing.

In Genesis 2-3, the irony is that humans who were made to look after creation and enjoy its benefits, make idols out of the serpent who they choose to listen to instead of God and the tree which they look to in order to meet their felt needs and desires instead of trusting God to provide them with what they need.

Idolatry sees us attempt to pursue idolatrous desires through false means

This takes us to the third point about idolatry. Our desires become idolatrous. In Romans 1 this is exemplified by the handing over of humanity to unnatural sexual desire. In Genesis 3, it is seen in the way that knowledge is prioritised over everything else God provides and everything it means to be made in God’s image. The promise the serpent makes is that Adam and Eve will be god-like, the irony is that they are already made in God’s image but they want a perverted form of that Imago Dei. They don’t just want to be image bearers, they want shared status, or even to usurp God’s position. This of course offers a sharp contrast with Christ who was in very nature God but did not see equality with God as something to be held onto.[8]  Calvin registers this as ingratitude [9]

“It was surely monstrous impiety that a son of earth should deem it little to have been made in the likeliness, unless he were also made equal to God.”[10]

Idolatrous desires are costly. In their pursuit of knowledge, Adam and Eve lose something which comes with the Imago Dei -they lose life.  God has warned them that they if they ate the fruit then they would die. Death is seen in their exile from God’s presence, the reality of coming physical death and eternity in hell.  Not only that, but they lose the very thing they are seeking after. They become fools and their minds are darkened.[11]

The final thing to say about sin and idolatry is that the goal is to make ourselves into God. Idol worship is self-worship. It is a pride thing.  Adam and Eve are tempted by the possibility of becoming like God.  The problem is that we think that we can use creation for our own ends, we believe that our idols serve us when in fact we are enslaved to them. Romans 1:21 says that humans thought they were becoming wise when in fact they were becoming fools. Adam and Eve believe they are escaping tyranny and discovering freedom but have in fact, become enslaved to creation. This is shown biblically in the judgement pronounced in Genesis 3:16-20. Child birth will come with pain and harvest will require sweat and toil in the face of thorns and thistles.  In Romans 1:24-32 we are told that humanity has been handed over to “impurity”, “dishonourable passions” and “debased minds.”

Later on we will look at examples of idolatry and idolatrous desires within the communities we are seeking to reach but once again we want to start by looking at ourselves and how even as we are called to mission in urban communities we risk being distracted by the idolatry of our own dreams, passions and priorities.  These can include the desire:

  • For success as we seek to build a reputation and a name for ourselves.
  • To find meaning and identity as the saviours of people we are coming to serve
  • To impose our own order and control onto other people, places and events. This for example may result in the cloning of ministry methods and structures.

Idolatry seeks to enjoy the goodness of God’s provision in isolation from God

The final thing to say about idolatry is that because we believe lies about God, we seek to place God at a distance and enjoy his provision without him. One of the startling things about Genesis 3:1-7 is that for the first time in the narrative, we have extended text where God does not speak or act. Now, the reality is that God is always speaking, always active and always near, he hasn’t in fact abandoned Adam and Eve. Yet, they and the serpent act as though God is absent.

Religion has a habit of putting God at a distance so that he becomes the “unknown god” of Acts 17:23. We learn to believe the lies that

  • God is remote, unapproachable and uninterested in us.
  • That God holds onto all the good things that we need and deserve
  • That our priority and purpose is to some how reach up to God so that we can claim those good things for ourselves to enjoy them.

This in effect becomes a snatch and grab mission. We devise means in order to try and reach up to God, take what we are owed and then return to our own lives so we can enjoy them. This is in fact the root presupposition of Gnosticism. Gnosticism teaches that God is an unknowable spirit, that matter is an unpleasant accident and that God cannot come into contact with it. We somehow need to escape from matter to enjoy spirit life. 

This thinking is seen in Roman Catholicism where somehow through penance and prayers to saints we hope to enjoy grace and it is seen especially in the prosperity gospel where we hope by using the right words, and knowing the right preachers to have access to the health and wealth that is ours by right. Prosperity teaching suggests that if we use the right words and exercise enough faith then somehow this unlocks God’s treasurer stores so that he is forced to comply with our demands.

We must be wary because even our preaching of the Gospel can give the impression that we offer something similar. If people say the right prayer and come to the right churches then God will be compelled to forgive them and give them the free gift of eternal life which they can then enjoy without an ongoing obedient relationship to him.

Conclusion

In Acts 17, we see Paul taking time to explore the city of Athens. He is distraught at the idolatry of the city. Mission means stepping into a world of idols. Our response as we step in and search out should be distress too.

However, mission also means that we have to step into our own idolatrous world too and search out the false beliefs that distort our understanding of God and distract us from his mission.


[1] Deuteronomy 6:4-5.

[2] Deuteronomy 5:8-10 (ESV).

[3] Blocher, In the Beginning, 139.

[4] Deuteronomy 5:11.

[5] Strange, “Perilous Exchange,” 113.

[6] Strange, “Perilous Exchange,” 113.

[7] Calvin, Institutes, II.i.4.  (Beveridge 1:213).

[8] Philippians 2:6.

[9] Calvin, Institutes, II.i.4.  (Beveridge 1:213).

[10] Calvin, Institutes, II.i.4.  (Beveridge 1:213).

[11] Romans 1:21.

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