These days we don’t really talk much about idols, at least not in the literal sense. We talk about American Idol and teen idols and that sort of thing, but the idols that represent serious sin go unmentioned.
Throughout the Bible, we see the evidence of the damage that idol worship does. After the Exodus, when Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the impatient Israelites made a golden calf to worship. For the people of Israel, it was just downhill from there, as idol worship and the unfaithfulness toward God that such worship represented led to a world of trouble for them, including the exile to Babylon.
In the New Testament book of Acts, Jesus’ apostles encountered idol worshipers when they went about spreading the Good News of the Messiah. These worshipers of other gods — and even some of the craftsmen who made the physical idols — stirred up all sorts of strife for the followers of the one true God.
So what relevance does idol worship have for us today? These days, the idols that Jews and Christians follow aren’t graven images per se, but followers of God do allow certain ideas, preferences, and opinions to become idols that get in the way of their relationship with Him. Many of these idols come with the best of intentions, yet they impede the ability to truly follow God.
In the following pages, through an inter-faith dialogue with one of my favorite colleagues here at PJ Lifestyle, Susan L.M. Goldberg, we’re going to look at five idols that God’s followers allow to get in the way of their relationship with Him. Hopefully naming these idols will get some Christians and Jews to think about how they may affect their own relationship with God.
Let’s face it – symbols carry with them a stunning amount of power. Throughout history human beings have relied on symbols for many reasons. Symbolism is powerful among God’s followers as well, but we must take care not to allow the symbol to become an idol in and of itself.
Arguably, the most recognizable and prevalent symbol in Christianity is the cross. It’s easy to understand why – the cross represents the pivotal act in the narrative of the Bible: Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. (Though I’ve often thought: why don’t we celebrate the empty tomb more? Without the resurrection, the crucifixion is an empty act.)
The cross can turn into an idol when believers equate it with the One who should be worshiped. We see it on jewelry, tattoos, and clothing, and some people believe no church is complete without one in every space. Interestingly enough, the cross was not a symbol for the early church, who instead used the ichthus: the fish symbol we see attached to the backs of cars these days.
In Judaism, one doesn’t find quite the same sort of symbolism. I asked Susan to explain how certain symbols in Judaism can come close to idol worship:
The most you could argue are the importance placed in the type of usage of religious items, like kippahs and prayer shawls. The Orthodox won’t let women use them for Rabbinic reasons, and that’s a source of great division in the ranks.
The image of Jesus Himself can become an idol as well. Different people have their own inaccurate depictions of Jesus: black Jesus, white Jesus – I’ve even seen a painting of Jesus that looks way too much like Kenny Loggins! But the truth is, in his time on earth, Jesus was Middle Eastern, so he looked like many of the Jewish people we see in Israel today. Of course, the depiction of Jesus in Revelation 1 is much different from anything we’ve ever imagined:
12 I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. 15 His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
The bottom line: we believers need to be careful not to turn the symbols of our faith into objects of worship.
Christians and Jews alike build their faith around traditions. The idea of worshiping the God of the Bible is a tradition itself that dates back thousands of years. As wonderful and well-intentioned as our traditions are, we can transform them into idols when we hold on to them too tightly.
I think the motto of the American Church ought to be, “But we’ve always done it that way!” Christians have a nasty habit of turning traditions into idols – thus leading to a resistance to change and adapt to new technology, styles of worship, and even the interior design of their churches. I can tell you horror stories of churches that have split over carpet choices and paint colors. As my friend Brandon Daniel, one of the youth pastors at my church, says, “You try being the one who decided to take out the pew that someone’s Great Aunt Mabel paid for years ago!”
Susan says that in Judaism, “the short story is tradition developed and managed by the Cult of the Rabbis.”
The Orthodox Rabbis, much like the Pope, made the decision along the way that they would not only be God’s gatekeepers, but their word would be equal to His. As a result, you have a people burdened with guilt and fear who can’t see or believe that God wants an individual, personal relationship with them.
[The tradition of] community is even an idol in the Jewish world. You need 10 men for God to hear your prayers (a minyan). You know why? Because Jews are convinced that out of 10 guys, at least one will be praying in earnest…and he’ll be the atonement for everyone else.
So as wonderful as some traditions may be, believers can find themselves caught up in them rather than in the God the traditions honor.
Another idol that trips up many believers is legalism. My best simplistic definition of legalism is an unhealthy emphasis on following the letter of the law. Obedience to God is important, and following His commands is crucial – but we should remember that our salvation is God’s gift and is not the result of our works or our goodness (Ephesians 2:8).
Jesus railed against the Pharisees and Torah teachers who emphasized obedience to every letter of the law above all else and even added regulations to the law. In Luke 11, He called them out:
42 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.
43 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.
44 “Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”
45 One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.”
46 Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.”
Susan explained to me how legalism pervades Judaism:
But the big thing is and has always been a weird obsession with the law, the sense that you can somehow be perfected through your practice.
And she gave an illustration of how rabbis’ interpretation of the Torah – putting “a ‘fence’ around the law,” to use one rabbi’s genius phrasing – can sometimes become an added legalistic burden:
A benign example can be found in those who don’t drink coffee during Passover. Coffee is a bean, and in the 14th century, French Rabbis didn’t think folks were smart enough to tell the difference between beans and grains that would rise, like rice …so they banned coffee to be on the safe side. Not kidding. There is nothing yeasty about coffee, but that’s why certain folks don’t drink it during Passover – because of the guilt-induced paranoia of medieval rabbis.
The Lord speaks through the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). Too many of God’s people choose to emphasize following the law at the expense of the relationship with Him that goes along with that obedience. That’s a shame.
2. Style of Worship
One of the most divisive arguments within the modern American church concerns style of worship. Proponents of contemporary worship and those who argue a more traditional approach stake their claims and hold fast to their arguments with little to no middle ground – or common ground, for that matter.
Obviously there’s nothing in the Bible stating that worship with a hymnal is the only proper way, nor are there any scriptural guidelines concerning guitar tones or lighting or which projection software to use. What we do see in both the Old and New Testaments is the exhortation to sing and make music in praise of God using all kinds of instruments. But what’s the best way? Is one way right and the other wrong?
Too many fans of contemporary worship music choose to ignore the legacy of the hymns of the past. They claim that hymns are boring while playing the most timely songs of the moment.
At the other end of the spectrum, traditionalists insist that only hymns will do, with piano and organ and possibly a brass section or small orchestra at larger, more affluent congregations. The timelessness of hymns renders nearly all contemporary worship songs worthless in their eyes. Some denominations eliminate instruments from their worship services altogether, based on their interpretation of scripture.
Unfortunately, far too many Christians let these differences of opinion get in the way of unity – and of following God. Jesus said His followers would worship “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). If Christians would choose to be less territorial about the style of worship they like best, it’s possible they just might worship the way God intended.
Some of the biggest divisions arise when God’s followers inject politics into the message of God’s Word. People of all political stripes engage in such behavior – from Christian anarchists to Christian socialists — and the politicization of God’s message is equally insidious no matter who does it.
A few years ago, I wrote about how many of the leading lights on the Left co-opt the Bible to get their message across – often twisting or obscuring the true meaning of the scriptures. On a number of occasions Al Gore has attempted to use certain verses for environmental ends, often giving them the opposite meaning. Jim Wallis, one of the most recognizable Christian leaders on the Left, once attempted to use a passage from Isaiah describing God’s future “new heaven and new earth” to argue that the Bible supports a high minimum wage. And some of the biggest frustrations arise when believers assign collective applications to scriptures meant for individual and personal use.
Conservative Christians don’t have the most sterling of reputations either. Many Christians on the right come across as dour, humorless, and out of touch with the world around them. And many of them use the Bible to advocate what they stand against, often speaking from a position of moral superiority, rather than taking the positive message of freedom found in true Christianity out into the world. I’ve often said that if conservative Christians talked more about what they were for than what they were against, Christianity would be much more attractive to people.
The temptation to politicize God’s message comes through in Judaism as well. As Susan told me,
The Left’s answer to Orthodoxyism is social justice. Their embrace of socialism/social justice movement is as much of an idol as Orthodox love of Talmud.
Again, a perverse reading of the Torah motivates “social justice” that winds up condemning individual freedom in favor of corporate salvation.
The paradoxical message of freedom through obedience that we find in the Bible operates outside of human understanding, which means it transcends politics as well. If only God’s followers would understand that and leave politics out of His Word!
Are there any other idols that you see Christians and Jews allowing to get in the way of truly following Him?