A reminder that this pernicious teaching is still actively tormenting upright Jesus-followers who love God.
In that post from 2017 I addressed legitimate longings for acceptance, stability, safety, and recognition that should not be labeled “idolatry.” I explained and demonstrated how the “idol factory” teaching is used to keep the oppressed and abused in a place of bondage. I distinguished between worship and appeasement, the need to repent of deviant desires vs. the need to be rescued from the darkness.
That post went on to demonstrate how in today’s Christian world, every sin and many non-sins are given the label “idolatry” because they fit into a certain category that certain respected teachers, such as Tim Keller, have invented.
Yes, yes I did use the word “invented,” because these thoughts are taught nowhere in Scripture. I urged Christians to distinguish “idolatry” from grief, doubt, and fear (to name a few non-sins that often get labeled as idolatry).
What I didn’t address in that post was when sin really does become idolatry. (I would “get to it soon,” I said.)
This is something that’s been on my list to write about for almost as long as I’ve been blogging. So today is the day, my friends.
Can Christians be idolaters?
The New Testament makes it clear that idolatry is a possibility in the lives of Christians (as well as pseudo-Christians, of course, which should go without saying). Here are the commands given to those who believe in Jesus Christ, those who are members of the New Covenant in His blood:
- Believers are not be idolaters like some of the Israelites (I Corinthians 10:7) but in fact are to flee idolatry (I Corinthians 10:14)–these verses come in a larger context of 3 chapters about eating meat offered to idols.
- Believers (specifically “little children” or immature believers) are warned to keep themselves from idols (I John 5:21).
- Believers are to refuse the idolatry of covetousness (Colossians 3:5).
- Believers are to avoid keeping company with idolaters who call themselves Christians (I Corinthians 5:11).
In that former blog post I said:
This is the sum total of the instruction the Lord saw fit to give His New Covenant family members regarding idolatry. Idolatry is significant enough to be mentioned and warned against several times, but it is obviously not the explanation for all sin, because sin is talked about so much in all the rest of the New Testament.
Is it possible to be a Christian and NOT be an idolater?
This would be a laughable question if the false teaching that all Christians are idolaters weren’t so prevalent.
The fact is that in many of these Christian circles, idolatry is simply assumed in the lives of Christians. It is assumed that we are all worshiping something or someone other than the Lord Jesus Christ, such as in the teachings of the Village Church, headed by Matt Chandler, co-founder of Acts 29. One of the Village Church pastors preached that our idolatry is DEEP and COMPLEX, so of course we often need someone else to point it out to us. (Which of course is an open invitation to spiritual abuse.)
It is assumed, furthermore (quite smoothly), that the description of God-defying idolaters in Romans chapter 1 is really about followers of Jesus, those who want to live lives in alignment with God.
Matt Chandler himself, in one of many Village Church sermons addressing idolatry, says that the “idols of the heart” start innocently but then become non-negotiables, like wanting our children to be safe. (Yes, he did indeed use that example.)
But I believe it is possible to live life as a Christian and not be an idolater. Which I actually think should go without saying, but in these trying times, it does not.
After all, as I observed earlier, 1 Corinthians 5:11 tells us that believers are to avoid keeping company with idolaters who call themselves Christians. That wouldn’t work, would it, if all Christians are idolaters?
First Thessalonians 1:9 gives more beautiful evidence of this truth. Here Paul says to former idolaters,
“For they [fellow Christians] keep talking about the wonderful welcome you gave us and how you turned away from idols to serve the living and true God.”
So you see it’s possible, of course. Of course it’s possible to leave idolatry behind and serve the living and true God.
Sin is turning away from God
If the teaching about sin you grew up with was anything like mine, then you learned that any sin “breaks a link in the chain” between you and God. It doesn’t matter how egregious or how small the sin was, now the link is broken and your fellowship with God is destroyed until you repent and get back into fellowship with Him.
After all, the definition of “sin,” we’re told, is “missing the mark.” And it doesn’t matter if you miss it by a little or a lot, you’ve missed it.
After years of considering what “sin” actually means (as well as years of living life as a Jesus-follower), I’d like to present a different way to look at sin in our lives, for you to consider.
This arrow represents a heart that is put into alignment with God (another way to use the word “justified”), moving straight towards Him, with eyes fixed on Him.
Proverbs 4:25-27 says,
Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.
In Ephesians 1:16-21 Paul prayed that the eyes of the hearts of the Ephesians would be enlightened, that they would know the hope to which God had called them, the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and the immeasurable greatness of His power toward all of us who believe.
And in Psalm 148:8 David, who was being pursued by destroyers, wrote,
“But my eyes are toward you, O God, my Lord; in you I seek refuge; leave me not defenseless!”
Let’s say that you, as a true believer in the Lord Jesus Christ for all your salvation, have your eyes turned toward Him.
Then, for some reason, your eyes, your heart, are turned away, just slightly. It could be a thought from the enemy or your own heart, you can’t always distinguish.
Here is a quotation from my book Prayer Armor for Defense against the Enemy’s Flaming Darts, commenting on the Scripture James 1:14-15.
Some time ago when I was dealing with a situation that caused me sensations of overwhelm, despair, horror, confusion, anger, distraction, a sense of weakness, doubt, fear, exhaustion, sadness, anxiety, and discouragement (yes, it hit every single one of those), after the woman left my home I got out the ice cream and started eating it right out of the carton.
It wasn’t the woman I was reacting to, but what had happened to her, the evil that had been perpetrated on her and the resulting grief and consequences.
But there I was with the ice cream, knowing full well that I should be going to the Lord.
Why did I go to ice cream instead of the Lord? This is the anatomy of sin—a small example to show a big problem.
A difficult situation caused me to be flooded with emotions. Within the context of those emotions, I believed lies. In this case the lies looked something like, “This is too difficult, God didn’t take care of it then, and God’s not taking care of it now. Ice cream. Ice cream will take care of it.”
Of course those actual thoughts didn’t go through my mind, and when I wrote them out just now, I saw how ludicrous they looked.
But the enemy offered the lies. I reached out and took them because of my desires.
Strong desire connects with lie.
Sin is birthed.
Stop it right there—confess and repent. Turn the other way!
Otherwise, the continued fornication between strong desire and the lie will bring about increased sin. When it is finished, it will lead to death.
Desires are key. And how quickly I turn back is key.
But I want to be clear that at that time I was not guilty of idolatry of ice cream. I wasn’t guilty of idolatry of self or anything else. I was overwhelmed with horror.
In my overwhelm and horror, I turned aside, a little. My feelings and unformed thoughts at that time were not idolatry. But they were sin (turning away from God).
I needed to turn back, which is what “repentance” is all about.
Idolatry is extreme turning away
At each turning to greater and greater sin, whatever form it may take, the call is the same: I need to turn back (repent).
Let’s say a thought of “turning away” (sin) moves into sinful words and/or actions. It could be something like the “bitter words like arrows” of Psalm 64:3-4, or it could be the secret action of viewing pornography, or many other things.
Again, the answer is repentance (turning back).
If I had kept on the track I was on in my example above, I could have gone into full-blown hatred of God and turning to other solutions, other religions, other beliefs that are in opposition to the true God, or that I purposely choose in place of the true God.
THAT would be idolatry.
This is what the Old Testament Israelites were guilty of. Second Chronicles 30:8 says,
Do not now be stiff-necked as your fathers were [refusing to turn back to God], but yield yourselves to the Lord. . .
Acts 7:51 says,
You stiff-necked people [refusing to turn], uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.
This is what the New Covenant people of God were being warned against when they were warned about idolatry, this extreme turning away from God and refusal to turn back to God.
This is a danger, as the New Testament tells us. But it does not define every sin.
One particular type of extreme turning away
Christians can fall prey to various kinds of idolatry. But there’s one I believe urgently needs to be discussed, one that I haven’t heard preached from the platforms of popular speakers.
And that is idolatry of popular speakers.
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Timothy 4:3-4)
This refers not only to the smiling Joel Osteens of the world who promise you that all is well no matter what. It also refers to preachers who lay heavy burdens on your shoulders, because you may feel like heavy burdens are exactly what you need to feel like a Christian. This is what may “suit your own passions.”
When you begin listening to the mesmerizing (and sometimes humble-seeming) speaker who speaks with “the voice of God for you,” then you are on the track to idolatry.
When you listen to him or her instead of listening to the Lord (through His Word and by other means), when you can’t listen to anyone who warns you about that speaker, then you are in danger of idolatry.
When you cannot allow for the possibility that the speaker is wrong according to the Word of God, then you are guilty of idolatry.
If you say, “Well, the man/woman of God I hear from isn’t popular, so I’m good,” I respond that it isn’t the number of the speaker’s followers that matters. It’s the place that person holds in your heart.
Is he or she the way you hear from God?
I’ve heard this very thing again and again from those coming out of the Bill Gothard cult. And I call it a cult because of this very thing: he was the way his followers “heard from God.”
They studied the Sermon on the Mount, but only through Gothard’s grid (which proved to be faulty). They read Proverbs but didn’t stop to ponder that “a greater than Solomon is here” (which is what Jesus said about Himself).
Bill Gothard was the voice of God for them. That is idolatry.
And this could be said of many, MANY other leaders. The followers look to the man or woman instead of the Lord Jesus Christ as their ultimate leader. (Because “the voice of my authority is the voice of God.”)
There are many who hold “idolatry of leader” without admitting that’s what they’re doing. Then finally, one day, you wake up. You look around and say “How did I get here? I thought I was following God.”
Following this leader as “the voice of God” was sin (turning away from God).
And yet, there is still a way of repentance (turning back). The way may be long and hard and may at times be confusing, as you work through the twisted teachings that have been embedded into your thinking.
But it is not impossible. As you continue to turn back toward the Lord (repentance), following His light and learning who He is, you can become free of idolatry, and more and more you can become free of the entanglements the idolatry caused. You can fully embrace the true and loving Savior of your soul.
To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens! Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he has mercy upon us. (Psalm 123:1-2)
You will most likely face fallout from turning from one who has stood in the place of God. Friends won’t understand and will turn from you. It may well be a long hard road back to the Lord.
Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than enough of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud. (Psalm 123:3-4)
It may be a long hard road back to the Lord from “Leader Idolatry.” But it is very much worth the trip. Turn your eyes back toward Him and run toward Him. He is waiting for you with joy.
Go here to download your free Guide, How to Enjoy the Bible Again (when you’re ready) After Spiritual Abuse (without feeling guilty or getting triggered out of your mind). You’ll receive access to both print and audio versions of the Guide (audio read by me). I’m praying it will be helpful.