When Does Sin Become Idolatry? A New Perspective on an Old Question

Last week I reposted (on my Rebecca Davis—Untwisting Scriptures Facebook page) my four-year old “Idol Factory” post, and again I received several heartfelt responses, both publicly and privately.

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.)



And when it becomes a non-negotiable, it becomes an idol, he says. And it is assumed that happens to all of us.

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.)

First Thessalonians 1:9 gives a 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 youO 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.

 

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Julie Kong
Julie Kong
4 months ago

Rebecca, your arrow analogies are so helpful in understanding the nuances you are talking about between sin and idolatry. The eating ice cream analogy is perfect and really blesses me. I think I personally have a different perspective on the idolatry issue because I neither grew up with harmful, unbiblical teaching about sin nor later harmful teaching on idolatry. I see your point and can see the real need for many to hear what you are saying, including the need for pubic writers and teachers to grow in wisdom in sound teaching on the subject. Scripture has many depths and nuances. People do too. We need to embrace complexity in both and avoid simplistic teaching.

For me, though, equating my tendency to turn away with idolatry is just not a problem (and seems more biblically sound – but that’s not a discussion for this space. It certainly requires much nuance and careful defining of terms). It is actually a blessing and invites me, as you say, to more quickly turn to him and to a deeper self-awareness in growing in loving the Lord and others more and more.

But that’s just me. Maybe that was Calvin and others, too? (That’s a sincere question.)

I’m thankful for you.

Lila
Lila
3 months ago
Reply to  Julie Kong

I agree with you right there, depth, complexity and nuance. That’s something the church needs to grow in.

Dave Knoch
Dave Knoch
4 months ago

This is exactly what i have been through for the past 27 years. The man who leaxs the church i was a part of for all those years is seen as the liaison between Jesus and those he (the pastor) disciples.
30 years ago this guy got it in his head that he would take up to 12 men and disciple them one on one just like Jesus did. Then the men would in turn disciple their wives and then the children would be discipled through the parents (with the Father being the primary guy). Once a month there would be this open mike time called exhortation sunday where the “body ministers to the body” I dont know how many times I heard folks talk about how great the pastor was. About 6 years ago it started getting nauseating to me as I thought it should be how great Jesus is.
Quite honestly, it was my wife who loved the structure of this thing. I would meet with the pastor (sometimes weekly, most often bi-weekly) and she would ask me, ” what did Craig say? (the pastor)
U would tell her and she would insist that we implemented it all.
Ideas on spanking, food, health, roles of girls (girls have no calling), roles of sons, wives shouldnt read beyond their husbands, the one pot family finance plan, jewish dietary laws, tithe goes to the levite and offering goes to the building, unmarried daughters serve their fathers at home…. i could keep going. I left this place first, then my wife. Our marriage is improving. A big catalyst in me getting out was a marriage intensive we went to last fall run by focus on the family. It was there that we began to recognize our worth as individuals before God-apart from eachother and those in the church. My wife began to see how she had idolized the pastor and how she measured me by him and i began to see that my disquiet and inner questioning of the cult i had been a part of for so long was completely valid and not rebellion, sinful bitterness or a lack of godly submission.

The journey is a long one

Dave

Christine McKinney
Christine McKinney
4 months ago

Rebecca, thank you! I would love to hear how you got to the point of being able to see clearly the lies and false teachings out there. How did you see and think outside the boxes that so many popular teachers are in? I praise God for how He has worked in you! Thank you for sharing with us your knowledge!

Christine McKinney
Christine McKinney
4 months ago
Reply to  Rebecca Davis

Thank you for sharing. I will peruse your blog sight and catch up as I have time. It is so sweet how God leads us on His journey. Grateful for your writings!

Skip Tilton
4 months ago

Thank you for sharing this. In a bible theology dictionary years ago I grabbed a sin definition and had my church memorize it – “Sin is any act, attitude, or disposition which fails to measure up to the standards of God’s righteousness”. I could have made a better choice but here in your article you are spot on with the emphasis on direction. The turning to and turning away aspects. The moment by moment process vs the tap is on / the tap is off relationship with the Lord ideas. We are indeed challenged with the cultural Christianity we grow up in when we trust the Lord. It is so easy for false teachers to lead people away from the truth and subvert it with their own ideas. And people are like sheep. It is all about the battle over the authority of Scripture and how a person will let it be a guide and a pathway lighter for them. I am going to incorporate these arrow diagrams into my messages if your okay with that. Thanks!

brian bailey
brian bailey
4 months ago

I think you make some important points here with some sound exegesis.

A. Amos Love
A. Amos Love
4 months ago

Hi Rebecca

“There are many who hold “idolatry of leader” without admitting that’s what they’re doing.”

It was after I left the “Abusive Religious System”of today, through much Pain, many Tears, and Spiritual Abuse, that I did my own “Bible Study,” as you suggested, about those who caused most of the Pain.
The “Titled” pastors, and leaders.

Seems, in the Bible, NOT one of **His Disciples** took the “Title” pastor. Or shepherd. Or reverend. Or called them self leader. 

In the Bible…
Jesus has a unique take on Leaders
For **His Disciples**

“ONE”

Jesus, taught His Disciples NOT to be called Leader. For “ONE” is you leader, the Christ.

And, His Disciples must have believed Jesus… Because…In the Bible, NOT one of His Disciples
called them self “Leader.”
———-

Mat 23:10-12 NASB
Do NOT be called leaders; 
for “ONE” is your Leader, that is, Christ. 
But the greatest among you 
shall be your “Servant”. 
Whoever exalts himself 
shall be HUMBLED; 
and whoever humbles himself 
shall be exalted.

Humble= modest or low estimate of one’s own importance.

Know many? any? who take the position of Leader?
Who are Humble? 
Having a modest or low estimate of their own importance?
———-

Isa 3:12 KJV
O my people, they which lead thee 
cause thee to err, 
and destroy the way of thy paths.

Isa 9:16 KJV
For the leaders of this people 
cause them to err; 
and they that are led of them are destroyed.

Last edited 4 months ago by A. Amos Love