Thursday, August 06, 2009

The greatest source of idolatry in evangelicalism

If you listen to a sample of evangelical sermons, you are almost certain to come across at least one dealing with idolatry. Often these sermons will point to any number of idolatry culprits in the world: money, possessions, entertainment, pleasure. Ah how easy it is to stand behind a pulpit and give a mea culpa for our idolizing the television!

What is the essence of idolatry? Can something secular be truly idolatry? Or is idolatry something that of necessity has a spiritual context? When we look at idolatry, is it not a misrepresentation of the proper worship of God? We don’t see God’s wrath descending on the Israelites because they spent too much time playing Fantasy Chariot Racing. We see them altering the worship of God to suit themselves. Whether the sons of Aaron offering strange fire or the Israelites crafting a golden calf, idolatry has as its source a wrong view of the worship of God.

So again at the risk of having my “Reformed” secret decoder ring taken away, my assertion is that the source of the greatest idolatry among Christians is…

The local church

Please note an important caveat here. There is a difference between the local gathering of the church and the “local church” as we traditionally have known and practiced it. We have often blurred the line and exalted the local church above what is healthy or what is Biblical. Christ did not come to redeem the local church. He came to redeem His elect and as a result of our common salvation we gather together. The local gathering of the church plays a vital role in the life of the Christian and I don’t see that as a source of idolatry, but I am seeing signs of it in the expression of that gathering.

There seems to be a recent uptick in the number of people who are making assertions linking the local church with the Bride of Christ. Often these are accompanied by statements that amount to: “How can you say you love Jesus but don’t like His wife?” or “How can you love Jesus but say His bride is ugly?”. Let me be blunt:

The local church is not the Bride of Christ!

The local church may contain members of the Bride of Christ, of His Body, but Christ did not die to redeem the local church. Many, many people mistake the “local church” for the Bride of Christ, as if they are synonymous. They probably would reject that claim if you asked it in a straightforward way, but in practice that is how it looks especially among many of my reformed brothers.

Some of our most revered confessions blur this line in the same way. Take for example the following creedal statement:

The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

That sounds an awful lot like something you might coming from Rome and it actually is very similar. But that is not something from Rome, it is from chapter 25, section II of the Westminster Confession. You can’t overstate that last sentence, “out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation”. Does that strike you as a Biblical idea or a Roman one?

The great danger of idolatry in and of the local church is that it doesn’t seem in our eyes to be idolatry. Someone who spends too much time playing X-Box, like me, can pretty easily see the problem. The local church is above reproach in the eyes of many or most Christians. Critique of the local church, especially the Western model of organized religion with professional clergy distinct from the laity and heavily structured meetings, is tantamount to hating the Church.

Here are a couple of places where we have made more of the local church than is warranted or demonstrated in Scripture…

We have made an idol of the pastoral “office”. Think this is not true? Imagine a local church where the pastor has just resigned and suggesting that rather than form a pastor “search committee”, you recognize and raise up men within the existing congregation to serve as elders without pay instead of hiring a professional from outside of the congregation. How do you suppose that would be received? Like the Israelites, we desire men not to lead us but to rule over us. We revere them for their education and set them apart because of their seminary degree. We put their names on our signs and our vans. That is not entirely the fault of pastors, although I have met a few who were borderline megalomaniacs who seem to be in vocational ministry to exalt themselves. I think the blame lies in the pews, on men who are content to let one man do the hard work of ministry for minimal pay so that they are not called on to sacrifice of themselves.

We have made an idol of our buildings. Think this is not true? Suggest to someone in the midst of a building campaign that perhaps building a new facility is poor stewardship. The church in America owns billions in real estate, owes enormous sums in the form of loans and interest on those loans and shows an insatiable appetite to build bigger and better buildings. This is not a symptom of the seeker-sensitive model megachurches but is true of churches that most would consider highly orthodox. Is it wrong to have a building? Not at all. There are a lot of really ugly but functional buildings that serve as a great place for God’s people to gather. Is it wrong to build magnificent palaces and modern day temples? Absolutely.

We have made an idol of our church traditions. Think this is not true? Try suggesting that the local church replace its VBS and Sunday school with age-integrated worship.

We have made an idol of our rituals. Think this is not true? Try modifying the ritual observance of a local church like the Lord’s Supper. Instead of passing around oyster crackers and grape juice in little cups, say we are going to share a common loaf and a common cup and do so in the course of a full meal among believers. Or for a less traumatic change, suggest changing the order of service. Even something as simple as eliminating bulletins can cause apoplexy among some.

We have made idols of our distinctives. Commitment to social justice, commitment to expository preaching, devotion to this creed or that confession, association with this denomination and not that. There are whole ministries that seem to be devoted to proclaiming their doctrinal distinctives. We are this and not that, and often neither the this nor the that has much basis in Scripture.

These are some of the idols of our worship of the local church. Why do we have such a violent reaction to chnages like the ones I have listed above? It is not because they are supportable from Scripture. It is because they are what we know and are familair with and that is a pretty poor reason to do almost anything, especially something as important as the local gathering of God's people, His church.

What a wonderful blessing it is for the church to gather together for fellowship, love, edification, prayer! What a shame that we have taken that wonderful gift and crafted an idol of our own imagination to take its place.

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steve s said...

Any Christian who isn't challenged by this post probably needs to read it again.
Thank you, Arthur, for yet another excellent word of warning to us all!

Steve Martin said...

I think that we are, by nature, idolators.

We can, and do, make idols of anything and everything...even the church.

The basis of sin is replacing God and what he desires with what we desire. We become a god unto ouselves.

Thanks be to God that he is fully aware of our problem, and that He has chosen to come down here and die for us, and forgive us, anyway.

Reed said...

You have lots of good thoughts here. However, Ephesians 5 explicitly identifies the church as the Bride of Christ (also, Acts 20:28). If you meant something different by "local church" than Paul meant by "church" in Ephesians 5, I wish you had discussed it in your article.

Jeremy Lee said...

Although I do not think it invalidates your argument, I think you have misunderstood the Westminster Confession.

The Shorter Catechism Q. 88 helps to understand the statement "outside of [the Church]there is no ordinary possibility of salvation." It says "What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation."

Basically, my thinking is that since the means of grace, especially preaching the gospel, has been entrusted to the Church, one normally finds salvation through the church.

Jeremy Lee

P.S. If my authority isn't enough, Sproul says essentially the same thing in Truths We Confess Vol. 3

Arthur Sido said...


I thought I was pretty clear in making the distinction between the "local church" that we think is synonymous with the church and the local gathering of the church. I absolutely agree that the church is the Bride of Christ. I also distinguish the church, i.e. the Bride of Christ, from the tax-exempt local organization that meets in a particular building.

Arthur Sido said...


Your authority is no different to me than R.C. Sproul! I don't care how famous or how many books someone has written.

The W.C. in chapter 35 specifically reference the visible church in contrast to the universal church. The shorter catechism doesn't, but I was addressing the confession.

I would ask how we assume that the preaching of the Gospel is the exclusive or even preferred role of the local, visible church? That is what we traditionally assume but I don't think we can validate that tradition from Scripture.

I think the tradition is the same as the assumption that the "sacraments" are exclusive to the local church and can only be properly administered under the perceived authority of the local church and those in pastoral ministry (see:

steve s said...

You're absolutely right, Arthur. I could point you to any number of 'local, visible churches' that fail to preach the Gospel at all!

Arthur Sido said...

Let me be clear, this is not something limited to the institutional church. All sorts of church gatherings can make idols of their particular flavor. I have run into people who have made idols of their house church. Having said that, the institutional church is the majority report in America and as such and because it has been around the longest, it strikes me as the most fertile ground for idolatry, ritualistic worship and traditionalism.

Jeremy Lee said...


I am confused by your ecclesiology. I do not understand what you mean by universal or local church. It seems like your thinking is that a group of believers meeting in a home is not a local church. Maybe a blog would help clarify where you are coming from.

Arthur Sido said...

Ok Jeremy now I am confused. A blog post is forthcoming.

steve s said...

Isn't it about the big C Church (universal, all the Christians that have ever lived), versus the small c church (local, the building down the road from where you live where 'churchgoers' meet' which will likely include amongst its congregation a variety of combinations of those who belong to the big C Church and those who don't)? They're not the same and one is more open to idolatry than the other.