Growing up in Baptist churches, there really wasn’t much decoration or art on the walls. We had been told that Catholic churches were full of such things and it was a distraction from God because there were icons of people who were worshiped as saints to whom people could pray. As I got older, I had a chance to visit a few Catholic churches, some had some of the loveliest artwork and most beautiful carvings I had ever seen. I had a chance to ask my Catholic friend what it was about and realized that my church had been wrong in more ways than one.
For one, my church did have an idolatry problem. It wasn’t in the artwork and icons, but in the teachings and interpretations of Scripture they promoted. In recent years, these idols have taken hold and changed the emphasis of Scripture. When I was a little kid, I heard a lot about the Holy Spirit, Gifts of the Holy Spirit, Fruit of the Holy Spirit, how to pray, about Christian virtues, and other things that pretty much apply to everyone. As I got older, the people who made the decisions decided there were some subjects that had been neglected – so these general teachings were replaced with very specific ones.
The first idol that seems to be all too common is: Family. The ancient world saw families as small units of society. Like the emperor over the empire, kings over the kingdom, governors over villages, so were fathers were over their families as their legal representative, spiritual representative, and business representative. The ancient societies had specific laws regarding the role of a father in relation to his family and how he interacts with the society in which he lives in. When people converted to Christianity, elements of their new-found faith were in conflict with the social obligations as citizens. So they wrote to Paul who illustrated the household codes to show them how to live as Christian families under the unbelieving powers that were in charge of everything – even their spiritual lives. The family is still a small unit of society, but the laws that gave the head of the family total control over his family are no longer in effect. The church, however, contends that these household codes are still the way in which Christians ought to live. They tell us how husbands and wives, parents and children, and bosses and employees ought to relate to one another. Churches emphasize family in a big way. To me it seems like it’s a Christian Inquisition every time the subject comes up: Are you married (yet)? Are you dating somebody? If you are, do you have plans to marry? Why are you dating them if you aren’t going to marry them? So, when are you going to have kids?
The second idol I tend to see has a couple of different names – but they’re related: Complementarianism, Gender Roles, Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, etc. Because churches emphasize family, they also emphasize our roles in the family unit. In the ancient world that looked like the husbands being in authority (as they were the social, spiritual, business, legal etc. representative) and their wives being in submission (as they were usually unable to conduct business or be out in public). This causes the churches today to agree with that teaching and emphasize the man as the head of the wife and the woman as being submission unto the authority of her head – her husband. Some elements of this teaching also emphasize that the role of the wife is that of the home-maker and raising children, while the husband ought to be the one who works to support his family.
Both of these idols support each other – but they don’t fit everyone. They don’t fit non-traditional families, single people (never married, widows, and widowers), divorced and remarried families, or families with believers and unbelievers. It’s as if the church disregards Jesus’ words on finding a spiritual family in favor of preaching a message from mixing up Paul’s advice as if to say: “bring your family along for the ride, each of you must fulfill your gender role and God will bless your family for your obedience.”
That idol is held up by the ‘Literal & Inerrant’ idol that used the Bible to define the exacting parameters a true Biblical family must match and the roles that each member must fulfill to live God-approved Christian lives. This one is pretty useful for getting rid of anyone who doesn’t see the Bible as literal or inerrant. Without it, then the other idols no foundation upon which to be placed.
But there are any number of smaller idols – positions about doctrine, or through which lens one understands Scripture, or a favored teaching to the exclusion of all other possibilities – these are ones that each of us have to fight against as they’re always on the shelf of our minds or in the pocket of our hearts. I’m sure I have quite a few that I have to consciously fight against turning to as the thing through which I understand God – but I have to be able to see them for what they truly are to do so. While these idols are invisible, they are much harder to to recognize. Some are even disguised by clever Bible teaching, but they still tend to serve as distractions from God and that’s what makes them idols. What we really need is to cut out the middle-man approach and focus on the direct approach – as the point of Jesus was not to have to go through someone or something else to get to him. Jesus said more than once that knowing Him was one and the same as knowing His Father – I can’t think of anything more direct than that.