Home > Biblical Theology > The Pious Hoax About Idolatry

The Pious Hoax About Idolatry

“Idolatry” literally means the worship of images.

It does not mean “putting things before God.”

People say, “If you are putting a relationship, or a job, or success, or music, or anything else in place of God, then you are an idolator.”

Sometimes they will go on to say, “So we are really all idolators.” It makes for good preaching if you are trying to produce a big altar call with lots of tears. But here’s the thing. It’s not biblical. It’s a pious hoax.

It might be sin, but it’s not idolatry

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for being challenged to search my heart to see if God is really first. But it’s not a matter of idolatry.

Idolatry means there’s an image. And you’re worshiping it.

It can be the image of a false god.

Or it can be a false image of the true god. And any image of the true god is a false image.

The exception

The only exception is Colossians 3.5, where greed is called idolatry. Wait, greed? And nothing else anywhere in the Bible? Why? Why that sin?

I suspect it comes from Matthew 22.17-21. Jesus is asked if they should pay taxes to Caesar, and in so doing he would be implicitly siding with the Romans. Jesus asks for a coin. Apparently he wasn’t carrying any money with him. I know that feeling.

“Show me the money used to pay taxes,” he says. They show him a Benjamin. Technically it was called a Denarius, and it was worth about a day’s wages for a field worker. So a Benjamin is probably a good equivalent by today’s standards.

“Whose image and whose inscription is on it?” he asks.

“Benjamin,” they say. Okay, my attempt to make it contemporary has completely broken down and failed at this point. Actually it’s “Caesar” they say. But it meant to them what a Benjamin means to us.

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s.”

But notice the question Jesus asked them. “Whose image?”

When you pursue money, you are metaphorically putting an image before God. Of course we all know it’s not literal worship. Except that it kind of is. And that’s the play that Paul is making in Col 3.

Greed is idolatry because you can’t serve both God and Benjamin.

Photo credit: Arian Zwegers

Categories: Biblical Theology
  1. September 24, 2012 at 9:59 am

    Good catch. I’ve been mildly annoyed about this idolatry meme for a while now. The sins that get re-categorized as idolatry are bad enough by themselves, and people are often stuck dealing with them. Adding the idolatry tag is an attempt to ratchet up the guilt- quite likely to ignore the completely incompetent job Christians are doing at building a decent society in which people can avoid some of this stuff.

  2. September 24, 2012 at 11:07 pm

    Thanks August. I am especially interested by your final sentence and the conclusion you draw from it. In what areas do you think Christians are most incompetent? How do you see this playing out in society?

  3. September 25, 2012 at 11:07 am

    Family formation. We have largely accepted a lot of feminism and hold college in an esteem it simply does not deserve. At the very time women are most fertile, and therefore the time women who purport to serve the God of the living would be getting married, they instead toddle off to get indoctrinated. Credentialism tends to give rise to yet another unfortunate phenomenon, where these girls with college degrees- as well as their mothers (and maybe grandmothers since they tend to divorce, waste money, and can’t actually go be grandmothers like they used to)- are in the work force competing with men, which therefore lowers offered wages to the point where it is hard to get enough income to provide for a family.
    We have accepted this prolonged adolescence (a phase in life only recently created), which is completely unnatural. People tend to seek out coping strategies in unnatural situations- oftentimes these coping strategies are sinful. A good society removes this adolescence, rebukes feminism, and draws on St. Paul’s instruction.

  4. September 25, 2012 at 10:41 pm

    Interesting. I agree that family formation is important. That’s why we homeschool instead of entrusting our children to be raised by the government.
    I am concerned, however, that your stand on college and feminism is merely rejecting one culture for another. There is nothing anti-biblical about women going to college. Nor is there anything anti-biblical about women in the work force, which, btw, strengthens the economy rather than lowering wages offered to men.
    On the other hand, the Bible is very clear that parents are responsible for raising their children. I wish more women understood the high calling of motherhood, that staying home to raise children is not a second-class calling. I can’t honor my wife enough for choosing to leave her job in order to stay home and school our children. She has her master’s degree in Microbiology, but that did not stop us from having seven children after we got married when she was in her late 20s. So I can assure you that loss of fertility due to college is most certainly not the issue.
    You write, “…it is hard to get enough income to provide for a family.” 23 million people are unemployed in America right now, but for the most part they are still talking on their cell phones and watching football on their flatscreen TVs. Provision is rarely the issue. Standard of living is. Jesus said to seek first the kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things (food and clothing) will be added.
    Thanks for commenting.

  5. September 26, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    I think the wage information is out there. You may have to adjust for inflation (shadowstats.com points out today’s $100 is 1970’s $16.93) in order to see it, but the basic premise holds true anywhere- double the workforce, and wages go down. If we have a bumper crops of oranges, well, the price of oranges go down too.

    College is not the only way to learn, nor are modern career tracks the only way to work.

    I do think your last paragraph comes dangerously close to the same sentiment that those who hurl the word idolatry around, though. We can continue on, with no radical change, because people are watching T.V., much like the people turning everything into idolatry can just add charges to the warrant against their weaker brethren, not help them them get into a better situation, and never think about how best to help people avoid such sins altogether. St. Paul never specifically mentions college, but from his writings I’d suspect he’d frown on the current practice. He did mention getting certain people married young, though I suppose we think we know better since we have such a wonderful science in psychology.

    • September 29, 2012 at 12:25 am

      August, thanks again for your comments.

      First off, it’s just not true that “double the workforce and wages go down.” At least not in the long run. That is because the economy is a complicated system, and when you add more laborers to the system, the system can produce more. Moreover, you end up with more people who are able to spend money, which further stimulates the economy.

      Let me put it this way: if women left the workforce, it is true that my company would have to pay higher wages to the men in order to keep the positions filled. We would then pass those costs on to the consumers, who would have to pay more for the products they buy. Consequently they would not buy as much, and my company would not be able to keep as many of those men employed. Multiply this effect throughout the system, and you end up with many unemployed men, which consequently drives the wages down.

      Conversely, more people in the workforce may initially mean lower wages, which translates to lower prices (because of competition), which results in more sales, leading to higher wages. It is simple economics.

      I agree that college is not the only way to learn, and modern career tracks are not the only way to work. Because of my cultural background, I happen to believe strongly in the value of college, though I’m not nearly as committed to “modern career tracks.”

      I don’t see the connection between my statement about TV and my argument about the overuse of idolatry. I was merely making the point that the United States is a prosperous nation, so prosperous that (among other things) nearly everyone has technology that even the most privileged people in the world lacked just a generation ago.

      My question to you is, why do you assume that people should have to wait until after college to get married? Most college students are “shacking up” with each other already anyway. Why can’t students who are committed to righteousness do the same thing, but instead do it in the context of holiness and a lifelong marriage covenant with one another?

  6. October 7, 2012 at 8:51 pm

    I saw this and wanted to respond. It was over-long for a comment, so I placed it on my own blog.


    Take are & God bless

    • October 8, 2012 at 11:22 pm

      Thanks for the comments WF. I left my reply on your blog.

  7. Steve Mac
    November 18, 2012 at 3:05 am

    I really appreciated your blog post. I to find it frustrating how quickly every sin is cast as idolatry, especially when the speaker does it to demean things that are presumably (or debatably) acceptable for Christians to enjoy in moderation, but that he or she does not value (e.g., sports, politics, vocational work, formal education, hobbies, pets, etc.). I’ve heard it cast onto other things like insurance, medicine, food, or other basic essentials.

    It is like suggesting that a plane does not fly because of a “gravity problem.” I think it obscures more than it reveals. As you suggested, it may be reasonable to assume that a person desires “X” more than God, and thus sins by that orientation, and by the direct sinful act. However, it breaks down when “X” itself is not a sinful desire, or the person doesn’t sin in their acquisition of “X.”

    I’ve been personally criticized because I went out on a date without praying about it. Using Frames’ concept of perspectives (from “Doctrine of the Knowledge of God”, Ch 2., Section E) that from the Bible, my own desires, and my knowledge about the world, I decided to go for it. I was told I “idolized” relationships over God. I said, “It is OK to desire a spouse. It is OK to meet people to see if they may be acceptable. I have the tools of insight to do that. If I can’t trust myself to decide based on what I know, I can’t trust myself to know if my feelings are informed by the Spirit, the Word, or any other source.”

    I’m always encouraged when people who want to live a Christian life demand a higher degree of scholarship from authorities (parents, ministers, elders) or peers, whose interpretive error, unjustifiable application, or distillation of the text unnecessarily constrains believers more than God, or the Scriptures, intend.

    I’ve always had trouble with the mainstream interpretation of the temple incident with the coin as being a blanket obligation to pay taxes. I found an interesting argument at (http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig11/barr-j1.1.1.html) that I found really enticing, suggesting that there is much more nuance in Jesus’ exchange with the scribes and Pharisees. The web host is a libertarian thinker, but his guest blogger makes a good argument that I think illuminates the text with historical knowledge, and a 30AD Jewish perspective that I didn’t have.

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