Addressing Idolatry in the Church

Nobody likes to be uncomfortable. How often do you avoid uneasy situations and conversations because they’re uncomfortable? How often do you spend money or sacrifice time to have more comforts in life? Or how often do you rely on innovative technology to help you do things quicker and easier so you can get back to your own comforts? 

Comfort is the driving force behind many of our world’s motivations, innovations, and pursuits, even for Christians. A recent Lifeway Research study revealed more than half of U.S. Protestant pastors believe comfort (67%), control or security (56%), money (55%), and approval (51%) are idols that have significant influence in the church.

G. K. Beale says idolatry is “whatever your heart clings to or relies on for ultimate security.” And he adds J. A. Motyer’s explanation that it’s “whatever claims the loyalty that belongs to God alone.”

If comfort is the number one idol among congregations, how can pastors do the uncomfortable work of helping church members identify and destroy their idols?

1. Identify your own idols

First, you must identify the idols in your own life. You cannot lead someone where you have not been yourself. Calling a congregation to destroy the idols you are clinging to yourself is the epitome of hypocrisy. And people will see right through it. They won’t heed your words because you are not heeding them yourself.

Before he did the mighty work God called him to do and lived up to his calling of being a “valiant warrior” (Judges 6:12), Gideon had to tear down the idols his father had erected (Judges 6:25). You and I must do the same. 

This is particularly challenging for American pastors as we are surrounded by wealth, freedoms, and vast resources. We need to constantly reevaluate our lives and ministry goals to see if our motivations are more driven by our culture or by the gospel of Jesus.

2. Properly worship God

God didn’t only tell Gideon to tear down his father’s altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it. He also told Gideon to build an altar to the Lord on the mound where idols were once worshipped and with the wood of the Asherah pole (Judges 6:26).

In his book Identity and Idolatry, Richard Lints expounds upon the idea of comfort and materialism as core idols of our time. He reveals how worship can help tear down those idols in the church: “The worshipping relationship to the triune God restrains the idolatrous intentions of possession and consumption, and as it restrains them it causes the worshipper to become an alien of a sort in the wider culture of consumption.”

When it is rightly centered on God, worship rightly reorients our pursuits and affections. But if our worship is man-centered (worshiping God primarily for what He does for us rather than who He is), we may be practicing idolatry even as we seek to worship God. John Calvin said, “For what is idolatry if not this: to worship the gifts in place of the giver Himself?”

We must take our gaze off ourselves and earthly things and set our minds on things above (Colossians 3:2). God is worthy of our worship whether we are well fed or falling apart, whether we have freedoms or are oppressed, and whether we like the worship style in our services or not.

Make sure your church’s worship is oriented toward the grandeur of God, not the feelings of man.

3. Tell the truth

Paul tells pastors, “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; correct, rebuke, and encourage with great patience and teaching. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear what they want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:2-3, CSB).

It can be easy to think pastors preaching to itching ears are soft on the sins of the world. But it is just as true of pastors who are soft on the sins of their congregations.

It’s more comfortable to preach about how bad the world is and ignore the dark places within the hearts of the people you’re face-to-face with and living among each week. But your church needs to hear the truth, in love, about the state of their hearts and how it’s affecting their lives. Those sermons may not get as many amens, but they give God much glory and do your congregation much good.

4. Encourage self-examination

For many Christians, comfort has become so common that it’s no longer recognizable as an idol.

In 1976, Francis Schaeffer wrote in How Should We Then Live?that the two driving values of society and culture were personal peace and affluence. He defines these, stating:

“Personal peace means to just be let alone, not troubled by the troubles of other people, whether across the world or across the city—to live one’s life with minimal possibilities of being personally disturbed…Affluence means an overwhelming and ever-increasing prosperity—a life made up of things, things, and more things—a success judged by an ever higher level of material abundance.”

Not much has changed in 50 years—or even 2,000. Just as the church in Corinth was unaware of all the ways the decadent culture around them was creeping into the church, the same is true in our churches today. The apostle Paul pled with the Corinthian church, “My dear friends, flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14, CSB). He then exposed some of their blind spots and encouraged them toward self-examination in their worship (1 Corinthians 11:28).

Just as we balance our checking accounts, pastors should encourage their congregations to balance their lives. People spend time, money, energy, and thoughts on things that matter most to them. We need to help Christians identify what they are spending their lives on as well as what they are filling themselves with.

Lead your congregation to contemplate whether they are storing up treasures on earth or being rich toward God (Luke 12:21). Create space in your church services for confession, silence and solemnity, and contemplative prayer.

Confronting idolatry

God takes idolatry very seriously. He is a jealous God (Exodus 20:5, 34:14). Therefore, we must also take it seriously. May we identify and tear down the idols in our own lives, and may we help the church rightly worship God for who He is and not just what He can do for us.

J. Haywood

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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