For Christians, the Biblical injunction against worshipping false idols is crystal clear: "I am the Lord your God ... You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them (Deuteronomy 5:6-9a)." So the question isn't whether or not Christianity permits idol worship, but how that prohibition applies to modern, Western Christians who are not given to practice idolatrous rituals as did many ancient religions. Idolatry is no trivial matter for Christians but carries grave, long-term consequences.
In the Christian mindset, there is only one true God who alone deserves all their love, loyalty and honor. Any act of worship or reverence directed toward any other object, person or entity is, for the Christian, an act of idolatry. Holman Bible Dictionary expands on this: "It also includes impure, improper or other inappropriate acts directed toward the worship of the true God." John Witvliet, professor and director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, writes that the definition of contemporary idolatry [is] "worshipping false or distorted conceptions about God."
Why is Idolatry Forbidden?
Understanding God's intrinsic character clarifies the Christian prohibition against worshiping false idols. The Bible tells Christians that God is perfectly good, honest, loving and trustworthy, full of both mercy and justice. He is the first and last word on any matter -- what He says, goes. With this in mind, it is easy to see how ancient religions that portrayed many gods and goddesses engaged in feuds, deception and intrigue, or being manipulated by human trickery or good deeds to serve human agendas, would be offensive to the one God of Christianity. Because He is sovereign, not merely a powerful, magical creature who grants favors and wishes, He expects the respect due a transcendent Creator, not to be reduced to a pawn to human desire. In addition, ancient idolatry involved rituals which practitioners believed made their magic work. But Christians who try to obligate God to do their bidding through quid pro quo exchanges or heartless ritual find that it doesn't end well, explains Earle Craig, a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary and a Bible teacher in southern California, who serves on the board of governors of Gutenberg College. God expects Christians to direct their worship to Him alone in response to His character and what He has done for them, not try to control Him as a magical genie.
What Constitutes an Idol for Modern Christians?
Many things pull on a Christian's time and demand attention and value: work, family, friends, hobbies. These are all good things and have a place in a healthy Christian's life. Pursuing excellence or enthusiasm in these does not automatically equate to sin, explains Professor David C. Steinmetz, a specialist in the history of Christianity with Duke Divinity School. But anything that draws more devotion from a believer than God Himself becomes an idol. Professor Steinmetz elaborates further: "Whatever we treat as God, as Martin Luther pointed out, is God for us. Whatever we put in the place of God, however noble or praiseworthy it may be, is nevertheless an idol."
Consequences of Idolatry
Deuteronomy 5:5b-6 conveys the seriousness of God in forbidding the worship of false idols and the urgent importance of avoiding the sin of idolatry. It paints a picture of generational consequences wherein the parent's rebellion against God creates a vicious cycle of inherited troubles that affects his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Much like patterns of alcoholic dysfunction that run in families, the fallout from idolatry continues until someone makes a conscious decision to stop the destructive patterns and return to worshiping the one true God the way He instructs Christians to worship Him.
- Tufts University: Idolatry and Iconoclasm
- Vanderbilt University: The Dispute Over Food Sacrificed to Idols
- Northwest Nazarene University Wesley Center Online: Spiritual Idolatry
- Boston College: Jewish Perspectives on Christianity
- Brigham Young University: Values of Christian Families - Do They Come From Unrecognized Idols?
- The Schechter Institutes: Interfaith Prayer
- Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images