Are there good things that Christians have turned into idols?
Love God with all your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself. The entire Law and the words of the prophets hinge on these two commands.” This was Jesus’s response to the question, “What is the most important commandment in the Law of Moses?”
From the Garden of Eden to the streets of Jerusalem, from Adam to Jesus, through the wilderness, the Promised Land, and captivity, this is the “one big thing.” Every stroke of a pen. Every word uttered from the mouth of every prophet. It’s all summarized in two short sentences.
Love God. Love your neighbor.
Look, I understand the Pharisee’s question. His intentions are evil, but his question makes sense. The Law contains hundreds of commands. Several prophets wrote books in the Bible. We have more commands than China has people with the last name “Chen.” We can’t possibly obey every command. Which one is most important, Jesus?
His response is a metaphorical mic drop. He leaves this Pharisee speechless.
You see, Jesus wasn’t playing philosopher with this Pharisee. His answer isn’t a riddle. It’s not “Love God. Love your neighbor. And/But/Or…” Jesus actually gives this Pharisee the most important commands.
Love God. Love your neighbor. The greatest commands. The church’s mantra. The Christian’s motivation.
Satan understands this. When Christians devote their lives to loving God and loving others, Satan’s glory is diminished. So, what does he do? He shifts our focus, slightly. Rather than “Love God. Love your neighbor” he tempts us to add something. So, the mantra becomes “Love God. Love your neighbor. Love the Bible.”
Seems harmless, right? Just a slight shift.
Don’t tell a pilot slight shifts don’t matter. If you took off from the equator, one degree off your target line, and traveled around the world, you would miss your original target by 500 miles!
Here’s the point. If you ignore slight shifts, they become huge problems. In the case of a pilot, you miss your original target by a distance spanning the state of Tennessee (and some). In the case of a Christian, good things become idols.
The church is tempted to elevate many things to idol status. Some of those things are really good. But, as Tim Keller says, “Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things.”
Anything that competes with total devotion to God and service to our neighbor is detrimental to the church. Here are 7 things the church loves more than God.
1.) THE BIBLE
The Bible is the most important book in the history of the world. The Bible is alive and active in the hearts of those who read it. It pierces the heart, exposing darkness, and illuminating the perfection of God.
But…the Bible is NOT God.
The Bible reveals the character and nature of God. The Bible shows us the glory of God and the redemptive framework underlying all of humanity.
But…the Bible is NOT God.
The Bible is both timeless and timely. Every word in the Bible is truth, transcending cultures, kingdoms, and time. The words in Scripture guided men thousands of years ago, and they guide us today. It’s relevant. The Bible speaks directly into the issues of our day. It speaks directly to us, in the midst of both suffering and joy.
But…the Bible is NOT God.
Growing up, I knew a lot about the Bible. I memorized a lot of Scriptures. I read my Bible most days.
But I didn’t know God. I didn’t have a relationship with him. I wasn’t in love with God. If you challenged the Bible, you might as well have said, “Hey Frank, your mom is fat, and you are an illegitimate child.” The Bible was an idol. I don’t think I’m alone. Here are a few signs the Bible is your idol.
You feel guilty if you don’t read your Bible every day.
You read certain verses in an attempt to prove other Christians wrong.
You believe the Bible is black and white on every issue.
If you discovered inconsistencies in the Bible, you would question God.
You don’t know the difference between a relationship with God and reading the Bible.
This isn’t my attempt to degrade the Bible. This is my attempt to elevate the One every word points to. If the Bible disappeared, God would still move in the hearts of his people. When Jesus returns, the Bible will disappear (at least, the Bible as we know it). But God will remain. Forever. Don’t rely more on the Bible than on God.
Trivia question: What’s the most viewed page on a typical church website? Answer: the “What We Believe” page. Don’t ask me for stats. Just refer to a time when you church-browsed.
When looking for a church home, most Christians “narrow the field” by investigating a church’s beliefs and comparing those beliefs to theirs. This makes sense, right? Until our beliefs about God impact how we love God and others.
But aren’t all doctrines universal and unchanging? In theory, yes. In reality, no. Some Christians believe speaking in tongues is evidence that you have the Holy Spirit. Others believe speaking in tongues ceased after the apostles. Still others believe the Holy Spirit is God’s word, the Bible. What about baptism? Some Christians believe baptism is essential for salvation. Others think it’s an important component of salvation. Still others don’t think it’s important at all. Some Christians believe baptism by total immersion is the only legitimate method. Others practice sprinkling as a form of baptism. The list goes on and on.
Here’s the point.
Doctrines are truths about God. They are unchanging, yes. But the men who interpret them aren’t. So, what happens is different perspectives on truths about God.
Truths about God are great. I think it’s productive and healthy to read the Bible and other sources, then formulate our beliefs about God. But things get dangerous when our understanding of God becomes THE understanding. This happens when we focus more on being right than obeying the greatest commands.
If we place more value in a church’s beliefs about God than their devotion to God and their neighbor, that’s a problem. Don’t attend a church because they believe a certain way. Attend a church because they love and serve God.
For years, I thought the term “false doctrine” meant any belief that differed from mine. Through the lenses of the greatest commands, false doctrine is any belief or conviction that doesn’t drive you to love God and love your neighbor.
False doctrine is any belief that doesn’t lead you to love God and your neighbor.
3.) WORSHIP STYLES
Several months ago, in the midst of the Supreme Court Decision on gay marriage, I invited my gay neighbor to a college Bible study. After a great discussion on responding to the LBGT community as followers of Jesus, my neighbor said something that shocked me.
“Even though gay marriage is a controversial issue in our church, the most divisive issue we face today is worship style.”
His statement makes me wonder, “Is worship an idol in the church?” Corporate worship constitutes a few hours every week. Yet, it is the epicenter of divisiveness and church splits.
Instrumental or acapella? Full band or piano and choir? Lights and smoke? Preaching directly from Scripture or topical preaching? These aren’t inherently bad questions. But they’re not questions worthy of dissension and disunity among God’s people.
Are we expending more energy and passion fighting (or defending) a worship style or the God to whom our worship is directed? Here’s a more pointed question. Are we more concerned with protecting our style of worship than loving our neighbor?
So, what’s the response? Think more highly of others than ourselves. When considering worship styles, let’s consider our lost neighbor more than our personal preference. Let’s consider how to magnify God’s glory rather than fight about which worship style we like best.
4.) DENOMINATIONAL TIES
Growing up, the church you attended was just as important as the God you served. In other words, you couldn’t love God and not attend a Church of Christ. Occasionally, Tiffani and I encounter college students crying because they wanted to attend a church with a different name on the door, but they are scared their parents will no longer believe they are Christians.
Shame on us for making a church name more important than God’s glory.
Many younger Christians of all denominations experienced the isolation and division accompanying unhealthy denominational allegiances. And, in response, they want to see denominational walls fall. They realize that the church isn’t determined by a name on a sign, but by a man on a cross.
The church isn’t determined by a name on a sign, but a man on a cross.
And I praise God for this shift. Denominations aren’t inherently bad, but they aren’t inherently good either. If my association with a group of Christians hinders my allegiance to God, I’m throwing out the association.
Love God. Love your neighbor. That’s it. Denominations aren’t evil. But they’re not essential.
Change is a two-sided idol. On one side is the group who responds to change the same way they respond to a curse word, mouth covered in disbelief. Change is evil. It’s accommodating to culture, and to this group culture is the enemy of God. These churches would rather die in their bubble than change a program, ministry, or philosophy.
The next generation is a threat to this group because they are different. And different leads to change. So, every year, the average age of these churches increases. For this group, change is an idol. It’s not a bad thing to cautiously engage change. But refusing to engage it violates the greatest commands, specifically the one about loving our neighbor.
But there’s another side to this coin. It’s the group who believes change is essential. This group changes for the sake of change, not for the sake of reaching their neighbor. I have witnessed this personally. A church decides to become progressive for the sake of being progressive. Or conservative for the sake of being conservative. Every action is a response to another church, not a response to their neighbor who doesn’t know Jesus. This is also idolatry.
Change is important. Nothing created by God stays the same. At the same time, change, whether it’s a new ministry or a new building, must be filtered through the greatest commands, loving God and loving our neighbor.
This past week, I ate dinner with some Christian friends. During our meal, someone referenced a recent discussion where the teacher asked, “What’s the purpose of a pulpit minister (or lead pastor, teaching pastor, etc.)?”
One lady raised her hand and said, “A mascot.”
There’s a thin line between keeping it real and saying too much. She crossed it.
But, she wasn’t lying. In our spotlight-driven culture, church growth is often dependent on the fame of your preacher. Many churches adopt the culture’s blueprint for growth. And, as my dad says, “Son, you made this decision. Now, you gotta dance wit’ the gurl you brought.”
Look, I confess. I’m guilty of this. If I’m visiting a big city on the weekend, I worship at a church with a famous pastor. But I’m not alone here. “Who’s your preacher?” is often the first question we’re asked about our church. Preachers are mascots.
When we elevate a human being, whether a preacher or a school teacher, at or above God, the inevitable result is destruction. When people abandon their faith after discovering their pastor’s moral failure, that’s an unhealthy devotion to a human being. When people place unfair (god-like) expectations on pastors, and pastors feel they must cover their imperfections, that’s unhealthy.
Preachers aren’t mascots. They shouldn’t be elevated above those they lead. As a church leader, I struggle with anxiety, depression, failure, and inadequacies just like everyone else. I don’t deserve any special praise. I know my heart. It’s wicked. And only by God’s grace am I allowed to write, speak, or disciple others towards God.
Let’s elevate God. He can handle any expectations we throw on him.
How can the Bible be inspired by God and not say a word about VBS, short-term missions, or Sunday school? How did the church in Acts flourish without church programs? The answer is simple. They were dedicated to loving God and loving their neighbor.
The church doesn’t need programs to thrive. Many (not all) churches create programs that never impact people. Rather than an on-ramp for a deeper relationship with God, programs become a frustrating roadblock to God.
Programs should be on-ramps to God, not roadblocks.
We can’t be more concerned with our programs than the people our programs are created to reach. Growth isn’t measured by numbers on a page. It’s measured by men and women becoming more like Jesus.
Again, I’m guilty. Programs trump people too often in my ministry. God is using this season without a job to remind me that ministry is about people. One day I will answer for how I lead the bride of Jesus Christ, the church. If all I have to show for my years are amazing logos, catchy titles, and well-designed programs, I can’t imagine God saying, “Well done, Frank. You’re so creative.”
Programs are only valuable when they impact people. Make sure everything ministry, program, and event challenges people to become more like Christ. Get on the ground. Don’t create a program in a boardroom and never leave your office to see whether it impacts people.
Programs should always be an on-ramp to God, not a roadblock.
Anything or anyone can become an idol. Most Christians avoid the obvious idol (sex, money, drugs, etc.). But Satan doesn’t need obvious idols to distract God’s people from the “one big thing.” He only needs to shift our focus slightly. If you’re a follower of Jesus, spend time discerning whether the greatest commands are the most important commands in your life.
I love you all. To God be the glory forever. Amen!
Devoted follower of Christ, college/young adult minister, husband to @tiffanipowell, dad to Noah and Micah, avid blogger/writer, sports fan. You can follow him on twitter, Facebook, and read more blogs here!
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