On idols

Some time ago, I posted here regarding the difference between the first and second commandments. I argued that idolatry is best understood as anything that changes, obscures or alters the true character, or nature, of God.

It is worth noting that the incident of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32 was not an exercise in worshiping a false god per se. The people said “This is your God who brought you up out of Egypt!” (Neh 9:18) and simultaneously dedicated the following day “a feast to the LORD” (Ex 32:5). The people were not attempting to worship another god. Rather, they had changed the character and nature of the true God so that they were, in fact, worshiping a false image. The list of idolatrous behaviours in Col 3:5 is such because, as Christians, we are called to be Christlike and pursue godliness. In indulging such behaviour, we suggest God’s character is in line with these things. We change God’s character and worship a false image.

Now, it wouldn’t be false to say those things that vie for our affections are idols. If we suggest the key to our happiness and fulfillment lie anywhere other than in God, we may not put these things before God but we certainly fall foul of the second commandment. In effect, we suggest God cannot, or will not, meet our particular need and thus we change his character and obscure his nature. If we put this false image before God, we would then fall foul of the first and second commandments simultaneously. Yet, those things that vie for our affections, and by which we suggest God will not meet our needs, are modern day idols. They may not be before God but they are nonetheless gods we worship and seek as a means of fulfilling particular needs.

What is worth bearing in mind is that an idol is only an idol so long as we treat it like an idol. If Paul’s comments in 1 Cor 8:4-6 and 1 Cor 10:19f teach anything, it is that idols are nothing. They are either lumps of clay, pieces of wood, bits of stone, moulded metal or conceptual ideas. What they are not is gods.

This is an issue with which many people tie themselves in knots. I have a bust of C.H. Spurgeon on my office desk. Most people rightly conclude this is not an idol – I don’t worship it, I don’t find any fulfillment in it and I don’t believe, nor act, in any way to suggest it is a god. Now, suppose it wasn’t C.H. Spurgeon but was one of those Buddha statues, or one of those Hindu deities. Presuming I treat it the same way as my Spurgeon bust, are these any more idols to me?

We may want to have a discussion about the wisdom of associating yourself, as a Christian, with the idolatrous statues of false religion. It may not be helpful to people coming into your home and may lead to all sorts of conversations that are not particularly profitable. However, Paul is clear, in and of themselves, they are nothing and have no power.

I knew somebody who was given a Hindu statue by a colleague (it was a genuine gift in an attempt to be thoughtful). They concluded it would be wrong to smash it to bits, or throw it in the bin, in front of their colleague. I think they were right. In fact, I think – partly because they decided it wouldn’t be helpful to display and partly because it was so grotesque – to shove it in the garage out of the way. Did they invite evil into their home? I don’t think so. Did they engage in idolatry? I don’t see how. Were they sinful to have this thing in the house? No. Paul is quite clear idols are nothing. They have no power. They are simply lumps of clay, wood, stone or metal. It would certainly be wrong to worship these things but an idol is only an idol so long as you treat it like an idol.

If you believe these statues have some sort of power, if you think you are inviting evil into your home by keeping one (perhaps having been given it), ironically you are being idolatrous. You are investing into a lump of material the characteristics of God. You are making out that something God says is nothing is actually really powerful. 

Again, we may want to have a discussion about the wisdom of associating yourself with such things. But that is not a sin issue. That is not an issue of idol worship. It is purely a matter of sensitivity and that which is helpful to others in the gospel.