When think of idolatry, it’s not uncommon to think of those things that take us away from the Lord. And certainly, that is what idolatry does. Usually, when it’s addressed items assigned to idolatry include career, hobby, politics, sports, etc.
As a side note, I think we should be clear of what idolatry is and what it is not. I typically hear this explanation: it’s anything we worship more than God. But what does that mean exactly and how does that square with Scripture’s treatment of idolatry? If we look at both Old and New testaments, I don’t know that this vague description really covers it. Idols took the form of gods in which people placed their hope and trust for existence in life. And while we can become self-absorbed in careers or sports, loving a thing is not necessarily idolatrous in and of itself.
I appreciated this description in my Bible encyclopedia, which succinctly captures the heart of idolatry;
Idolatry was the embodiment of human desire and thought. Idols, though made of many shapes and sizes, really represented the image of man, for they expressed his thoughts, desires, and purposes.
Those wooden statues in ancient times meant something more than just the object but provided the allusion of safety and security for one’s life. It gave people a sense of satisfaction. Of course, we don’t have little wooden statues that we bow down to. But keeping in mind what idols were in the ancient world, the “thoughts, desires, and purposes” translate into what we place our confidence in. Therefore, the warning against idolatry needs to go beyond just something we love more than God.
Given this definition, I think there is a form of idolatry that goes undetected: spiritual idolatry. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there is something idolatrous about the Spirit of God. God forbid! Rather, spiritual idolatry is elevating ideas about God over what he has already revealed to us and placing our thoughts, desires and purposes in them. Spiritual idolatry is taking concepts that sound spiritual and might even sound holy but deviate from authentic Christian message and putting our faith, hope and trust in them.
A clear picture of this is found in 2 Corinthians 10-11. Apparently, there were these “super-apostles” (translated false apostles) traipsing about maligning Paul and treating his apostolic testimony as an insufficient representation of Christianity. These super-apostles were fully immersed in Greek culture which elevated appearances and eloquence of speech. You can see this in Paul’s defense;
For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” Let such a person understand that what we say by letter when absent, we do when present. Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding. (10:10-12)
We can get a further glimpse in vv. 13-16, that this commending of themselves was based on an extension beyond Paul’s apostolic authority. To be clear, this apostolic authority was sourced in God’s selection of Paul as an eyewitness to the authentic message of Christianity and God’s revelation through the work and person of the Son. These super-apostles disdained the message and messenger because of perceived inferiority.
And I think this clues us in to how this type of idolatry works today. There are those who have designed a spectacular form of Christianity. They are not content to rest on what God has already revealed in his word but they must add on to it, typically with some new and innovative thought about what God is really doing (because they have more insights). They will malign churches they don’t think measure up to their super ideas perhaps because those churches strive to maintain faithfulness to the testimony of Christ found in Scripture and the feeding of his sheep. These churches don’t look like they are supposed to look according to these glitzy ideals. The “super-apostles” of our day will toss them aside as not really doing enough because they will deem their presentation to be weak by worldly standards, but their message and embodiment of that message translate into the other-worldly kind of kingdom activity prescribed in Scripture.
The wording and tone of Paul’s letter in which God is speaking to his church is a clear indication that the church of Corinth was being lured and swayed by these super-spiritual posers. But even though they said spiritual sounding things, they were grounded in worldly ideas about the nature of Christianity and what it was supposed to look like. That’s why Paul’s statement is so powerful here, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,” (10:5). Why? Because, these Christian sound philosophies detract from pure devotion to Christ and place emphasis on elevating ourselves.
But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough (11:3-4)
In our day and age, it is so easy to be captivated by glitz, glamour and persuasive speech that comes in the form of large platforms that various media channels can turn any spiritual sound idea into a credible looking form of Christianity. With the plethora of books, podcasts, blog posts and ministry sites available at the touch of a few keystrokes, it’s easy to allow our own thoughts, desires, and purposes to gravitate towards non-Christian philosophies that disguise themselves as legitimate. Sadly, even pastors can perpetuate this idolatry by creating new forms of spiritual ideas that have no basis in the whole counsel of Scripture and the historic witness of Christianity. In the end, it distracts us from devotion to Christ and elevates our desires for our own sense of satisfaction apart from rest and hope in the all sufficient sacrifice and reign of Christ.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians warn us that any message that deviates from the faith that was handed down once for all time (Jude 3) is that which can lead us astray. It encourages us that we must be diligent about the Christian faith, continually seeking and asking if what we believe aligns with the historic and faithful message of Christianity or are we being allured by a deviant message because it looks and sounds good. We must guard against any idea, thought or desire that aims to exalt itself against Christ, the true knowledge of God! Because otherwise, we can succumb to the kind of spiritual idolatry that captivated the Corinthian church. This is the hidden deception of spiritual idolatry.
And what I am doing I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. (11:12-15)