At the end of his first letter, the apostle John reviews a number of Christian certainties, with sentences beginning ‘we know’ (1 John 5.15-21). Among them is a statement which we often forget, or ignore, as children of God: ‘we know that the whole world is under the control of the evil one’ (v.19). Whenever we are surprised or overwhelmed by the tidal waves of godless rebellion sweeping through our culture, we have forgotten what we ought to know and to expect. But a couple of sentences later, this knowledge is applied to our living, with John’s concluding exhortation: ‘Dear children, keep yourselves from idols’ (v.21).
Exchanging truth for lies
Idolatry has always been a major means by which the devil keeps the unbelieving world in his grip. From the time that Adam and Eve capitulated to his subtle invitation to ‘be like God’ (Gen 3.5), we human beings have always wanted to exchange the truth of God for lies and so to worship and serve ‘created things rather than the Creator’ (Roman 1.25). The way we do it is by idolatry, because worshipping what we invent or construct is ultimately about worshipping and serving ourselves, and that is what our sinful hearts most desire. We are not willing to let God be God.
When these issues are addressed in Christian teaching they are usually personalised, and quite rightly too. We are challenged to search our hearts and to see where we are still treasuring our idol shrines, which inhibit us from whole-hearted obedience to the Lord. It is healthy exercise for growing Christians. But we don’t always see how ingrained idolatry can be in our corporate structures, since the church is called to a radically different witness in a hostile and evil world.
A billion dollars
Recently, I was in Brazil where there was massive media coverage of the opening of ‘Solomon’s Temple’ in Sao Paulo. This is a mega church – seating 10,000 attendees – for a mega city, an 11-storey complex which took four years and cost about 300 million dollars to build. The building is patterned on the biblical temple, but the dimensions are much greater. It is the vision of Edir Macedo, the 69-year-old founder of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (1977), whose media empire has caused him to boast that he is the richest pastor in the world – worth well over a billion dollars. Yet all around Sao Paulo there are shanty towns inhabited by the poorest of the poor.
This is religion as idolatry, for the glory of man in the name of the glory of God. We may stand aloof, assuring ourselves that we would never fall for such blatant idolatry, but we might be wise to identify its characteristics and examine whether their roots are to be found in our own corporate church cultures.
Firstly, there is an obsession with outward impressiveness, evidenced by the sheer size and ostentatious display of wealth in the building. Here is the so-called visible proof that the prosperity gospel really works! Huge amounts of gold, massive imports of the finest stone, all contribute to a ‘wow factor’ which is off the scale. It is all impressive enough for the President and many leading figures of Brazilian national life to be present at the opening.
Denying Jesus ever came
Next, it is motivated by competitiveness. Its massive structure is twice the height of the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio, which was commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church. This is a statement that charismatic Protestantism has arrived in Brazil and is powerful, as attendance rates soar, while the Catholic Church is clearly in decline. But, perhaps most significantly, it represents a desperate search for credibility and authenticity. In a return to the artefacts and even the clothing of the Jerusalem temple which held the world in awe in its day, there is an attempt to claim a right of succession to its influence and power. In the absence of clear biblical theology, the vacuum is filled by impressive ceremonies and rituals as though Jesus had never come.
Are we guilty too?
Religious idolatry is an always present threat and we know it is powerful wherever Christ and his work is sidelined in favour of the church and its image in the contemporary culture. It will be motivated by competition (my church is more successful than yours), by a commitment to impressing the world on its own terms, rather than living it on Christ’s terms. It will seek acceptance and approval of the world, rather than being crucified with Christ (Galatians 6.14).
We need to look within. The seeds are ready to germinate in all our hearts. ‘Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.’