What is the greatest threat to Christian mission and world evangelization? At the recent Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa, Christopher J. H. Wright cited the idolatry of believers as the greatest obstacle to world mission. In his sweeping text The Mission of God, Wright details idolatry and opposition to mission in Scripture, and he applies the insights from his book in his critique of contemporary idolatry. Thanks to Wright's work and recent books on idolatry by Tim Keller (Counterfeit Gods, reviewed by CT), Brian Rosner (Greed as Idolatry), and Greg Beale (We Become What We Worship), the specter of idolatry is growing in size on the radar screen of many evangelicals.
In an essay written in advance of his book, Rosner defines idolatry as "an attack on God's exclusive rights to our love, trust and obedience." The rejection of physical images served as an important boundary marker for early Jews and Christians. But in the Bible, "idolatry" was not limited to opposition to images, because our love, trust, and obedience run to principles and gods even if they are not associated with a physical idol. So sexual immorality and greed are tied to idolatry (Col. 3:5; Eph. 5:5) even though they do not always involve a tangible image.
Idolatry is dangerous because it almost always involves the offer of good things as substitutes for God. Wright highlights three pairs of idols: power and pride, success and popularity, and wealth and greed. Keller similarly highlights money, sex, and power, noting that even churches and efforts in ministry can become idols.
The main thesis of Beale's biblical theological study is, "All humans have been created to be reflecting beings, and they will reflect whatever they are ultimately committed to, whether the true God or some other object in the created order.Thus … the primary theme of this book, we resemble what we revere, either for ruin or restoration." This theme is succinctly found in Psalm 115:8: "Those who make idols are like them; so are all who trust in them" (cf. Ps. 135:18). Throughout the Old Testament this theological principle leads prophets to taunt Israel's enemies or Israel herself: they are just as blind, deaf, mute, and hard-hearted as their lifeless wood and metal gods, for those who worship idols will mirror their traits.
Application abounds. David B. Hart excises a vivid illustration from the ancient world:
Atargatis, the "Syrian Goddess," was a demanding mistress. For one thing, her priests (the galli) could win their way into her affections only by emasculating themselves.
According to the De Dea Syria, attributed to Lucian of Samosata, any young man disposed to dedicate himself to her service in Hierapolis had to make this first and most extravagant oblation on one of her high holy days, in a fit of divine ecstasy, with a single economic slash of a sacred sword kept at her temple.
Now, admittedly, we all do our best to lay up treasure in heaven, and I suppose one ought not to cast too many peremptory judgments on other people's pieties; but I think most of us can agree that this was a fairly exorbitant sum to place in escrow on an uncertain bargain.
Cults like Atargatis flesh out the important theme summarized by Beale. When worship involves slicing off the ability to reproduce, the worshiper becomes as impotent as his goddess, who is a dead idol unable to create or sustain life.
Closer to home geographically, ideologically, and temporally, we find the same effect. The most famous statue in the United States is the Statue of Liberty. Many Americans are unaware that the image atop the base is the Roman goddess Libertas.