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.

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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.

Now we may not worship this goddess in the traditional manner. But it is not too much to say that our radical allegiance to self and independence is idolatrous worship, nor that such worship manifests itself in extravagant offerings of money spent and relationships sacrificed—even the sacrifice of the unborn. And if we worship freedom, we may become the personification of Libertas, unable to experience healthy dependence on God and others, even as others find they cannot depend on us. Freedom can ironically enslave us, crippling our service to God and others.

The temptation to idolatry is multifaceted and ever-present, and therefore must be fought without respite.Harmonizing Keller, Wright, Beale, and Scripture leads us to three antidotes: (1) the identification of idols and their attractions; (2) the embrace of the gospel and its idol-destroying promises; and (3) the worship and imitation of the One True God rather than false gods.

(1) The battle requires shrewd awareness of the ways in which we are seduced and influenced by culture and its gods. As Wright notes in The Mission of God, "False gods destroy and devour lives, health and resources; they distort and diminish our humanity; they preside over injustice, greed, perversion, cruelty, lust, and violence. It is possibly the most satanic dimension of their deceptive power, that in spite of all this, they still persuade people that they are the beneficent protectors of their worshipers' identity, dignity and prosperity, and must therefore be defended at all costs. Only the gospel can unmask these claims." Keller likewise emphasizes the gospel as antidote.

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(2) We begin to destroy the power of idols by believing the good news of all that God offers his broken human images in the person and work of his Son. In Christ we receive a new adopted identity as God's beloved children who are assured of acceptance, forgiveness, resurrection life, and a global inheritance. This identity is available apart from success, popularity, creativity, and wealth. God gives redemption despite our failure, poverty, and spiritual barrenness. He holds out proof of his love in the bloody death of Jesus for sinners, in his life-giving resurrection, and in the empowering gift of the Spirit of adoption.

(3) Beale's thesis notes the possibility of "becoming what we worship" for ill and for good. "All of us are imitators and there is no neutrality," says Beale. "We are either being conformed to an idol of the world or to God." In the final chapters of his book, Beale begins to explore this neglected strand of biblical teaching: those who worship the God of Israel become like him, increasingly fulfilling their destiny as they conform to the righteousness and holiness of God and the Son who is his perfect image (Matt. 5:48; Rom. 8:29; Eph. 4:23–24; 4:32–5:2; Col. 3:5–10).

The essence of repentance is not just belief, sorrow, or the passive acceptance of forgiveness. Repenting of idolatry involves actual turning, a change of one's mind and service away from idols and toward the worship and imitation of the Father and Son.Wright summarized the task in his reflections on Lausanne 2010: "Few things can be more important for the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ than that those who claim his name should be like him, by taking up their cross, denying themselves, and following him in the paths of humility, love, integrity, generosity, and servanthood."

As Bob Dylan said, "You gotta serve somebody." Fueled by gospel promises and freed from slavery to dead idols, Christians choose to worship and imitate the one true God and his Son. As they do so, they are changed, and they begin to reflect the glorious likeness of the self-giving God and the resurrected, ruling Son (2 Cor. 3:18).

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Theology in the News columns include:

Redeeming Bonhoeffer (The Book) | The problem with Eric Metaxas's portrayal of the German hero as an evangelical. (February 7, 2011)
Heresy Is Heresy, Not the Litmus Test of Gospel Preaching | It's time to put aside this abused "badge of honor." (January 24, 2011)
Muslims in Evangelical Churches | Does loving your neighbor mean opening your doors to false worship? (January 3, 2011)