Preachers love powerful metaphors. A popular one today, in some circles, is to call sin idolatry. It is as old as the New Testament where Paul calls covetousness idolatry (Colossians 3:5). But Paul was doing it in the context of literal idolatry. When all sin is analysed as idolatry, the concept of idolatry is undermined and the metaphor loses its power.
In the world, both ancient and modern, people use statues, artefacts and religious rituals to worship false gods. They also use false representations, made by the arts and crafts of human imagination, of the true and living God. So outside of Christianity there are charms, crystals and statues, offering of fruit at the shrine of the ancestors and burning candles, incense and joss sticks. And inside Christendom there are still people who approach God by means of all manner of statues and icons, rituals and techniques of worship, incense and candles.
The classic of Old Testament idolatry was the golden calf. By it the people represented the gods who brought them out of Egypt and had a feast to Yahweh (Exodus 32:4-5). It was just the very thing that God had forbidden in the commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4).
Idols always fail because they misrepresent God. By his word, God has revealed himself as the powerful creator and sovereign king of heaven and earth – the loving Father in whose image humanity was made. But idols are always dead, immobile, dumb (in both senses of the word) and powerless. The idolater has to care for and carry his idol while God cares for and carries his people. At every significant point the idol is dissimilar to God and so misrepresents him.
Idols also fail because, as aids to worship they are a disobedient alternative to the worship of God in spirit and truth. The only ‘way’ to God is by his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ (John 14:6), no other way needed. The risen Lord Jesus poured his Spirit, the Spirit of his Father, into his people so that Christians are the temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19, 1 Peter 2:4f). Pure and undefiled religion is visiting widows and orphans in their affliction and keeping ourselves unstained by the world (James 1:27) for living righteously has always trumped living religiously (Isaiah 66:1-5).
Idols also fail to recognise God’s plan for humanity especially the Lord Jesus Christ. Just as a statue misrepresents the living God it also misrepresents the creatures made in his image and likeness. Romans 1 points out the folly of humans worshipping things less than themselves. Just as Jesus has a wonderful play on words when he asks “whose image (icon) is this” on the coin and challenges us to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s while we are to give to God what is God’s. Ultimately the failure to see the image of God in humanity results in the rejection of Jesus who is “the image of the invisible God.”
But does this mean that we should never create artwork that in any way represents this world? Christians are not forbidden visual representation of the world and are not committed to an aesthetic wilderness. The beauty of Islamic geometrical designs puts a lie to the accusation that opposing idolatry commits one to aesthetic impoverishment. While the Bible’s teaching warns us to consider the power of the visual – it does not forbid art per se. Indeed there are artefacts described in the Scriptures even in the temple of Solomon. And even in the wilderness God directed the making of the bronze serpent and called upon those bitten by a serpent to look to it as Moses held it up (Numbers 21:9). Yet this is a cautionary tale, for the bronze serpent, that symbolised Jesus being lifted up for our salvation (John 3:14), became an idol that had to be destroyed in Hezekiah’s day (2 Kings 18:4).
So when does a work of art become an idol? The old litmus test was to remove it – if nobody complains it holds little significance for them and can be returned but if people complain it probably is an idol. Of course it depends on the nature of the complaint. But when people say that they cannot worship God without the object it certainly has become an idol for them. That is why ‘religious’ art in church buildings, which are associated with a concept of worship, is considerably more dangerous than the same artwork hanging in a public gallery.
However, the simple litmus test of removal is not the only indicator of idolatry. Over-reacting to questioning can indicate an idolatrous commitment. The over-reaction is usually expressed in an unwillingness to listen to the question and to accuse the questioner of rejecting the practice wholesale. So to question the suitability of a particular artwork is taken to indicate a complete rejection of all art. The questioner is deemed a Philistine or Puritan iconoclast of limited experience and a narrow unspiritual mind. Over-reaction like this is often an indicator of dependency on something other than Christ.
Such over-reaction also helps understand the usefulness of seeing our attachments as ‘idolatry’. For today there are certain touchy subjects, for example miracles, music, emotions, career, that are often met with the over-reaction: “you do not like or believe” in miracles for today, or the value of music, or the place of emotions or the role of work. These are not matters of sin, but if our attachment to them is too great they can be expressions of idolatry. And idolatry is sin.