5 Signs of Idolatry in the Church

Are we committing idolatry through our worship?
Are we committing idolatry through our worship? (Lightstock)

The greatest sin in the Bible by far is the sin of idolatry. Idolatry is when we violate the first of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20), which is "You shall have no other gods before me."

It is when we put something or someone first in our lives before the living and true God. Idolatry is the root cause of all other sins, which is why the first two commandments deal with this.

While the church today is focusing on various sins related to human sexuality and lifestyle choices, many in the church who might not fit into these two categories might be deluded into believing they are OK, even though they might be breaking the greatest commandment.

The following are signs of idolatry in the church. These are based on my perspective of serving as a lead pastor for 30 years as well as extensive extra-local apostolic ministry to churches.

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1. The idol of celebrity preachers. There are believers who run all over the country attending conferences of well-known preachers. Often, when they meet them in person, they fawn all over them and almost faint. Some well-known ministers cannot even go out in public without constantly being stopped by admirers so they can take "selfies" with them. (Since I know and have worked with many of them, I have seen this firsthand.)

Although I am a proponent of having a culture of honor and respect for those leaders who labor among us (Heb. 13:7-17), some people have stepped over the edge into idolatry. They follow everything they say without question and irrespective of scandal, and do not search the Scriptures themselves to see if what is preached aligns with God's Word.

When Cornelius met the Apostle Peter and bowed down before him, Peter rightly told him to get up, that he was only a man like himself (Acts 10). There is nothing wrong with emulating or following a leader, but there is something wrong with idolizing a Christian leader.

There is such a pervasive "celebrity preacher" culture in the body of Christ today that some megachurches and enterprises have literally closed down when their celebrity preacher stepped down. If churches and ministries would build according to the New Testament pattern, in which the whole body exists to minister and to edify one another in love, then we would not depend merely upon one leader for the congregation to function (Eph. 4:16; 1 Cor. 12). 

2. The idol of worship/entertainment. There are many believers who flock to churches that have skilled singers and music primarily to be entertained. Consequently, many believers don't realize they are putting self-gratification and entertainment before true worship.

Years ago, many churches would not even have musical instruments and people would flock to churches anyway, even though the congregation only used hymnals and sang a cappella for worship. Now, it is very common for pastors to budget large amounts of money to pay for professional singers and musicians in order to fill their church services with people.

In my opinion, even though we are called to worship with excellence and skill, we have gone too far in the church and have mingled as a core value the entertainment culture of the world. At the end of the day, whether we have worship performed by professionals, use merely a recording, or sing a cappella, congregations should worship and adore Him just the same, in spirit and truth, which is the only kind of worship God seeks (John 4:23-24).

Those who leave their local churches to attend other churches with better "worship" in my opinion are often guilty of idolatry since they cannot worship God from their hearts without being entertained by professionals.

3. The idol of personal prosperity. There are believers whose main motive is to use their faith to leverage influence with God for personal gain. Although God delights in blessing all of his children (3 John 2), Jesus told us to seek first His kingdom and righteousness for our material needs to be added to us (Matt. 6:33).

Many attempt to use the benevolent character of God to live a myopic life in which Christianity orbits around the universe of self. God has given us power to get wealth so we can spread his covenant to the whole earth, not merely so we can live a life of ease. Using our faith to put our own needs first is a form of idolatry, in my opinion.

4. The idol of objectifying God. Although this point is similar to the previous point, I feel there is enough of a distinction to make them separate. Through the years I have seen many in the church preach and promote an "I," "me," "my" culture. For example, much of the preaching deals with self-actualization, fulfillment and therapy rather than sound biblical theology calling believers to live a life of service. Pastors have often fed into the cultural idolatry of the people in order to attract people into the church, something that displeases God (read Ezek.l 44:10-12).

I have observed there are too few "cross-carrying" disciples attending churches, but many use God when they need Him. For example, many come to church to "feel" the presence of God, but are not committed to knowing and loving the "person" of God. Many come to church merely to feel good instead of being equipped to do good works (Eph. 2:10).

Many come to "get a word" instead of coming to "give a word" of edification to someone else (Is. 50:4; Eph. 4:29). Many come to listen to rhetorical messages that excite the emotions with no intention of walking out the word. Many come to shout amen, psychologically being deceived into believing that, because they shouted, they have already obeyed. Consequently, there are many believers who live no differently than their unbelieving neighbors, which is why megachurches are not always "megacultural" influencers, and why church growth doesn't always result in personal and societal transformation.

Although many have attended church for decades, they have never matured and are still drinking pabulum, having never digested the meat of the word (1 Cor. 3:1-3).

5. The idol of ethnicity. There are many believers who have allowed their ethnicity and culture to trump the word of God. Jesus said culture is even stronger than the word of God in some people's lives (Mark 7:7-8). Consequently, people read the Scriptures through their Caucasian-Western, Afrocentric lens, Hispanic or Asian lenses.

One of the most important things to do in regards to receiving the Word of God for personal transformation is to attempt to take ourselves out of our own cultural context and read the Bible through the eyes of the author's original intent, which is something only the Holy Spirit can accomplish. There is no such thing as a Western European Caucasian Bible or an Afrocentric Bible, etc.

We need to stop reading the Scriptures merely through our ethnic lenses because, in actuality, the Bible was written with a Hebraic mindset, and it is foolish to think we can fully understand it with our contemporary ethnic mindsets. Consequently, believers often act and react no different from non-believers in regards to things that happen in contemporary society. For example: White, black and brown believers have generally reacted far different from one another when it comes to interpreting immigration reform and the tragedies of the recent Michael Brown and Eric Garner deaths.

Truly, I believe that the gospel is so powerful that it is possible for diverse Christians to come together with one voice and prophetically interpret, speak, and bring solutions to these painful and controversial issues.

God is not colorblind since He made humans black, brown, yellow, red and white in his own image. Hence, he designed us to have distinctions in culture regarding food, dress, language and other things based upon ethnic nuances. However, these distinctions are not where believers should derive their primary identity or anchor their biblical ethics. For in Christ there is neither male nor female, black, white or brown, for we are all one in Christ (Gal. 3:28).

When our ethnic thinking trumps our biblical thinking, we are guilty either of ignorance or ethnic idolatry. Unless or until the body of Christ gets over its idolatry according to ethnicity, we will never become the generation that can disciple the nations (which refers to ethnic people groups as shown in Matthew 28:19).

Since there is no neutrality, either the church will disciple the nations or the nations will disciple the church.

Joseph Mattera is overseeing bishop of Resurrection Church and Christ Covenant Coalition in Brooklyn, New York. Visit him at josephmattera.org.

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