[This post is part of the Idolatry series]
Of all the musings on idolatry up to this point, this one that hits rather close to home for me personally. So while in some other instances I have been pointing out problems from the outside in, this one comes quite frankly from the inside out.
It was while I was attending a bible institute this actually became an issue for me. With the advent of a distinct understanding from God that I should pursue a life of ministry, most likely in a vocational sense, came the constant temptation to then make an idol out my study of God and my work for Him.
The idea comes from Ezekiel 14 and has been spoken on by Mark Driscoll (which you can listen to here) and also written on by Paul Tripp in Instruments in the Redeemers Hands. If you want an more extended discussion of what I’ll hit on here, watch the Driscoll video as it helped spawn this whole series in the first place (alongside Ortlund’s and Beale’s books, see the initial post).
Anyway, the idea is that for many of us who do not think of ourselves as being as interested in the things of this world like other people, and who are generally focused on our studies of the Bible and theology and the work of the ministry, we too can make idols out of our interests, however sanctified those interest might be.
If you live for ministry opportunities instead of living for God and knowing him, you are just as much as idolater as the people you are trying minister to who live for things like sex, money, or power.
If you live for the pursuit of theological knowledge and insights and the latest breakthrough in Biblical studies, you are just as much an idolater as the Pharisees were because that is exactly what they did.
And that is what I tend to do.
So how can you tell if this is you?
First off, just a caveat, the pursuit and enjoyment of learning theology is not a bad thing in and of itself, much like having a high regard for the Bible is not bad in and of itself. It is the pursuit of the Christian life, which is not to say it is the only pursuit, but it is the fuel for all other fires. But that being said, this is what makes it all the more easy to idolize. It much easier to stop short of worshiping Truth in the person of Christ and simply become a disciple of truth in the abstract sense, whether from Biblical revelation or the result of sound theological reasoning. This manifests itself when one champions truth rather than embodying grace and truth. In other words, seeking to be right rather than Christlike.
That in mind, the second thing to consider is that conflict is where this usually comes to a head. Until presented with a conflict in which you strongly disagree with someone doctrinally, you might not be afforded the opportunity to see whether or not this is your idolatrous bent. How you respond to a conflict shows evidence of your true loyalty, either to the person of Christ or to having right theology. Now in loyalty to Christ you should strive to have correct theology, but once again, if you stop short you can worship your theological system more so than the God it is attempting to make known.
So how does this play out?
If you tend to value being right over being loving or gracious, this probably applies to you. If you tend to “demonize” those who believe differently than you, that is, your argumentation against a particular doctrine is peppered with ad hominem attacks against your opponents; then you have probably “glorified” your theological position and so must “demonize” anyone who holds an alternate position. If you value theological arguments that ultimately serve no purpose, or you use what you know to frustrate those who know less than you, you are probably an idolater of correct theology rather than a worshiper of Christ. If you over zealously seek to correct bad doctrine whenever you see it, and usually succeed tactlessly, then this applies to you. If you tend to resent others who might encroach on your intellectual territory, you probably value being the sole arbiter of truth in a particular community of believers and in doing so are failing to love and show grace to those who may possess the ability to prove you wrong in an argument.
I know all of this of course because I either do things like this repeatedly or have done so at some point in the past. I could name names of others just as guilty as I am, but that would make this whole post vacuous and hypocritical. I’ll simply call attention to the problem, repent of this myself daily, and maybe the Spirit will use what is written here to expose the idols of others hearts as well.
This idea of having idols that have been taken into your heart first appears in Ezekiel 14 when the elders of Israel (the ministry leaders) come to Ezekiel seeking a word from the Lord. Ezekiel speaks the word of the Lord to them telling them that God is not interested in talking to them because of their unrepentant idolatry and so their ability to minister to others is failing accordingly.
This is no less true today and many of us who run into roadblocks in our ability to minister are probably guilty of having taken our idols into our hearts and they have become a stumbling block to us, blocking our vision and keeping us from seeing things clearly:
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn away your faces from all your abominations. For any one of the house of Israel, who separates himself from me, taking idols into his heart and putting the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to a prophet to consult me through him, ‘I the LORD will answer him myself. And I will set my face against that man; I will make him a sign and a byword and cut him off from the midst of my people, and you shall know that I am the LORD'” (Ezekiel 14:6-8 ESV)
As much as we may seek to throw stones at some theologians or pastors and label them heretics, it is we who are the heretics in action by not repenting of our idolatry. Luther’s first of the Ninety Five Theses that he nailed to the Wittenburg church door states that the whole of the believers life is to be repentance. If this is indeed true than those who do not repent are just a heretical as those who can’t get the gospel right. While the Emergents may stumble and be unable to rightly explain the Gospel or even distort it, along with other vital areas of doctrine, it is the error of some that while rightly pointing that out and attaching the label of heretic, we are unwilling to wear the name tag ourselves when we live like heretics by not continually repenting of our idolatry.
Heretic is a fluid category that one can drift in and out of both doctrinally and practically. Before being so quick to label one a heretic because of their explorations of doctrine (which may change) we should remember our own heresy in behavior (which also changes). The irony in all this is that in being to quick to point out someone else’s heresy in a doctrinal sense, you may be exposing your own heresy in an idolatrous behavioral sense. All this is speck and log theology all over again. Which again, who was Jesus talking to when he went into that?
Well it was the Pharisees of course.