My ObjectionLet's start first with the Ten Commandments, the parts about other gods:
You shall have no other gods before me.If we were to place something before God but make no image of it, it would still be idolatry in a real sense. "Having no other gods before God" is commanded here, just as plainly as not making such an image. Serving a god besides God is plainly called wrong, and I have no doubt this would hold true even without an image. For example, I have no doubt that this command would apply to pagans who served Bacchus or Aphrodite or other gods even if there were no images involved. So serving another god is itself considered wrong, whether or not there are images involved.
You shall not make yourself any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:
You shall not bow down to them, or serve them. (Exodus 20:3-5)
Next, Paul on the subject of greed:
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. (Colossians 3:5)And Christ on the same subject:
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24)
Mr Jones argues that the real reason greed is called idolatry is because money has images on it:
Show me the tribute money. And they brought him a coin. And he said to them, "Whose is this image and superscription?" And they said to him, "Caesar's." (Matthew 22:19-21)I have to say plainly that I disagree with the reasoning that "greed" is called "idolatry" merely because the coins had images. Greed is not called idolatry only when it applies to something with an image on it. Greed might desire gems that have no image on them, or on gold that has not been minted into coins but is only a bar of precious metal. Paul said nothing to show that greed is only "idolatry" when it applies to things that are marked with an image. If we were to look back to the Ten Commandments for reasons that Paul might call something idolatry, I can see several reasons:
- Having another god before God;
- Having idolatrous images;
- Serving another god.
From there, it seems a safe conclusion -- the intended conclusion -- that greed is idolatry even if it attaches to things like jewelry that have no image on them.
That means "idolatry" is a legitimate concern for other things which take our devotion away from God, where we serve something else before God.
Why It Matters
Mr Jones described some preaching he has heard:
Sometimes they will go on to say, “So we are really all idolators.” It makes for good preaching if you are trying to produce a big altar call with lots of tears. But here’s the thing. It’s not biblical. It’s a pious hoax.There's an implication that the "idolatry" accusation is being used by the preacher as theatrics, to produce a show -- and that an essential part is the "lots of tears" -- that is, inducing guilt. A commenter to the original post says as much:
The sins that get re-categorized as idolatry are bad enough by themselves, and people are often stuck dealing with them. Adding the idolatry tag is an attempt to ratchet up the guilt ...I have seen and heard my fair share of bad preaching over the years. I have no doubt that some preachers would use the accusation of "idolatry" to "ratchet up the guilt" as the commenter says, or "produce a big altar call with lots of tears". It is a manipulative thing, and it is right to object to the manipulation. Under the circumstances, another sad thing is that the "altar call" may sometimes be theatrics, not mercy. (My denomination doesn't do altar calls; this cuts down on the theatrics, though without necessarily improving the preaching.) If an altar call makes us rededicate our lives to God, there is a risk that we have rededicated ourselves to works-righteousness.
The reason I bothered writing this post is that I think there's a far better way to react to guilt than by trying to soften the accusation against us. It is better to turn to Christ -- and, sadly, here I'll have to make clear: not in the manipulated "don't you feel even guiltier now" kind of way that Mr Jones was so right to object to. There is a certain kind of preacher who may believe that guilt-tripping repentant sinners is a holy thing and part of his calling; there is something fundamentally sick about that. Should a preacher never try to create guilt? Let's say that if someone has no conscience it is the preacher's job to help revive it, and if someone has no sense of what is good and holy, then it is the preacher's job to build that up. Most people can tell the contrast by themselves, from there. (It is one of the most effective ways of discrediting the church, making a culture where nothing is holy, and then persuading the church to try to fit into that culture. Peoples' consciences will die for lack of hope that there is a better way.)
But for those who are already aware of their sin, it is not the preacher's job to increase their misery in their guilt. It is the preacher's job to show how faithful Christ is in forgiving us, how steady his promises are, how unwavering his faithfulness is. Even when our devotion to Christ may have slipped when we were tempted, it is the preacher's job to remind us that Christ's devotion to us did not slip. It is the preacher's job to explain why we can hope in Christ, and how trustworthy that hope will prove, and how love casts out fear. It is the preacher's job to hold up all of Christ's acts of mercy and forgiveness, and his promise of the Last Day.
That is, I think, the right response to finding out that some things we do can, in fact, be compared to idolatry.