Idols of our Time

Thirty years ago, Ted Turner, founder of CNN and the Turner Broadcasting System, declared the Ten Commandments to be outdated.  As a substitute he offered the “Ten Voluntary Initiatives” (voluntary initiatives, being less offensive to modern ears.)

During an interview at the time, he cited the second commandment as evidence of the Decalogue’s obsolescence.  “No one worships idols anymore,” he said, apparently unaware of the more than a billion Hindus on the planet. 

Not being the keenest of Bible students, he was equally unaware of the fact that idolatry comes in many forms besides its most obvious varieties.  One needn’t literally bow down before an image carved in wood or stone to be guilty of this primeval sin.  The essence of idolatry is to give the first place in our thoughts, affections, and decision-making process to anyone (or anything) other than God. 

Not many of us are tempted to worship the gods once revered in ancient Canaanite temples or were thought to inhabit Mt. Olympus, or Oden or Thor of Norse mythology.  But this doesn’t necessarily clear us of idolatry because whatever is loved, feared, trusted in, or obeyed more than God has, in effect, become an idol to us.  No matter that it’s not traditionally thought of as a deity.  If we love it (whatever it is or whoever it might be), if we fear it, trust it, or obey it more than God, it has taken the place of God in our thoughts and affections.  Paul assumes this principle when he tells us that covetousness makes an idol out of money. 

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you:  sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which his idolatry.
— Colossians 3:5

Jesus made the same point in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24).[1]  This is what the rich young ruler discovered (Matt. 19:16-24).  Although he boasted that he had kept the commandments from his youth, Jesus showed him that he had not even kept the very first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3).  When forced to decide between his riches and following Jesus, he chose his riches. 

It doesn’t matter whether the thing idolized is officially called a god or not.  It’s the regard we have for it – and thus the influence it has over us – that matters.  Paul says that for some, “their god is their belly” (Phil. 3:19; cf. Rom. 16:18).  He means they are ruled by their bodily desires.  They are governed by their instincts and appetites.  They do whatever makes them feel good in the moment. 

It’s possible to sinfully idolize one’s own family.  How so?  By loving them more than we love the Lord, or by fearing to alienate them more than we fear to alienate him, or by allowing them more influence in our decision-making than the Lord himself has.  Jesus said,

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
— Matthew 10:37

We ought to love the members of our family very dearly, but we must never love them more than we love God, nor have any greater loyalty.  The Lord commended the tribe of Levi for standing with him when their own families stood against him. 

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us.  As for this Moses…we do not know what has become of him.”
— Exodus 32:1

And Aaron yielded to their request.  He made them a golden calf and “they offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings.  And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play” (Ex. 32:6).  And when Moses came down from the mountain, he was furious, and he said,

“Who is on the Lord’s side?  Come to me.”  And all the sons of Levi gathered around him.  And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.’”  And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses.  And that day about three thousand men of the people fell.  And Moses said, “Today you have been ordained for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day.
— Exodus 32:26-29

When it came down to a choice as to whether they would side with God or with the disobedient members of their own family, they chose God, and they were rewarded with a special access to God and a special divine service.  Moses would refer to this forty years later. 

Give to Levi your Thummim,
        and your Urim to your godly one,
whom you tested at Massah,
        with whom you quarreled at the waters of Meribah;
who said of his father and mother,
        “I regard them not”;
he disowned his brothers
        and ignored his children.
For they observed your word
        and kept your covenant.
— Deut. 33:8-9

They were obedient in what must be regarded as the most difficult test of obedience possible – and they were rewarded for it.  They were given a special divine calling.

They shall teach Jacob your rules
        and Israel your law;
they shall put incense before you
        and whole burnt offerings on your altar.
— Deut. 33:10

Those who love husband or wife, father or mother, son or daughter, more than God are not worthy of him.  They make an idol out of their family.  That may not be their intention, but that’s the effect.  We must always side with God.  Always.  Even if it means siding against the members of our own family.  How much more so if it means siding against our friends, our co-workers, our political party, or whatever we perceive to be in our own self-interest? 

We must also side with God even if it means siding against our own lives. 

Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 
— Matthew 10:38-39

We have a natural, God-given impulse to love the members of our own family as well as a natural, God-given impulse to preserve our lives.  Yet we must love neither more than we love God.  This is put in a rather startling way in Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus says,

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
— Luke 14:26

He doesn’t mean that we are to have a positive hatred for them.  We aren’t to feel any malice toward them.  This is an idiom that expresses comparison.  In practical terms, when it comes down to a choice between one or the other, the one chosen is the one loved, and the one not chosen is the one that by comparison is hated.  
We get into trouble whenever we elevate a relative good to the position of an absolute good, or a relative allegiance to the level of an absolute allegiance, for then we have greater regard for a creature than we do for the Creator (Rom. 1:25).  This is the essence of idolatry.  To absolutize something is to deify it, to make an idol of it.[2] 

Idolatry and the State
Many people idolize the state.  In the ancient world, this was often done literally.  The ruler of Egypt, for instance, was considered the embodiment of Ra (the sun god).  Obedience to Pharaoh was obedience to Ra.  The Romans deified their emperors.  They established an imperial cult, with a priesthood and religious rituals including the offering of sacrifice and incense to the image of Caesar.  Until its defeat in WWII, the Japanese viewed their emperor as divine, and one of the requirements under the terms of surrender to the United States was that the emperor renounce all claims to divinity.  

All modern statist political philosophies also, in a sense, deify the state.  A statist political philosophy is one that makes the state the central and supreme organizing principle of society.  Perhaps no one summarized this philosophy better than Mussolini when he described fascism: “Everything within the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.”  But this is true of other statist philosophies, as well, whether fascism, socialism, democratic socialism, communism, and its softer sounding, but just as totalizing progressivism.  The state is the be all and end all of life; it’s the highest expression of human will and the arbiter of truth and morality.  In addition to Mussolini’s, “Everything within the State, nothing outside the State, and nothing against the state,” we could add, “Nothing above the state and nothing beside the state.”

Idolatry and Ethics
It should be noted that something like idolatry is committed when we make anything other than God’s word the standard for ethics.  As Rushdoony demonstrated so convincingly in his massive tome The Institutes of Biblical Law, “In any culture the source of law is the god of that society.”[3]  But what is true of society is also true of the individual.  The source of an individual’s ethics is that person’s god.  

It sometimes happens that people idolize abstract ethical principles.  This is done when a principle is absolutized by not admitting of any exceptions or qualifications. 

There is no doubt that freedom is a good thing.  As Americans, we make much of it, as we should.  But freedom has its limits.  It must always be balanced with public order and the protection of other people’s rights.

Perhaps you have heard the story of the man who was arrested for assault and battery for punching another man in the nose?  He asked the judge if he didn’t have the right to swing his arms in a free country.  The judge said, “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.” 

Freedom has its limits.  We’re not morally or legally free to commit assault and battery, nor any one of a number of other things that harms our neighbor.  But people often speak of freedom as if were an absolute right with no exceptions or qualifications.  This is the issue when it comes to the subject of abortion.  What do those who advocate for abortion call themselves?  Pro-choice.  Sounds very lovely, doesn’t it?  It does, until you inquire about what is being chosen—the killing of an innocent human being.  But this is what we come to when we idolize freedom, idolize choice.

Free Speech
We also make much of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, as we should.  It’s an essential element of our liberty.  But is free speech an absolute right—the right to speak whatever we want without any qualifications or exceptions?  What about falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater?[4]  What about false advertising?  The product label says 32 oz of peanut butter, but it contains only 30 oz.  Can we commit fraud and justify it on the basis of our right to free speech?  How about slander or bearing false witness in a court of law? 

Would those who do these things be justified by saying, “I was just exercising my right to free speech”?  We recognize that there are – and there must be – certain limitations on speech.  God himself imposes limitations when he forbids lying (Lev. 19:11; Col. 3:9), slander (Lev. 19:16; Col. 3:8), and false witness in a court of law (Ex. 20:16; Matt. 19:18; cf. Deut. 19:18-21).

Free speech is not an absolute right.  But we should be quick to add that acknowledging this doesn’t give any aid or comfort to leftists on campus or in the media or in big tech who try to shut down conservative speech because, contrary to their claims, the articulation of conservative ideas does no harm to anyone.  It is not the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater.  It puts no one in danger of life or limb.  It defrauds no one.  It commits no injustice to anyone.

The right of free speech is a rightly cherished principle of liberty, and we must be firm in our defense of it.  But at the same time, we must not absolutize it, lest we forget its proper, divinely imposed qualifications. 

Freedom of Religion
The same must be said of the freedom of religion.  The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” 

The first thing to say about this is that it was written within a certain historical context.  In order to understand it properly, we must understand it in that context.  That context was a newly formed union of Christian States, each of which had its own laws respecting religion and certain religious tests for elected officials (belief in the Triune God; acceptance of the Old and New Testaments as the word of God; adherence to the Protestant religion; etc.).  The Founders wrote into the Constitution a guarantee that Congress (the law-making body at the federal level) wouldn’t make laws that would interfere with state laws concerning religion.  The Founders, we must emphatically state, were not seeking to establish a secular federal government; they were seeking to leave to each state the right to have its own religious requirements.   

It’s also important to remember that when the Founders spoke of religion, they had Christianity in mind.  The guarantee of the free exercise of religion was specifically a guarantee to practice the Christian faith.  There were only 1,000-2,000 Jews in the U.S. at the time and probably no more Muslims than you could count on your fingers.  The Founders were thinking in terms of the different varieties of Christianity (Episcopal, Congregational, Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran, etc.). 

Do you think they would have guaranteed the free exercise of religion if there had been a large number of Aztecs who practiced human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism, or a large number of Muslims who practiced jihad?  Should we guarantee the free exercise of religion in these cases?  Should we allow honor killings in the name of the freedom of religion?  Should we allow the administration of Sharia law in a Muslim community that requires chopping off the hand of a thief?

A legal right to the free exercise of religion makes sense within a Judeo-Christian framework – but to apply it outside that framework can lead to all kinds of trouble.  There must be limitations and qualifications which must be determined by the teaching of Scripture.  Someone will say, “But you’re giving Christianity a place of legal privilege.”  Yes, that’s right, because Christianity is true, and the God of the Bible defines our freedoms and limitations in these and in all other matters. 

The Free Market
The free market is the greatest engine for the creation of wealth and the betterment of society that exists.[5]  But just because a market exists for something doesn’t mean that that particular market should be allowed.  The African slave trade existed for centuries because there were plenty of people on both sides of the Atlantic willing to buy and sell their fellow human beings.  But it was a sinful market through and through.  Today there is a market for fetal tissue harvested via abortion, as sinful and wicked a thing as can be imagined.[6]  

Several years ago, I was campaigning for a candidate who was running for state office, and went to several towns in our district to speak to other pastors to recommend this pro-life candidate to their congregations.  I talked to one pastor who asked if our candidate was against the death penalty.  I said no.  He said, “Well then, he’s not pro-life, is he?” 

The term “pro-life” also has its own context and meaning that this man ignored.  The moniker has to do specifically with the matter of abortion, and by extension with the protection of all innocent human life from conception to death by natural causes.  But he was drawing a moral equivalence between taking the life of the innocent in the womb and taking the life of the guilty.  This is a false equivalence and certainly contrary to the teaching of Scripture.   

It is true that Scripture teaches us to safeguard human life.  This is evident in the sixth commandment, forbidding murder (Ex. 20:13) and other passages requiring us to guard against causing death by careless or negligent behavior (e.g. Deut. 22:8).  But Scripture also warrants the taking of human life in cases of self-defense (Ex. 22:2), war[7], and capital crimes (e.g., Ex. 21:12-14). 

Science & Technology
Some people make a god of science by adopting it as an epistemological principle that whatever is not capable of being studied by the scientific method is nonexistent.  Everything must be understood in terms of what science can tell us about it.  In this case, science becomes absolute, and it implies a whole philosophy and worldview (naturalism).  Related to this is the assumption some people make that if something is technologically possible, then its morally permissible (artificial insemination; surrogacy; cloning; genetic manipulation; etc.)

It’s been said that democracy is like two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for lunch. 

Commitment to democracy as an absolute principle is ultimately self-defeating.  Must the will of the majority be accepted, for example, if the demos votes to abolish democracy and establish some other form of government?  Some Muslims in the West, for instance, have suggested that the democratic process should be used for just such a purpose—to replace democracy with a Caliphate (sharia)

Is equality a good thing?  It depends on what you mean by it.  If you mean equal treatment under the law, i.e., protection of basic human rights, a guarantee of due process, recognizing the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”, etc., then yes, by all means, let’s have it.  But should we seek equality of outcome?  Certainly not.  Because to ensure equality of outcome we must treat people unequally under the law.  Some people are naturally more talented, work harder, take greater risks, invest more time and money, or act with greater wisdom than others.  They tend to enjoy a greater level of prosperity as a result.  It would be unjust to deprive them of the fruit of their labor by forcibly redistributing it to others who didn’t take the same risks or make the same sacrifices or act with the same degree of wisdom.

Each of the things mentioned above has its value, but none of them can be taken without qualifications or exceptions.  But who defines these qualifications and exceptions?  Who sets the limits?  Who establishes their proper boundaries?  It is, of course, God himself.  Nothing can be considered absolute except God himself and his Word.  He created all things, and he defines all things.  Allegiance to him is the only permissible absolute.  This we can say—and this we must say—without any exceptions or qualifications.  There must be nothing that limits our allegiance to him.  No person, property, party, or principle must be allowed take precedence over him and what he has told us in his word.

“Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

1 John 5:21

[1] The Greek word translated here as “serve” (douleuō) frequently has God as its object (Matt. 6:24 and par. Lk. 16:13; Acts 20:19; Rom. 7:6, 25; 12:1; 14:18; 16:18; Col. 3:24; 1 Th. 1:9).
[2] “Every absolutization of what is relative points at the deification of what has been created.”  Herman Dooyeweerd, The Roots of Western Culture: Pagan, Secular, and Christian Options (Paideia Press, 2012), p. 13
[3] Rousas John Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Philipsburg, NJ:  The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973), p. 4
[7] Provided, of course, that the motive for war and the means used in waging it are just.  The Biblical principles are not easily proof-texted, but the fact that the Lord himself often commanded Israel to go to war or promised his blessing and help when they were attacked (Ex. 23:27-33; Deut. 1:30; 20:4; etc.), demonstrates that waging war is not inherently evil. 


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