WEEKLY REFLECTIONS | When church theology and practice are turned into idols

By REV. LUNA DINGAYAN
www.nordis.net

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, where you were slaves. Worship no god but me… Do not bow down to any idol or worship it, because I am the Lord your God…” – Exodus 20:2-5

Reformation Sunday

The last Sunday of October is designated as Reformation Sunday. It is a time for us to remember the 16th Century Protestant Reformation started by Martin Luther that gave birth to new church directions and perspectives.

As I was reviewing my files, I came across an article written by George Johnson on some “Blind spots in our Theology and Practice.” He was raising serious questions on the fact that while many are lining up to receive the sacrament of bread and wine, very few are standing up for the defense of human rights and dignity. His nagging suspicion is that churches today have somehow turned their theology and practice into idols.

This is where the Protestant dictum that says “The Church reformed continues to be reformed” becomes extremely relevant for our time.

Idols Defined

Idols in Johnson’s understanding refer to those things we believe or practice that become substitutes or an escape from what is essential, what is primary, what is ultimate. Idols are not necessarily bad or unimportant. The problem comes when they get more attention than they deserve, or take our attention away from what should have first priority in our theology and practice. Martin Luther onetime said, “Where your heart is, there your god is also.”

For instance, the Ark of the Covenant (a wooden chest) became very important to the people of Israel during the early part of their history. It contained the 10 commandments. They bowed down to it. It was where they experienced the presence of God. However, when it became an idol with almost superstitious elements attached to it, Jeremiah called for an examination of its usefulness. He told them to get rid of it (Cf. Jer. 10). We also have our own arks in our churches today that have become traditions and practices needing examination lest they have become our idols.

God’s number one commandment given to the Israelites through Moses has something to do with idols. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, where you were slaves. Worship no god but me. Do not make for yourselves images of anything in heaven or on earth or in the water under the earth. Do not bow down to any idol or worship it, because I am the Lord your God…” (Ex. 20:2-5), says the Lord.

Bible as Idol

Johnson mentions several examples of idols in the church. For instance, the Bible we treasure has become an idol for many. It can so easily be used to distract us from what is central. It matters what the Bible says, but we need to discover what is essential in the Bible.  We may say that the Bible is not God, but live as though it is. When we claim that our interpretation of the Bible is the only correct one, then we can make the Bible an idol that distracts us from what is central to our faith. It is sometimes sickening to know how Biblical interpretations can split up churches and destroy human relationships.

Worship of the Bible might stem from our neglect of adult education in our churches. Perhaps a greater emphasis on adult learning will help us learn how to read the Bible, how to interpret the Bible and how to recognize that the Bible is not God, but one of the ways God is revealed to us. Worship of the Bible can sap our energy needed to love God and our neighbor. Martin Luther suggested that both the Bible and plain reason should be used in discerning what the Bible teaches. He also warned us against the Bible becoming a paper Pope.

Church as Idol

The Church as an institution is another example of how something that we value can become an idol, something that becomes a substitute for what is most important. After Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the state religion in the 4th century, the church began to adapt itself to the ways that were patterned after the Empire. Since then we have constantly struggled with how to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus and remain in good standing with governing powers and economic systems.

George Barna and Frank Viola in their book, Pagan Christianity, remind us how much of what we do in Christian gatherings each Sunday is not rooted in the Scriptures but in the pagan culture and rituals of society. The hierarchical structures of church leadership today, for instance, match the structures of leadership in the Roman Empire. Try to visit the consecration of a Bishop today to observe what the authors mean. Or, note how members of the church sit passively in the pews while one person with authority announces the evangelical truth in the pulpit. This has led to a lack of encouragement for critical thinking among ordinary members of the church. Not only that, we tend to put more emphasis on the Sunday worship in a building than we do on loving our neighbor.

Sacraments as Idol

Another practice in the church that can become an idol is the Sacraments. Keep in mind that an idol can be a good thing, important, but something that diverts our attention away from what is primary and essential. A study of the history of the sacraments in the church can be helpful in learning about the evolution of their development and reasons for their elevation. The sacraments can be either helpful or distracting in our calling to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God” (Mic. 6:8).

It’s a good thing to see members of the church all lining up to receive the Eucharist. But how we wish the same people would also line up to sign a petition condemning extra-judicial killings in our country and to put a stop to it. How we wish that the life-changing words and action of Jesus Christ our Lord that caused his death be lifted up in the Eucharist.

We can add more to the list of idols in the church, and perhaps begin to wonder how many well-meaning Christians today have easily fallen into idolatry without even realizing it. No wonder then why Christianity has not taken much dent on the moral life of the nation beyond the superficial trappings of religious rituals and ceremonies. # nordis.net

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