Our Sunday School class had just concluded a session on idolatry. Martin Luther’s statement had launched our conversation: “Whatever your heart clings to and trusts in is your god.”
We defined idolatry as making ultimate that which is finite and intermediate, elevating the finite to the infinite; or mistaking symbols for the reality they point toward.
We proceeded to name values, practices, and realities that our hearts cling to and which shape our decisions, priorities, and character. You can imagine the “gods” named: consumerism, sports, politics, the media, success, productivity, etc.
After the class dismissed, a member approached with a question. “Can Christian doctrines and beliefs themselves be idols? Can creeds become more important than God?” Good questions!
If the answer is “yes”, the follow-up question is when do creeds/beliefs become idols?
No doctrinal formulation or theological affirmation totally captures the essence and reality of God. The Infinite cannot be compressed to fit into the finite. The best our language can do is point toward God. There is always more to God than can be confined to human understanding and experience.
Therefore, creeds and beliefs become idols when no room is left for mystery and further theological exploration. If no questions remain, growth ceases and dogmatism becomes god. Airtight certainty that we know God fully means we have the wrong god.
When doctrines/beliefs are locked in rigid intellectual compartments with little or no impact on our character, actions, and relationships, they have become idolatrous.
Religious beliefs and affirmations can function similarly to the notion of life on other planets. Such life may exist but it has no impact on daily living. That’s what John Wesley referred to as “practical atheism”— intellectually acknowledging the existence of God but the affirmation has no influence on behavior.
Doctrines/beliefs can become weapons of coercion, manipulation, and domination of others. In so doing, they become idols. The history of Christianity is replete with illustrations of such idolatry.
The Crusades were fought in the name of evangelism. Slavery was defended by idolatrous interpretations of Scripture. Women have been denied equality and subjected to abuse by religious doctrines/beliefs. Scientists have been burned at the stake in defense of an idolatrous doctrine of creation.
Persons of differing sexual orientations and identities have been treated with cruelty, violence, and rejection in the name of faithfulness to the Bible.
When doctrines and beliefs motivate hatred, disrespect, and violence toward others, those doctrines and beliefs are idols. Any belief that denies the inherent worth and dignity of every person as made in the image of God fails the test of true orthodoxy.
Here is the test of all Christian doctrine and belief: Does it promote love for God and neighbor? Any theological affirmation that promotes and motivates hate becomes a form of blasphemy against God made known in Jesus Christ.
The real test of doctrine is the character it produces in individuals and communities. Sound doctrine and strong character are integral to one another.
Christian doctrines and affirmations in the hands of persons with malformed character become distorted and dangerous. And doctrines/beliefs that sanction hate, superiority, and exploitation form persons and communities that hate, exclude, and exploit.
Gore Vidal’s historical novel, Julian, captures the essence of beliefs that become idols. Following a scene in which a violent argument breaks out over the doctrine of the Trinity, the author proclaims:
“Even a child could see the division between what the Galileans (i.e., Christians] say they believe and what, in fact, they do believe, as demonstrated by their actions. A religion of brotherhood and mildness which daily murders those who disagree with its doctrines can only be thought hypocrite, or worse.”
Yes, doctrines and beliefs can become idols!? We would all do well to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1John 4:1).
What is the test? Do my doctrinal affirmations and beliefs form persons and communities in love, compassion, humility, hospitality, and justice?