We are nearing a year of COVID services at my church. The last time everyone gathered together on a Sunday Morning was March 15, 2020.1 A week later there were ten of us at the church broadcasting our first online service.
This year has been long and tiring. Not just for pastors or those facilitating online services; all people are tired. We are tired of endless video chats and online meetings. We all want to experience some return of normalcy in our lives. We want to see friends and family. We want to go to restaurants. We want to gather together on Sunday morning.
Last May I wrote about how the church was gifted the opportunity to rethink and reimagine what church looks like. These posts were grounded in the question: What is the church? The work of answering this question continues to be essential, even more so as we get excited about the possibility of being back together.
So before we reopen, and before we start holding large church gatherings once again, I would like to ask another question: Have we turned our church gatherings into an idol?
If you are still with me, good! Let us start with a definition. Idolatry is the worship of an idol–an image of God, or an image of another deity. This comes directly from the Ten Commandments. God delivers the Hebrew people from slavery and sets down the terms of their relationship moving forward. The first term is that they cannot have any other gods before Yahweh (Exodus 20:3). The second follows that they cannot make themselves an idol of anything in heaven or on earth and worship it. Why? Because all worship must be directed towards Yahweh alone (Exodus 20:4-6).
A more wholistic understanding of an idol is that in which we place our ultimate trust and loyalty. It is what we worship in place of God. This is how the New Testament and beyond talks about idolatry.
Why is idolatry the focus of the second command? Other neighbouring nations had some anti-idol practices, but Israel was the only nation with a complete ban on idols and it is number two in their most important list of rules. Why is this so important?
On the one hand, an idol, or image of God, would be impossible to create. Moses speaks of how the people have not seen the form of God in any way, and so would be unsuccessful in forming an image (Deuteronomy 4:15). However, the most common argument against idols is that they are inferior, human-made objects. They may be well crafted, adorned in silver and gold, but they are lifeless. They may have mouths, but they cannot speak. They may have ears, but they cannot hear. They may have hands and feet, but they cannot feel or walk (Psalms 115:4-7; 135:15-17; Jeremiah 10:1-5).
G. K. Beale argues persuasively that the ban on idols is essential because we become like what we worship.2 When the Hebrew people worshiped idols, they became like them; lifeless (Psalms 115:8; 135:18). This was not God’s design. God created us in his image, meaning to be representatives of God on earth, and gave us the responsibility of ruling over the earth, working the land, and creating society (Genesis 1:27). In worshiping God we are to become more like our Creator, and more like what we were designed to be. When we worship something else we become more like that other thing and we lose our very humanness. Daniela C. Augustine writes that “idolatry endangers humanity’s destiny by forming it into the likeness of something else (something less) than God–of something created rather than of the Creator.3
So God tells his people not to worship idols because they will lose who they are supposed to be. How well do they follow this? Not great. And it is easy to point out. A few chapters after Moses shares this command they are caught making a golden calf, as if it was Yahweh, in order to worship it (Exodus 32). This is just the first in a long line of instances where they worship idols, either representing Yahweh or other nearby gods. The psalmists and prophets repeatedly call out the people for their worship of idols, and false gods, but also for putting their trust in people and gods other than Yahweh. Each time they follow after idols, they lose their humanness.
Instances like the golden calf are clear. But now let us open up the first chapter of Isaiah:4
“What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?”Isaiah 1:11-14 (NASB)
Says the Lord.
“I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
And the fat of fed cattle;
And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats.
When you come to appear before Me,
Who requires of you this trampling of My courts?
Bring your worthless offerings no longer,
Incense is an abomination to Me.
New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies—
I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.
I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts,
They have become a burden to Me;
I am weary of bearing them.”
Is there idol worship here? It does not seem so. We do not see any idols, statues, or images that the people are worshiping. If we look at what is described here from the perspective of the priests, this looks like great success. There are crowds of passionate, and pious followers of Yahweh gathering together at the Temple for the prescribed religious feasts. They are offering sacrifices and worshiping according to God’s own instructions.
Yet God is not at all impressed, asking “Who has required of you this trampling of my courts?” Their worship is offensive to him. Yahweh then articulates the issue:
“So when you spread out your hands in prayer,Isaiah 1:15-17 (NASB)
I will hide My eyes from you;
Yes, even though you multiply prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are covered with blood.
Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight.
Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good;
Reprove the ruthless,
Defend the orphan,
Plead for the widow.”
The people’s passionate worship is completely unacceptable because they have blood on their hands. God rejects their worship saying he will hide his eyes from them and will not listen to their prayers. But again, is this idolatry? They are not worshiping physical idols, made by human hands. They are repeatedly gathering for the appointed religious celebrations.
While they worship passionately, their worship is not causing them to become more like God. They are not defending the orphan, or pleading for the widow. They do not seek justice or do good. They are not becoming more human, better images of Yahweh in the world, and so they worship in vain. They delighted in their worship, but not in whom they worshiped.
D. A. Carson writes, “one sometimes wonders if we are beginning to worship worship rather than worship God. As a brother put it to me, it’s a bit like those who begin by admiring the sunset and soon begin to admire themselves admiring the sunset.”5 Perhaps the worshipers in Isaiah 1 had made their worship an idol itself.
So, are we any better? Or have we made our church gatherings into an idol? The answer may very well be “No.” But before we answer too quickly, let us slow down and consider it.
Are our church gatherings making us more like Christ? Or have we begun to admire ourselves admiring the sunset?
Are they helping us further his rule and work in the world around us? Or have they helped us worship worship instead of worship God?
Does holding large church gatherings in defiance of public health orders help people move towards caring for and protecting the most vulnerable?6
Does holding public outdoor “worship protests” in places that have experienced great injustice help people grow in compassion, and lead them to do good, and seek justice?7
On the flip side, are church gatherings wrong? Absolutely not. The writer to the Hebrews stresses just how important it is that we meet together as believers (Hebrews 10:19-25). We need to meet together just as the worshipers in Isaiah were following the prescribed patterns of worship in their day. But they were not being changed through their worship. Are we?
Have we made our church gatherings into an idol? If, after some thought, you think that the answer is not an easy no, then I have a follow up question for you: How can we ensure that our church gatherings are designed to glorify God and disciple his people without becoming an act of idolatry? I would love to hear your thoughts and perspectives in the comments.
1 We only had about 100 people, which is less than half of what we would normally have, so you could say the last gathering with most people was March 8, 2021.
2 G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008).
3 Daniela C. Augustine, “Liturgy, Theosis, and the Renewal of the World,” In Toward A Pentecostal Theology of Worship, ed. Lee Roy Martin (Cleveland: CPT Press, 2016), 169.
4 We could also look at Amos 5:18-24 or even Micah 6:5-8
5 D. A. Carson, “Worship Under The Word,” in Worship By The Book, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 31.
6 Some have cried “persecution” at the Edmonton area pastor who was jailed for “preaching the gospel.” The reality is that he is in jail because they have refused to follow public health guidelines. They are free to share the gospel and hold gatherings that follow public health measures. To say this is persecution of Christians and the gospel is an offence to those who have experienced true persecution for the sake of the gospel.
7 Sean Feucht held these worship protests across the U.S., and they are an image of what we see in Isaiah 1. They gathered large amounts of people who delighted in their own worship without becoming more like God. The gatherings themselves ignored public health measures and the concerns of local authorities, they put the lives of vulnerable people at risk, and they flew in the face of those grieving racial injustice. They did not promote doing good, seeking justice, defending the orphan, or pleading for the widow.