Since the days of Moses when he introduced the Lord to Egypt as the, “I Am” (Exod. 3.14), there is in the biblical documents a sense that the Creator stands differently and alone in contrast to the gods of the people. And this is demonstrated clearly in the Ten Commandments, with the phrases: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20.3), “You shall not make for yourself a carved image…” (Exod. 20.4; Deut. 5.7-8), and “You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exod. 20.5).
The Sin of Idolatry
The sin of idolatry is in general an issue of replacement and transference. It is in fact an attack upon God’s identity and sovereignty. As Isaiah would argue in his oracles: “Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any” (Isa. 44.8). A carved image challenges this very notion, because one would in essence replace the invisible God with a figurine, and transfer the Lord’s presence, power, and personality upon this hand-made object.
As in the case of Jeroboam, a leading apostate Hebrew King, he introduced idol worship (two golden calves) in the cities of Dan and Bethel (1 Kings 12.29). He said to his subjects:
Behold you gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. (1 Kings 12.28)
These served to prevent his new kingdom from going to Jerusalem for worship, and solidified his own monarchy (1 Kings 12.25-27).
By the first century AD, the Jews had learned the pains of idolatry which included the loss of the Northern Kingdom to Assyrian conquest , and 70 years of Babylonian captivity. They were “cured” of their interest in idolatry, and Deuteronomy 6.4 (“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one”) had become their core foundation to protect them from ever returning to the service of graven images.
Surprisingly, there are “churches” that use what is expressly forbidden in Scripture – the use of images in the public worship and faith of their communities. Several generations ago, John F. Rowe amassed a significant body of work documenting various additions to the Christian religion. In the sixth century (AD 500’s), churches apparently began using “images” but only as “historical memorials” despite oppositions among various leaders of the times.
The practice would not receive a wider endorsement until the eighth century (AD 700’s) at the Seventh General Council, held at Nice. Rowe writes:
This council invented what is called relative worship; that is, “that the honor rendered to the images is transmitted to the prototype; and he who worships the figure, worships the substance of that which is represented by it.”
No better proof need to exist to show that the practices of Jereboam continues to this day. Call it by any other name, but idolatry is still sin. Churches are walking in the sin of idolatry when they include images in their public worship and in the faith of their communities.
Paul and Corinth
Biblical Christianity confronted idolatry in the form of Roman-Greek paganism. “The paganism that confronted early Christianity in the eastern Mediterranan was robust and pervasive, not impotent and quarentined into few of life’s units.” When the Apostle Paul arrives in the city of Corinth in about the year AD 50, he ventured into a bussling cosmopolitan.
Michael White, in a segment from the PBS Frontline, “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians”, provides a walk-through regarding the kind of setting Paul would had faced in his proclamation of the gospel on “Main St.” in ancient Corinth:
Let’s imagine Paul going up the main street of Corinth through the monumental Roman archway into the forum, the center of city life, the place where all the business and most of the political activities are done in the public life of this Roman city. Here are the shops. Here are the offices of the city magistrates, and we’re standing literally in the shadow of the great temple of Apollo. It’s among these artisans, among the shopkeepers, among the bustle of activity of a Greek city that we must imagine Paul beginning to talk about his message of Jesus […]
The city in Paul’s day may have existed in the shadow of Apollo’s temple and its other sacred enclosures (the Peribolos), but it was also home to many other temples.
Summarizing Church’s discussion of the religious background of Corinth, let us consider its gods briefly. The cult of Aphrodite was still followed despite its Corinthian temple in ruins that at one time boasted 1,000 cultic prostitutes. She was still a favorite goddess, found in terra-cotta images and on coins, and in Paul’s day there appears to be a remnance of this “guild”. Other gods which received much support in Corinth include: Asclepius, Dionysus, Poseidon,Demeter, Heracles, Hermes, Tyche, and Pantheon-like temple for many other gods existed as well. Moreover, Corinth was home to the Roman Imperial cult where a Claudius erected a temple.
Beyond the Greek and Roman gods, the Eastern mystery religions of Egypt held a foothold in Corinth where the worship of Isis and Serapis/Osirus is well known. It is safe to say that in making Corinthians converts, Paul would need to speak much about living a Christian life the shadow of the idolatry prevenlant in this society.
A Survey of Idolatry in 1 Corinthians
It has been observed that the “fullest discussion” in the New Testament regarding idolatry from a Christian perspective is found in 1 Corinthians. Within chapters 5-6 , with a brief jump to chapters 8.1-11.1, Paul addresses the varied problem of idolatry in the Corinthian church.
Just as in the case of the “sexual immoral”, idolatry is listed in 5.10-11 as a practice where who anyone “bears the name of brother” (i.e. Christian) is to receive isolation by his or her Christian family – not even to “eat with such a one”. In fact, the idolater is described as an “evil” Christian that the church is the “purge” from its association. Idolatry is subject to church discipline.
In chapter 6, Paul again lists the practice of idolatry as one which will hinder the Christian’s reception of the kingdom of heaven (6.9a). And with a mark of hope and firmness, Paul calls them to the fact that “such were some of you” (6.11a). He reminds them of God’s redemption, and calls them to live faithfully as a consequence of this fact.
In chapter 8, Paul addresses the complication that arose in the church over eating food offered to idols in the temple (8.10). While the meat offered for eating at the temple may be eaten by a Christian, who has “knowledge” that these gods are not real, the real problem comes when it serves as a destructive stumbling block to another less informed Christian. Paul’s overarching solution is “never eat meat” at the Corinthian temple again (8.13).
Chapter 10 is an in depth call to learn the failures of Israel (10.6), and part of their failure was the reception of idolatry (10.7). In fact, Paul speaks with earnest: “flee from idolatry” (10.14). While the actual worship to the gods amounts to nothing because they do not exist (10.19-20), participation and association with pagan religions and their worship of false gods is prohibited (10.21-22).
Still, in second half of chapter 10 the subject would come to the surface again. Christians purchasing meat were better off not knowing where it came from (10.25). Here the more private setting is considered of eating meat at home; meat, that may be the remains of the sacrificed animal in pagan worship. Here, Paul gives no prohibition (10.23-27).
However, he does acknowledge that someone may bring up (object?) that this meat was used in a sacrifice to an idol. Although everything belongs to God (10.26), Paul clearly demands a consideration of the conscience of those with them, and calls for restraint and abstinence from the meal (10.28-11.1).
Greed, the Other Form of Idolatry
The Lord in His ministry never spoke about the actual practice of idolatry among his contemporaries. However, Jesus did express concern over idolatry-like behavior, when he said, “You cannot serve God and money [Mammon]” (Matt. 6.24). In Ephesians 5.5, Paul affirms a similar point affirming that anyone “who is covetous [greedy] (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God”. Likewise, he writes to the church in Philippi regarding unfaithful Christians: “their god is their belly” (3.19). Being greedy resembles idolatry-like behavior.
In essence, like participating in a pagan religion/cult where the gods are man made and the Lord’s presence, power, and personality are transferred upon them; so too, the “almighty dollar” or even possessions may be so endowed by our greed . One might think that this only applies to the big things like homes, cars, or those “dead presidents”, but Christians (and people in general) can be easily seduced by minor things like: Coke vs. cola, retail vs. wholesale, new vs. second hand, Macys vs. Ross.
The Consumerism mentality afflicts many souls. Matt Cook observes the following in his study, “The Proper Place of Earthly Treasures (Matthew 6.19-34)”:
The money spent on unnecessary items is more proof that this society is a materialistic one. In fact, studies show that the average American is twice as wealthy as the average home of 1957 (Myers 60). “Though Americans may appreciate the unparalleled material blessings this country offers, Christians must admit that these blessings themselves can bring us into the bondage of materialism” (Orbison 251).
Greed is idolatry for earthly possessions and rejects the sovereignty of God and His claim upon a person’s trust and obedience. So many times, it appear that believers trust more in paper than God, and endow their possessions and finances with the weight of the Lord’s power and authority. “As long as I have x amount of dollars, I know my life will be secure.” Security, however, begins with trusting in the Rock of Ages, not in gem rock. Finally, we must simply affirm the biblical case that the sin of materialism will hinder many people from heaven.
Does idolatry still exist today? Yes, many religions use hand carved statues and images as objects of their worship and faith; moreover, some are very old religions at that. There may even be churches today that employ images in their facilities for worship and faith. These practices are all condemned, because there is only “one Spirit”, “one Lord”, and “one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4.4-5).
Still, there is a less obvious form of idolatry and that is greed. It taps into our desires and vanity, and leads many to believe that possessions are all powerful and can provide true happiness in this life. The disproportionate craving to want more is also idolatry. Health and wealth “gospel” puppeteers be warned!
Nevertheless, as 1 Corinthians demonstrates, men and women can respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ and be made new by the purification of redemption (6.11). There may be difficult times as one transitions away from that lifestyle, but by the power of God who raises the dead (2 Cor. 1.9) we will continue to overcome for He is faithful (Rom. 8.37-39).
- I draw from Philip W. Comfort’s discussion “Idolatry” where he writes: “In Egypt, Mesopotamia, and probably in Canaan as well, devotees of the deities considered cultic images to share in the reality of the deity represented, believing that the presence and power and personality of the diety somehow resided in its image so that what happened to the image or idol happened to the deity itself (cf. Isa. 46.1-2)” (page 424 in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1993).
- John F. Rowe, page 299 in A History of Reformatory Movements (10th edition, Reprint, Nashville, Tenn.: Gospel Advocate, 1957).
- John F. Rowe, page 326 in A History of Reformatory Movements.
- Chris Church, “Religious Background of the New Testament,” page 515 in Foundations for Biblical Interpretation, edited by David S. Dockery, Kenneth A. Mathews, and Robert B. Sloan (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 1994).
- Wayne A. Meeks and L. Michael White, “Paul’s Mission and Letters,” PBS Online (April 1998), accessed 24 May 2011.
- Chris Church, “Religious Background of the New Testament,” pages 519-20.
- Philip W. Comfort, “Idolatry,” page 425.
- Neil R. Lightfoot writes, “The word eidololatres is derived from eidolon (idol) and latris (servant, slave) and has as its meaning a worshiper or servant of false gods. This is its first occurrence in the Ν. T. The word eidolon has an interesting background and illustrates well the development of the meaning of words within a language. Originally eidolon signified a phantom or shadow, something unreal as opposed to that which was genuine. In this restricted sense Bacon wrote in his Novum Organum of the idols which led men astray. The Septuagint adapted eidolon as its translation for false gods in contrast with the true God. In the next stage of development, the word was applied to anything that was a representation of a false god, and thus finally it took on the significance of a material, tangible god—a direct antithesis of its original meaning” (page 179 in “Notes on Selected Passages in 1 Corinthians,” Restoration Quarterly 3.4 (1959): 173-82).
- Jovan Payes, “Purge the Evil Person: A Brief Analysis of 1 Corinthians 5.1-13,” BiblicalFaith.Wordpress.com (17 May 2008), accessed 24 May 2011.
- Matt Cook, 2004, page 4 in “The Proper Place of Earthly Treasures (Matthew 6.19-34)”, MA New Testament Thesis, Freed-Hardeman University, Henderson, Tenn.