The history of Christian idolatry (in three brief stages):
If we look back in time, we can see that the Church has passed through different stages, and in each stage, there has been a tendency to institutionalize belief, to set up boundaries around who we are in order to protect what we have. Unfortunately, these walls also limit future growth and tend to cut us off from direct relationship with God. Looking at the walls from the past can help us to think about our present walls and to consider what walls might become a danger in the future. Here are three examples:
1) The wall of hierarchy. As the Church grew, it became more and more difficult for those with a direct experience of Christ (in the flesh) to share their experiences with new believers. Because of this, we see a slow transition from gathering together in the temple courts to the sending of missionaries and later to the widespread practice of sharing epistles. Over hundreds of years, these practices, combined with systems of government (Constantine), created a hierarchical system of authority that was meant to centralize issues of doctrine and organization. But it also took the focus of many away from God and put it on the Church, leaving us with what has been called pope worship, a form of idolatry.
2) The wall of literalism. Luther broke through the wall of hierarchy by claiming scripture as a common-ground connection for all Christians. Gutenberg strengthened Luther’s claim by making the Bible more accessible. Individual believers were no longer dependent on the Church hierarchy for teaching, organization, and the filtering of God’s message to his people. But even though this broke through the walls of institutional hierarchy, it also set up a new problem by simplifying faith, pulling us away from God’s Word (Christ) in order to replace it with the much more tangible form of God’s word (scripture). This created an artificial requirement that we defend the Bible at all costs, and whole institutions have been created to do just that. Could we have King James-only churches or a Creation Research Institute or people like the Bible Answer Man if this change hadn’t taken place? We like to think that we’re an informed and educated people, that we’re better than those Dark Age Christians. But we just have a new form of idolatry, identifying the Trinity as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Scriptures.
3) The wall of individualism. George Fox’s message broke through the wall of literalism (even though I’m not convinced he recognized the wall he was breaking). He taught a kind of progressive revelation, claiming that the Light of Christ is in all and accessible to all — men and women, English and Turk, slave and free. Because we are each made in God’s image, each of us carries within the image of God, which allows us to recognize and speak Truth. We can hear God, and we can obey. But almost immediately, the freedom that Fox preached turned into a kind of license — wearing hats in worship, public nudity, claiming to be Christ — a kind of individualism that threatened to do more than break down a few walls. It looked as if there might be a chance that the entire structure would come crashing down, leaving every man to do whatever was right in his own eyes. Unfortunately (or fortunately as far as many Christians are concerned), Fox and other Friends were ultimately unsuccessful in spreading this message very far. But in a postmodern age, this message of individualism is being preached — not by religious revolutionaries but by consumers. Feed me. Comfort me. Entertain me. And we have in this a new form of idolatry, the worship of self.
Feed me. Comfort me. Entertain me.