What to do with Idols

I come from an area where idols (as a physical representation of a god, or a material focus of worship) are rare at best, but we find them more here in the Philippines in different forms. As Christians, what do we do with them?

Some suggest they should be destroyed, noting I Corinthians 10:20 (and Deuteronomy 32:16-17, and more) that at least implies that there are demons associated with physical idols. However, there are a lot of verses that emphasize that physical idols have no power at all (outside of the faith placed in them). Perhaps the truth is that any act that rejects God’s supremacy and worthiness for worship is demonic… rather than that idols themselves are demonic.

Some retain them as cultural works of art. If idols have no power of themselves, then they are simply the physical form of a symbol… and symbols have no intrinsic meaning, only what meaning is given to them. When the symbol of the material idol is divested of its religious meaning, it can be reinterpreted with its cultural meaning. I will leave that for others to decide… however in general if Christians reject everything that has ever had a historical link with paganism or other false religions, there would be little left (even within Christianity) that could be acceptable.

Even if one believes there are demons associated with material idols, that does not mean they are forever tainted any more than a person oppressed by demons is irredeemable.

BUT LET’S TAKE A BIGGER VIEW OF IDOLS, understanding that any activity, concept, or object that takes the place of God is, functionally, an idol… or functionally our god. Christopher J.H. Wright speaks of four.

1.  That which inspires awe.  The sun, moon, and stars, are common objects of idolization… but not alone. Aspects of the cycle of seasons or fertility have also become objects of worship. Or perhaps “science” or “beauty.”

2.  That which entices. We are enticed by wealth. We are enticed by power. Money. Popularity. Drugs. Sex. They draw and seduce us. That can easily become idols.

3.  That which we fear. Much of paganism seeks to fight dangerous spirits, or hold off natural disasters. In fact, all of us have that tendency to worship what endangers us. Personality cults (whether religious or secular/governmental) often lead to a form of worship— sometime based on their personal charm, but as often by the power they have over the people.

4.  That which we trust. This is an obvious response to what we fear. If we worship (or respond with religious fervor) to what we fear, we equally and similarly respond to what may protect us from that fear.

So what do we do about these idols? Do we destroy what we have awe for, what we fear, or what we trust? Doesn’t seem like a good idea. Do we make them cultural artifacts? Again, in many cases, this is not practical. In missions classes many talk about power encounter… sending in God to battle the “gods.” That may have some relevance in paganism where power projection is a major component of the belief system(s). But again, that seems pretty limited and does not take into account the different types of idols. So lets consider the options:

1.  That which leaves us in awe. Commonly, this is nature. But it can include concepts or human constructs as well. What do we do with such idols? We redirect to the ultimate source. The heavens declare the glory of God.

We don’t destroy nature or that which inspires awe… we direct people to the ultimate source of that awe.

2.  That which entices. The lust of the eyes and the lust of the flesh. For many, these idols (money, popularity, power, and so forth) are the most dangerous. These are the one’s that need to be dealt the most unambiguously. They may not need to be destroyed. If beauty entices, the solution would not be to make things ugly. But the things that entice must be revalued—  and replaced with God as the highest.

3.  That which inspires fear. God declares Himself at times with expressions of fear… but typically in terms of fear as it comes to issues of obedience (like “fearing” one’s parents and so obeying them over one’s buddies). For these idols, I believe they should push us towards that which inspires trust. Because of who we trust, we don’t need to idolize fear.

4.  That which inspires trust. God chooses to express Himself to us in terms of trust:  A good shepherd, a loving father, a righteous king. Often what entices becomes what we trust. Again, what inspires trust, other than God, needs to be recognized as heavily limited.

But let’s take this further. I believe that all need to move towards number 4. God as a center of awe is great. As such He may be transcendent, but also objective and abstract. God must be relational and loving and personal. As such, God must be the center of our trust, not merely center of our awe (or fear or desire).

Book Reflection: “The Mission of God” Part 2

This is a continuation of the reflections on “The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative” by Christopher J.H. Wright.  NOTE: This is NOT a review… just things that the book got me thinking about. I haven’t finished the book yet (I am slow sometimes, but I have to give it a STRONG recommendation already).

The book seeks to develop a Biblical Theology of Missions, as well as a missional hermeneutic for understanding the Bible. This got me thinking…

IS HAVING A SOLID MISSION THEOLOGY NEEDED?

With some reflection it seems to me that the obvious answer is YES and NO. It is NO in the sense that most Christians can carry out God’s mission on earth quite effectively without having a very strong theological foundation for what they do and why. But where does YES come in?

1. History has shown that Christian missions has moved forward in fits and starts (and stops). It pops up here with great fervor and dies away over there. Among missional people there is often a belief that missions people are more godly or spiritual or “on fire” than those who are not. I have not seen this as true. Perhaps missional fervor is NOT a good judge of spirituality. Perhaps the fact that missions is often disconnected from normal Christian life, and ecclesiastical life means that missions is commonly borne along through a few who are motivated in that specific area of the Christian walk. Perhaps, having a missional theology that is linked better with the overall understanding of the theology of God, Man, World, and Church, would reduce the fickleness of the overall movement of Christian missions. (Just a theory.)

2. When there is a disconnect between theology and its application, problems often spring up. Let me give an example. William Carey was a pastor of the Particular Baptists, a strongly Calvinistic group in England. This group had little interest in missions. God preordained people to Heaven or Hell after all… so what is the point of reaching out? William Carey wrote a booklet challenging this logic. He used the Great Commission in Matthew 28 to argue that Jesus gave the command to evangelize to all Christians not just the original Twelve. He made a strong case for this.

However, note this. He did not really challenge the Calvinistic doctrines… just argued that one should not use those doctrines to deny something the Jesus commanded us to do. Calvinism (particularly consistent Calvinists) always had a gaping hole when it came to missions going back to… well… John Calvin. Carey made it clear that regardless of what one believes doctrinely, one should evangelize because Jesus commanded us to. There is a seeming disconnect here. It is hardly surprising that just decades later among the Baptists (and the Campbellite offshoot) developed the “Antimissional Movement.” It was a reaction away from missions, in part because of the Calvinistic theology of its members.

This is not a diatribe against Calvinism (I am neither Calvinist nor Anti-Calvinist). But when one’s theology is not consistent with the ministerial application, it is hardly a shock that problems recur. One could argue that Re-Thinking Missions: A Laymen’s Inquiry After One Hundred Years, also known as the Hocking Report (1932) got much of its strength from the fact that missions was built on a poor theological foundation… and as such was easy to topple or redirect.

3.  Missions is often drawn from a “gerrymandering” of Bible verses. Often it seems as the practitioners of missions have already determined what they want to do and why, and simply pick those verses that seem to support what they are already doing. I know churches who have dumped all social missions because missions to them is proclamation, conversion, discipleship, and church-planting. I have known of churches who have cut off funding to orphanages because orphanages are not evangelistic… and so are not missional. They have verses to support their view… but they have to throw out an awful lot of the Bible to support such an idea. I have known missions agencies that have (incredibly) stopped working in very productive areas because people in those areas were no longer labeled “unreached people groups.” The Biblical justification for this is shallow, and the logic of stopping work because it is productive is… odd to say the least. Wouldn’t it be better to understand what God’s mission is (based on God’s revelation and character) and then come alongside… rather than doing what we want to do  and then select verses (“prooftexts”) to back it up?

4.  There is some really sloppy missions methodology out there… some of which comes from a very poor theological foundation. The focus on Unreached People Groups has been justified by utilizing Matthew 24:14. Some have taught that once we have reached all “people groups” Christ will immediately (or at least almost immediately) return. First, the passage never says that, nor, in my mind, even implies it. Second, the application of that interpretation results in a behavior that comes close to… well… evil. Think about it. People focus on trying to get the gospel into every “people group” (however one chooses to define such an entity) pulling resources away from successful outreaches among “reached” peoples in hopes that God would come back sooner. In practice that means one is seeking to reduce outreach to many people and shorten the time that the Gospel is available for response. One is actually trying to send more people to hell by giving them less time and opportunity to respond. Weird! If one truly believed the quite fanciful interpretation of the Matthew passage and believed (equally fancifully) that one could define exact “people groups” (ethne)… the proper response would seem to be to reach as many people as possible among all people groups as possible— except one. Only after evangelistic saturation of all peoples (is that realistic?) would one saturate the last people group with the gospel. <Thankfully, God did not give us control of when He comes, nor gave us the calling to “time” His return.> By the way, I am not against reaching all people in all cultures… nor do I believe that doing so nor failing to do so will change God’s timing one iota.

Some evangelical missions leaders back in the 1950s and 60s had embraced an apocalyptic view of Christianity (Christ is coming any day… at least any day really really soon.) As such, they tossed aside God’s work in caring for people’s needs in favor of quick conversion. But they were wrong… 50, 60 years later and Christ is not here yet. What if investment in demonstrating God’s love had been effectively linked to proclaiming God’s love over the last several decades (rather than disconnected). Personally, I think carrying out God’s full mission faithfully without trying to “read the signs” would have been more effective, and is still more effective today.

The Missionary Call seems to be another area of sloppiness. There seems to be little Biblical support for it at all. Christ calls all to follow Him. The church may call people to be pastors or missionaries (apostles)… but does God? I don’t think so. If He did, then the missionary call is primarily an “anti-missionary call” since the vast majority of Christians are, presumably,  not so called. The missionary call seems to be more of an excuse not to be missional than it is to motivate people to missions. Defining missions in terms of only being cross-cultural, or only to the “called”, or only for “professionals” seems to be without theological basis as well. It is hardly surprising that there are good Christians that argue that missions and missionaries are unbiblical. I have even seen blogsites that challenge Christians to show that missions and missionaries are Biblical. You know, IF one uses the common definitions utilized today, I think they have a point. However, if one is willing to challenge the definitions I believe we see the Bible as a missional book and a book of God on mission and us on God’s mission.

5.  The poor theology has led to questions about even what is the goals of missions. What is missions supposed to do?

  • Get conversions and baptisms?
  • Get churches planted?
  • Disciple?
  • “Civilize” the people?
  • Help social needs?
  • Socially liberate?
  • Promote specific denomination or theological goals?

A sound theology of missions should help determine what are our priorities and what are extraneous.

Yes, I think it is high time that God’s people take seriously Missions Theology… or a missional understanding of God.

Book Reflection: “The Mission of God” Part 1

Based on the recommendation of a former pastor of mine, I have started reading “The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative” by Christopher J.H. Wright. It is still early (I haven’t reached page 100 yet) but I have found much value in what I have read so far. The book seeks to look at Missions from the grand narrative (the eschatological history through the Old and New Testament) of the Bible. It isn’t a Missions Theology perhaps, but it seems to me to be a refreshing first step… a Biblical theology of missions.

If that (a Biblical theology of missions) was its only accomplishment (drawing missions inductively from the entire Biblical text) it would be a worthy accomplishment. Wright, however, seeks to go further and suggest a missional hermeneutic for Biblical interpretation. At first thought, this seems flawed. It suggests a Procrustean process of jamming the Bible into a mold, and changing the interpretation to fit that mold while removing or ignoring things that ultimately don’t fit. (I am sure many/most of us can come up with examples of this). But the Bible, as God’s message of love and hope to man is arguably a direct product of God’s mission, and a clear proclamation of that same mission. As such, missional interpretation seems quite appropriate.

I have heard many people involved in Christian missions say that they do missions because of the “Great Commission.” But there are a few more GREATS needed.

1.  We may do missions “because” of the “Great Commission.” But

2.  The Great Commission is simply application of the “Great Commandment.” But

3.  The Great Commandment is simply a summarization of the “Great Communication” (God’s Special Revelation). But

4.  The Great Communication is simply the literary form of the “Great Creation” (Referring to God’s revelations in physical creation, in narrative creation, in self-disclosure). But

5.  The Great Creation is the artifacts and observed behavior of God our “Great Christ.” (In this case, Christ is used, utilizing the ‘C’, to described God as the one who reigns.)

Anyone who stops at the Great Commission, has stopped way too early.