In conversations of church unity I often hear positive language invoked to get us to the common core. However, even though that core is found through Jesus Christ, we still often get hung up articulating language; the body of Christ is tremendously diverse. In light of that, I offer a different thought: what if we approached church unity negatively?
Historically, we know that nothing unites people more than a common threat. Think of the Allied Powers (with very diverse ideologies) uniting against the common threat of Nazi Germany. Think of humanity’s new fight against climate change, environmental degradation, and the violation of basic human rights.
We’ve all heard that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, correct? Well, if that is the case, does that not make sense as a common starting point for developing Christian unity? What can unite us in diversity while still maintaining a Christocentric identity?
I offer you this proposal: we can unite together through a shared opposition to idolatry.
Now I’m not proposing we all start pointing a finger at everything and yelling “IDOLATRY!” then running in the opposite direction. Being an iconoclast is not the answer, because all it does is create new idolatries in place of the old ones.
But developing an organic and robust theology of idolatry is something that I believe can unite Christians from differing backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, and theological persuasions. It gets to that common root.
What is Idolatry?
I would argue that idolatry, either individually or communally, is placing higher value on a noun (person, place, thing or idea) than that particular noun has capacity to hold. Idolatry creates a false and inflated image of a particular portion of God’s creation. Idolatry is a sinful and destructive perception which interferes with the worship and glory of Almighty God. All sin shares that common root of idolatry.
If idolatry is the root of all sin, then combating lies and falsehood should be one of the main works of the church. Being rooted in fear, idolatry is the opposite of truth. We are afraid of that which is different from us. Xenophobia is an idolatry that separates us from one another and creates division instead of unity. It is one of the major idolatries of recent Western Christianity, and one that we are being taken to task for by the general public.
Finding the Good Antidote
Being based in perception, the sin of idolatry is rooted in the subject. As such, the antidote must also be rooted in the subject. I’m talking about the truth of our identity being created in the imago dei, the one image that can never be idolatrous. We are witnesses to God’s goodness in our identity as God’s beloved children. We must always strive to perceive the imago dei throughout creation, in others, and in ourselves.
This rejects exclusive promotion of a truth of a particular belief, or a truth of a particular action. Both of those can descend into idolatry.
Propositional belief, although a tool to help perceive the imago dei, can also become idolatrous. For instance, the idea that the bible is God’s inspired word is a good proposition. However, that proposition can elevate the literal words in scripture, a term we call bibliolatry.
An oft-cited example of this is the Westboro Baptist Church, a church whose sole identity has been wrapped around a single propositional idea. The bible is used to promote and justify evil instead of asserting God’s goodness and justice. Words and Propositions are important tools for understanding the good news, but we cannot hold onto them with a clenched fist or they will distort us into an enemy of God.
The same thing can come from a truth of action. I have hung around social justice circles long enough to see that it is possible to make an idol out of a cause.
In the wonderful film Romero, we watch Archbishop Oscar Romero in the time of Civil War in El Salvador become a voice for the oppressed poor in his country. In the struggle, numerous priests were seduced by Marxist ideology to pursue violent revolution. This scene captures beautifully how idolatry can seep into a fundamentally good cause. If we lose God, our compassion will become poison in our veins (starts at 8 minutes in):
Truth as Orientation
That is why we fight idolatry not by what we think or what we do, but by orienting ourselves towards the imago dei as found easiest through Jesus Christ. It is in this point of orientation that we put one step in front of the other in order to follow our Messiah. This is the pilgrimage of church: not diverting to the tempting idolatries on the right or left but helping each other to follow the narrow and crooked path.
As well, this also has implications for those on the outside of church. The Greek Orthodox possesses a term they call the spermatic logos (germs of the divine truth). If a person authentically pursues the truth of the imago dei outside of explicit Christian identity, they can still come close to being Christian. By pursuing truth, love, and justice they will still be catching those divine germs. The Gospels would call these people “persons of peace” (Luke 10:6).
In Luke 9:49-50, we read the following short story:
John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.”
It is time we also took that attitude as church: “whoever is not against you is for you.” We are not offering competing truth with other Christians; we are all living together in the truth. And that truth is so wide and so vast and so all-encompassing that it extends beyond church. Jesus came for all human beings, to show them the imago dei.
In the West, we live in a post-Christendom reality. The gospel has mostly been passed from generation to generation. People know who Jesus is. Our society still exists with predominantly Christian values, and that residue of Christ still remains. But I believe God is calling away us from the idolatries we formed while being in comfortable and influential Christendom.
You can disagree with my articulation in this article (and I encourage it!), but you cannot disagree that idolatry is a common threat in church that all Christians should be concerned about.
Paul’s hope for the Ephesian church is the same for us: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:18-19).” We’ve been at it for 2,000 years and we’re still growing in understanding the fullness of God! We are marching together in the light of God; let no idolatry get in the way!
Idolatry, a common enemy for us all: let’s work together to leave a truly lasting image; the image of God!