6 Categories of Religious Idolatry

Earlier today I found myself thinking about the 1st Century Jewish sects and comparing them to 21st Century Christian denominations. There are generally accepted to be four sects of Judaism in this time period: Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes. Although they were all of the same faith in the big picture, they also held some different views and particularly some very different emphases as to what is the most important aspect of the Jewish life. In that sense, they’re a lot like Christian denominations today. Then I started seeing parallels between those sects and today’s denominations.

Then I started thinking about the implications of these different emphases and the dangers that come with them, particularly when those emphases become the end in itself instead of the God that they are supposed to be helping us relate to. To be clear, I am not saying that everybody in this different groups are committing idolatry. Neither am I saying that these things aren’t all very important – they are. What I am saying is that we all tend toward one or more of these categories and that is true at both the personal and the corporate levels. We all need to be cautious of all of them, but some will stand out more to you than others, especially if your church community also leans toward the same problem area.

So here they are:

The Idols of Doctrine and Scripture

The most discussed Jewish sect in the New Testament are the Pharisees. The reason for this, as a quick aside, is that they survived the destruction of the Temple unlike some of the other groups. The reason they are more routinely disputed in Scripture, I believe, is not that Jesus had a particular disagreement with them but because they were still relevant in the time of the authors so those authors focused on them. But regardless, because they are so familiar, I am still listing them first.

The Pharisees were the Bible-thumpers of their day. When Jesus disagrees with the Pharisees, his complaints almost start out sounding like a good thing to many evangelical Protestants. He accuses them of paying ridiculously fine detail to the law… but in so doing they miss out on the big things. He accuses them of studying the Scriptures diligently… but missing the person of God that they serve as a pointer toward. They were very precise in their theology and very good at defending them. They heavily emphasized discipleship and even had a variety of “schools” of great rabbis which would disagree with each other on important issues, often seeing the other schools as having a faulty interpretation of Scripture.

Sound familiar? Can you think of a Christian category of denominations today that heavily emphasizes literal and specific readings of Scripture, getting to a precise theology, and following biblical laws down to the small details? Yep, this is clearly conservative evangelicalism. Again, I’m not saying every conservative evangelical idolizes doctrine and Scripture, but they are on average the most likely of Christian groups to take their emphases on these things and turn them into the end-goal in and of itself.

The Idol of Ritual

The next most common sect of 1st Century Judaism mentioned in Scripture is the Sadducees. They were known primarily for their love of the Temple. While the Pharisees tried to get everyone to follow all the rules, the Sadducees essentially admitted that they couldn’t follow all the rules so instead they would emphasize the cleansing nature of the rituals.

For the last 500 years, Protestants have been able to point to our Catholic brothers and sisters (and also our Orthodox brothers and sisters) as the main culprits here. Unfortunately in doing so they’ve often missed their own blind spots, but on this point, they do hold some truth. The Liturgical Christian groups are most likely to treat ritual as the goal in and of itself. Perhaps to the shock of many evangelical critics, there are many who see ritual as a valuable tool for connecting to God instead of as the goal itself.

The Idol of Politics

A third Jewish sect, barely mentioned in Scripture, was the Zealots. The Zealots were violent revolutionaries. Their concept of the Jewish faith was inevitably tied to the freedom of the Jewish state. They felt that their religious duty was to free the state from pagan (in this case, Roman) oppression. What the world really needed, they argued, was for Jews to be in charge of the Jewish state, and any means were acceptable in achieving this goal.

As the last crumbling bastion of Christendom, many churches in America have this same emphasis and sometimes idol. Have you ever heard the call to “get this nation back to God”? That is probably pretty much identical to what Zealots would have said. They feel as Christians that they have a right to rule and that the world is better off with Christian rule (despite centuries with no evidence this is true). If you find yourself placing your hope in Christianizing your government, then you are likely falling prey to this idol. Our hope is in the subversive Kingdom of God, not in the power-over kingdoms of the world.

The Idol of Separatism

A fourth Jewish sect, never mentioned in Scripture, were the Essenes. This group believed that the ways of the world were evil and that the only viable solution was to retreat into their own community where they could better honour God. We don’t know that much about them because of this separatism.

Here I must critique my own tendency and the tradition I most identify with of Anabaptism. In the early years, the Radical Reformers were a prophetic voice within the world, but after a few generations, they largely disappeared. As I’ve recently researched Anabaptist history, I’ve realized there is virtually nothing written about from 1650 to 1950. The reason is that, like the Essenes, they largely settled for staying away from society instead of acting as a prophetic voice within it. In recent years many have repented of this, but it is still clearly the tendency that we must fight.

The Idol of Ethics

I’m going to add a fifth category that doesn’t really have a 1st Century Jewish equivalent: the idol of “being a good person.” Mainline Protestants are most likely to fall into this one. Christianity can often be boiled down to simply living in a way that follows the Golden Rule. Just like the others, it can become an idol, allowing us to avoid meaningful relationship in the name of doing good things in the world.

The Idol of Emotion

For one final category I just thought of as I wrote this is the idol of emotion, most likely to occur in charismatic groups. Christianity becomes all about how you feel. This can be not only idolatrous but also extremely dangerous as it is hard to be anchored in emotion when emotion regularly changes. Personal experience is of prime importance, but personal experience is a lot more than just having ecstatic moments. Think of it in the marriage context: you commit to always being in relationship, but you’d be foolish to think that you will always feel happy.

One final thought: one easy way to tell if you’re creating an idol of any of these things is what you get defensive over. If you get offended and start considering people not really Christians for holding to a different doctrine, you are probably idolizing doctrine. If you put your hope in Christians holding political office, you are probably idolizing politics. If you get offended by the idea that we should be more in touch with the world, you are probably idolizing separatism (that’s me sometimes). Could say similar of the others.

What do you think? Do you tend toward one more than others? Does your church need a healthy warning against taking any of these important factors of the Christian life too much over the relationship that they all should be helping us establish?

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.