| | | | | |

Idolatry of Theology and Liturgy

  • In a recent comment on my video Why I Hate the KJV, I received a comment that began thus: “You were saved by the KJV. . . .”
  • A young man visited my home and discussed with me for more than an hour. At the end, he said he was concerned for my salvation because of various details in the way I understand salvation by grace through faith.
  • A student asked me just what set of beliefs he needed to convey to someone and convince them to believe before he could be sure they had been saved.
  • A church member quits attending worship because he can’t stand the drums, the organ, the people raising their hands, the people not raising their hands, the way the pastor prays, ad nauseum.

All of these points do have something in common, I believe. There’s the theory of salvation by grace through faith (God does it), the theory of salvation by works (get working and earn it), and the wonderfully western theory of salvation by intellectual assent to correct theology. I would suggest, however, that this intellectual assent version falls afoul of Paul’s note “not of works lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:9, emphasis mine). I think that could justifiably be paraphrased “not of intellectual assent (or prowess) lest any man should boast.”

But no, there’s a substantial group of Christians who hold implicitly, if not explicitly, that without getting certain parts of their theology right, people cannot be saved. No thieves hanging on crosses need apply! One wonders just how many facts about atonement the thief on the cross grasped in the moment that he said “Lord, remember me”? Did he even know what “Lord” meant in that context?

Now I’m told that I put too much weight on the story of the thief on the cross, but I think it’s a tremendously important counter-example. That thief hangs there athwart the path of all those who want to make salvation difficult by requiring amounts of time, training, works, or even understanding. There’s nothing there but a cry for help and grace extended.

People frequently paint pictures of God from the theological prose of the Bible that contradict the God who appears in the stories. Personally I think this is reversed. As the thief on the cross hangs athwart the path of those who require intellectual understanding, so do Deborah (Judges 4 & 5) and Junia (Romans 16:7) stand in the way of those who want to claim that God can’t use women as leaders. At a minimum, those two examples should make one look carefully at each individual woman one meets in ministry and ask, “Is she one for whom God has made an exception?” Of course I think there are better theological reasons for rejecting gender exclusion in ministry, but that’s another post.

But what does all of this have to do with the last example I gave, a liturgical one, and with the title of the post which refers to idolatry? Quoth Paul again, “Much, in every way!” I use the basic definition for idolatry I got from reading Tillich: “Treating as ultimate anything that is not ultimate.”

  • The commenter on my YouTube video has made the KJV the ultimate thing, replacing God and Jesus as the agent of salvation, and replacing it with a book, a translation made by human hands.
  • The young man who questioned my salvation based on his theological propositions has made those theological propositions into his god. They are the idol of God before which he worships. I would note here, however, that in my view grace is sufficient for gossips and murderers, and yes, even idolaters!
  • The student who asked about what must be believed was a very sincere person who was nonetheless distressed by the idea that he might not present the right pieces of the puzzle and thus not reach someone. He was being tempted by idolatry.
  • The church member who quits over liturgy, well . . . see below.

I suspect that liturgy is the part of theology which tempts us most to idolatry. Many people ignore the atonement debates and simply believe that Jesus died for them. The idolatry is more frequently one of church leaders than church members. But everyone knows whether you raise your hands or don’t. Everyone knows what kind of music they like. Everyone knows whether they like a fixed order or a more spontaneous service.

Preferences aren’t the problem. In fact, it’s not a problem to seek to understand and believe correct theology. That is, until what you say about God and how you worship becomes more important than God. Worship is about experiencing and worshiping God in community with one’s fellow believers, the body of Christ. When you let your personal preferences keep you from corporate worship, at least some elements of that are lost. In fact, I would suggest that if you are in no sense giving up something to others in worship, you may not be fully experiencing corporate worship.

And when you let those individual preferences keep you from worship, then that becomes idolatry as well. Something that is not ultimate–the form of the worship service–has become ultimate for you instead of God.

Should pastors, church leaders, and liturgists not strive for a good worship service? Absolutely they should do their best in this area. I am not advocating sloppiness either in theology or in liturgy. I am advocating the correct priority. When a pastor presents the Eucharist carelessly and thoughtlessly, for example, it may make it harder for people to experience the presence of Christ in their midst. I very much enjoy the Eucharist. There have been times, however, when I have had to work to experience the presence of Christ because it was so clear that the pastor was not experiencing it, and didn’t care.

On another occasion I recall a minister who I thought might ascend from before the altar at any moment because he was so thoroughly engaged in the liturgy he presented. The simple fact that his worship was so completely directed at God, and so engaged his entire being, made it easy for the worshipers to join him.

It is not good liturgy and good theology that I’m challenging here. Good liturgy and good theology help bring one to God. But no liturgy or theological proposition that stands between God and the person can be truly good.

A tree is a good thing, but when one bows down and worships it, it becomes an idol. It is the same in our theology. A good doctrine, a good worship service, or a good deed, placed above the one in whose service they should stand, has become an idol.

Friends, keep yourselves from idols. Amen! — 1 John 5:21

Similar Posts

4 Comments

  1. I think the whole mindset of “salvation by intellectual assent to the right doctrines” was in full swing by the time the Athanasian Creed was written. I am far friendlier to the meat of that creed than I am to the things it claims about mental assent to doctrines and how it affects our salvation.

    Take care & God bless
    WF

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.