One of the key learnings from my recent documentary, “Paul in Athens,” was the prevalence of idols both in ancient Athens and in our culture today. The Greek philosopher Petroneous wrote 2000 years ago, “It is easier to meet a god than a man in Athens.”
- The Athenians filled the city with “gods” to address nearly every issue in culture and society. Of course, you may remember that they even built an idol for “the unknown god” as an insurance policy against harm or bad luck (Acts 17:23).
Paul was troubled and grieved by the rampant idol worship in Athens, and he knew that Jesus longed to free them from their idolatry. He said, “This is what I’m going to proclaim to you: Jesus Christ and His resurrection” (Acts 17:23).
- In biblical times, idolatry typically involved physically creating a false god and then making sacrifices in order to appease it.
- Today, as Christians, we may not have false gods in our living rooms, but we are still prone to making a good thing into an ultimate thing. For example, I love my family, but if I live only for the approval of my son, he would wreck my life, my faith and my home. To love anything more than Christ is to create an idol in our hearts.
The sin of idolatry can also stand in the way of renewal in our churches. Turning away from our idols is the first step toward healing and renewal. In The Gospel-Centered Life, Robert H. Thune and Will Walker list a dozen idols that are very prevalent in our churches today, including the idols of approval and security. I believe these two idols are certainly holding many churches back from a renewing work of the Holy Spirit.
Two Modern Idols Hindering Church Renewal
Modern Idol 1: Approval
- When I think of the idol of approval, I think back to my youth. Clear as a bell, I can hear my dad’s voice exclaiming, “You can’t please all the people all the time!” My father, also a pastor, knew that attempting to please everyone in the church is a recipe for failure. There will always be misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and disagreements. Every church will have people who don’t approve of the decisions that its leaders make.
- But succumbing to the idol of approval is a recipe for minimal change and holding to the status quo. In short, no healthy change can come while we wait for every member of the church to be happy. In the Church Renewal Lab, we discuss the idea of “yellow light people” and “red light people.” It’s okay to have some yellow light folks on your renewal team or council, but if there’s a majority of red-light people who are rarely happy with change, you simply cannot move forward. In actuality, you’re worshiping the false god of approval.
Modern Idol 2: Security
- The second false god that blocks renewal is the idol of security. Often, staying as we are in the church feels more safe, even though it’s not. Healthy change is positive and needed. However, many churches feel that, because they have a certain number of people or funds in the savings account, they are safe and secure. God reminds us frequently in the scriptures that He is our refuge and strength. We must look to Him and lead out of the safety and security that comes from Him alone.
- C.S. Lewis illustrates this powerfully, as he so often does, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. When the children begin to hear about Aslan, they are fascinated, yet afraid. Susan asks, “Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” But Mr. Beaver replies, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? [Of] course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you!” Our only true safety is in the bosom of this King. I wonder how the idol of security might be holding back our churches today.
As we’ve begun to show our “Paul in Athens” documentary film in several churches, we’ve received many questions about the issue of idolatry. I hope this article was helpful for you as you consider the created things you’re tempted to worship and look to in this life, and the freedom Jesus offers.
About The “Paul In Athens” Documentary
In the summer of 2022, I went to Athens for three weeks to serve with Helping Hands, a ministry that serves refugees from Iran and Afghanistan with the love of Christ. When I returned, I couldn’t stop talking about it. One of the guys I disciple, Petr Shotropa, suggested that we go back to Greece to create a film. Petr has been looking to use his cinematic skills for the sake of the gospel. I had a lot of fun researching and learning about Dionysius and Paul in Athens, and I hope it’s a blessing and encouragement to you.
You can read Sharing Our Faith with Skeptics, Part One here.
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