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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Power against the idols of our age

"... our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit ... you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead — Jesus ..." (1 Thessalonians 1:5-10).

So writes Paul in what just might be some of the very first words in our New Testament. He writes to a congregation he established in Thessalonica that was made up primarily of Gentiles (non-Jews), a people of a different culture from his own. Unlike Jews who recognized one single God, the Gentile culture of Thessalonica recognized many gods — from the forces of nature, to emperors present and past. These divinities were honored in temples and shrines, with statues and coins. The Christians of Thessalonica had turned from these idols, the gods of their culture, to serve the living and true God who was made known in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.

It's tempting to think that we've left this sort of idolatry in the dust of history. But even today Paul's words speak to us, reminding us that living the Christian faith still involves a turning from the idols of our age to serve the true and living God. Today's idols might involve coins and paper (as in money). Idols might be tangible objects we can hold or values we can't. The idol might be someone we know or even the person in the mirror. Sometimes we're our own idols.

We live in a culture that encourages us to have our own way, to seek our bliss, to exercise our independence, to value personal happiness above all else. We bring these values with us into our congregations, expecting to have our needs met. And if we don't find what we're seeking, we might withhold our contributions (of any sort) or threaten to leave for another congregation that will meet our needs if the present one doesn't. Meeting these needs and wants of valued people in the congregation, whether parishioner or pastor, becomes the primary aim of the congregation.

Service to such idols leads congregations into deep, intense conflicts. Our questions seek to find out who's right and who's wrong. But "Who's at fault?" isn't the real question. The truer question is "What have we lost sight of?" When one person's agenda — be it a parishioner's or a pastor's — trumps the cause of the gospel message, we've lost our proper focus. When a congregation becomes convinced that it would cease to be without this person or that pastor or a certain family, it has turned from Christ to idolatry. The good news of God in Christ Jesus is no longer the center of the congregation's existence.

But this word of God that convicts us in our idolatry also points us back in the right direction. This word is not just print on a page or pixels on a screen, but the living word of God, empowered by the Spirit. This word comes with power to turn us from the idols of our age, giving us the power and will to serve the living and true God, the God made known in Jesus Christ. This is the way it's been from the beginning of the church. It's still the way even today. 


Comments

Wendy Gibbons

Wendy Gibbons

Posted at 8:54 pm (U.S. Eastern) 1/25/2011

This article hit home:  I spoke today with a person who told of a (non-Lutheran) pastor who left his church and "took a lot of people with him."  I have thought of this as "pastor worship" but had not applied the term idolatry to the situation before.

David Tannen

David Tannen

Posted at 9:52 pm (U.S. Eastern) 1/25/2011

We all have forms of idolatry.  I know in my own case my worse form of idolatry is the desire to be 'right all the time'. 

After that I have made (along with others I am sure) made idols of the bible, liturgy, worship styles/music, sermon styles, dress, status, politics, etc.

Thank you for articles that call me to question the idols in my life and ask for repentance and forgiveness of my idolatry.

Julian Grev

Julian Grev

Posted at 2:18 pm (U.S. Eastern) 1/26/2011

Fine words. Easily agreed to as long as one is free to interpret and define "the cause of gospel message."  That freedom split the ELCA and the Christian movement again and again over these past 1930 years.  The narcissism of the Christian church and loss of the social gospel of Jesus after Paul (some would put the bllame on him as well) began the individualism that degenerated into schisms and denominations. Until we embrace and respect every "way" as being a legitimate path to God, we will have disfunctional congregations and pastors.  Love is the answer.  The prophet was right, God is Love is God (and that is not idolatry).



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