Let me say something briefly before I explain it: it is a form of idolatry to call idolatry every moral and pragmatic value you see in other people holding that that you think is wrong. For instance, not to pick on Jonathan Merritt but let me show the tweet in question that inspired this post:
Now, before criticizing, I want to affirm something that Merritt is understanding. There is an increased predilection of the existence of a pattern among “conservative evangelicals” that can place an undue value on the place of marriage and family in human life. I can wholeheartedly agree with that criticism.
However, notwithstanding the slippery, the ambiguous, slippery language of “many conservative evangelicals” that can sound more like a stereotyping “the majority of conservative evangelicals” rather than a “non-substantial among of conservative evangelicals,” his usage of the language of “idolatry” is strongly reminiscent to the Christian who is hyper-vigilant about doctrine calling heresy every teaching he disagrees with, whether it is deviance from historical orthodoxy or is a divergence on some matters regarding salvation (such as a hyper-Calvinist’s aversion to “semi-Pelagianism” anyone).
In part, the problem with such rhetoric is that it is a rhetoric of exaggeration or hyperbole that we can not longer recognize as such. Such rhetoric is often use to gain a social advantage in terms of personal standing in relation to an opponent, which in this case is a particular theological strand. But most people are able to recognize such exaggeration and hyperbole as exactly that: exaggeration and hyperbole. But, when this form of rhetorical aggression is no longer recognized for what it is, it becomes a deeply divisive form of rhetoric. Even if it is not intended as such in a specific instance, such exaggerated rhetoric becomes increasingly divisive over time as people’s perception are gradually altered to see things in such stark terms of spiritual disobedience as conveyed in the term “idolatry.”
Often, the definition of “idolatry” as used today is something along the lines of taking something that is good and overvaluing it to the point that we distort our understanding of God as a result. But, let me make a point from the New Testament. Neither Jesus Christ nor the apostle Paul after him called the Torah-observant Jews as engaging in idolatry through their usage of the Torah. If they didn’t use the language of “idolatry” in their conflicts over understandings of righteousness, we should probably be a bit wary ourselves of using that language to call out moral and practical values that we find problematic.
The main situation where we see idolatry used to refer to something other than the cultic worship of a human-made image/human-constructed deity is when it comes to wealth. Paul calls greediness idolatry in Colossians 3.5. Notice that Paul does not refer to the rest of the earthly vices he refers to as idolatry; he reserves that designation for greed. We see a similar thing against in Ephesians 5.5. Then, in the Sermon on the Mount as in Matthew 6.24, Jesus portrays wealth as a master whose service is in entire conflict with the service of God.
What is it about money that leads Jesus and then Paul, likely inspired by Jesus, to refer to money as a form of idolatry? I would suggest it has something to do with the type of power that money has on human thinking. Read these words from Samuel about idolatry and returning to the worship of YHWH in 1 Samuel 7.3:
Then Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Astartes from among you. Direct your heart to the LORD, and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.
Notice what is happening here: idolatry is portrayed as the worship to others gods that diverts away full devotion (“all your heart”) toward YHWH. Notice what the concern of Samuel is, though. Samuel isn’t engaging in some form of philosophical reasoning that suggests idolatry is a mistake in theological ontological. In other words, Samuel isn’t making an argument about an error of deviation from monotheism as understand in modern terms as an ontological claim about the existence of one and only one God. While it is a mistake to go to the reverse and think Samuel thinks there are the existence of multiple gods as ontology is simply not Samuel’s concern here, what can be stated is that Samuel is concerned about Israel’s devotion to YHWH.
Idolatry engages in a form of illegitimate devotion that distracts people’s devotion from God. However, its illegitimacy isn’t simply that it distracts from devotion, however. The illegitimacy is rooted in Israel’s traditions as God expressly commanded Israel to not have other gods before Him in the Decalogue. To engage in idolatry not only distracts from devotion, but it utterly repudiates the very thing God called Israel not to do in the first place. Idolatry is not just lost devotion, but it is the flagrant denial of the type of devotion that YHWH Himself had called of Israel. It is YHWH that regarded idolatry as mutually exclusive or worship and devotion to him.
So, when Jesus says you cannot serve God and wealth, he is playing on the familiar theme of mutually exclusive worship. But why money? What is it about wealth that is idolatry? The reason for this is not as apparent to us today, who have learned to see money as simply as a form of economic exchange, but according to Jack Weatherford in The History of Money, money during the Roman era was intertwined with Roman religious cults:
Money occupied a sacred place in many temples but particularly in the one dedicated to Juno Regina, the highest Roman goddess, who reigned as the queen of heaven and occupied a position much like the goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, in Greek mythology. Juno represented the genius of womanhood and was the patroness of women, marriage, and childbirth. As Juno Pronuba, she watched over marriage negotiations; as Juno Lucina, she protected pregnant women; and as Juno Sospita, she presided over labor and childbirth.
As an extension of her role as protector of women and guardian of the family, Juno became the patroness of the Roman state. According to Roman historians, in the fourth century B.C., the irritated honking of the sacred geese around Juno’s temple on Capitoline Hill warned the people of an impending night attack by the Gauls, who were secretly scaling the walls of the citadel. From this event, the goddess acquired yet another surname—Juno Moneta, from Latin monere (to warn).
As patroness of the state, Juno Moneta presided over various activities of the state, including the primary activity of issuing money. In 269 B.C., the Romans introduced a new silver coin, the denarius, which they manufactured in the temple of Juno Moneta. The coin bore the image of the goddess and her surname, Moneta. From her first name, Juno, comes the name of the month of Junonius, or June, the most auspicious month for marriage. Also from Moneta came the modern English words mint and money and, ultimately, from the Latin word meaning warning.1
Furthermore, coins printed during the reign of Tiberius Caesar read as, “Tiberius Casear, son of the divine Augustus,” which is the type of money Jesus uses to answer the question about paying taxes in Matthew 22.15-22.2 In Jesus’ time, money was not a neutral medium of exchange that we are accustomed to think of it as now, nor was it simply a form of governmental “propoganda” as some modern people with anarchists tendencies might interpret money as, but ancient money and wealth was reguarly tied up with forms of cultic and theological idolatry.
But, it wasn’t just simply the mere presence of idolatrous origins and associations with money that grabs Jesus’ attention. It can explain why wealth was labeled as idolatry, but it was the power that wealth had one one’s own heart that took away from the exclusive devotion to God. Right after describing the mutual exclusive worship of God and wealth in Matthew 6.24, Jesus describes the life that trusts God for what one needs in Matthew 6.25-34. There is a connection in the sermon between the two indicated by the phrase Διὰ τοῦτο in v. 25. While Jesus does not explicitly describe money in vs. 25-34, there seems to be a strong thematic connection. How is it that you would take care of your concerns for tomorrow when you can control them now? By doing what you can to pursue wealth today to purchase what you need for tomorrow. One of the most pressing reasons for the desire for wealth is not the need to survive today, as it is with people who live in poverty, but so that we can feel safe and secure for tomorrow.
The net effect of being anxious to take care of your needs for tomorrow through wealth is that you start making decisions based upon calculating one’s material, financial advantage. One’s decision making radically changes. Rather than making decisions based upon what is in the benefit of God’s kingdom, one makes decisions that are intended to ensure one’s own provisions for tomorrow. There is thus a stark “disinvesting” from God and His Kingdom as the One upon who one depends. Wealth as a form of idolatry disentangled the relationship of Israel to her God, and, in fact, created a form of dependence upon its imperial overlords, propagandizing with idolatrous honorifics.
However, the effects of wealth on decision making and devotion to God would not have been so readily apparent. Unlike the sins of sex, theft, deception, and violence than would have been readily understood by someone who was morally formed by the Torah, the Torah made no overarching commandments about money and wealth because it was never a major part of life early in Israel’s history. While economic exchange and basics goods was a part of Israel’s memory and there were forms of ancient proto-money in the distant past, money itself did not become a standard unit of economic exchange until the 7th/6th century BC in Greece.3 The Torah just did not refer to the phenomenon of money as it was practiced in the Imperial era. So, to liken money to idolatry was more than some bare moral pronouncement by Jesus: it was a way of helping people to identify the type of power and negative influence that wealth had that the Torah did not specifically speak to. Jesus and Paul are directing people to understand the way that money distracts from devotion to God.
They are not, however, simply using the category of “idolatry” as way of criticizing moral and practical values that they find morally wrong. Our modern Western minds, trained to think about ethics in terms of conforming to a particular truth as outlined by a set pattern, are inclined to treat the “category” of idolatry as a form of cognitive error. We see this going back to Francis Bacon’s four idols of the mind. But this is the result of thinking about religion in terms of representational truth and error rather than in terms of devotion and distraction. As a consequence, we are inclined to label moral problems we see in other Christian traditions as “idolatry” because they are making some error in ethical reasoning. To that end, it is simply the moral reasoning equivalent of “heresy.”
However, whereas ‘heresy’ has a place in describing the boundaries of orthodoxy which is a discussion about theological ideas, which can ultimately be determined and adjudicated with relative clarity, using idolatry in an equivalent sense to address a much more murky, complex, and ambiguous form of moral and practical reasoning is a recipe for disaster. Without a clear set of anchors to keep our judgments about “idolatry” tied to, it will be the case that we just see idolatry everywhere.
And herein lies the problem: this leads to the emergence of the very form of distract worship of God that idolatry was originally meant to guard against. Devotion to God was not merely some cognitive, disembodied state of spiritually or religiosity, but that devotion to God was done through attention to and keeping the very commandments God had given, as in Deuteronomy 6.4-9:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Now, Deuteronomy does not employ our modern ethical concept of values, but what is described here is functionally similar to our conception of value. Here, the love and devotion to God is realized through the way in which Israel will remember God’s commandments through the instruction God has given them. Devotion is expressed through the shaping of one’s ethical memory, which direct one’s actions much as what we call ‘values’ does. And what are some the commandments Israel was given by God? While there were many (613 depending on how you count), there are two commandments that have a large importance in Israel’s life: the commandment to honor one’s father and mother and the commandment against adultery in the Decalogue. One lived one’s devotion to God through one’s family.
Before one says “That’s the Old Testament, but we follow Christ,” it is important to remember that Jesus say he did not come to abolish the Torah (Matthew 5.17-20) and Paul quotes from the Decalogue including the commandments about honoring one’s father and mother (Ephesians 6.1-3) and against adultery (Romans 13.9). Devotion to God throughout the Scriptures, Old Testament and New Testament alike, is actualized through one’s family life. To talk about family as an idolatry is to go against the very way that the broad sweep of Scripture talks about one’s devotion to God being realized through the family. To call this idolatry is, paradoxically, itself pushing towards idolatry by redirecting one’s love and devotion from God.
Now, there is an error in thinking that in order to be faithful to God, one must be married, have children, etc. Both Jesus and Paul not only commend celibacy as an option but actually commends it as a superior way of life under certain conditions.4 But, this is an error in moral reasoning and understanding about God’s will, but it is not necessarily a distraction in one’s devotion to God. The real problem of what we can call filial-normativity is that it can wrongly exclude people from the communal fellowship and participation in God’s People who either through choice do not marry or because of circumstances can not marry. This is hurtful, and it can even amount to sin in the way it leads people to treat those living celibately but to call this idolatry is a categorical confusion: idolatry is about misdirected devotion away from God.
While the love of God entails us loving others and serving them, it becomes the idolatry of humanity to suggest the exclusion of specific people is itself idolatry. We should call it the error that it is, sin, and not what it isn’t, idolatry. But, that would bring back in the language of moral wrongness and evil to describe what exclusion via filial-normativity. But better that than to implicitly treat people as gods. That is to state that to call the value of family an idol has a more pervasive form of idolatry laid underneath the surface.
- Jack Weatherford, The History of Money, (New York, Three Rivers Press, 1997), 47-48.
- For more on this, see N.T. Wright, The Victory of God. Christian Origins and the Question of God. (London: SPCK, 1996), 502ff.
- Weatherford, The History of Money, 30ff.
- To be clear, though, neither Jesus and Paul speak of its superiority in terms of the person being superior if they can live celibately. There is no sense of spiritual elitism granted to the celibate by either Jesus or Paul. Rather, they are talking about the challenges that marriage brings that celibacy does not bring with it. It is a way of life that, sans sexual desire and a need for a close bond of attachment, is easier if one has been discipled so as to live that way of life.