Why, oh why, did I not write this parody of gay activist Matthew Vines. It’s entitled “The Case for Idolatry“. It’s a parody of Matthew Vines’ case for compatibility between Christianity and the gay lifestyle.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to worship idols. It’s not that my parents raised me that way, because they didn’t; I was brought up in a loving, secure, Christian home. But from childhood until today, my heart has been drawn to idolatry. In fact, if I’m honest, one of the defining features of my identity has been my desire to put something else – popularity, money, influence, sex, success – in place of God.
That’s just who I am.
For many years, I was taught that idolatry was sinful. As a good Christian, I fought the desire to commit idolatry, and repented when I got it wrong. But the desire to worship idols never went away.
I wanted it to, but it didn’t.
So it has been such a blessing to discover that worshipping one God, and him alone, isn’t for everyone. There are thousands of Christians out there who have found faithful, loving ways of expressing worship both to God and to idols, without compromising either their faith or their view of Scripture. In recent years, I have finally summoned the courage to admit that I am one of them. Let me give you a few reasons why I believe that idolatry and Christianity are compatible.
I start with my own story, and the stories of many others like me. I am an evangelical, and I have a very high view of the Bible – I am currently studying for a PhD in biblical studies at King’s College London, which will be my third theology degree – as well as knowing both the ancient languages and the state of scholarly research. Yet, after much prayerful study, I have discovered the liberating truth that it is possible to be an idolatrous Christian. That, at least, is evidence that you can be an evangelical and an idolater.
Not only that, but a number of evangelical writers have been challenging the monolatrous narrative in a series of scholarly books. A number of these provide a powerful case for listening to the diversity of the ancient witnesses in their original contexts, and call for a Christlike approach of humility, openness and inclusion towards our idolatrous brothers and sisters.
Some, on hearing this, will of course want to rush straight to the “clobber passages” in Paul’s letters (which we will consider in a moment), in a bid to secure the fundamentalist ramparts and shut down future dialogue. But as we consider the scriptural material, two things stand out. Firstly, the vast majority of references to idols and idolatry in the Bible come in the Old Testament – the same Old Testament that tells us we can’t eat shellfish or gather sticks on Saturdays. When advocates of monolatry eat bacon sandwiches and drive cars at the weekend, they indicate that we should move beyond Old Testament commandments in the new covenant, and rightly so.
Secondly, and even more significantly, we need to read the whole Bible with reference to the approach of Jesus. To be a Christian is to be a Jesus-person: one whose life is based on his priorities, not on the priorities of subsequent theologians. And when we look at Jesus, we notice that he welcomed everyone who came to him, including those people that the (one-God worshipping) religious leaders rejected – and that Jesus said absolutely nothing about idols in any of the four Gospels.
Skip forward a bit:
We should also remember that, as we have discovered more about the human brain, we have found out all sorts of things about idolatry that the biblical writers simply did not know. The prophets and apostles knew nothing of cortexes and neurons, and had no idea that some people are pre-wired to commit idolatry, so they never talked about it. But as we have learned more about genetics, neural pathways, hormones and so on, we have come to realise that some tendencies – alcoholism, for example – scientifically result from the way we are made, and therefore cannot be the basis for moral disapproval or condemnation. To disregard the findings of science on this point is like continuing to insist that the world is flat.
With all of these preliminary ideas in place, we can finally turn to Paul, who has sadly been used as a judgmental battering ram by monolaters for centuries. When we do, what immediately strikes us is that in the ultimate “clobber passage”, namely Romans 1, the problem isn’t really idol-worship at all! The problem, as Paul puts it, is not that people worship idols, but that they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (1:23). Paul isn’t talking about people who are idolatrous by nature. He is talking about people who were naturally worshippers of Israel’s God, and exchanged it for the worship of idols. What else could the word “exchange” here possibly mean?
Not only that, but none of his references apply to idolatry as we know it today: putting something above God in our affections. Paul, as a Hellenistic Roman citizen, simply would not have had a category for that kind of thing. In his world, idolatry meant physically bowing down to tribal or household deities – statues and images made of bronze or wood or stone – and as such, the worship of power or money or sex or popularity had nothing to do with his prohibitions.
Read the whole thing. You might recognize these arguments from Matthew Vines’ debate with Michael Brown about whether you can be a practicing gay person and a Christian at the same time. I I summarized the debate in this post.
I wrote this in reaction to the debate:
Even heterosexuals who have not married are called upon to embrace lifelong celibacy. I am in my 30s and am a virgin because I have not married. I wouldn’t seek to reinrepret the Bible to allow premarital sex just because what I am doing is difficult. I would rather just do what the Bible says than reinterpret it to suit me. And it’s just as hard for me to be chaste as it would be for him to be. In short, it’s a character issue. He takes his right to recreational sex as non-negotiable, and reinterprets the Bible to suit. I take the Bible as non-negotiable, and comply with it regardless of whether it seems to make me less happy. With respect to the purposes of God for me in this world, my happiness is expendable. If I don’t find someone to marry, I’m going to be “afflicted” with the lifelong celibacy that Vines seems to think is torture, but let me tell you – God is happy with the contributions I am making for him, and if I have to be chaste through my whole life, I am 100% fine with that. I serve the King. And not the reverse.
So back to the parody. Apparently, Matthew Vines is saying that he doesn’t really use arguments like the ones above, so thankfully Samuel James has gone through Vines’ book and listed out exact quotes where he uses the arguments in the parody. This is worth a read as well – it’s really first class work, because a lot of people who think Christianity is supposed to be about us being happy and fulfilled buy into these reinterpretations of the Bible. We need to be ready with an answer.