The Danger of Idolatry in the Church
The Danger of Idolatry in the Church
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image – any likeness of anything that is in heaven above…you shall not bow to them nor serve them…” (Ex. 20: 4-5)
“…we know that an idol is nothing in the world…” (I Cor. 8:4); “…flee from idolatry.” (10:14); “…they sacrifice to demons and not to God…” (10:19, 20)
“God is Spirit and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth.” (Jo. 4:24)
“They have mouths but they do not speak; eyes they have but they do not see…so is everyone who trusts in them.” (Sal. 135:15-18)
“…you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you…lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female…” (Deut. 4:15-19)
Introduction: the teaching of the Bible
The second of the 10 commandments revealed by God to Moses explicitly forbids the making or the adoration of carved images (Exodus 20:4,5). Even images that represented the true God were forbidden by the Lord (Deut. 4:15-19). Because of these statutes, the Jews never made images representing God, the prophets, or any other image with religious overtones – neither carved images nor paintings or drawings. In the Tabernacle and in Solomon’s Temple the only images that were allowed – the cherubim – were in the Most Holy Place, hidden to the people; only the high priest, once a year, could contemplate them.
God’s Word teaches that the Lord does not tolerate even religious objects that, in principle, in themselves are not idols, but become objects of adoration. The bronze serpent that Moses lifted in the desert was made by the direction of the Lord, but was not to be used as an object of adoration. When, later, it became a sacred relic and started to be venerated by the people, who started to bring frankincense to it, King Hezequiah (II Kings 18:4) “…broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan.”
The faithful church, throughout history, never made images of Jesus, Mary or of the apostles and martyrs, nor other images destined for the religious service, because of the second commandment. This was the understanding of the Church of the Reformation in the 16th century. Until the 20th century no protestant or Pentecostal group admitted the use of engravings or images representing God the Father, the Lord Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the apostles or the martyrs.
Idolatry penetrates the historical church
The images started to make their way into the Church because it was argued that visible representations of characters of the Scriptures or biblical events would be useful to teach religious truths. In the 3rd century there were three groups in the Church that had diverging opinions regarding the issue, defending, respectively:
a) The rejection of carved images and religious paintings, whatever their form;
b) The use of carved images and religious paintings only for instruction;
c) The use of carved images and religious paintings not only for instruction, but also for the service.
When Pope Gregory, the Great (590-604 AC), approved the use of images in the churches, he insisted that they should not be worshiped, admitting the use of images only as tools for instruction. The images would be the books for the illiterate. The images became, however, the center of attention and worship, more that the persons (God the Father, Jesus, Mary, the saints) that they supposedly represented.
Note: until this day the authorities of the Church refer to an image as the person they represent. This is why they bow down before the image as they would do before the people they represent and they pray to them.
Only in the 8th century, in the Council of Nice (787 AC), was the worship of images totally approved. Thomas of Aquinas, theologian of the Church, defended the use of images in the service, defending that pious sentiments are more easily created by the people who see than by those who hear. However, the truth is that the images cannot generate the true faith in the adorers, for the Bible states that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”
At the time of the Reformation of the 16th century, the protestants condemned the worship of images, for they went against God’s will expressed in the Ten Commandments and for giving margin to excesses in their use, as is the case of veneration or worship. Images were excluded from every place of worship in the protestant churches.
John Calvin, the reformer, stated that everything that men can learn through images regarding God is vanity and false. This teaching is reinforced by God’s Word, according to which “the molded image, a teacher of lies.” (Hab. 2:18)
In dealing with the topic, the Catechism of Heildelbert (protestant) states: “Could images to teach illiterate be tolerated in the churches? Not at all; for it is not convenient to be wiser than God, who wanted His church to be instructed not by dumb images but by the preaching of His Word.” Actually, God’s Word teaches that the church of the Lord is no longer guided by dumb idols. It is guided by the Holy Spirit, from what can be inferred in the same chapter (I Corinthians 12:1-3).
As for God, it has already been clarified that He did not appear under any form so that His people would not carve images of Him. However, the Church started to represent Him as an old man with long beard, and white hair. In relation to the Lord Jesus, we should note that nowhere in the New Testament is there any description the physical appearance of the Lord Jesus. Only in the Old Testament do we find a prophetic description of the Messiah. This description, however, is adverse to the images that are made of the Lord in the temples or for the religious didactic literature, for it indicates that He would be as the “root of a dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him” (Isaiah 53:2).
It is significant, furthermore, that the Church did not produce or utilize images of the Lord Jesus, nor of Mary or the “saints”, during the first four centuries. Himself the expression of truth, it is certain that the Lord Jesus does not approve any form of false teaching regarding himself.
Finally, the engravings of Jesus are not an aid to knowing Him or to the worship to the Divinity. Rather, they are an obstacle to the true worship, to be rendered “in Spirit and in Truth.”
In the Roman Church the cross has to be in each altar, on the roof of the Churches, at school and in hospital rooms, and in the Catholics’ houses in order to provide blessing or protection. Indoors, the crucifix is generally more utilized than the cross. Small crosses or crucifixes hanging above a chain on garments or hanging from the neck are frequently used by priests and nuns. Mysticism connected to the cross leads many Christians to bless themselves with the sign of the cross in order to be blessed or protected.
There are no examples in the Scriptures of a material cross to be used for any religious end. Neither is there evidence that the cross was used as a Christian symbol during the first three centuries of the Christian era. Anyway, the cross, in the times of Christ was always seen as an instrument of torture and shame.
This concept of religious or sacred objects (crosses and images) is a manifestation of materialism because it stimulates the trust in a material object, instead of the trust in God. It is the opposite of faith, which is the assurance of things that cannot be seen and has God himself as its object – the trust in God. “We walk by faith and not by sight” (II Cor. 5:7), says the apostle Paul. The Bible states that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen … without faith it is impossible to please Him.” (Heb 11:1, 6). However, certain Christians trust in the power of these objects to transmit the blessing of God, Jesus, Mary or one of the saints.
To attribute supernatural power to objects such as relics, the cross the crucifix, a scapular, as can be found in the Roman or Orthodox churches, is a concept that is not accepted by the faithful church since the time of the Apostles. This concept of sacred objects is exactly what is called fetishism. A dictionary describes fetish as a natural object that, according to belief, is the dwelling of a spirit or represents a spirit that can be magically induced or forced to help or protect the owner from harm or diseases.
Protestants and Pentecostals in the 20th century
When the history of the Church is considered, it can be noticed that the images penetrated the Church only to be used in teaching, not for worship. Later, little by little, they became object of reverence and adoration. History repeats itself in our days. Images are penetrating the protestant and Pentecostal churches with similar purposes: to illustrate religious books and decorate homes.
Curiously, until the middle of the 20th century, only the Adventists and Jehovah’s witnesses – who were not considered by protestants and Pentecostals as true believers for not believing in salvation only by grace through the faith in the Lord Jesus – used religious depictions of Jesus and the apostles in their didactic books and in the Bibles themselves.
Churches that rejected the baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire followed them in this practice (Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians and Methodists) in the United States – consequently their love was not renewed by the warmth of the Spirit. These groups accepted the use of paintings or drawings representing God the Father, images of Christ, Mary and the apostles in their religious literature and, subsequently, in pictures used to decorate homes and religious temples. The justification for the use of images was that the believers needed objects to stimulate their faith, the children would need images and scenes of Jesus’ and the apostles’ lives in order to understand the stories or to concentrate in the teaching.
However, the believers will never need these artistic representations to reach these objectives. What biblically inspires the believer is the operation of the Spirit through the Word of God (the Bible). And what sanctifies a place is the presence of the Holy Spirit, which is manifest only where there is sanctity and faith in the hearts of the believers – and not where there are religious images. Rather, these images prevent the full operation of the Holy Spirit, giving room to the operation of deceiving spirits that foster mystical experiences.
The gradual acceptance of religious images by the believers happened at the same time as the ecumenical movement, which was stimulated with the creation of the World Council of Churches in 1948. At that time the understanding that the “doctrine divides” and what is matters is love started to be disseminated. The teaching of the Bible is God’s Word. Hence, it cannot be said that God’s Word divides.
Another element that fostered significant support to the ecumenical tolerance in relation to idolatry came about in the United States, where philosophical doctrines of relativism, of equality among cultures (disseminated by anthropology) and even equality among religions penetrated society and even several protestant seminaries. This understanding contaminated not only environments that were spiritually lukewarm, but even many charismatic and evangelical circles in that country and in Europe.
Among the Pentecostals, particularly, this tolerance regarding images came about as the fruit of an erroneous understanding of the baptism with the Holy Spirit: if the catholic charismatic were being filled with the Holy Spirit, then it would be because God approved their doctrine – including the veneration of images, prayer to saints, prayers on behalf of the dead, etc. They forgot, then, that one reason for the baptism with the Holy Spirit is to guide the believers to the truth (John 16:13-14), opening their understanding for the mistakes they make.
It is interesting to note that in the countries where the Pentecostal churches are in a state of revival (in Latin America, for example), this tolerance does not exist in relation to the doctrine. Rather, there is a clear understanding that what is stated in relation to the commandments and in other Scriptures mentioned above remain the express will of God. However, among the Pentecostals in the United States and in Europe, where the numeric growth of the churches is minimal and where the operation of the Holy Spirit is practically non existent, there is a great tolerance, and even open acceptance of the doctrine.
As a result of the dissemination of images of Jesus and of the saints, many true believers started to get used to – and even to admit as something not serious – the practices of the historical churches in which the idols or icons – including images of Jesus, Mary and the apostles – became objects of adoration. These images are not shocking to the believers any more, for they got used to seeing these images in the Sunday School books and in their Bibles. They forget what the Scriptures regarding New Jerusalem: “But outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie.” (Rev. 22:15)
The same is applied to the images of angels. Besides bringing religious impressions contrary to the content of the true faith (“the assurance of things not seen”, resulting from hearing the Word of God), the images of angels are so distant from the reality of these glorious heavenly beings that in reality they started to teach false things regarding them. The images represent, for example, baby-angels, effeminate angels, which does not correspond to the reality of these beings.
These images contribute to generate and understanding of the angels as ridiculous and laughable beings, making it hard to believe in the existence of the angels. But, contrary to what is seen, the angels of the Lord are serious and powerful beings that transmit the fear of the Lord when they appear in the midst of God’s people.
The Experience of the Faithful Church
The experiences that the Lord gives to His Church in our days – regardless of the denomination that they are in – confirm that images are a source of oppression for, when they expressly oppose God’s will, they represent a breach, allowing that the evil one penetrates a person or operate in a household, causing dissention, animosity and lack of understanding of God’s true will.
Images are also an obstacle to the operation of the Holy Spirit in the church or in a person. The presence of images in a room frequently prevents the people to receive spiritual deliverances, physical healings or understanding of the Word of God. On the other hand, they allow that the Enemy spread erroneous doctrines or practices, including the promotion of mystical experiences (not sanctioned by the Scriptures).
The presence of images in a place of worship is an obstacle to receiving the spiritual gifts by the church, for they do not allow the Holy Spirit to have complete freedom in the midst of the church and grant discernment of spirits and wisdom in the use of the gifts (II Cor. 6:16, 17).
Images are a breach that allows the Enemy to disturb a service manifesting his presence through a possessed person, transmitting a false spiritual gift in a service or a false interpretation of a spiritual gift.
The Work of the Holy Spirit cannot be completely established in a Church where there are idols. If a church gets rid of images, the Lord is pleased in that church, and there is a complete liberty for the operation of the Holy Spirit (II Cor. 6:16, 17). The presence of idols in a place prevents, likewise, the church to receive spiritual gifts and the revelations of the Lord.
In this last hour in which the Lord is baptizing His servants in all corners of the Earth with His Holy Spirit, the Enemy attempts to destroy the Church encouraging tolerance to idolatry and certain practices that are more easily introduced in congregations where the idols are tolerated: mystical experiences (not sanctioned by the Scriptures), praise aiming to please men and exalt the ecclesiastic leaders.