Worldview Conversion: Addressing Idolatry

This article from Charles Fleming continues our series exploring Worldview Conversion and the related topic of Whole-Life Discipleship.

Charles Fleming

For some people, a discussion about worldview seems rather academic and abstract—far removed from day-to-day life. But for those wanting to live a life that is transformed in Christ by the Spirit, few things are more central, with profound real-life implications. As Ted Johnston notes in his earlier article, our worldview determines how we

…view all sorts of issues: God, politics, truth, education, abortion, marriage, the environment, race, gender, economics, what it means to be human, the origins of the universe… to name a few.

In The New Testament and the People of GodN.T. Wright adds this:

Worldviews are the basic stuff of human existence, the lens through which the world is seen, the blueprint for how one should live in it, and above all the sense of identity and place which enables human beings to be what they are. To ignore worldviews, either our own or those of the culture we are studying, would result in extraordinary shallowness. (p. 124)

Worldview Conversion

When our worldview, with our related sense of identity, is more secular than Christ-centered, we end up, to one degree or another, departing from the mind of Christ. For that reason, it’s vital that we recognize and deal with any aspects of our worldview that are not yielded to the lordship of Christ. Thus this series emphasizes what we refer to as worldview conversion.

Having our worldview converted more fully to Christ is a challenge, for by the time we are mature enough to take God seriously, we typically already have a fully-formed worldview—one shaped as much by osmosis as by intentional thought. Worldview formation is similar to the way an infant learns language. It’s both a formal, intentional activity on the part of the child and the parents, and a process with a life all its own. Much of it just happens with certain values and assumptions just feeling right to us as they become the baseline from which we (both consciously and unconsciously) evaluate what goes on in and around us. It’s the unconscious reacting that often becomes the primary sticking point to our growth and witness as followers of Jesus.

Our relationship with human culture

Scripture warns us that, to one degree or another, all human cultures are out of step with God’s kingdom values and ways. As Christians, we are called to repudiate such values and ways to live as ambassadors of God’s kingdom. Scripture often uses the word Babylon to describe cultures that are hostile to God, calling them “the mother of… the abominations of the earth” (Rev. 17: 5) and admonishing us to reject any ungodly values and ways in the culture (world) around us. Note what the apostle Paul says about this:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Rom. 12:2)

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. (Col. 2:8)

Fundamental to our calling as followers of Jesus is the imperative to live counter-culturally—counter to the sinful characteristics of the culture that surrounds us. It has been said that Jesus lived with one foot in the culture and one foot planted firmly in kingdom values. He often repudiated the culture to avoid becoming captive to the ideologies and practices that were an offense to God. However, in doing so, Jesus did not repudiate the people within the culture. Instead, he loved them and had compassion toward them. Moreover, while highlighting aspects of the culture contrary to God’s ways, he also emphasized aspects that were good—indeed, all cultures are a mixture of both.

We are called to follow Jesus’ example. Our resurrected and ascended Lord expects us to be subject to the leading of his word and Spirit, so that we live as faithful ambassadors of his kingdom of love, shining the light of his glory in an often-dark world.

Beware idolatry!

To live as Christ’s ambassadors in the world with its various cultures, we must follow Jesus’ example of being constantly aware of the deepest sin of human culture—the one that is the problem behind the problem of a secular worldview. That problem, that sin, is idolatry. The sad reality is that idolatry is widespread in our modern, me-centered Western culture. We need eyes to see this reality—both in the world around us, and in our own worldview. Doing so is a challenge, for idolatry is not always easy to spot.

Idolatry is the worship of anything other than God. It involves loving, trusting, and serving something or someone above God. Throughout Scripture we find God and godly leaders helping people recognize and then abandon idolatry. For example, the Ten Commandments begins by prohibiting idolatry. The book of Judges and the books of the Prophets chronicle the ways that social, political and economic problems result from people trusting in someone or something other than the true God.

The great sin behind all other sins is idolatry—the failure to love, obey and serve God. As noted by the apostle Paul, the results are devastating:

Although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened…. [they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images…. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. (Rom. 1:21, 23-24)

Paul shows that an unwillingness to accept God as God leads to immorality, the corruption of minds, and the darkening of hearts.

Anyone interested in bringing about the conversion of their worldview would do well to spend time reflecting deeply on Romans 1:16–32 where the apostle Paul makes it clear that idolatry (the problem behind the problem) must be addressed if we are to produce consistently good fruit (wise decision-making and moral behavior). Paul is consistent with this point throughout his ministry (see, for example, 1 Cor. 10:14 where Paul exhorts Christians to flee from idolatry).

Educating our members

Given that idolatry thrives in modern Western cultures, it is crucial that we help our members understand the threat it presents. We need to reintroduce this understanding to a generation that tends to view idolatry as only a matter of bowing down to physical objects (as pictured below). Idolatry is much more than that!

Idolatry with Baal-Peor
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

A word of caution, however: Our calling as church leaders is not to be constantly pointing out to people exactly where the idolatry is in their behavior and thinking. It is their responsibility to figure that out. Instead, as “helpers of their joy,” we are called to help them recognize the attitudes and behaviors that are symptomatic of idolatrous attachments. We need to alert them to the dangers of idolatry, and give them biblical criteria to help them examine the assumptions and values that make up their worldview to see if they are consistent with the Christian faith they profess. Doing so involves the whole-life discipleship process Gary Deddo addressed in an earlier article in this series.

Paul provided this sort of instruction in his letter to the church in Colossae. He wrote about the link between idolatry and covetousness (Col. 3:5). When we want something so much that we covet it, that thing has taken over our hearts—it has become an idol that we seek after at the expense of giving God his due. In our age of rampant materialism and consumerism, we all need help in combating the covetousness that leads to idolatry. The entire world of advertising is built on cultivating in us a dissatisfaction with life unless we have the product or lifestyle being promoted. It’s as if someone decided to create a culture designed to undermine what Paul told Timothy:

Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Tim. 6:6-10)

Each month, the average person in the U.S. is exposed to about 150,000 messages that promote a product or idea. Part of our calling as church leaders is to help our members understand how the culture appeals to our hearts, creating not just strong desires, but also a sense of entitlement, and even the notion that we are less of a person if denied the product or lifestyle being promoted. What makes this educational task especially challenging is that most of the things we make into idols are good things. In and of themselves, having a better home or a better job are good things. But if they become things that define our identity, significance, security and/or our dignity, we have invited an idol into our lives. It’s important that we help our members recognize when their relationship with a good thing has become idolatry.

Explaining idolatry as the problem behind the problem helps people set up guardrails in their lives to help them sense when they are taking a good thing and turning it into an idol—something they depend on for peace, joy, personal significance and safety (things only God can truly provide). Some of the good things that people are tempted to turn into “ultimate things” include relationships, money, fame, ideologies, patriotism, and even personal piety. The Bible is filled with stories of people doing this. Let’s explore these stories with our members in sermons, Bible studies, discipleship classes, etc. (For a helpful resource, click here for videos of “Uncover,” a series of lectures given by Tim Keller).

Idolatry in the Knowledge Age

We live in what historians call the Knowledge Age (as distinct from the Industrial Age of the past). In our era, idolatry is less about the worship of physical objects and more about the worship of ideas and knowledge. The forms of knowledge that most aggressively seek to win our hearts are ideologies—economic models, psychological theories, political philosophies, etc. As church leaders, we leave God’s people vulnerable if we fail to help them develop the ability to evaluate for themselves when a good idea or philosophy is becoming an idol in their hearts and minds.

We can help them by teaching them to identify their deepest values and assumptions—their worldview. We can teach them how, in prayer, to discern why they react so strongly to something in the news or on social media. We can help them ask questions like these: Why did I get so angry? Why do I feel this strongly? What value does this come from and when and how did this become a value to me? Does my reaction bring glory to God and express Jesus’ love and compassion for people?

Note also that we need to be self-aware—we need to recognize the “sacred cows” in our hearts and minds—the ideas, attitudes and things that we don’t want God to touch, the things that are “off-limits.” As church leaders, we need to ask God to convert our own worldview so that what we say and do bears kingdom fruit.

Conclusion

Many of our missteps as Christians come from the often-unrecognized influence of our personal worldview. One of the most damaging effects is seen in the diminished quality of our Christian witness to a hurting world. Too often we take on pressing problems in ways that reflect the partisan views of the secular culture around us. As a result, many of us stay away from addressing the problems presented by the culture and thus leave our members vulnerable. We owe it to Christ to help his people discern the ways their worldview may be the seedbed of Christ-dishonoring ideas and behaviors. We need to help our members evaluate the posture of their hearts in light of Christ’s command to love God above all else. This means learning to recognize any idolatrous attachments they might have.

It’s our prayer that this article provides helpful insights to reflect upon. May the God of all wisdom inspire you as you seek to equip his people to be that light on the hill he wants us all to be.

4 thoughts on “Worldview Conversion: Addressing Idolatry”

  1. In the „enlightened“ Western world we are most certainly living in a society unabashedly promoting idolatry in all of its many manifestations. Thank you Charles for this thought provoking article.

    „Idolatry may not involve explicit denials of God’s existence or character. It may well come in the form of an over-attachment to something that is in itself perfectly good… An idol can be a physical object, a property, a person, an activity, a role, an institution, a hope, an image, an idea, a pleasure, a hero, anything that can substitute for God.”

    Source: Os Guinness and John Seel, No God but God, 32-33.

  2. Thank you Charles. Your questions are helpful: Why did I get so angry (to something shared by news or social media) ? Why do I feel this strongly?

    When I react angrily I need to discover what I’m attempting to defend. A defensive posture may expose fear. Fear may reveal that I’m more self-reliant than I realized. How will I be able to hear Jesus, let alone obey him, if I’m distracted by my own opinions and perceptions? We all need a Christ-centered worldview.

  3. Charles, thanks again. This is a very helpful and analytical look at the topic. You brought out several facets, like the information age issues, that we unconsciously adopt just by being “the fish in the water of society” then have trouble seeing the “water”. I think the info age absolutely contributes to idolatry; look at the idolatry of opinions on FB or Twitter! Keep on praying, thinking and writing for us.

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