In other words, when Paul talks about idolatry, he is not talking about the worship of idols as we know it today. As a Christ-follower, he would be just as horrified as Jesus if he saw the way his words have been twisted to exclude modern idolaters like me, and like many friends of mine. For centuries, the church has silenced the voice of idolaters (just like it has silenced the voice of slaves, and women), and it is about time we recognised that neither Jesus, nor Paul, had any problem with idolatry.
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.