Can the Church Be an Idol?

Vanessa Luu

Contributing Writer
Published: Jan 26, 2023
Can the Church Be an Idol?

The church was my idol. I believed that because I had gone to church my whole life, He and I were okay and that I was living for Him—no wonder all my efforts felt so stiff and disconnected; I didn't really feel like I knew Him.

Anything can be an idol, no matter how "good" it is, which means the church can indeed be an idol. It's a sneaky idol because Jesus loves the church and refers to it as His body of believers. But we have turned the church into a religious institution, and sadly we've overcomplicated and—at the same time—watered down our calling to spread the good news.

I love the definition of the church given by (c) 1998 by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA and published by InterVarsity Press. All believers are now priests. Because God's Spirit dwells within the church/His people, they must live in unity with one another. There's very little about buildings or institutions unless we focus on synagogues.

The church is best depicted in the book of Acts. It was the first time believers were referred to as Christians. The people were united with their beliefs about Jesus and lived together as a community. Their fellowship was outside, which meant their witness was uncovered and visible for others to observe. Thousands of people came to believe in Jesus because of their unity in Christ.

When you think of an idol, I'm sure the golden calf in Exodus comes to mind. We often think of an idol as a graven image, something tangible that we can see and touch. This description is accurate, but there's more to it. The tangible idols, graven images, and statues symbolize something bigger; our focus is on something other than the living God. 

It's easy to roll our eyes at how foolish the Israelites were to make a gold statue out of their jewelry and other prized possessions and expect it would perform as their god. But if you take a moment to reflect, we'll see that we make idols with much less effort and more frequency.

Aaron held a high position of authority as a high priest but did a great disservice to his people when he advised them to make the golden calf. 

God Is the Ultimate Authority

Let this remind us that just because someone holds a high position of authority doesn't mean they are in line with the Holy Spirit. In Aaron's case, he cared about appeasing the people instead of honoring the commands of God. I don't know about you, but I see this in church leadership today. We put too much trust in our officials even if they bear no Fruit of the Spirit.

Unfortunately, it appears that no one on the ground was bearing the Fruit of the Spirit because there's no record of anyone reminding Aaron that making a "god" to worship was breaking the first commandment (Exodus 20:3-4).

An idol replaces God, whether temporary or long-term. It's something to which we give a lot of power and loyalty. Pause and picture your church. What place does it hold in your heart? Is it the place you gather to worship God with fellow believers, or is it more than that?

Is the church where you go to be fed your spiritual food? Do you take your pastor and Bible teachers at their word and do what they say? Or do you examine the Scriptures to be alert and obey God's guidance alone?

God has revealed much about the church to me over the past ten years. He has given me the task of sharing what I've learned to help my brothers and sisters in Christ. The messages I have to share (like this one) are often not popular but good for the soul if we are willing to soften our hearts and listen.

None of us will ever "get it all right," but the refining we experience through submission to the Holy Spirit reveals increasing amounts of God's glorious presence.

God Deserves the Church's Submission

"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless." Ephesians 5:25-27 (NASB)

Let's break this passage down. Paul is comparing the marriage relationship to the church's relationship with Jesus. What is the church? A body or community of believers. Jesus loves us; we, the church, must submit to Him. Our part in this relationship is submission to Christ, but I'm not sure that submission to Christ is happening in the church.

The reason we submit to Christ is so that He can cleanse us with the Word! It's written right there in verse 26. Submission is the key. Without it, we merely follow religious beliefs in the flesh instead of walking with our Creator in the Spirit! And that is idolatry. God doesn't do the work in us that He's prepared ahead of time if we never submit to His will and way.

To know His will and way, we must not rely on our church institutions to guide us in the truth; we must seek Him in His word daily. The church is supposed to be fellowship and encouragement to continue walking with the Lord. It's supposed to support your faith, not your sole source of truth.

I see us submit to our pastors, but are we, the body of believers, submitting to Christ daily in our lives? If not, the church is an idol. Idolatry of the church makes sense, which is why it's so common. It's easier to submit to an imperfect person (as we all are) and trust that they are telling us the truth. Sometimes we may even sense that something is off in the message or in an interaction we have with a pastor or leader in our church, but we let it slide because addressing it is scary, awkward, or too much work.

"All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!" Exodus 24:7 (NASB). I don't believe any of us are deliberately making an idol of the church. We are tired, hurting, and impatient, so we take shortcuts as the Israelites did. They promised to obey God and do everything He said, yet they became impatient enough to take jewelry off their bodies, melt it down, and worship it as if it would have any power. And Aaron told them this was okay. (He cared more about appeasing the people so that he wouldn't have to deal with ruffled feathers rather than doing what was best for them.) I'm confident you can see these qualities alive and well in our world, even our churches.

God Is Our Only Source of Answers

I grew up in the church. My parents brought me as a newborn, and I've never left. I have many pleasant memories, but as I became a mother, life as a Christian started to get confusing. So many opinions were given to me about how to be a mom, a woman, and a Christian, and I got highly overwhelmed. I hit my breaking point. 

I cried out to God; I was on the floor crying and begging God to help me. It was the first memory I had of God speaking to me. I said, "God, I don't get it. I don't understand how to live as a Christian in this world. It seems no matter what I try, I fail. Help me, please!" I'm so grateful for this moment of surrender. I don't think I had ever surrendered my heart to God before this moment, even though I asked Jesus into my heart at age five.

God was waiting for my surrender before He started teaching me all I was missing in my relationship with Him. He was (and is) gentle, kind, forgiving, gracious, and perfect. He started opening my eyes to the habits in my life that did not glorify Him, including idolatry of the church.

The church was my idol. I believed that because I had gone to church my whole life, He and I were okay and that I was living for Him—no wonder all my efforts felt so stiff and disconnected; I didn't really feel like I knew Him. It was more like I knew an idea and a set of principles by which to live. I was trying to live for Jesus without first surrendering to the Holy Spirit. 

With the fresh new eyes God has blessed me with, I see that the church today has more of the kind of Christians (like I was before) striving in the flesh than a body of believers submitted fully to Christ.

The good news is God will forgive any idolatry we may have. All that's required is a surrendered and repentant heart.

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Patrick Donovan

Vanessa Luu is a wife, mother, and faith-based writer. She speaks and writes to believers to encourage them to live authentically with God.