The Reality and Danger of Political Idolatry — Jon Mitchell, Editor (Editorial: October, 2020)

Perhaps idolatry is one of those sins easily dismissed by the modern Christian as something limited to the ancient past of the Bible and not prevalent in twenty-first century America.  After all, we don’t see people bowing to statues of pagan gods on every street corner as we read of in the Bible.  Due to the influence of Judeo-Christianity in our society for centuries, America is considered by many a “Christian nation” with significantly more churches than pagan temples in our cities and towns.  Thus, it might be simple for us to take idolatry much less seriously than other sins in our lives. 

Yet idolatry has always been a major weapon in Satan’s arsenal.  It was his greatest weapon against the Jews in Old Testament times, leading ultimately to their national downfall into captivity.  After seventy years of exile at the hands of Babylon and Medo-Persia, they returned to their homeland and never again engaged in pagan idolatry as a nation.  However, that does not mean that they never again engaged in any form of idolatry. 

Have you ever wondered why God inspired Paul to refer to covetousness as idolatry (Col. 3:5)?  After all, covetousness is basically greed, materialism, the inordinate desire for obtaining and acquiring more and more wealth and possessions.  The fact that the rich young ruler loved his wealth more than Christ is significant in that it shows us the connection between covetousness and idolatry (Matt. 19:16-23).  He had put his wealth in the place of God.  His riches were more important.  Many rich people are like that, which is why Paul called covetousness idolatry.

The pagan idolaters of biblical times made up gods to take the place of the true God, as seen in the example of Israel’s golden calf (Ex. 32:1-4).  Their imagined god replaced the true God in all areas of importance in their minds and hearts.  People who are covetous do the same thing with their wealth.  Their materialism causes them to place their money and possessions on a higher plateau than God in their hearts and minds.  It is possible to do that with anything.  Anything can become an idol if we put it on a higher plane than God.  That includes changing the truth about God and his ways and message to fit our own desires (2 Tim. 4:3-4).  With these biblical truths in mind, let me ask this.  Does idolatry exist today?  Do people today, including members of the church, put things in higher precedence than God?  Of course, the answer is yes.

We mustn’t think that recent history and our modern times are immune to the plague of political idolatry either.  According to the Shinto religion during World War II, the Japanese emperor Hirohito was considered by some to be a god, just as the Roman culture of Paul’s day considered their Caesars to be gods.  Yet what is far more insidious among our culture than these more traditional forms of idolatry are the ways we unwittingly idolize our preferred rulers and politicians in modern times.  We may not worship them in an overtly religious, ritualistic fashion as we do the God of the Bible, but they and the policies they promote which we favor can very easily supersede the will of God in our minds, hearts, and priorities just as the covetousness of the rich young ruler misplaced his Lord’s will within his own mind and heart. 

Let us contemplate a few things which perhaps are long overdue our consideration…

The Impact Of Political Idolatry Upon Our Christian Influence

After having informed Christians that they “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9), Peter then wrote:  “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.  Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (vs. 11-12).  How are Christians to heed his inspired exhortations in these verses?  Peter tells us one way in the very next verses when he commands us to be subject “for the Lord’s sake” to governmental authorities (vs. 13-14).  Note his next statements.  “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.  Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.  Honor everyone.  Love the brotherhood.  Fear God.  Honor the emperor” (vs. 15-17).

Did you notice how God connects honoring “everyone,” including the evil “emperor,” with “doing good” that would “silence the ignorance of foolish people” and “not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil”?  Do you see how he also connects showing honor to those in power with “abstain(ing) from the passions of the flesh” and “keep(ing) your conduct among the Gentiles honorable” so that they might end up “glorify(ing) God on the day of visitation”?  Do you see how he even connects this with “proclaim(ing) the excellencies of him who called out of darkness into his marvelous light”?

We might not realize it, but one of the brightest ways which we can let our light shine and lead others to Christ is to honor governmental authorities.  Remember, each of them were appointed by God (Rom. 13:1; cf. Dan. 2:37-38; 4:17, 25, 32; 5:21).  Brethren, this gives us something to contemplate.  While the voters elected your least favorite politician to be president, governor, senator, etc., it was ultimately God who allowed it to happen, who was providentially working behind the scenes to make it so!  We like to think of this when the candidate we favor wins, but we must recognize that it is still true of the candidate we wholeheartedly wish had lost.

This is important because we tend to show honor and respect only to those in office whom we like, yet that is not what God commands.  When Peter and Paul wrote 1 Peter 2:17 and Romans 13:7, they were referring to immoral rulers such as Nero, the man historical tradition says eventually killed them both, the tyrant who some say burned Rome, blamed it on Christians, and set their living bodies on fire to light his garden at night!  Yet God still inspired them to command saints to honor such men, despots who were far more immoral and depraved and who promoted policies and were involved in atrocities far worse than anything any of our modern governmental leaders have done in either party. 

Why honor them?  Because Christians are to be different from the rest of the world (1 Pet. 2:9).  Our conduct among this sinful world must always be honorable (1 Pet. 2:12).  The rest of the world has always taken a special delight in insulting and badgering our leaders whom we dislike, especially here in our American culture where politics is like a blood sport and it is considered almost entertainment to critique and criticize each presidential and congressional punching bag in D.C.  Our worldly culture thinks nothing to say about whatever governmental leader we despise, “He ought to be taken behind the barn and shot.”  In my years as a preacher, I’ve heard several brethren say exactly that about various political leaders.

Yet God says, “Don’t do that.  Honor them instead.  They deserve honor if for no other reason than simply because of the office into which I put them, so give them honor.  Be different from the rest of the world.”  When we decide to do just that, guess what happens?

People notice.  Those who are lost in sin and don’t even know it notice.  It might cause them to give you respect, grudging or otherwise.  It might just get them to wonder why you are the way you are, Christian.  They might just ask you why you’re so different and why you speak respectably of President or Senator No-Good even though you clearly disagree with their policies or character.

If that happens, guess what you’ve allowed God to place in front of you?  The open door for evangelism for which Paul prayed (Col. 4:3; cf. 1 Cor. 16:9; 2 Cor. 2:12).  Walk through that door and tell your inquirer that your relationship with Jesus changed your life and made you who you are, and then say, “And he can do the same for you too.  Let’s open a Bible and let me show you how!”  When that happens, you are giving them every opportunity to “glorify God in the day of visitation”…why?  Because of “your good works which they observe” (1 Pet. 2:12).  They may just obey the gospel and receive salvation by the grace of God…and you would have played a very important role in that!

Yet if we decide to join with the rest of the crowd (as I’ve seen many of my brethren do over the past decade or so) and throw vulgar epithets at our least favorite politicians or talk openly about how we wish something bad would happen to them or their families, what will the lost souls around us see?  They will see someone whom they know goes to church, reads their Bible, pray over their meals at lunch break and professes to be a follower of Christ…acting no differently than someone who is not.

Now they have one more reason to believe Christians are generally hypocritical holier-than-thou’s.  Now they have one more reason to give no interest or attention to the cause, religion, and church of Christ.  Without repentance, God will one day directly ask you and me to explain why we contributed to that eternal tragedy.  Do you want that to happen?  I really don’t.

Yet it does, and the reason it does is due to Christians deciding to put God’s will about showing honor to governmental authorities on the backburner in favor of scoring that political point against their unfavored politician.  We therefore see the negative impact political idolatry has upon our Christian influence.

The Impact Of Political Idolatry Upon Our Prayer Life

Paul directed Timothy to teach the Ephesian Christians to pray for their rulers so that they could lead peaceful lives (1 Tim. 2:1-2).  Heeding this simple command from the heart can show a lot about what is within our heart (cf. Mark 7:20-22).  Again, consider that when Paul penned this the “kings and all who are in high positions” at the time were immoral pagans who demanded their subjects to worship them as gods and were involved in such grossly debauched sexual depravities that some of our more immoral presidents like Presidents Kennedy and Harding would likely blanch.  “All who are in high positions” would also include the Jewish leaders who were militantly active in the severe persecution of the very people to whom Timothy would give this directive.  Yet God insisted that Christians pray for them anyway.

We should therefore not be surprised that he expects the same from us today (cf. Heb. 13:8).  Our hearts must be fully involved if our prayers of praise to God are to dodge the trap of vain worship (Matt. 15:7-9).  We must mean what we pray.  That’s part of what living and praying in a “godly and dignified” way is all about (1 Tim. 2:2).  So when we do just that and pray sincerely and regularly with all our heart that God bless and help our leaders…including the leaders for whom we have no liking or personal respect…then we will naturally find ourselves giving them more honor and respect on a daily basis than we had done before.  Furthermore, we can trust that God will answer our prayers and providentially work through our current or future governmental leaders to grant us the ability to “lead a peaceful and quiet life,” which is exactly the result for which we prayed! 

The question is this.  Do we pray for ALL our governmental leaders in this fashion…or only the ones whom we like and voted for in the last election?  If it’s the latter, then we are practicing political idolatry and it is having a negative impact upon our prayer lives.

The Impact Of Political Idolatry Upon Our Priorities

Please consider the following questions with open, honest hearts (Luke 8:15).

Do we give our favorite governmental leaders, the politicians whom we despise, or political punditry in the news media, or politics in general more attention than we do with matters concerning our Christianity?  If so, this means political matters are more highly prioritized by us than God, something the opposite of Christ’s command to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).  I have been guilty of this, and I’ve seen others do so also. 

Do we unwittingly overlook Christ’s promise that God is the One who provides all our needs if we seek his kingdom and righteousness first (Matt. 6:25-34), because we’ve placed all our hopes on the promises of our preferred ruler?  Do we do this even though the Lord warned us, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation” (Ps. 146:3; cf. 118:9)?  Do we do so even to the point of excusing away or even defending our favorite politician’s gross misdeeds out of fear that if we do “the other, worse candidate will win” and then all hope is lost?  Do we find it easy to claim and believe, with no scriptural support whatsoever, that the goals and priorities of “our guy” in office are also God’s goals and priorities?  If so, how is that any different from Israel making a golden calf and claiming that it was the god who brought them out of Egypt?

I recently found an online headline which reads: “‘Make America Great Again’ Is Now A CCLI Licensed Christian Worship Song.”  Published in 2017, the article contains the lyrics of the song and describes it as a “worship song” put out by a First Baptist church in Dallas for “any church who wishes to sing it.”  Yet who or what is being worshiped?  God is not mentioned in the song at all, nor does the song even imply that he would be the One who would “make America great again.” Rather, the singers themselves — “Americans from ev’ry corner of this blessed land,” along with “each and every state” — are the ones being told to perform the actions to “make America great again.”  The biblical facts that it is God who has “determined (all nations’) allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” with the goal that “they should seek God” is not even hinted at in the “worship song” (Acts 17:26-27; cf. Job 12:23).

As we all know, “Make America Great Again” is the theme of our president’s administration.  Inherently, there is nothing wrong with such a slogan or goal.  Personally, I stand behind that goal.  Yet there is something wrong when a church deigns the slogan as a “worship song” with no mention or even hint of the God who brought America into existence in the first place having a hand in “making (her) great again.”  It is evidence of a growing problem within the religious culture of our country, the problem of idolizing our nation’s leaders.  It is a way Satan works to keep us from loving God with all our being (Matt. 22:37).  If we do that, even unwittingly, he wins and we lose.

I understand this far more than I wish.  During 2016, I talked in person and online about the election far more than I talked about Jesus.  I read far more articles about the candidates than I did chapters of the Bible.  Most of the conversations in which I zealously participated had little to do with the gospel and everything to do with the election. 

I’m not the only Christian who has made this mistake.  Friends, many of us are not letting our light shine as we should because of our misplaced priorities concerning politics (1 Pet. 2:11-12, 17; Rom. 13:7), and this is due to unwittingly being led by Satan to practice a form of idolatry.  Over the past decade, I’ve seen some brethren speak very rudely to each other, even profanely and with vulgar words and even vulgar pictures in some cases, all to promote their favorite politician or policy (cf. Eph. 4:28; 5:3-4).  I’ve seen brethren excuse away or even defend criminality, heinous policies like abortion or homosexual marriage, and immoral behavior all because they liked particular governmental leaders or policies, even to the point of twisting scriptural commands, principles, and even the biographies of biblical characters to find justification in what they were doing.  What do those in our lives who are not Christians think about us as Christians when they observe this?

To answer, do a Google search on “Christians politics hypocrisy.”  What you’ll find is not encouraging at all.  See for yourself, as I did.  Admittedly, my first knee-jerk reaction to reading these scathing critiques were to dismiss their authors as hopeless militant leftists who are probably atheists or agnostics and would not give a fair hearing to Christianity regardless.  Perhaps that’s true, but we’ll never know.  Besides, the political affiliation of these critics or whether or not they believe in God is not the point.

The point is that each of them, as well as every other person out there who is or may be disenchanted with Christianity because of our failings in these areas, has a soul for whom Jesus died (1 Tim. 2:5-6).  A soul whom Jesus wishes us to reach as best we can (Mark 16:15).  A soul in front of whom we are not to place any obstacle on its way to heaven (Matt. 18:6-14). 

Paul said that he and his fellow Christians “endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:12).  Contextually, he was exhorting Christians to remember that “all things are lawful, but not all things are helpful” and that none of us should “seek his own good” but rather “the good of his neighbor” (1 Cor. 10:23-24).  He then commanded Christians to sacrifice even that of which they had liberty to partake if it would be spoken evil of and hinder glory being given to God (1 Cor. 10:25-31).  He urged us, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.  Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.  Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 10:31-11:1).

That is our calling, Christians.  Saving souls.  Doing whatever it takes to not hinder the gospel being delivered to them.  Doing everything within our power to help them have an open mind while receiving that gospel.  That is supposed to be the most important thing.  On Judgment Day, it will be the most important thing, the only thing that matters.  The reason we are “a people for his own possession” is so we will “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).  The reason behind being Christians cannot be limited to forgiveness of sins and going to heaven.  Those wonderful spiritual blessings are the benefits of our citizenship in God’s kingdom.  Yet the purpose behind being Christians is to share the good news of Jesus with others.

That’s our mission, our reason for being “a good soldier of Christ Jesus,” and “no soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Tim. 2:3-4).  Yet I’m afraid many of us have accidentally allowed ourselves to participate in political idolatry, placing more importance and attention upon the political affairs of this world than on our mission to bring souls to Christ.  I respectfully urge us all to consider that we may have fallen out of proper alignment and balance.  We may have become so caught up in politics that we’ve taken our focus from Christ and his will for us.  We may have allowed the political causes for which we care so much, justifiably or otherwise, to take a higher priority than the saving of souls, which includes doing whatever is required of us to avoid turning them off to Christianity.

God has not decreed that we vote for or support any politician.  That’s a freedom we have.  Yet he does expect us to not allow the freedoms we have to interfere with his cause in any way (1 Pet. 2:15-17; Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8-10; Gal. 5:13).  If a particular governmental leader is personally immoral but you like their policies, it is possible to support their policies in a way that doesn’t give the impression you support their personal character.  The best way to accomplish that is to do what God told you to do about that of which you personally approve but is a stumbling block to others:  “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God…” (Rom. 14:22).  Despite our inclinations, we are not required to share every political opinion we have.  I learned the hard way that doing so does not contribute in any way towards the greater cause of bringing souls to Christ.  Instead, it hinders it.  Jesus wants us to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” in our attempts to win souls for him (Matt. 10:16).  Let us look with greater wisdom upon the effects our focus on politics has on the cause of Christ and resolve to do nothing, as much as depends on us, to cause anyone to find the religion of Christianity hypocritical or repellant in any way. 

We seem to have put our hopes in government more and more in recent years.  Each election is said to be “the most important in our lifetime,” that is, until the next one comes along.  Each candidate we like makes us think that only they can fulfill our hopes and dreams about the causes we cherish, once again in spite of the biblical warning of Psalm 118:9. 

I challenge us to place all our hopes on Christ and look at things from a spiritual, eternal perspective (Col. 3:1-2).  Let us pray for our rulers, submit to them in all things not outside of God’s will, and give them the respect and honor God says their position demands and deserves…even if doing so means we force ourselves to disagree with their policies or personal conduct in ways which lack insults and personal attacks.  Let us strive to always examine ourselves to make sure our support of them and their policies is never in any way higher than our loyalty and devotion to the cause of Christ (2 Cor. 13:5).

Let us realize that “making America great again” will never begin with the people we send to Washington.  No, it begins with us, Christians.  It begins with us winning souls for Christ, being involved in that spiritual warfare to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3-5).  Winning souls for Christ through evangelism will result in more souls with godly values voting at the polls, which in turn will result in godlier leaders promoting godlier values in government.  We need to realize that.

Above all, we must remember that the true goal is not to improve our country.  Rather, it is to help souls get to heaven.  This world is not our home.  It’s not the home of the lost either.  Our home is waiting for us, that eternal, imperishable inheritance in heaven.  Jesus wants it to be their eternal home too.  Let’s help them get there by getting political idolatry out of our lives.           

— Jon

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