What is Idolatry?
When we sit down to partake of Thanksgiving dinner, we in America don’t worry that somehow the turkey was first offered to idols to be blessed and think that somehow a demonic presence might have become a part of the flesh as a result. Or when we go to restaurants we don’t worry that in the front of the room is a altar where all the food is first offered to idols and blessed, the wait staff perform a ritual over them as we watch, and then they are cooked and offered to us.
This is the reality that was an everyday affair for the church in Corinth. This is the context to which Paul writes 1 Corinthians.
We have no way of truly identifying with the thoughts and emotions of the Corinthian believers. So it is easy to dismiss today’s passage as irrelevant to us. Or we reinterpret idolatry in a more general sense – which isn’t necessarily wrong, but I believe ends up missing Paul’s intent. For example, the consumerism, wealth, and preoccupation with material acquisitions during this time of year might lead to associating these things with idolatry of wealth. Idolatry can certainly be associated with wealth, but I don’t think this is a proper application of Paul’s words in our passage for today.
Paul affirms two spiritual realities: God’s and everything else. Paul’s words are directed against spiritual ideas, traditions, and practices that lead a person into communion with a spiritual reality that is opposed to God (which Paul describes as “communion with demons”). Here again the problem is that although most Christians still affirm two opposing spiritual realities, we really don’t live in an environment where reminders of these realities surround us.
The challenge for us is to find a way to bring home Paul’s message into our context without compromising his intent.
Throughout this third essay Paul’s concern has been around the issue of effectiveness in mission. He has written that the default position is to “become weak,” to become in need, and integrate into the community to become an incarnational missionary. He then wrote that some practices – those that are true to Christ and are reminders of his work – are appropriate to adopt and maintain, provided they do not become “magical” ends in themselves.
In today’s passage Paul writes about cultural practices that Christians ought never adopt. These are practices that are antithetical to the nature of Christ – his love, his compassion, grace, free-will, humility, faith. These are practices that if adopted by Christians and the church, will lead the community away from Christ and into the realm of “demons” – law over love, dogma over compassion, formulaic propositional “truths” over grace, manipulation and coercion over free-will, authoritarianism over humility, certainty over faith.
We might wish that Paul left a more concrete list of things to avoid, but he didn’t. No, what he left were principles by which we are left to judge for ourselves (v15) as we encounter our own questions about what practices to adopt and what to avoid. What will build up the community of Christ? What will destroy? What is motivated by love? What is motivated by self-interest?