Put another way, what are the first and second commandments about? As I’ve mentioned in the past, the numbering of the commandments differs between theological traditions—and whichever way you slice them is somewhat artificial because they’re all a logical unit anyway. That being said, when I refer to the first and second commandments, I’m talking about God’s insistence that:
- We have no other gods before him (Exodus 20:3)
- We don’t make idols or bow down to them or do service to them in exchange for some outcome (favor, pregnancy, rain etc) (Exodus 20:4-6)
Now, one of the most irritating and theologically aberrant fashions of evangelicalism—a fashion which, in fairness, probably did not originate there—is the habit of interpreting these commands as referring to things like money, entertainment, sports or what-have-you.
In fact, many Christians would say that anything whatsoever that puts God in the back seat just is idolatry.
It simply, biblically, is not idolatry.
This is idolatry:
Picking a divine being, whether real or imaginary, and worshiping or doing service to it instead of worshiping and doing service to Yahweh. Optionally, you might create a statue which you believed centered or channeled the essence of this divine being, and which would make worshiping and doing service conveniently localized.
That is what the Bible means when it talks about idolatry and idols. Of all the dozens and dozens of places where idolatry, idols, and false gods are mentioned, I am aware of only one which plainly does not refer to actual worship of divine beings. This is Colossians 3:5, where Paul ties idolatry to pleonexia, the consuming desire to possess more than others, regardless of actual need. This seems to be alluding back to passages like Job 31:24-28, where Job speaks of the iniquity of trusting in gold, making wealth one’s confidence, and having one’s heart secretly enticed.
But given the sweeping biblical witness that idolatry is specifically the act of worshiping or serving other divine beings, it would be highly idiosyncratic to take Paul’s words as redefining idolatry into this far broader category. It is simply bizarre to think he is trying to teach that covetousness is identical with idolatry; that it just is idolatry. Rather, given how the Bible already defines idolatry, it seems obvious that he is explaining that covetousness is akin to idolatry—in the sense that desiring or trusting in something other than God is the same fundamental issue that drives people to worship divine beings and offer them service through carved representations. Compare, for example, 1 Samuel 15:23 where a similar kind of statement is made.
In fact, the Bible expressly uses another term to describe putting things ahead of God
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. Matthew 6:24
This is the way in which the Bible describes putting God in the back seat. It describes it as taking another master. Not as worship of something else. Not as idolatry. But as slavery (Romans 6:16). And the reason should be obvious: things like money, sports, entertainment, fashion…they are not personal beings.
If you cannot worship it as a divine being, ask it for favors, or craft a physical representation of it, then it is not a false god, and you’re not engaged in idolatry.
It might well be a “master” to you, and you could well be engaged in “slavery” to it. And that’s bad enough. You have made getting more of it the object of your life; rather than getting more of Yahweh. You will do whatever you must to achieve that goal, and you will hate anything—no matter how good—that gets in the way. Thus you have made yourself a friend of the world and an enemy of God (James 4:4). But doing this is not idolatry unless you start inventing and worshiping a god to help you.
It just isn’t.