What is the greatest threat to Christian mission and world evangelization? At the recent Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa, Christopher J. H. Wright cited the idolatry of believers as the greatest obstacle to world mission. In his sweeping text The Mission of God, Wright details idolatry and opposition to mission in Scripture, and he applies the insights from his book in his critique of contemporary idolatry. Thanks to Wright's work and recent books on idolatry by Tim Keller (Counterfeit Gods, reviewed by CT), Brian Rosner (Greed as Idolatry), and Greg Beale (We Become What We Worship), the specter of idolatry is growing in size on the radar screen of many evangelicals.
In an essay written in advance of his book, Rosner defines idolatry as "an attack on God's exclusive rights to our love, trust and obedience." The rejection of physical images served as an important boundary marker for early Jews and Christians. But in the Bible, "idolatry" was not limited to opposition to images, because our love, trust, and obedience run to principles and gods even if they are not associated with a physical idol. So sexual immorality and greed are tied to idolatry (Col. 3:5; Eph. 5:5) even though they do not always involve a tangible image.
Idolatry is dangerous because it almost always involves the offer of good things as substitutes for God. Wright highlights three pairs of idols: power and pride, success and popularity, and wealth and greed. Keller similarly highlights money, sex, and power, noting that even churches and efforts in ministry can become idols.
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