An idol is anything that replaces the one, true God in our lives. Normally, we think of idolatry as involving statues, bank accounts, or some type of material possession. But even our service to the Lord can become an idol. If we allow our work for the Lord to become more important than our fellowship with the Lord, we are guilty of ministry idolatry.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones defined ministry idolatry this way: “To love the ‘work of the Lord’ more than the ‘Lord of the work’ is ministry idolatry.” This type of idolatry is subtle and difficult to fight. Those who serve the Lord naturally find joy and satisfaction in their service. The problem comes when we begin to find more joy and satisfaction in the work than in Christ. Our love for Jesus cools, while we still do “Christian work” fervently. I believe this is one of the things Paul was warning Timothy against: “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim 3:5) (see Godly Living In Perilous Times).
Jesus spoke about the peril of losing our first love in His rebuke of the church at Ephesus: “you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Rev 2:3-4). Was the Ephesian church guilty of ministry idolatry? They were hard working, but they no longer had the same passion for Christ as when they first believed. Their work was no longer motivated by love for Christ.
When the 70 disciples return from witnessing in nearby villages, they are filled with joy as they recount the wonderful things that they had done in “the Lord’s work”; even the demons had been subject to their commands. Jesus cautions them: “do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:17-20). In other words, their focus needed to be on the Lord’s work for them, not their work for the Lord. Where was their joy coming from? From their experience of serving Jesus, or from simply knowing Jesus? We, along with the 70, must guard against the encroachment of ministry idolatry.
The story of Mary and Martha could also be an illustration of ministry idolatry. Martha was busy serving the Lord by readying things for supper, an activity that she seemed to find great satisfaction in. Her sister, Mary, was quite satisfied to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to Him talk. When Martha grew impatient with Mary’s seeming inattention to all that needed to be done, Jesus took Mary’s side: “only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). A relationship with Christ takes precedence over ministry for Christ.
Ministry idolatry is the unguarded heart wandering from the “Lord of the work” to embrace the “work of the Lord.” How does it happen? Ministry idolatry occurs when we delight more in what God is doing through us than what He has done, is doing, and will do in glory (see Rom 8:28-30). Christ is not just a person we serve; He is our very life! (Col 3:4)
The only cure for this form of idolatry is repentence. “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent…He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.” (Rev 2:5, 7)
Like the Ephesian church, we can easily fall prey to a cold, mechanical observance of religion; many tend to focus on doctrinal purity and hard work, to the exclusion of true love for Christ. As this letter shows, no amount of zeal for the truth or moral rectitude can replace a heart full of love for Jesus; nothing should be allowed to eclipse the glory of Christ in our hearts.
It’s a relationship that God desires! He doesn’t want us to try to be religious. He wants us to seek Him. Words mean nothing if the heart is not right. Are we involved in religion or in a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ? When we pray is our heart looking for Christ? “But from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deut 4:29)
We are given a picture of what this genuine walk looks like: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” (Gal 5:22-26)