The following is another excerpt from the third chapter of Ten Essential Words.

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Idolatry is anything we do to try to capture God.  It is now time to move beyond carved images and piles of rock.  Idolatry is anything – an action, an image, or a belief system – in which we try to capture God.  As God explained to Job of the Old Testament, we can no more capture God than we can try to subdue a wild hippopotamus with a net or catch a crocodile with a fishhook.[1] In both cases, if we naively strolled up to the powerful beast thinking we will just slip a rope around its neck and domesticate it, we would quickly find ourselves in a world of trouble (have you ever seen the Crocodile Hunter on TV?)!  As was said about the Christ-like character of Aslan, in C.S. Lewis’ book The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, “He is not a tame Lion.  But he is good.”

Yet we can do this very thing when we approach God.  The French philosopher Voltaire has noted, “If God created us in his own image, we have more than reciprocated.”  The most common way we attempt to capture God today in our churches is when we reduce God to a set of tenets.  Do not misunderstand me; I am not saying that creeds and doctrinal statements are idols – when they are used to help us understand God.  Many throughout history have grown in their awe of God through reciting the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed.  And doctrinal statements can help clarify where a community stands on important issues.

But when creeds and doctrinal statements are used to assert that our God is the right God (and therefore, yours is the wrong one), we begin to reduce God to our version of God.  God can be summed up in six easy statements or ten essentials of the faith.  As we use tenets to narrow instead of expand our view of God, God goes from being the God of humanity to the Christian God[2], to the Protestant God (or Catholic), to the Baptist God, to the God of a specific denomination in the Baptist tradition, even to the God of a specific church within a specific denomination of a specific tradition.

From time to time, a person has visited a church of which I was a part and asked for a statement of faith.  I have heard them comment that they really liked the service, but just wanted to make sure the church is sound and not some kind of cult.  So I would hand them our statement of faith (evidence that I’m not against doctrinal statements).  But I often wondered if they actually read or understood any of it.  I have to confess that I believe just the practice of handing over a document with a lot of writing on it is enough for most people.  A good friend of mine once admitted to me that when he came to the church for the first time, he asked for a statement of faith simply because it was what he was told to do when checking out a new church – but he did not really know what he was supposed to look for.  Are we teaching people to value the fine print of a belief system over the actual experience of God’s presence in a spiritual community?

And speaking of the fine print, have we made it more difficult for people to come to God today than it was when Jesus walked around Israel inviting people into the kingdom of God?  Notice how Jesus did not use four spiritual laws, a bridge illustration, or the sinner’s prayer on anyone he came across.  In fact, Jesus did not use any kind of formula in his interactions with people.  Each invitation into the kingdom is different with Jesus.  To one he said, “You must be born again” and to another he said, “Your faith has saved you.”  Evangelistic tools are not necessarily bad, unless they begin to assert that our way to God has usurped God’s way to himself.

When our tenets and doctrines reduce our view of God instead of expand our view of God, we may be trying to drop a fishhook in the water hoping for a nibble – only to find ourselves tangling with a crocodile!

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[1] In the book of Job, these are referred to as the behemoth and the leviathan.  No matter what those terms refer to, the point is made clear from these examples.

[2] This is not meant to be a relativistic statement that all paths equally lead to God.

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