Danger: Ministry Idolatry

Danger: Ministry Idolatry

It may be the sneakiest form of idolatry — and the deadliest.

The deceptive thing about idolatry in general is that it is not just the overt worship of graven images, but anything that stands in God’s place. But in particular, take note of the subtle way that God’s good gifts can take a poisonous grip on our sinful hearts. It’s not just the statues of Baal and the Asherah poles, but our favorite pastimes, our finances, our health, and our family that threaten. And perhaps deadliest of all, even Christian ministry.

Ministry idolatry is not just a threat to those who are in fulltime Christian ministry — though the danger there is especially acute. Whether evangelism or disciplemaking or meeting others’ needs through acts of service, Christian ministry is such a wonderful and worthwhile pursuit that when idolatry creeps in, it can scarcely be recognizable.

When we find our greatest fulfillment and satisfaction, our decisive justification and deepest joy in serving Jesus, rather than in Jesus himself, we first need to identify it, and then fight.

Identifying Ministry Idolatry

According to pastor Jared Wilson, author of The Pastor’s Justification ministry idolatry can manifest itself in different seasons of life and ministry. When things are most difficult — the lean times or the “depressive seasons” — when we feel least fruitful and least encouraged about the effect of our labors, the idolatry takes one form. Where our heart goes is a good indication of what we’re worshiping. Sadness is one thing, but deep discouragement can evidence that our identity is bound up with the ministry fruit we’re not seeing.

However, when we experience ministry “success,” it can be dangerous as well — likely even more so. Our idolatry can come to the surface when our seeming fruitfulness is questioned or threatened in some way or taken away. Also it rears its ugly head when a kind of spiritual greed sets in, and one ministry triumph is immediately eclipsed by an ache for the next, and there’s no rest for the soul.

How to Fight

The good news for all of us in our various ministries, whether vocational or non-vocational, is that the weapon with which to fight is the very weapon we wield in Christian ministry: the gospel. We always return to the gospel, Wilson says, and seek to press the gospel deeper into our souls. The sword of the Spirit is not only our weapon of choice against the principalities and powers, but also the surgical instrument for lancing boils in our own soul.

“It’s imperative to go to the gospel indicatives,” Wilson counsels, and remind ourselves again and again that Jesus is enough for us. He is sufficient for our deepest joy and more enduring satisfaction. He himself, not our service of him, is the secret of contentment in every circumstance (Philippians 4:11–13).

Prepare Yourself

Also vital in fighting ministry idolatry is authentic accountability. We all need spiritual companions close to us who will be our truth-tellers, friends who feel authorized to tell us the hard truths, not just about the big things, but also our little patterns and proclivities. And when they approach us with some observation and challenge, we do well to try to silence our inner defense lawyer and validate their accountability by listening well, owning our sin, and repenting.

In this new episode of Theology Refresh, Wilson also counsels us to ask ourselves the hard questions (like David Powlison’s x-ray questions) about where our minds go when we’re alone and what we daydream about.

“It’s important to be asking these questions now before the rug’s pulled out from under you,” says Wilson. “It’s good to be prepared, to be holding hands with Jesus when suffering comes,” rather than be left in the darkness alone.


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David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor at desiringGod.org and an elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis. He has edited several books, including Thinking. Loving. Doing., Finish the Mission, and Acting the Miracle, and is co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary.