« They exchanged their glory for something disgraceful » (Hosea 4 :7b, NIV)
The book of Hosea is a very interesting description of the mechanism of apostasy – how the people of Israel slid from the worship of the true God into paganism – and the results of that apostasy.
The first thing to note was that it was a very subtle process.
Bit by bit elements from paganism slid into the theology and religious practice of Israel.
Worship began to be seen less as “the chief end of man”, the achievement of his ultimate purpose and potential, the expression of a relationship in which a person rightly relates to the God who made them, sustains them and loves them; and became merely a form of human-divine commerce – mankind worships and in return the gods make the crops grow.
This change in perspective moves people from purity to pragmatism. It becomes less a concern “Are we worshipping God in the way we should?” and more about “Are we getting what we want?”
If it works, do it.
The other mechanism in the move to apostasy is the move from theocentric worship to anthropocentric worship. It is less about pleasing God and more about enjoying the experience.
If it feels good, do it.
Following these two changes spirituality gradually mutates.
The people of Israel start to include bull statues (the symbol of Baal) in their worship spaces. At the start this is justified by their designation merely as “pedestals” – the invisible Yahweh is stated to be “standing” on top of these statues, therefore the religious innovators can still claim that worship is being directed towards Yahweh.
Of course the reality is that people end up worshipping the statues.
One innovation leads to another. What other elements – which are either fun to do, or seem to be efficacious in getting the results we want – can we borrow from the surrounding nations?
Soon we find the worship of Yahweh has mutated from holy worship undertaken by a purified people into a form of religious feasting with cultic sex thrown in.
We see that change has a dramatic effect on the moral life of the nation – cursing, lying, bloodshed and adultery become part of everyday life (Hosea 4:2).
Worship makes the world.
However, we might think that whilst this may be an interesting historical study it has little to say to us today. However, we would be wrong in thinking that.
Spiritual realities don’t change.
The same forces that operated then still operate now. Christian churches face the same temptations as the ancient Israelites.
The temptation to move from a motivation in worship that is drawn from the understanding that it is our highest calling and fulfils our greatest human potential; to a motivation which is expressed by the question “What do I get out of it?” or “What’s in it for me?”
The temptation to move from God-centred worship to man-centred worship. Where the key concern is no longer “Are we pleasing God?” but rather “Is everyone having fun?”
These two movements will be sufficient to gradually paganise our worship.
One day we will finally move to the point where we are no longer worshipping God at all.
Our worship will be so sin-ridden that God will not accept it. Our image of god so twisted and corrupt that it is no longer God at all.
This is a real and ever-present danger and the Old Testament gives many examples of it at work amongst the people of God, Hosea is just one instance.
The New Testament sadly shows the same problem affecting the Church. Saint Paul warns that there are always those who will proclaim “another Jesus” and “another gospel” (2 Corinthians 11) the adoption of which leads not to the establishment of Christian churches, but rather to “synagogues of Satan” (Rev 2:9, 3:9).
The most frightening aspect of this is that those within these movements do not understand their deception.
The Israelites with all their perversion of theology and cult still thought they were worshipping Yahweh; the churches spoken of in the book of Revelation still considered themselves to be Christian.
The film “Dogma” gave a fantastic illustration of this process at work. The scenario was that the Catholic church, seeking to speak more relevantly to contemporary society, decided to update its image. The crucifix, with its imagery of Christ suffering and giving his life-blood to save us from our sins, was considered “too depressing”. Therefore a new icon had been developed – the Buddy Christ.
Now the key image to represent the Christian faith was not one showing both the fatal problem of sin and how God has provided a means whereby that problem can be addressed, but rather one that says, “Jesus thinks you’re cool!”
Now on one level this is true. God does love us. But the Bible holds this truth in tension with another – that our sin is killing us. It is separating us from the very love God that wants to lavish on us. We need to be forgiven for it and freed from it (shriven from it, as in Shrove Tuesday) in order to move into the experience of God’s radical love.
Thus by the simply neglect of “half the story” the Christian faith has been twisted, transformed into something quite different, it is no longer about how we can be saved but rather about being affirmed.
Notice that the same two elements are at work –
It is no longer about God – giving Him the worship that is His due and our glory and purpose – but about us and our therapeutic need to feel good about ourselves. We have moved from a theocentric perspective to an anthropocentric one.
Secondly, spirituality is no longer concerned with holy worship and the tools for the rigorous process of transformation into Christ-like holiness. It is no longer focussed on remedying what is wrong with us (our inherent sinfulness) but merely affirming us as we are. We have moved from a concern to worship God rightly, to a concern for the “feel-good” factor.
It is in this context of this very real and ever-present danger of apostasy that we can see the vital necessity of holding fast to the Bible and to its traditional interpretation and to be very careful about testing any new “insights” that would radically alter Christian belief and behaviour.