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.
Jesus spoke about the peril of losing our first love in His rebuke of the church at Ephesus: “You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:3–4). Was the Ephesian church guilty of ministry idolatry?
In Luke 10, 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 that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that 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: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will 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 Romans 8:28–30). Christ is not just a person we serve; He is our very life (Colossians 3:4)!
To help guard against ministry idolatry, pastor and author Eric Geiger has five questions we can ask ourselves (adapted from https://ericgeiger.com/2013/05/five-questions-to-discern-ministry-idolatry, accessed 10/9/2019):
1) How much of my contentment is connected to the tide of my ministry influence?
2) Do my prayers reflect that I am more thankful for the salvation He has provided for me or for the ministry He has given me?
3) If I had to choose, which would I prefer: a closer walk with Jesus or a more “effective ministry”?
4) If my ministry were suddenly taken from me, would I still rejoice?
5) Do I seek God only for His blessing and direction, or do I also seek God for Him?
In the end, the cure for ministry idolatry is to get back to the gospel. We are saved by grace, because of what Jesus Christ did on our behalf. Jesus and His work is the ultimate basis of our joy, and nothing should be allowed to eclipse the glory of Christ in our hearts.