Idolatry and Worldliness – Defined

By William C. Sexton

H. Richard Niebuhr, a “Neo-Orthodox Theologian”(1) in 1935, gave what I believe to be a very good definition of idolatry and worldliness. I would like for us to consider it, and then I would like for us to see just how much of these evils we see in the religious world today, 1976. He said:

“The essence of worldliness is neither civilization nor nature, but idolatry and lust. Idolatry is the worship of images instead of that which they image; it is the worship of man, the image of God, or of man’s works, images of the image of God. It appears wherever finite and relative things or powers are regarded as ends-in-themselves, where man is treated as existing for his own sake, where civilization is valued for civilization’s sake, where art is practiced for art’s sake, where life is lived for life’s sake or nation adored for nation’s sake. It is a false morality, which sets up ideas that do not correspond to the nature of human life and promulgates laws that are not the laws of reality but the degrees of finite, self-aggrandizing and vanishing power.”(2)

According to this writer, idolatry is placing something first, before God, the Creator and ruler of the world. Worldliness is looking to some creature of this world as the ultimate source, rather than God, who has made the world and the things that are of this world.

This man was challenging the theologians of the Liberal theology, which had dominated the Protestant religious camp from 1860 to 1920, to recognize that they had left the source of truth, God, Jesus Christ, and the Bible. He was calling upon the “church” to recognize that it was a “captive” to three “-isms”: (1) Capitalism; (2) Nationalism; (3) Humanism. Liberal theology for 70 years had looked to man to save himself through his scientific efforts-the evolutionary forces were at work, making changes that were “improvement.” The accumulation of wealth was evidence that one was moral, wealth.” The United States of America that God had chosen to establish The meaning a just and right society. the failure of the League of Nations, and of 1929, these Liberal theologians had nothing left to which they could hold to support their “hope.” This man and the Neo-Othodox Theologians began to criticize the Liberal theology stand. This is not to say that these men went the right distance and to the degree they should have. However, they were right, I maintain in this respect. Liberal theology was idolatry and worldliness; it was destructive to the church and to individuals.

However, if one will look closely, idolatry and worldliness of this type is reigning in practically every place today. Denominationalism, as a whole, places its ultimate faith in its creeds; its aim is almost completely limited to making people more comfortable here and now; and the salvation of which it speaks is of this world. Most denominations are looking for a time when Christ will rule and reign here on earth. They look to a “subjectivism,” wherein the significance is “how you feel,” not have you obeyed the objective truth of the Bible. Their worship, I suggest, is of man and his works, not of God, His Christ, and His truth the Bible.

Likewise, many in the “church of Christ,” have this same idol and are practicing this same worldliness. Ezekiel had to deal with a group of men who came to him with “idols in his heart,” (Ezek. 14:4) and they received an “answer” according “to the multitude of his idols.” I suggest, brothers and sisters in Christ, and friends and neighbors, that we need to consider the idolatry and worldliness of our day. Cry out against it, and be sure that we have not placed our trust in something or someone OTHER than God, these we had better do if we would be saved and be a force for good.


1. Sydney E. Aldstrom, Theology in America. (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1967), p. 586.

2. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Church Against the World (Chicago: Willett, Clark & Company, 1935), pp. 123-156, quoted in Aldstrorn, pp. 509-510.

Truth Magazine XX: 42, pp. 662-663
October 21, 1976