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Tim Keller on The 3 Biggest Idols In Western Churches Today

What idols are plaguing the western church today?

tim keller church

Tim Keller sat down with Jefferson Bethke way back when to discuss the idols that are most prominent in western churches. You can view the video at the end of this post, or you can just read below to gather Tim’s thoughts.

In Keller’s eyes, here are the three biggest idols in western churches today, followed up with secondary points that Keller includes:

1) Experience. 

  • Instead of looking to the Word of God to be their norm and their guide, people tend to look to their own experience, feelings, intuitions, and impressions to be their guide.
  • This is part of American individualism.
  • Emotion and expression are very good, but when you make it more important than the Word of God, or put it higher than the Word of God, it becomes an idol.

2) Doctrine.

  • This might surprise some people that I say this.
  • But I do think some people make an idol out of doctrine.
  • There are some sectors of the church that say if you have your doctrine straight, and if you have your doctrine right, then you’re pleasing to God.
  • If you have your doctrine right, they say, then you are part of the solution, not the problem: you’re not heretical like everyone else.
  • There is a pride and a smugness about having good doctrine that, to me, almost puts it into the place of the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

3) Consumerism. 

  • Instead of looking to the church to give themselves into community, people look to the church to get the services they want.
  • They have emotional, vocational, and relational needs and they go to a church because it is a good place to network.
  • People see the church as a mall, rather than a family that they give themselves to.
  • Consumerism becomes the idol — that is, my felt needs become an idol; they are more important than being apart of a community.

From Keller’s point of view, these idols are the ones that are most prominent. But this is not the consensus — not every church struggles with the same idol in the same way. Keller adds, “These idols don’t exist equally across the whole church. Certain sectors of the church struggle more than others, but these idols are all there, and they hurt us quite a bit.”

As Keller points out so well in his outstanding book Counterfeit Gods, idols can’t just be removed; they must be replaced. Yes, we want our idols to be removed, but we also want to replace them with the love of God in Christ. And by God’s grace, if we’d all just recognize, remove, and replace these idols, our churches would be much better off.

Video: Tim Keller on Idols in Western Churches

Watch Keller speak on idols here:

You may also like:

  1. Tim Keller’s 5 Steps For Effective Prayer 
  2. 5 Books That Influenced Tim Keller During College
  3. The Christian Reader’s Resource Guide: 49 Link to Help You Find The Best Books
  4. What is an Idol? 

About David Qaoud

Thanks for reading! I'm David. And this is my personal blog. I'm a husband, writer, and MDiv student at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO. Most importantly, however, I am a follower of Jesus Christ. Learn more>

43 Replies

  1. 1 Thessalonians 1:9 “For they are reporting about us, what kind of entrance we had toward you, and how you turned toward God from the idols, to be slaving to a living and true God.” Surely slaving to the living and true God beats idol worship any day! And they became this way because of the gospel, as you say. God’s choice of them was also involved. ” . . . having perceived, brothers loved by God, his choice of you, it being that our good message came to you not in word only, but in power, and in holy spirit, and in much assurance, according as you have perceived what we became among you, because of you.” (1 Thessalonians 1:4,5) Similarly in Corinth, “And my word and proclamation were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of spirit and power, that your belief may be not in wisdom of humans, but in power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:4,5)

    As Paul said five or six times in his letters, “All is out of God.” Here we see it portrayed. God chose the the believers. God sent Paul. God gave the word. God gave the power, the holy spirit, and the assurance to the believers. Enjoying the power and holy spirit of God, of course they turned from the idols. There’s no comparison between the two! I have to say, God saves from idol worship, and he does it through these means, by his grace, as you said.

    1. Charles Macgowan

      I have thought for years that the twin idols of obtaining pleasure and avoiding pain were the top 2. Others like consumerism and love of money were related but not the dominate idol. This observation came from personal inventory.

  2. I agree with you 100%. That is why I cling to Jesus, the Word of God and why I write on my blog. Thanks for the thumbs up on my blog.

  3. “Wherefore, beloved, flee from the idolatry!” (1 Corinthians 10:14)

  4. IrmMa

    I am not familiar with this writer, but this is very well known, but is anyone in the church hearing? Probably not. People, not necessarily believers, like it that way…having one foot in the world and one in the church. End times…

    1. If you’re not familiar with Tim Keller, check out his work. He’s one of my favorite writers and I couldn’t recommend him too highly.

  5. Excellent article! Thank you so much for sharing it.

    Thanks also for stopping by my poetry blog.

    Blessings on you!

    GwennonR

  6. Thanks for liking my post on. Best Ressurection Sunday.. I visited your blog and enjoyed reading the articles by Keller. Thanks for putting this information out there! Very important!

  7. God bless and thank you for stopping by

  8. This is true as the church wants to be in line with the world than GOD’S WORD, GOD APPROVED. Thank you for liking God’shotspot.wordpress.com post. God Bless.

  9. What about the idol of “peace”? How many times have we heard “I have peace”? Why do we use “peace” as a standard for decision making or using peace as an indicator that we have heard from God? I’m not down playing the importance of peace. I’m asking is it possible for us to be crafting God into our image (idolatry) when we use an attribute of His as qualifier instead of using Him as the qualifier?

    1. Hi, John. Guess I’ve never thought of it that way. I see what you’re saying: Subjective feelings shouldn’t be our guide, the Bible should be. Keller once said that he didn’t really feel that much peace about planting a church in NY and he still did it. That turned out okay. 🙂

    2. Helen Stoker

      We need to know Gods Word and we are to test the spirits by His Word for He is the Word the Truth and the Life, and No man comes to the Father except through Him. The Word is sharper than a double edged sword it can divide Soul and Spirit

  10. I need to get Keller’s book now!

  11. Carlene Byron

    Instead of making “consumerism” as focused on church experience one of the biggest idols (as Keller does) I’d name the idol greed / lust for consumption of all kinds of things and experiences. We aim that idol at our churches, but it drives us to live all parts of our lives in ways that fail to prioritize God’s way of living. I was talking to a Chinese friend not long ago and she said: “I don’t know why they say America is a Christian nation. Americans don’t worship God. They worship money.” Painful, but all too accurate.

    1. Wow. That is painful and accurate. It’s amazing how easy it is to make something an idol. We often turn good things into a god thing, which is a bad thing. Idols need to be replaced with the gospel.

    2. Bevan Thomas

      pursuit of wealth, greed, selfishness, they’re all symptoms of insecurity, trying to maximise mortal life.

  12. gladdadof4

    You could add “safety” and “missions” to that for many churches.

    1. Mike

      Missions is an idol? I interact with churches on behalf of a mission agency and trust me–it’s nowhere near an idol. Church budgets alone will tell you that.

  13. Prescott

    Nothing at all against this article, but as I came here curious and read it, I realized that practically anyone could do a similar article and select three other words and get the same effect; in fact, many people have done that in the comments below.

  14. Eric Lewis

    Honestly, this is so 1990’s. Pastors were talking about this then and they still are. The way most churches function both breed and survive on consumerism which is closely related to experience. Not a bad article, just nothing that hasn’t been talked about a debated a hundred times before,.

  15. Mark Rist

    From 1 John, we understand that , “obedience (and by implication, faith) doesn’t revolve solely around actions. Our thoughts, our doctrines, are other forms of obedience, and thus right belief is also a mark of what it means to be a Christian.” I understand that pride and smugness in doctrine are sins that can lead to idolatry, but lumping doctrine in with emotionalism and consumerism seems to equate the three., or cast them as equally dangerous. Right doctrine is a submission to Christ, His sufficiency and His Lordship. So perhaps it is lack of submission itself that leads to idolatry, not doctrine.

  16. David Helton

    How about Nationalism? And running close behind nationalism, partisan politics.

    1. That’s a good perspective. It’s particularly relevant in our culture right now in light of it being an election season.

  17. Bevan Thomas

    May I add another idol? We just love following men, appointing Kings and idolising them. Jesus is our King, our relationship is with the Father and with Christ directly, no middle man. We look to Jesus for comfort, guidance, teaching, wisdom, for healing and we try to please him and submit to Him, to His authority. The modern church though has appointed Pastors for this job, An office, a seat, a car park, an appointment with decision making authority the congregation submits to, asks for healing and guidance, listens to his teachings and they follow him. Pastors have the job description of Christ while Christ Himself is just a figurehead in the church without Authority. They even think that Christ makes decisions and does all these things through the Pastor. Who is somehow different to the Prophet, the Teacher, the Healer, the Evangelist and all the other laymen gifts God has appointed within the people. God did not approve of Israel demanding a King to replace God, and yet He appointed the Kings. So it is with Pastors, if we submit to Christ how can we submit to another? A W Tozer was a Pastor who wrote about this idol in the church 50 years ago.

  18. Robbie Lledo

    There is a lot of talk about the sin of idolatry; and I agree completely, as idolatry steers our hearts way from God. But while sin is “loving” something more than you should, in proportion to God, we are supposed to love things according to their value nonetheless. Sin, as Augustine correctly noted, is disordered love. But it goes both ways. You can make something/one into an idol by loving it disproportional more … or less. Not loving and enjoying something/one God gives leads us away from God too. “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” (1 Tim 4:4)

    1. alphine

      I like your point. I agree. We must not love the things/people/relationship that God blesses us with more than God, the gift giver.

  19. Annie

    To learn more about the idol of ‘consumerism’, just click on the link in the article and you can BUY the man’s book on AMAZON.COM for $12.99.

  20. Jerry Low

    Agree: My wife and I are missionaries in Croatia. I can see these things in the American Church for sure. Here is Croatia the churches really camp out on the doctrine issue. They are so few in number that protecting their doctrines is really hindering the image of love the public needs to see. http://www.istgroup.com

  21. Michael Larkin

    There are to be no idols in the life of a believer, however to say that doctrine can become an idol sets off alarm bells in my head. first the church’s foundation is doctrine, it is something which our bibles teach us. Paul tells Timothy to guard his doctrine, he goes on to say that the time would come when they would not endure sound doctrine. Like all of us, Keller is flawed, and to say this concerning doctrine only makes that flaw all the more visible. so are we to have idols? no, we are commanded to love the Lord God with all of our heart, soul and might, and in that context it means we are to love our doctrine, remember “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. to love your doctrine is too love the Lord, to make an idol of the doctrine, is too idolise the Lord. remember this, false teachers come in sheep’s clothing.

    1. Krakatoa

      I think I understand his point, but I’d argue that doctrine isn’t the best word here. I think legalism would be more appropriate. Jesus clashed many times with the religious leaders of his time over this distinction, such as when he healed on the Sabbath. This lesson, to me, speaks that following the rules doesn’t save those who have greedy or egotistical hearts, whereas breaking the rules (not to sin, mind you, just to not follow all doctrine) to show compassion and bring people closer to God isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

      1. Benjamin Sutherland

        That is exactly the point – a learned leader like Keller should easily know the difference between doctrine or legalism. But he chooses doctrine on purpose.

        Like Michael said, this guy is skirting too close to the edge..

  22. Rocco Benedetto Rubino

    tim keller is simply a philosopher, not a minister of the gospel. social gospel is his message.

  23. Benjamin Sutherland

    What about the idol of social justice in churches? Catchphrases like ‘inclusive’, ‘equity’, ‘tolerance’. Christians who see so-called ‘institutional racism’ in every sector of society (unless the racism is directed at white people). Along with churches and people constantly to say ‘sorry’ for every kind of perceived ‘injustice’ for the last 300 years.

    How about that as an idol? Or is it too close to the truth to list?

  24. John J. Iamaio

    Our present reality. An outstanding article.

    1. Glad you enjoyed this article, John.