Relational Idolatry


Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them,“If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. (Luke 14:25-26)

These are hard words!  It is difficult to understand such a severe statement by Jesus, who preached love, grace, and deliverance.  We tend to dismiss these statements as hard to understand, before moving on to other words of Christ that are more meaningful to us…that better fit our understanding of what Jesus is all about.

Most Bible scholars agree that in this passage Jesus was intentionally overstating His intent to make a point.  He isn’t really calling on us to needlessly reject and hate our family members, but rather to be willing to lose all other relationships, and even our own life, in comparison to how much we love and pursue Christ.  This understanding makes the most sense to me, as well.

But that doesn’t quite let us off the hook, does it?  If this is an important enough topic for Jesus to intentionally overstate His position in order to call our attention to it, then we really need to pay attention.

What, then, does Jesus want us to do?  How is this passage relevant to our lives, today?

The issue seems to be one of priorities and focus.  All relationships, even familial relationships, are to be considered expendable and rejectable in comparison to our love, devotion and loyalty to Christ.

The Apostle James said something similar, using the covenant terms friend and friendship:

You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4)

The Apostle Paul also used strong covenant terms in a similar admonition:

Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? (1 Corinthians 6:14)

This is a recurring theme throughout the New Testament.  We are to reject and dissolve any relationship, any covenant, that does not honor Christ, that distracts us from our relationship with Christ, that leads us away from Christ, or that intimately joins us to someone repeatedly behaving in opposition to Christ.

So…consider this question.  Under what circumstances would you divorce your spouse?

I know…you’re probably thinking, “God would never ask me to divorce my spouse!  He has called me to love my spouse all my life.”

I understand.  But…Jesus clearly calls us to be willing to sacrifice all other relationships, including our marriage.

So…under what circumstances would you divorce your spouse?

What if your spouse became an adulterer?  An abuser?  A drug addict?  A drug pusher?  A rapist?  A pedophile?  A serial killer?  A mass murderer?  A persecutor of Christians?  A Satanist?  Would you then reject your marital relationship and file for divorce?

Now you’re probably thinking, “But my spouse would never do that!  I don’t have to consider those possibilities, because it will never happen.”

Again, I understand.  I feel the same way about my wife.  I trust her completely, because I know she is trustworthy.

So, let’s reframe the question from a less personal perspective.

Say a dear Christian friend came to you, asking for advice, and confided that their spouse was unrepentantly involved in some horribly immoral stuff.  At what point would you advise your friend to seriously consider divorce?

If you cannot think of any circumstance in which you would ever advise a Christian friend to pursue divorce, isn’t that idolatry?

Based on the above referenced words of Christ and the early apostles, shouldn’t every human relationship be considered something we are potentially willing to sacrifice?  Isn’t our relationship with Christ the only relationship worthy of our full undivided loyalty and devotion?  Shouldn’t every other relationship have a potential limit beyond which our loyalty cannot be stretched?

And if any other relationship has such a high priority in our lives that it is unthinkable to even consider the possibility that it should end, isn’t that relationship being given a position that is supposed to be reserved for our relationship with Christ?

Isn’t that idolatry?

Please understand, I’m not proposing that we all run out and file for divorce to demonstrate our loyalty to Christ.  That’s not my meaning at all!

But if we cannot even imagine a circumstance in which we might advise a dear Christian friend to consider the possible need for divorce, isn’t that idolatry?

What do you think?


[Linked to Messy Marriage, Unforced Rythms, Wellspring ]


39 thoughts on “Relational Idolatry

  1. It’s a very tough question, especially in light of both not ‘knowing’ whether overstatement was intended (or its degree), and the changing shadings of words like ‘hate’.

    My thought would be that there are certainly conditions under which we’d divorce our mates, or advise a friend to file for divorce. There are some lines that make remaining within the legal and social relationship impossible.

    That is, however, divorce in the temporal world, and it may be argued that we still have a transcendent responsibility to hold the transgressor up in prayer, and to help them up to (but not beyond) the point where our own salvation would be placed at risk.

    If we’re truly following Jesus, we simply can’t walk away because someone makes us uncomfortable. We CAN initiate a legal separation, but if we’re truly on Jesus’ side of the fence, we can never fully turn away until all hope of their salvation is truly lost. We entered into a compact – and we’ve got to be faithful, even if praying is all we can do.

    The one thing we can’t do is reject a repentant spouse, however badly we’ve been hurt. That would seem to go against the ‘forgive the dude 490 times’ statement.

    Marriage is an institution of awful, and life-changing majesty. It destroys who we were, and reshapes us into something very different…and there’s no road back.

    Nor is there intended to be.

      • He said that He’d not come to call the righteous, but the sinners to repentance.

        And his comment about our brother sinning against us, and repenting – we were supposed to forgive 490 times, at least.

        It fits, because even the most committed Christian is still a sinner, in one of a hundred ways, from lust to pride. If we expect or hope to be forgiven when we break our promises to God, how can we expect not to be held accountable for not offering forgiveness to a repentant spouse?

        • In your post, you indicated by your comments that it is ok to separate in certain circumstances but not to divorce. That is the statement that I don’t see in the bible.

          As to forgiveness, of course we can and should forgive. However, forgiving somebody does not always mean that the relationship is restored.

  2. This is a very, very deep subject, Joe! You’ve really got me thinking.

    The question of would we divorce a spouse who’s adulterous, murderous, opr a Satanist is just one avenue.

    What about the spouse who professes Christianity but is renowned for a sharp tongue, snarkiness, and stinginess that would put Scrooge to shame?

    Or the man who comes home from war disillusioned and lacking faith, after what he’s seen? He’s perhaps become an unbeliever…does his wife have the right to walk away?

    Beyond family relationships, what are we to make of Mohammad Gulab, the Afghan village chief who, under the auspices of Pashtunwali, risked his life and the lives of his people to protect Marcus Luttrell after the debacle of Operation Red Wings? Gulab’s not a Christian – would Luttrell have the obligation to turn away from him? Nothing binds like having one’s life saved by someone who was willing to die in that cause.

    What then?

    I surely don’t know.

    • God gave us the Holy Spirit so that we may be able to discern what is appropriate to each circumstance and avoid having to apply a one rule fits all.

      • True. My comment came from what I’ve seen in recent years in the Evangelical movement, a tendency precisely toward that “one rule fits all”.

        It’s typified by some of the unbridled hostility toward Islam, in which the whole very complex religion is pushed into the “extreme Wahhabiism” box so that the “one rule” judgement can be imposed.

        • I’m loving this discussion between the two of you!

          You’ve reached a conclusion similar to my own…one ‘rule’ cannot fit every situation…nor is it intended to. That’s why we have the Holy Spirit to guide us.

          I do think, though, that it is important to discuss these things…if only to remind us how futile it is trying to achieve godliness through legalistic rules.

          And as a reminder of the falseness of the one-rule-fits-all teaching that declares “Divorce is not an option for a believer!” The above referenced passages clearly show this perspective to be unbiblical.

  3. I love this, Joe! When my family hurt me and turned their backs on me after I left my ex-abusive husband, this verse brought me comfort. I know it is not intended, really, to bring comfort to the person who HAS lost her original family, but it does because Jesus says that keeping your family or your marriage intact is not the number 1 goal in our lives. In fact, there are times where they must be removed OUT of our lives. I draw even deeper comfort from the fact that Jesus’ family did not believe Him. And the only “blood” family member that was there in His darkest hour was His mother. Where were the rest? Why was it necessary for Jesus to appoint a disciple to care for His mother when He had half-siblings? Jesus knows that feeling of abandonment. And He never once tells us that we have to “stay in” any relationship that is abusive. Not once do I see, in Scripture, Jesus advising someone to remain in an abusive relationship on purpose. I actually discuss this in my upcoming book! Yay!

    • I agree, Megan, that this verse can be very comforting…as well as a source of discerning wisdom. When I was going through divorce, I couldn’t get enough of reading Job and Exodus. Most people don’t think of these books as particularly comforting, but they were for me, in that situation.

      I didn’t realize you are writing a book. I look forward to reading it!

      • Job was a great comfort to me, as well, when I was in the worst of it! Isaiah, also.

        Yes — We are on round 8 of the edits. Jeff C has written a forward. 🙂 I’ll let you know when it is available. Hopefully, soon.

  4. Yes! very true! I want to point out a key point here, that we are to turn away from these relationships WHEN they are affecting our relationship with Christ. That is at a different point for all of us.
    And I want to point out that it doesn’t have to be an abusive relationship either, before we say nay. Christ wants us to stay with Him, always, forever. It is why He saved you. He doesn’t want anything to stand in the way of that. And if ANYTHING stands in the way of that you should hate it.
    Good topic, gives a lot to think about on a verse you usually skim over.

    • “…we are to turn away from these relationships WHEN they are affecting our relationship with Christ. That is at a different point for all of us.”

      Yes, very true! We must rely on the Holy Spirit’s guidance, both in our own lives and in the lives of each of our Christian brethren.

      Thank you, Tabitha! I love you, my sweet wise daughter!

  5. Ooh, once again you caught my attention with this post. The passage from Luke has always seemed harsh to me, too, so I like hearing your explanation here. And your tough questions. That’ll wake me up good on a Monday morning! 🙂 Thanks for making me think, Joe….

    • It certainly leaves a lot to ponder, doesn’t it?

      And I think the pondering is a good thing…

      Thank you, so much, Lisa! I appreciate you, my friend.

  6. Interesting angle in this passage. I have taken it to mean to follow Christ so thoroughly, and allow Him to fashion us into His idea of us so completely that our families might not approve, or might even reject us.

    I do think there are circumstances where a person could divorce but far be it for me to advise that. Listen, support, offer opinions, but I’m not so sure about advice, because advice can drive a wedge between you if they do something different.

    • Yes, good point Katie, on the concern about driving a wedge. Divorce should never be taken lightly (nor should marriage), and one must be careful in how the topic is broached, depending on the type of relationship and how the conversation was introduced. And I absolutely agree with you on the importance of supportively listening before offering opinions.

      Yet, so many churches (wrongly) treat divorce as though it were inherently sinful or ungodly, that I think it is sometimes important to let a friend know that’s not the case…that sometimes divorce is the best and most godly path for some circumstances.

      Thank you for adding this perspective!

  7. Whew, Joe. Tough questions, indeed. It’s so easy to convince ourselves that we do not suffer from issues of idolatry. Likely because we don’t really understand it the way you describe here. Scripture gives us many examples of God asking people to give it all away. Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac comes to mind. It’s nearly impossible to consider what I might do in a situation like that. But it does get me thinking. So thank you for that and for linking with Unforced Rhythms.

    • Thank you, Beth, for reading, pondering, and commenting with me!

      I strongly suspect that most of us have more idols in our lives than we realize…or want to think about…

      Relationships, especially marriage, is one area I believe many churches and Christian authors actively promote idolatry. In many churches, today, it would be very easy to get the impression that Jesus came for the specific purpose of reconciling human relationships…yet Jesus was very clear in saying that is not why He came (Matthew 10:34-39).

  8. I agree with everything you have said here. I would like to know your opinion Joe, on those who say ‘if your relationship with Christ is suffering due to someone else, you aren’t leaning on Christ enough etc, you aren’t praying enough, etc’. I have had this said to me on more than one occasion.

    • Hi, Lyndie! Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Yes, I think most of us have had poor advice along those lines given by well-meaning Christian friends, at one time or another. I know I have. I believe it’s a bunch of rubbish…and I believe I am in agreement with the heart of God in saying it’s rubbish.

      Would we tell an alcoholic that if he can’t hang out and visit with his friends in the local bar without getting drunk that he’s not praying enough? Of course not! We’d give him very strong advice to find new friends as well as a new place to hang out.

      We have so many biblical examples of being told to leave toxic relationships that hinder our pursuit of Christ!

      And nowhere do we see Jesus or the apostles directing believers to remain in close fellowship in toxic relationships.

    • Lyndie –

      Here is an example in the Apostle Paul’s words, writing to Timothy:

      “Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Be on guard against him yourself, for he vigorously opposed our teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:14-15)

      Nowhere in these words would one get the impression that Paul wanted Timothy to remain in close relationship with Alexander while praying more so he would not be negatively influenced by him. No, quite the opposite. Paul encouraged Timothy to disassociate from Alexander and remain on guard against him.

      • Thanks for your replies. You have given me ways to refute the arguments from others I presented. Although sometimes it feels like a lost cause lol.

        • Hah! Yes, sometimes it is a lost cause trying to convince someone else to change their view, depending on how entrenched they are in their perspective.

          My father had a saying, “Convince a man against his will, he’s of the same opinion still.”

          In the end, the important thing is standing firm in Christ…in His truth…regardless of what ‘friends’ may think.

          And…if those ‘friends’ insist on continuing to oppose, at every opportunity, what God has revealed as truth…then we may have to step back from those relationships, too.

          Blessings to you, Lyndie! I’m praying for you, this morning, that God will grant you an extra measure of His peace, wisdom, and discernment.

  9. This is a great article! I believe marriage itself has become an idol and these unbalanced teaching keep many women in abusive, destructive relationships that are causing immense damage to themselves and their children. This is certainly the case with myself. When it felt the Lord was leading me to separate, it flew against my theology as I believed suffering unending torment and persecution in my marriage was a good witness. Wrong. It only led him to treat me and my faith with greater contempt, the heart becoming more hardened and dangerous. I’m just thankful that people are asking these questions. When a marriage ends, many people will blame the wife for not forgiving more. But when you are being abused continually, even your forgiveness is not valued…and is another pearl thrown before the swine-ishness (new word!) of the abusive nature.
    I was taught that I was CREATED to be his helpmeet …can you see how unbalanced that is? That I was to serve my husband “as unto the Lord” and that my husband was to literally be my lord…as with Sarah. Out of context, these verses can enable complete idolatry. If the husband is a narcissist, he will encourage that type of “worship” and it only enables his sin of making himself a god. (And not acknowledging the true God)!

    • Wow! April, you have packed so much truth into two paragraphs!

      First, I want you to know I am so sorry for the pain and sorrow you have had to wade thru…and I am so thankful to our faithful Redeemer for bringing you out of that bondage!

      I stand in agreement with you, in all you’ve said here.

      Marriage has become an idol in so many of our churches and so many Christian homes…an idol to which a daily sacrifice of suffering is expected to be made without regard to the cost or to the well-being of the individuals involved.

      I love how you point out the idol (false god) which the abuser makes himself into. So true!

      And yes, it does no good to continually ‘submit’ to an abuser’s demands…they just take that as license to demand more…

      Thank you, so much, for sharing your perspective with us!

      May God continue to greatly bless you, to enrich your life, and to grant you an extra measure of wisdom and discernment.

      • Thank you Joe. I appreciate your blog and it does my heart good to hear this compassionate view from a man. (Of course, the abusive spouse can also be a woman…this is not really a gender issue but a discernment of evil issue IMO.)

        I used to homeschool and one day last year I was sitting at a table at our homeschool co-op with me, who would be calling the police for a protective order one month later, and 4 other ladies who were either in second marriages or their husband were. All at the same table in a very conservative Baptist co-op. We all looked at each other and said…”Hmmm – Is God trying to tell us something?”

        I personally believed in “the permanence view of marriage.” I believed that was my calling…to suffer until he died or got saved. It was a powerful testimony to see these other families who were in second marriages….with peaceful happy faces.

        The next month I met a homeschooler who was single and divorced due to abuse. She mentioned it in her introduction “We are divorced for biblical reasons.” The words were an immense shock to my system and the many layers of denial and false religious ideas that kept me plugging away year after year in under severe emotional and psychological assault.

        When I realized that God cared for ME as a person even more than the idea of marriage…it blew me away. After all man was made for the sabbath…right? Yes some can twist scripture to justify sin but when we miss God’s heart for people, esp widows (single women, women whose husbands are enemies and not friends) and the fatherless…the Bible just opened up to me.

        Prior to that, I could only see legalism, rules and judgment. And considered myself a failure in all aspects, no matter how hard I worked to be pleasing to my husband and God…I always fell short. If the baking was done, the house was a mess. I’m so happy to now see God’s deep love, grace and his hatred of mistreatment. He came to set the captives free!

        I am so thankful for blogs such as yours- A Cry for Justice, Barbara Roberts, Lundy Bancroft, Jeff Crippen and Leslie Vernick. I highly recommend the above authors for Christians struggling in emotionally destructive relationships. Abuse is subtle, hidden, and deceptive by nature. God loves us and wants us free. Deliverance from bondage and oppression is a major part of the Good News!

        • Thank YOU, April, for sharing part of your story, here.

          This especially stood out to me:

          “When I realized that God cared for ME as a person even more than the idea of marriage…it blew me away.”

          That is SUCH an eye-opening, freeing realization, isn’t it?

          I spent 17 years in an abusive marriage. I sometimes hesitate to use that term, because I know so many people who experienced abuse much more severe than what I endured. Yet, there’s no getting around that it was an abusive relationship with me on the receiving end of the abuse.

          Like you, it took me a long time to see divorce as anything other than ungodly…to understand that redemption includes divorce from a covenant that has become abusive bondage…

          You can read a little more of my story here, if you like:

          Blessings to you!

  10. Joe, I didn’t get around to visiting links on Monday so I’m just now coming upon your evocative post. What is most interesting is that our youth pastor was charged with our worship message on Sunday and he prepared a sermon on the word “covenant” and how often we break our covenants with God. One of them related to marriage and then the later prospect of divorce. In his message, he leaned toward the posture of the “sin” of breaking the marriage covenant with divorce.

    Later in the morning, I had the opportunity to give him something to think and chew on for the rest of Sabbath. I married my first husband, someone I’d known since first grade with an absence between fourth grade and high school. We were both shy of 21 by a couple of months when we married. Within hours after the wedding and our first honeymoon night, I knew I had made a terrible mistake.

    This man, part-time pastor in a denomination mostly unknown to me (I was raised in another), spouted ugliness into my world in a way I never had known existed. I hoped and prayed that it was a time of experimenting for both of us but not so. In further attempts to change him, which we can never do–only God can, I became pregnant and brought a child into the hell hole I was living in. This didn’t make things better; they got worse.

    This man/husband/father never once touched his infant son, he continued to abuse me, and I began to think evil thoughts of how to element him from our lives. Thankfully, God intervened placing a message on my heart which helped me to literally walk away one morning never to return to the home we shared. After six months, he called my parents asking if they knew where I was. It took that long to inquire about his wife and son?

    The comment I made to our youth pastor basically explained my belief of the breaking of a covenant, especially the covenant of marriage, which in my eyes is representative of a triumvirate — God at the top, husband and wife at the other two points of the triangle. If one party of the three, and we know it won’t be God, breaks the covenant of marriage by any behavior which goes against God’s teachings, the third party has no choice but to remove him- or herself from the marriage relationship. I have not looked back once on my decision to choose divorce over murdering my ex-husband or countering his abuse with my own abuses, etc.

    Years later, when my son was almost 11, I married my second husband and some have accused us both of being guilty of living in adultery as we’ve both been married previously and divorced. I ask you which would you prefer having someone else worry about the state of your relationship as one of adultery because you’re living in what is a Christian marriage or the fact that you might be in jail for some other heinous crime you might have committed if you stayed with the first partner.

    That should give you lots to think about and chew on, just like our young minister.

    • “Thankfully, God intervened placing a message on my heart which helped me to literally walk away one morning never to return to the home we shared.”

      YES! Thankfully, God intervened!

      Because that’s what God our Redeemer does…He intervenes to bring His beloved children out of bondage into the glorious light of liberty in Him!

      And, yes, when God redeems us, we are redeemed! He does not leave us in legalistic bondage to a non-existent covenant with a covenant-breaking non-partner with whom we have no relationship. Free means free and that means free to enter into another covenant if and when He leads us to do so.

      You might also enjoy this post:

      Thank you, so much, Sherrey for adding your story and perspective to the discussion!

      Blessings to you!

    • I’m so glad you were freed of that sham marriage, Sherrey.

      When we enter into a marriage covenant with somebody and they break that marriage covenant by heir actions, then it is already broken before the divorce takes place. The divorce simply recognises that fact. It isn’t the divorce that breaks it. Too often, the church (wrongly) accuses the one who files of breaking the marriage regardless of the situation.

  11. When the comments are as good as the original post, the blogger has hit it out of the park and you, sir, have just that situation here. As much as I like the message carried here, I’m afraid I’m too bushed to offer anything other than praise for the Lord who gave you the words to write, and your obedience in writing them – Warren came home late this morning, and we’ve been busy with getting everything ready for his return.

    Thanks, Joe – oh, and as a recovering addict/alcoholic? Spot on 🙂

    • Thank you, Rick, for bringing your own perspective into the discussion.

      Yes, I can see where recovering from drug addiction would force one to face the reality of relational idols with a fresh perspective. Although other sin systems are no less addictive, drug addiction has more clearly visible consequences than most.

      Thank you for introducing your story and perspective!

      Praying for you and your family!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge