Anything that takes the place of the only real God in our lives is an idol. Typically, when we think of idolatry, we picture statues, bank accounts, or other tangible objects. However, even our devotion to the Lord can develop into an idol. We commit ministry idolatry when we prioritise our service to the Lord over our time spent in His presence.
To love the "work of the Lord" more than the "Lord of the work" is ministry idolatry, according to Martyn Lloyd-Jones. It is challenging to combat this subtle form of idolatry. Serving the Lord brings joy and satisfaction to those who do so. The issue arises when we start to find more happiness and fulfilment in our work than in Christ. While we continue to work ardently at "Christian work," our love for Jesus grows colder.
In His rebuke of the church in Ephesus, Jesus warned about the danger of letting go of our first love: "You have persevered and have endured difficulties for my name, and have not grown weary. However, I hold this against you: You abandoned the initial love you shared (Revelation 2:3–4). Was there ministry idolatry in the Ephesian church?
When the 70 disciples in Luke 10 return from witnessing in nearby villages, they are overjoyed as they talk about the wonderful things they had accomplished while doing "the Lord's work," including controlling demons. "Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rather rejoice that your names are written in heaven," Jesus warns them (Luke 10:17–20). In other words, they needed to concentrate on the Lord's work for them rather than the Lord's work for them. Where did they get their joy from? from their involvement in serving Jesus, or just from knowing about Jesus? Along with the 70, we also need to be on the lookout for ministry idolatry.
Mary and Martha's story may also serve as an example of ministry idolatry. Making preparations for supper was part of Martha's busy service to the Lord, which she appeared to take great pleasure in. Mary, her sister, was content to just sit at Jesus' feet and listen to what He had to say. Jesus supported Mary when Martha became irritated with her apparent lack of interest in everything that needed to be done, saying, "Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:42). Ministry for Christ comes second to a relationship with Christ.
The unguarded heart that embraces the "work of the Lord" instead of the "Lord of the work" is what is known as ministry idolatry. How does that work? When we take more pleasure in what God is doing through us than in what He has already done, is doing, or will do in glory, we are engaging in ministry idolatry (see Romans 8:28–30). Christ is our very life, not just a person we serve (Colossians 3:4)!