A lot of times in Church leadership, we use the analogy of the golden calf: a "holy cow," a person or a program or a building or an event or a budget that we have come to worship. This morning I've been re-reading Exodus 32, where the story of the golden calf is told, and I've been struck by a few things I've never noticed or paid attention to before. Here's a short summary of the story: Aaron, the brother of Moses and the "spokesman of God", created the golden calf so that the people would have an image to worship. He and all the people feared that Moses, who had ascended Mount Sinai to meet with God in Exodus 19, was never to return, and that they would be left lost and leaderless. So Aaron had all the people bring their gold and jewelry and used these materials to craft a statue of a golden calf. Of course, when Moses did return from the mountain, with the law of God supernaturally inscribed on tablets of stone, he was very angry. He threw down the tablets, breaking them against the mountain. He burned the golden calf, ground the remains into a powder, scattered the powder into the people's source of water, and made them drink the bitter mess. The sin of the golden calf led to great division - and great destruction - among the people.
There are undeniably areas of parallel between the American church as a whole, under the lordship of King Jesus, and the children of Israel, under the leadership of Moses. I think this analogy misses the mark, though, in other areas, and I think we have to be careful to avoid drawing something out of the text that isn't really there. Often, we don't have so much a golden calf problem as we do a bronze serpent problem. The bronze serpent is introduced in Numbers 21. Unlike the golden calf, the bronze serpent was created by God's command, as a remedy for the affliction of snake bites brought on the people by their sin. The bronze serpent brings life and healing to the people who look to it, and is even established as a "type" or symbol of Christ, reminding the people to look to God for deliverance. But something peculiar - or maybe not that peculiar, if we're honest - happened to the bronze serpent. Unlike the golden calf, which was destroyed almost immediately, the bronze serpent was stored in a place of honor, given reverence and remembrance. As time passed, memories were distorted, stories were exaggerated, facts were forsaken, and the true significance of the serpent - a symbol of God's deliverance - was forgotten. What was created at God's command to be a symbol and a reminder of His faithfulness and mercy came to be worshiped in its own right. This worship continued until the time of Hezekiah, who finally destroyed the serpent in 2 Kings 18. These stories are important for us to hear and read and remember. There is a saying we're probably all familiar with: "those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it." How many of the problems we face every day in our churches - and in our personal lives - could be resolved if we as believers and church members were faithfully reading and studying the Word of God?
Many of the functional "golden calves" in our church today are really more like bronze serpents - programs begun to provide assistance, buildings built to bring life, funds launched to show the love of God to those in need. As leaders, we would do well to remember that these were created for good and not for evil, and to honor the spirit that created them, even as we condemn what they have become. We must also be careful to avoid breaking the law of God, even out of our love for God. As Moses learned on Mount Sinai, the work is much harder when we do it in our own strength. At the same time, as churches and church members, we must be able to look at what is, and not what once was. While the stories of the golden calf and the bronze serpent begin differently, they end the same way: with destruction. We are no better off worshiping a bronze snake than we are a gold cow. Worship of anything or anyone other than Jesus Christ will result in bitterness, division, decay, and ultimately death and destruction among the people of God.
This guest blog was originally posted on Facebook by Pastor Caleb on August 8th, 2017. It has been edited and updated.
Carlyle Hall, Jr.