Is it sinful to have cultural art that includes images of Buddha, Confucius, or other figures of the like in the home?
Several biblical and cultural principles must be kept in mind when considering this question. First, it must be acknowledged that Buddhism and Confucianism are false religions which are predominant in many eastern cultures. Their influence is not as far-reaching in western culture, although it is present. Second, we must clearly understand the definition and parameters of the sin which is idolatry. Let’s take a moment to examine this sin.
Have you ever wondered why God inspired Paul to refer to covetousness as idolatry (Col. 3:5)? Greed is an attitude, a priority. It’s not a material thing like a statue representing a false deity one would worship. Yet God calls it idolatry nonetheless because it requires one to love one’s wealth more than God. Such was the problem with the rich young ruler. His riches were more important than God (Matt. 19:16-23); thus, covetousness is idolatry. It would be no different than ancient pagan idolaters replacing God with their false gods (cf. Ex. 32:1-4), or modern-day idolaters such as Buddhists or Confucius’s disciples following their religions instead of God. Idolatry therefore is committed when God is not truly the top priority and center of one’s life. Anything that is more important than God can be an idol. One may not consciously replace God with something else or even be aware of how important one’s idol is in their life, but for idolatry to take place one must at the very least consciously adhere importance to what one idolizes.
Idolatry would be the only biblical reason to indict as sinful the simple possession of an image of Buddha or Confucius. So the question would be whether any association with these images is inherently idolatry and thus necessarily sinful. To answer this question, consider the following scenario. If one eats at an Oriental or Indian restaurant whose owner has decorated the dining room with images and pictures common in those eastern cultures, one will probably be sitting down and eating in the vicinity of a painting or statue of Buddha or Confucius. Is one inherently practicing idolatry by doing so? Are they inherently ascribing any level of importance to the pagan image, much less a degree of prioritization or homage that would result in their worshiping that image? Or would one simply be interested in eating Oriental or Indian food while not giving any sort of religious homage or even thought to the image of the pagan idol sitting five feet away? Generally speaking in western culture, most of us eat in restaurants which feature these images without giving them a second thought. If we notice them at all (which many don’t), most of us will just notice them in passing or, at best, think, “That’s a nice picture or a nice statue of a Buddha.” Such thinking does not pass the biblical standards of true idolatry, and thus would not be sinful.
The church at Corinth faced a similar situation with the pagan idols common in its culture (1 Cor. 8-10). If one wanted to buy meat for their families’ supper, most likely one would have to enter a pagan temple or be in proximity to a pagan temple to purchase meat from the butchers who were known to provide the meat for those pagan sacrifices. A controversy broke out in the church at Corinth because some Christians there were purchasing meat from those butchers to feed their families. Others in the church thought that by doing so they were participating in idolatry, even though in reality they were simply getting some food to eat. God inspired Paul to tell those who were offended that the simple purchasing and eating of food was not inherently sinful or righteous and that their offended conscience should not be the standard by which others must adhere (1 Cor. 8:8; 10:29). He also told those who recognized the inherent lack of sinfulness of purchasing and eating meat that not everyone knew what they knew, and thus the consciences of some would be offended by their association with idolatry to the point where they would either fall away or cause division in the church (1 Cor. 8:7-12; 10:23-31). Thus, should they find that they would cause such problems by the exercising of that which they had freedom to do, they should give up their freedom for the sake of the spiritual benefit of their brethren (1 Cor. 8:13; 9:12, 19-23; 10:23-24, 31-33).
These principles provide divine guidance concerning the question at hand. One would not necessarily be inherently guilty of idolatry simply by possessing artistic images of Buddha or Confucius in their home, just as one would not be inherently guilty of idolatry simply by eating at a restaurant that had those same images in the dining room. Yet should it be brought to your attention that a brother or sister in Christ is being influenced to dabble in Buddhism or Confucianism or has assumed you are doing so after seeing those images in your home, God would want you to give up the freedom you have to possess the art so that you do not put a stumbling block in their path until such time as they have been taught and have accepted the truth about these matters.