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In the Orthodox and the Catholic Church icons and statues are permitted, and members of those churches look at such in much the same way they look at photographs of loved ones. We also talk to people depicted in certain icons, who we believe are in heaven, and we ask them to pray to God for us. (We ask the people, not the artistic renderings of those people.) Other churches that are opposed to icons and statues sometimes draw a comparison to idolatry. Usually this point makes reference to the commandment to not make idols: idols are a certain kind of image or likeness.

So what's an idol, according to these churches? Presumably idols must include things like the Golden Calf. But they must exclude things like the cherubim mentioned in Exodus 25:18-19, since God would not command the construction of idols:

Make two cherubim of beaten gold for the two ends of the propitiatory, fastening them so that one cherub springs direct from each end.

The question isn't "what practices of the Catholic Church involving images are disapproved of". The question is, these other churches must have some sort of definition of what counts as an idol. Is an idol something made of gold? Stone? Wood? Is it anything that depicts an animal, a human, or Jesus? Under what conditions do these churches consider something an idol?

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2 Answers

From a Protestant perspective, an idol is anything that is worshiped and served in place of (or in addition to) God.

This could potentially include a statue of Buddha, an icon of a Saint, a girlfriend, a hobby, wealth, an iPhone, etc. None of these things are inherently sinful, but when worshiped and served they become an idol.

I think the accusation from some Christians against the Catholic & Orthodox churches that the icons are idols comes partially from misunderstanding, and partially from a concern that the prayers and attention directed to Mary and others detracts from prayer and attention to Christ.

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There are many reason why many protestants would look upon your question as 'Why is idolatry wrong?' Although to me your question sounds sincere.

The first thing to keep in mind is an idol is nothing in and of itself. (1 Cor 8:4) Having even a golden calf in a church would not be wrong in and of itself. Though in the Old Testament certainly any object not originally designed by God to foreshadow the gospel was forbidden from the temple of worship.

Secondly any image meant to personify the invisible God is degrading to his glory and forbidden in the ten commandments from being used to facilitate worship. (Ex 20:4)

Third, the golden calf was invented just after receiving a covenant and was made not to replace true worship but to facilitate it. Exactly like the sudden exaltation of Mary and the Saints after the second covenant. It was not only in the time of Moses that the golden calf was mixed into true worship but Israel (as opposed to Judah) regularly restored that corrupt mixture as a hallmark of its apostasy. (1 Kings 12:28) Protestants generally view the Catholic and Eastern ancient churches just like Israel in this matter. This is part of why they repented.

Fourth possibly the most disrespectful of the priesthood of Christ is that these 'cherished loved ones' are loved. They are presented as objects (with characteristics similar to pagan patron idols in the local region that they were first established) that have more empathy to particular difficulties than Jesus. The basic idea is that as carnal churches can't attract people with faith in Christ as the only one who can empathize with us as our priest. (Heb 3:15) The carnal attempt to appeal to pagan masses, is by replacing their idols with Christian versions, of the same thing. This mixes their paganism with the worship of God, i.e. more of the golden calf repeated.

Conclusion: Blocks of wood, and even really liking them as works of art, is not generally condemned by anyone. Using them to facilitate worship is considered idolatry by many. The example about the cherubim spreading out their wings is different as angels were not to be invokes to facilitate worship. In fact if angels were to facilitate worship their faces would be open to an assembly but actually they were in the most holy place (a place one could not enter) with 'their faces one to another'. 'Toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be.' (Ex: 25:20) That is, they represented the heavenly view of angels 'upon the merciful atoning work of Christ', taking away the condemnation of the law, covering it up with his blood. The art implies a 'looking away' from angels to Christ, not the other way around. Our attention to 'loved ones' in worship is the quintessential idolatry as understood by many Protestants. Worship is viewed as our attention to 'The Loved One', not loved ones.

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@Alypius - I added the scripture references on the main points. I was tapping on my phone, on my way to work standing on a bus and did not have the time to look them up at the time. Other than this it is not my intention to debate through comments. That is not what comments are really used for. –  Mike Mar 15 '13 at 1:03
    
Yeah I saw the refs, thanks, and totally understandable. Just letting you know that while I think I see that you're saying "idols are objects that facilitate worship", I have no idea what that means, since I use a lot of things to facilitate worship (the Bible, pews, kneelers, prayer books, rosaries, holy water, priests, lay servers...). Is it just about "looking at" these objects while thinking of God? –  Alypius Mar 15 '13 at 3:51
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@Alypius - By 'facilitating in worship' I mean supposedly helping one raise their thoughts up to God through objects of art, as though there was some mystical inherent spirituality imbedded in the object. The idea is that thoughts produced by God's word are the highest thoughts, objects can only lower the mind to earthly things, making worship of the invisible more difficult. I think it is looking at objects, touching them, or anything done which makes them seem 'beyond mere physical things'. –  Mike Mar 15 '13 at 4:57
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@Alypius - Even holding a bible, or looking at a big one, as though that 'magically raised one's thoughts' would be superstition. If it was encouraged as precious, like Gollum's ring, it would become idolatry. Sometimes if is hard to distinguish between foolish superstition and blatant idolatry. Even worshipping Christ's flesh 'as it stood on its own', if forgetting that it was made holy through the incarnation, is idolatry. Only the invisible divine nature is to be worshipped. As the human and divine were mystically joined in Christ, bowing down to him in worship is the physical exception. –  Mike Mar 15 '13 at 5:01
    
Could you incorporate the above two comments into your answer, since they are informative? –  Alypius Apr 18 '13 at 21:53
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