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Exodus 20:1-15 ESV

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, ...

and

Leviticus 26:1 ESV

“You shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the Lord your God.

How is this different than a Cross in a church?

I don't see how this cross is different than this idol .

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There really isn't a best answer yet. user12646 is close, but he mentioned that the cross in a church is not worshipped - when really nobody really worships the item, but what the item represents. I had this as the right answer. If a better answer shows up, I'll change. –  user1054 Jan 16 '12 at 17:53
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I wanted to draw attention to his answer as what he mentions is what my concern is. However there really is no best answer and have removed his answer (just now) as the best answer. –  user1054 Jan 16 '12 at 18:03
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Do you think the cross is actually an idol and are you trying to challenge Christians belief on this issue or do you want to understand the reasoning of those who do not believe it to be an idol? Either way this needs some editing. You need to word your questions in such a way that there could be an answer that successfully addresses your question and you can mark as accepted even if you disagree with the belief. –  Caleb Jan 18 '12 at 14:21
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Yes, but as the author of the question, I have the digression of determining the accepted answer even if the other answers are just really good. I did not see an answer which addressed the question completely. Would you rather pick the correct answers for the members? A fully answered question would start like this, "A cross is not an idol because..." which would proceed to identify the distinction and have backing scripture. Do you see an answer like that - one that is not an opinion such as, "its not an idol because it is not." –  user1054 Jan 18 '12 at 17:28
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user12646 has a wonderful answer which is worded nicely. However, "The difference is that a cross in a church is not worshipped." is not really true as addressed by Rex Kerr and Narnian. –  user1054 Jan 18 '12 at 17:30

5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

It would seem that the Cross could, in fact, be used as an idol. However, from my experience, that would seem to be the exception rather than the rule. The Cross is simply a reminder. I have never prayed to a Cross or have even cared whether one was displayed while I was worshiping. It is merely a symbol, much like the icthus on the back of my car. (Just to clear, I don't pray towards that either.)

It should be noted that the original Temple (and tabernacle) had objects inside them--none of which were to be worshiped. These items included the table of showbread, the altar of incense, the ark of the covenant, the golden lampstand, etc. Each of these had a noble purpose, but none of them were worshiped.

There is a pretty significant distinction between the crucifix (with the image of Jesus on the cross) and just a cross, however. Many Protestants view this very specifically as an image of God, since Jesus is the eternal, pre-existent Son of God. As a result, many Protestants will never use the crucifix in any decorations at all for the very specific reason that it has in it the image of God.

So, symbolism is not forbidden in Scripture, and there is a precedent for having symbolic things in a place of worship (lampstands => Light of the world, Showbread => Bread of life... the articles of the old Temple pointed to Jesus, the Son of God).

Still, most Protestants at least would have no problem at all having all the cross decorations removed from a church. It's only symbolic, and we worship God with or without them.

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My baptist (small 'B' on purpose) church has no cross on the property. I admire the church for that - even though the pastor takes the bible more literally than I do. –  user1054 Jan 16 '12 at 20:36
    
Technically anything could be an idol - a Barbie doll, a cupcake, a lectern, a pew. –  DJClayworth Oct 5 '12 at 15:44
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@DJClayworth ...or power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc. –  Alypius Feb 25 '13 at 7:17

Catholics, for one, only genuflect before Jesus. We do so before Him wholly present in the Eucharist reserved in a tabernacle in the sanctuary of a church. If you're in a Catholic church that, for whatever reason, has the tabernacle removed from the place where Mass is being celebrated people should not be genuflecting; this is the case on Good Friday, when, incidentally, we venerate the cross.

And that is the crux of the matter. Whatever the highest form of human devotion is, we only reserve it for God Himself. This is the latreia form of worship. It is what is due only to God. One can argue one way or another, because the definition is sort of self-referential. But if this form of worship is what the Catholic Church (and like minded churches) says it is, then it is what it is and only divine iconoclasm could change it, which has not been the case:

911 Cross

World Trade Center after 9/11

Virgin Mary statue from Nagasaki

Virgin Mary after bombing of Nagasaki

Sacramentals, such as a crucifix or cross (without a corpus), statues of Jesus or Mary or the saints, and other devotional items ought to be treated with reverence out of respect for what they symbolize. The Eucharist on the other hand, ought to be adored because of what It IS!


(See CCC 1667 for more information on sacramentals)

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Jehovah's Witnesses specifically avoid depictions of Jesus, Mary, or anything else, and cite extensive scriptural support that worshiping in front of such things would indeed be in violation of various prescriptions in the Bible; they also object to the use of the cross.

Thus, there is a good argument to be made that you are correct: this behavior is discouraged or prohibited by God. At the very least, I think it's fair to say that the issue is not crystal clear.

(Given all the other sins that people engage in, however, I rather doubt that this would be viewed as one of the most serious, even if the Jehovah's Witnesses are right on this count.)

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This is very much the minority view, and hence not really an answer. –  DJClayworth Jan 16 '12 at 17:17
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@DJClayworth - It is indeed a minority view, but that does not make it not an answer. Sometimes the minority is correct, or at least not obviously wrong. I couldn't find a good rebuttal of the Jehovah's Witnesses position. If you know of one or can write one, feel free to answer the question yourself with better support than I referenced here. If the argument is sound, hopefully the OP will switch the accepted answer, and if not, I'm happy to delete this answer and re-post it as a comment so as not to mislead future readers. –  Rex Kerr Jan 16 '12 at 17:32
    
Sorry, "not an answer" was too strong. It's a poor answer, since it considers only a tiny minority of Christians. user12646 gives a much better answer that addresses what other Christians believe about this. –  DJClayworth Jan 16 '12 at 17:45
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@Caleb - So far, though, the other answers say basically, "It's not the same because we say it's not". The JW's say, "It is the same, because it is--look at all this scriptural support." Who gets to decide--us, or God? If the question is about the sociology of prayer around a cross, then I agree that user12646's answer is far better. But if the question is about scriptural support, then the JW's have put together a much stronger case than any answer here. I don't think the JW position is airtight, but it's silly to discount evidence just because custom is to believe something else. –  Rex Kerr Jan 16 '12 at 18:26
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@DJClayworth - I did look at the quotes, and they did not clarify the matter; the JW quotes are basically the same ones, or there are an equal number leading to the opposite conclusion. (To counter Num. 21:4-9, there is Exodus 32:4-8, for instance.) –  Rex Kerr Jan 16 '12 at 22:41

The difference is that a cross in a church is not worshipped. As the translators' notes in the New English Translation (NET) Bible indicates, regarding Exodus 20:4, the concern of the Law with respect to pesel—the Hebrew term referring to "an image that was carved out of wood or stone"—was about statues that "would be made for the purpose of worship, an idol to be venerated, and not any ordinary statue." In John Gill's exposition of this verse he makes the same distinction, that God's commandment regarded things shaped from wood or stone, cast into a mold, or engraved by men "in order to be worshipped." There is no compelling reason to think that the Law was opposed to any and all images whatsoever; after all, God himself commanded Moses to make a snake and set it on a pole, so that all those who were bitten if they looked upon it would live (Num. 21:4-9). As Gill notes, the Jews of Christ's era had no religious aversion to coins impressed with images, although "they vehemently opposed the setting up any images of the Caesars or emperors in their temple, because they seemed to be placed there as deities, and had a show of religious worship" (emphasis mine). Nor is there any compelling reason to think images were forbidden for use in worship—such as a cross in a church?—for were there not golden cherubim set over the Mercy Seat, which God commanded be made? As noted in the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary, "The mere making was no sin—it was the making with the intent to give idolatrous worship" (emphasis mine), which is surely indicated in the rest of this second commandment, particularly as seen in verse 5: "You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God." The same thing is seen in Lev. 25:1, where the same worship qualification is found: "to bow down before it."

As described in The Christian Observer (p. 41)

It is manifest also that the art of the graver, sculptor, and embroiderer, was sanctified under the old dispensation. Still there is that sweeping intolerance of the second commandment towards any image or likeness of any created thing wherever or whatever it might be. But it scarcely needs much knowledge of the Hebrew idiom to be aware that when two clauses are paired together as in that commandment, "Thou shalt not make … Thou shalt not bow down," it does not mean two precepts but one. In most other languages the meaning would be conveyed something to this effect, "Thou shalt not make … in order to bow down thereto." If thou make for other purposes, the commandment touches thee not. So Calvin with his usual acute perception comments thus: "There is no necessity to refute what some have foolishly imagined, that sculpture and painting of every kind are condemned here." Otherwise Solomon's lions and oxen and palm trees must stand condemned, and the positive command to cast the brazen serpent and to model the cherubim would be a scandal and a difficulty. It was thus [in this fashion] that John of Damascus, Gregory II, and others replied to the broad assertions of the Iconoclasts.

("Early image-worship in the church," The Christian Observer, No. 1 [London: Hatchards, 1877], 41.)

(Note: I originally had more links in here, pointing to where these things can be read online, but it seems I need a higher reputation before I can post any more than two.)

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Good answer. Could you format it and add paragraph breaks? Right now it seems like two big blocks of text. –  styfle Jan 15 '12 at 8:12
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With answers like that, you should be past that rep limit in no time. Great answer! –  David Stratton Jan 15 '12 at 13:51
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I don't know... Even when a religious idol is involved, people are praying to the thing that the idol represents, not truly the idol. This isn't really all that very different. For example, if someone took a cross from church and destroyed it, I'm pretty sure the congregation would see that as desecration - at which point it is not just a cross - it has religious value and status. It is no longer just any piece of wood... –  Marc Gravell Jan 15 '12 at 16:40
    
@MarcGravell - Could you not also argue that Exodus is prohibiting something that almost never occurs anyway (especially in modern times): the worship of that idol itself, not what the idol represents? (The wording in Leviticus is more problematic.) –  Rex Kerr Jan 15 '12 at 16:44
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@MarcGravell 2 kings 18:4 talks about Hezekiah breaking up the bronze serpent when it became an idol. The iconoclasts in the 7th and 17th centuries took this to heart and did break down images of Christ when they thought people were worshipping these symbols as idols. I suspect that any decent minister, if he saw this occurring in his congregation, would follow suit and break down the ideal of the cross, if it really was thought that the cross was anything more than an aid to worship. –  Affable Geek Jan 16 '12 at 3:34

No Christian that I know of prays to the cross, nor considers that the cross of itself has any power (rather, it is Christ's death on the cross that has power), nor even considers the cross sentient!

So the cross is merely a symbol of our redemption, reminding us of the price Jesus paid to save us; nothing more.

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I would say that the empty tomb is an even better symbol but is much harder to depict. –  styfle Jan 15 '12 at 8:08
    
But the commandment is not "thou shalt not pray to any carved image;" it's "thou shalt not make for yourself a carved image," so this would not seem to follow. –  Kaz Dragon Jan 19 '12 at 16:34
    
@KazDragon: you're either talking about Deuteronomy 5:8-10 or Deuteronomy 4:15-20, I think. The focus there is on idols, in other words the cross would only be an idol if it was worshipped. Correct me if I'm wrong. –  Wikis Jan 19 '12 at 18:48
    
@Wikis no, that's not really what I was talking about. The commandment as stated in the question begins "thou shalt not make for yourself a carved image." It then goes on about praying to them. But a wooden cross hanging in a church is certainly a carved image. Therefore, I would argue that you haven't answered the question. Does that make it clear? –  Kaz Dragon Jan 20 '12 at 9:56
    
@KazDragon: yes, clear. I would say that is talking about the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law, but I appreciate that is not a complete answer. –  Wikis Jan 20 '12 at 10:05

protected by Caleb Oct 5 '12 at 22:28

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