There are a number of Protestants that say the use of the images and statues in the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church is idolatry. I know that these churches call certain images "icons", but I don't really know what that means, and I personally have trouble seeing the difference.

Some answers on this closed question are helpful but I think the poor delivery of the question is causing confusion. Same here.

Catholic and Orthodox perspectives are welcome. What would be helpful is the definition of both terms and why the use of icons is not idolatry.

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    Related: What do churches that prohibit the use of icons think an idol is?
    – Alypius
    Commented Mar 14, 2013 at 22:51
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    You know, there is a lot of overlap between this and other similar questions. Not sure which one to answer on. Honestly, I don't want to spend the time with all the overlap (I'd have to break my answer up between questions). I encourage you to read about the Iconoclastic Controversy in the East and read the arguments for and against. I highly recommend this book for more detailed information.
    – Dan
    Commented Mar 15, 2013 at 2:34
  • catholic.com/tracts/do-catholics-worship-statues
    – user5286
    Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 15:17
  • Possible duplicate of Why isn't the cross considered an idol? Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 15:18
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    My rule of thumb, if someone is worshiping an icon it's an idol. Treat it as art, not as holy. That doesn't mean you can't be respectful. I think I can ask that you don't burn my image in effigy without asking you to worship me. If you had an unneeded image of me lying about just burn it tactfully so people don't get the wrong idea. I wouldn't be surprised if God feels the same way. Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 8:46

3 Answers 3


Why do churches like the Catholic Church permit icons when idolatry is forbidden?

The simple answer is that they do not consider all images to be idols (just think of photographs), and believe that members of the Church are able to distinguish between a work of art and God without the need for direct enforcement: after all, Catholics believe that the Word was made Flesh, and dwelt among us, and still dwells among us in the form of the Blessed Eucharist, literally God present before us, as He was present before Thomas, who doubted.

Some possible definitions:

  • An idol is something worshipped as divine under the mistaken belief that it contains something divine or is itself God.
  • An icon is an image that reminds us of good people and events, sometimes viewed during prayer. Some particular images have sentimental value within a culture, and a rich history.

(Some people worship false gods using icons or images. This is idolatry not because they use icons or images, but because give worship to something in place of God.)

Idolatry is an especially internal sin, so the words of Matthew 7:1 are especially pertinent. If someone starts yelling "this is our god", then perhaps we would have good reason to believe that idolatry is being committed. Compared to the typical Catholic who merely looks at something religious to inspire prayer and worship to God.

The objections to using images seem to be:

  1. that creating an image of God would be sacrilegious or spiritually improper. There are stories of native tribes that thought photographs stole a person's soul. Tales about vampires present them as having no reflection in a mirror, and as being invisible in pictures. Such views are not of God. They suggest that Jesus was not fully human, and that physical objects can even in principle be used to "trap" the divine. It is sinful and idolatrous to believe that a physical object has this sort of spiritual effect on God.

  2. that it is confusing to humans to imagine God so closely tied to the world around us. But Jesus became true man, and was described as being very human in almost everything He did. Furthermore, the Bible depicts God as wrestling with Jacob in Genesis 32.

  3. that images in particular are "disrespectful". There is no biblical basis for this point. Humans tell stories and draw pictures. These activities can be directed towards the praise of God, and it seems incoherent to suggest that communicating something through writing featuring God is fine, while images featuring God have something wrong with them (the only basis I can see for such a view is what I describe very negatively in point #1).

  4. that there is something wrong with giving any attention to the "physical" world during worship. But this is absurd, because God made the world, and said that it was good. We believe in the resurrection of the body, and the body is "physical" in this way: it is a temple of God. We don't worship our own bodies because of that, but we do believe that physical things are in fact good and can be directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God.

  5. that if the images remind us too much of other people, we will then turn attention away from God. But the whole of Hebrews 11 is a remembrance of good people. We must put God first, but we must also keep a second place open for people (both living and dead). The Bible on the subject of giving attention to other people:

    Matthew 22:37-40
    37 He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the greatest and the first commandment. 39 The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

This is a Catholic perspective from a very devout Catholic.


Both the words icon and idol are used in the New Testament.

The Greek word eikōn (icon) is translated portrait in Ma 22:20, Mk 12:16; and Lk 20:24.

The Greek words eidōlothytos and eidōlon are translated idolatry and idol in 1 Co 10:14,19 and passim.

From both the Catholic and Protestant traditions, Christians (with very few exceptions) do not oppose the use of icons, since Jesus Himself handled coins with icons on them and taught His followers to "render unto Caesar [whose portrait was stamped onto coins] the things that are Caesar's." Since an icon is simply a likeness, a portrait, or other representation of a human being (e.g., a statue), there is no biblical reason for not producing them in whatever medium (e.g., oil paints, watercolors, pencils, mixed media, granite, wood, cloth, paper). Jesus was, after all, "God's self-portrait in human flesh" (Gerald L. Sittser, Water From a Deep Well, p.177).

  • At least in the Orthodox tradition, icons are limited to 2 dimensional images to make doubly sure that nobody thinks the icon is actually God or the Saint being venerated. It is indeed a "portrait." When one venerates, they are not venerating the icon itself, but God or the saint that the icon represents.
    – David P
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 19:14
  • "to make doubly sure that nobody thinks the icon is actually God" that would be pretty darn difficult to do, would it not. Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 23:46
  • @DavidP: Interesting insight! Thank you. Our competition over in the Muslim ranks eschews icons of any sort, probably out of a misplaced (albeit well intended) reverence for Allah. Interestingly, one reason Muslims despise Christian theology is because of our belief that God has a Son. The very idea that God could procreate is anathema to Muslims. Of course we as Christians believe the Holy Spirit of God enabled the virgin Mary to conceive, a belief which Muslims find equally abhorrent, I imagine. Their icon-phobia hasn't prevented them from expressing an artistic bent through architecture! Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 23:49

You can see the definition of both here: idol and icon.


a devotional painting of Christ or another holy figure, typically executed on wood and used ceremonially in the Byzantine and other Eastern Churches.

a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration


an image or representation of a god used as an object of worship

a person or thing that is greatly admired, loved, or revered: a soccer idol

I guess that in a Protestant point of view, anything or anyone that is taken as someone or something to be worshiped besides God is wrong, idolatry.

I had a talk with a Catholic priest about it and he assured me that they do not worship the saints, they are mediators and I showed him this:

1 Timothy 2:5-6

5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all people

So he changed his answer from mediators to examples, so they take the saints as examples to be remembered, respected and also an example of a good life with God.

I don't agree with the "examples" answer from that priest because you can see that the saints, according to the Catholics and Orthodox Church, they can do miracles and that, in my opinion is what makes them adore the Saint and have them as mediators. And also, because of that, you can see that there is a lot of saints and each one have one "responsibility", one saint takes care of drivers, another of doctors and so on (at least here in Brazil I see a lot of that).

So that's my opinion. Just to let you know, I'm not Catholic or Protestant so I'm not trying to take any sides here OK?

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    I believe the response you got from the Catholic priest was misguided. More appropriate answer is that the Saints intercede for us with God, just like any Christian here on Earth might do if you ask them to pray for you.
    – David P
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 19:17

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