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, ...


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 .

  • Just FYI, some people have suggested that other religions (specifically Hindi) believe that the statues / idols are actually the god that they're worshiping whereas Christians do not believe that the cross is God. After speaking to various different people who are Hindi (and some other religions), they do NOT believe that the statue is their god. Rather, like Christianity, they believe that it represents their god as a reminder (consider statues of Mary, Jesus, or Moses). May 20, 2015 at 19:53

4 Answers 4


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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    With answers like that, you should be past that rep limit in no time. Great answer! Jan 15, 2012 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... Jan 15, 2012 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, 2012 at 16:44
  • @Rex think also of the various religious statues - very commonly Mary, that act as a focus for prayer. That fits the description to me... If anything, the emphasis I'd put on exodus is more "don't pray to anyone/anything except me (and my associates - Mary, saints, angels)" Jan 15, 2012 at 16:49
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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. Jan 16, 2012 at 3:34

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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    Technically anything could be an idol - a Barbie doll, a cupcake, a lectern, a pew. Oct 5, 2012 at 15:44
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    @DJClayworth ...or power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc.
    – Alypius
    Feb 25, 2013 at 7:17
  • it is an idol, u pray with it, yall should read the bible
    – Isaac750
    Jan 26, 2021 at 21:48

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, 2012 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, 2012 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. Jan 19, 2012 at 18:48
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    @KazDragon I don't find your attempt at equivalence between a symbol and an image anything more than a semantic overreach. Feb 9, 2017 at 4:22
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    @KorvinStarmast In English, perhaps. The original wasn't English. I'd be interesting to hear a scholarly analysis of the precise meaning of the word as originally written in the context for which it was written. My interpretation is that this was a response to the local rival tribes' practices of praying to representational objects instead of directly to the deity itself. People that are praying to a cross almost certainly come full circle on that one.
    – Kaz Dragon
    Feb 9, 2017 at 15:51

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)

  • Things seem to be more complex. We do adore the cross on Good Friday and genuflect to it, but it is a relative adoration in that it represent Christ. There is a great discussion of this here.
    – luchonacho
    Apr 11, 2020 at 15:51

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