I saw the meme image above and realized how truly astonishing it is that many Christian denominations treat religious images (e.g., statues, icons, pictures, crosses with Christ on it [a.k.a crucifixes], and even sometimes a simple cross) as being something absolutely heretical and unacceptable in God’s eyes.
Unfortunately, while most of them seem to understand the value and harmless character of religious imagery during the Christmas season, once it ends its back to the passionate decree: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” (Exodus 20:4).
It’s not about the Bible, but about anti-Catholic ideology
The primary reason why most of those Christians decry this practice has little to do with the Bible and mostly everything to do with continuing the ideology of the Reformation movement which opposed most or nearly all things the Catholic church was known for.
- You guys in the Catholic Church really like honoring St. Mary; then she is no longer to be called a saint, and is no longer to be revered. She’s just another woman. Oh, and she had kids after Jesus, since you guys are so hung up on maintaining her ever-virginity.
- From Pope to priest, the clergy have made countless grave mistakes; then there is no priesthood for us! We will have pastors, but all of us are equal. Universal priesthood for all!
- You tell us that we can’t read our bibles ourselves and interpret their meaning unless being guided by the church? Then the ONLY thing we will read and depend on is our bibles, not anything passed down for thousands of years; and we’ll open up the Bible to private, personal interpretation, and stop giving any weight to what a clergy person in the past (like the Church Fathers) has taught.
- We have to confess, and work so hard to “be good” to go to heaven? You’re out of your minds! God’s grace is sufficient for me, and the moment I claim Christ as my savior, I guarantee a spot for me in heaven, even if I fail at practicing Christianity in a manner pleasing to God. I don’t need focus so much on pleasing Him, just believing in Him, and I’m set!
- Your churches are so grand, and there are statues and images all over the place, almost to the point of seemingly worshipping them! Then we will have simple churches with no religious imagery. We may put a tiny little cross at the top of the church, and one inside, but that’s about it.
Martin Luther, the seminal figure of the Reformation, was a lot more mild in his distaste of all things Catholic than other figures. Although he expressed concern for religious imagery, he said the following in a sermon in 1522:
“[T]hey ought to be abolished when they are worshipped … Nevertheless, we cannot and ought not condemn a thing which may be in any way useful to a person.”
Later however Martin Luther indicated he was okay with a complete removal of images, in his treatise “Against the Heavenly Prophets”:
“[Images should] instruct and enlighten the conscience that it is idolatry to worship them … beyond this let the external matters take their course. God grant that they may be destroyed, become dilapidated, or that they remain. It is all the same difference.”
Other reformers, such as John Calvin, disagreed with this approach and wanted a near total removal of religious imagery. Andreas Karlstadt in Wittenberg, for example, was criticized by Martin Luther for seeking the total destruction of images without any regard for the usefulness of some. The followers of Calvin and another reformer named Huldrych Zwingli felt encouraged to take this to an extreme, seeing it as a divine calling to destroy religious images. It is this mindset that has led to the abolition of religious imagery in many Protestant churches today, particularly in evangelical denominations such as the Baptist church.
Quick Quiz: Lutheran or Baptist Church pictured below?
Take a look at the following images of churches around where I live, and you should be able to tell which church below is Lutheran, and which is Baptist:
What the Bible really says
If we return to the Bible, however, you’ll find that there is no blanket prohibition against such imagery. If you read the commandment against graven images, God makes clear you should not make them to worship them. He says:
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image—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 nor serve them.” (Exodus 20:4–5)
If you look at the rest of the Bible, you will see that God not only allows for graven images, but He Himself commissioned people to make them.
To Moses God pronounced this commandment against the worship of graven images, and elsewhere He also told Moses to include graven images as part of His place of worship: the Tabernacle.
There, God commanded to be built the Ark of the Covenant, with two cherubs placed on the lid cover, facing each other, and God would “appear” to the Israelites in between these two cherubs on this “mercy seat” (Exodus 25:18–20; Leviticus 16:2, 13–17). Later we find Joshua (the successor of Moses) and the elders of Israel worshipping God as they fell on their faces towards the Ark of the Lord (Joshua 7:6).
Also, on the veil that divided the holiest portion of the Tabernacle (called the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy) from the rest of the Tabernacle, where only the High Priest could enter on one day (Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement), God commanded that this veil divider be “woven with an artistic design of cherubim” (Exodus 26:31).
Later, when the Temple of Solomon was built, “he carved figures of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers” on “all the walls of the temple all around, both the inner and outer sanctuaries” (1 Kings 6:29).
Also, God commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent, which Christ tells us is a symbol of Christ’s crucifixion (and by extension, resembles our crucifix today); as everyone looked at the bronze serpent and lived, likewise when we believe on the Son of Man who was lifted up, we will not perish (Numbers 21:9; John 3:14–15).
The late Pope Shenouda III used to always warn against the danger of basing one’s religious views on just one verse, and losing sight of others. Here, when we look at the rest of the Bible, we see more clearly what God intended. You can make religious images, but do not worship them.
Miracles involving icons show God accepts them
On a final note: as a testament to God’s acceptance of religious imagery, we have numerous instances, even in recent times, where an icon is involved in some miracle from God. For example, Fr. Lazarus, the Australian atheist professor who left all to follow Christ and is now a Coptic monk living like St. Anthony near the same cave where the founder of monasticism lived, tells us that a major turning point for him was when he was visiting an Orthodox monastery. There, he emulated other Orthodox Christians in prostrating before an icon of the virgin St. Mary, and as he was doing so, he heard her speak to him, three times. His life forever changed. (For more on him see episodes of “Monk’s Life” by Coptic Youth Channel [CYC])
In the Coptic Church especially, icons are very often found seeping oil miraculously. This even made the news here in America. Here are the videos and news reports:
For an amazing compilation of these and many more amazing miracles from the Coptic Church, I highly recommend you purchase the documentary compiled by a non-Coptic producer and director named Paul Perry: “Visions and Miracles Out of the Land of Egypt: A film by Paul Perry”
Seeing Faith, Printing Pictures: Religious Identity During the English Reformation, By David J. Davis.
John Calvin: Christian Humanist and Evangelical Reformer, By John W. de Gruchy