Whether a girl can wear a cross as a pendant, whether a church can have a Christmas service, whether a person can do shopping on a Sunday after church, or whether a woman can pray aloud during a church service, are not matters that can be resolved with a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. It is possible for godly people to answer either way in any of these matters, depending on the circumstances. What is important is that people understand the issues involved. My sincere opinion is that we would spare ourselves of much pain if we could only stop short of laying down rules and strictures and set forth good principles instead, to be followed in a spirit of forebearance.
Case 1: A cross-shaped pendant
Recently, a brother in Christ was concerned that another sister, he had just been introduced to, was wearing a chain with a cross as a pendant and felt that this underscored the fact that she needed to be taught the very basics of Christianity because she was breaking the second commandment of the Ten Commandments. He believed that Christians must never ever use the symbol of the cross. Much as I wonder about the appropriateness of a cross being worn as a casual piece of jewelry, I do not quite see things in black and white like this brother did. He was also opposed to the use of this symbol on Bible covers or in illustrations and so on.
It so happens that the girl concerned and all her family are believers and do not have to be taught from the beginning again. I also know for a fact that she does not view the cross pendant as an object of worship at all or even of reverence. However, I am thankful that this brother raised this matter because it gave me an opportunity to run this matter through in my mind. It also gives us a concrete case from which we can learn more general lessons.
Case 2: A cross on a thali
Allow me to describe another case that we could use in this connection. In south India, the wedding token is not so much a wedding band or ring but a chain that is called a mangalsutra or thali. As with most Indian customs, the thali comes from Hindu tradition. A Hindu thali is regarded as sacred and has several pendants and objects hanging on a chain. Many superstitions and beliefs are associated with this piece of jewelry. A woman who loses or breaks her thali might fear for her husband’s life. So important is the thali to a Hindu woman.
Christian thalis also have similar objects, each family following its own tradition in this matter, and because the thali is “blessed” by the minister during the solemnization of the marriage, these objects come to be regarded as special objects even to the point of being regarded as a charm. In our family, because we do not entertain superstitions and blind customs, we have sometimes wondered if it is better to do away with the thali altogether. However, we have held back from taking this step because it has been pointed out that in public, a woman wearing a thali has respect and is often left alone by other men. This thali is made by the groom’s family for the bride.
When the sons in my husband’s family were married, a heart shaped pendant was designed, doing away with the traditional shapes of doubtful origin, with a tiny cross engraved on it to indicate very clearly that we were Christians, and that we were not bound by any of the beliefs that generally go with a thali in India. I as the youngest daughter-in-law in my husband’s family was given a thali with the smallest heart. It too has a tiny cross engraved on it. Our thalis were not “blessed” by anyone and we have not regarded them as sacred in any way. None of us has ever treated the little cross on it as anything more than an identification mark. Actually, I do not think we even gave it a second thought. Had we known that this was an issue, we could have easily avoided the cross in the design. I do not wear my thali anymore, not because of the cross, but because I do not like to wear anything around my neck. But the other daughter in laws in the family, my co-sisters as we say in India, wear their thalis, heart, cross and all. Honestly, I struggle to find a good reason to suggest that they should change these marriage tokens after so many years.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I feel that we must avoid creating man-made rules that bind men long after the immediate circumstances and underlying reasoning have been forgotten; however, we must understand the principles and resolve each case wisely and in all godly fear.
Randomly listed below are some of the issues related to this matter that come to mind:
- The beautiful golden crosses, worn by people around their necks, mask and belittle the shame and the horror of the cross on which the Lord was killed. The cross on which our Savior died was crude and ugly. Words cannot describe the level to which our race stooped on that day. Our Savior had taken off His kingly robes to come down to us, and on that day, we stripped him bare of his earthly clothing and every last vestige of dignity, and hung Him on a cross. This is just one of the horrors of the cross. Of the sin that held him to the cross, I cannot even begin to imagine. One of my constant prayers is that I may be smitten more and more by the realization of what happened at Calvary. What can a shiny slick golden cross do to bring the reality of that awful day to my heart?
- The symbol of the cross existed long before Calvary in pagan religions. The symbol of the cross as a symbol for the Christian religion began during the time of Constantine. It is said that just before the Battle of Milvian, Emperor Constantine had a vision of a bright cross above the sun. Whether Constantine was truly converted or not is not clear. Revering a cross or a crucifix (a cross with an image of Christ on it) was something that was done by the church after that time. After the reformation movement, because protestants distanced themselves from religious imagery, the crucifix was associated with Roman Catholicism.
- The Roman Catholic church introduced many symbols and items from paganism into church practice. Although the flock may not realize it, a major portion of the doctrines and practices are based more on tradition than on the Bible. The symbol of the cross is one of innumerable extra-Biblical items that were thus introduced into the worship. Other items in this category are crucifixes, pictures of Jesus, statuettes and statues of Mary, the saints, and Jesus Himself.
- The second of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:4-6) makes it very clear that the use of any visible object for worship is sin. I have heard the argument that the crucifixes, pictures of Jesus, and statuettes in churches and people’s homes are not being worshiped, but rather only help to keep the mind focussed on God during prayer. But do we realize that even in religions like Hinduism where idols are openly used in worship, few believe that the idol itself is god, but rather regard it only as a sacred representation that helps common folk focus in worship? The God of the Bible wants His people to avoid idols totally; He forbids sacred representations of God.
- The wording of the second commandment can seem obscure to some and may seem to prohibit any form of artwork or sculpture. From the rest of scripture, we can know that this is not the case. In the second commandment, God prohibits creating a visual representation of God to aid in worship. The mind of God is made clearer to us from the following verses in Deuteronomy. “Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth. And take heed, lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them, which the LORD your God has given to all the peoples under the whole heaven as a heritage. While I want to avoid man-made rules, this command in Deuteronomy, clarifying the second commandment, is a grave and serious God-given RULE. There are no two ways about it. That is why I would avoid all visual representations of Jesus, lest someone be led to use it to focus on the worship of God.
- When we close our eyes to pray, do we imagine the face of Jesus that we see in pictures, the fair person with European features and long hair? If we do, we need to plead with the Lord for forgiveness and help us to remove that image from our mind’s eye. I wish religious art did not include depictions of God and the Lord Jesus. I wish we could prevent people from including pictures of Jesus in Sunday School sheets and children’s Bibles. I avoid bringing into our home material or films that picture Jesus. But, having said this, it may not be possible for me to remove every book that sports a pictorial representation of Jesus. The second commandment (that we have no representation of God or Christ to aid us in worship) is a rule that binds us all by heavenly mandate, and all the rest that I have written above falls in the realm of a good principle. It is left to each child of God to apply them in their lives in the fear of God. This much is clear. Idolatry is an abomination to the Lord.
- Bringing “strange fire” into worship as Nadab and Abihu did is also an abomination to the Lord. When the cross becomes a part of the worship of a church, we are treading on dangerous ground. Many churches do so to their shame, if not to their doom.
- I wish to distinguish between a cross and a crucifix. The latter is obviously a representation of the dying Christ. A cross on the other hand is both a symbol of Christianity in the secular world and a reminder of what happened at Calvary.
What more can I say to make it clear that I am not looking at this matter out of a desire to compromise a good principle. Just last month, I removed about eight items in the form of calendars, wall hangings, statuettes, and key chains of the likeness of Jesus from a good friend’s house. She was happy for me to do it, or I would not have dared. She understood that we must not create likenesses like this, and that even though she was not worshiping these items, they did not send out a good message to visitors, some of whom were inclined to reverence these objects.
Where do we draw the line between wrong and permissible uses of the symbol? The brother mentioned at the beginning of this post, drew it with utmost strictness, where he held that the use of the symbol is sinful in all cases. Does the shape of the cross in a book or on a Bible cover necessarily become sinful? Unnecessary, perhaps, but sinful? Let us face it, rightly or wrongly, in the secular world, the shape of the cross has over time come to identify the Christian religion.
The fact that the cross symbol was not used by the early church does not, by itself, make it wrong. Much as we yearn to emulate the early New Testament church in doctrine and practice, the early church itself was changing even in the time before the New Testament was written. For example, the church offertory evolved from the donations collected for Christians in Jerusalem. Selling all and living together as a church was one experiment that did not work out. What I am pointing out here is that while some of our church practices are explicitly specified, others evolved by a common sense approach within the framework of the scrupulous following of Bible principles. As we strive to find a pattern for public worship and for other aspects of the Christian life, we are not disappointed; we can and do arrive at an adequate pattern. But from what I have seen, I have come to realize that we must not expect that all godly people will arrive at the same pattern to the last minute detail. This is why it is so vital, as far as possible, to discuss the issues and arrive at good principles, but stop short of etching too many good rules in stone.
Having thought this through to this extent, I would henceforth avoid using crosses in jewelry. It is rather a nice and symmetrical shape but I do not feel that it ought to be normal for us to regard even the shape of the object, on which our Lord was murdered, in a casual way. The other extreme is to regard it worshipfully, which is a graver error. If someone uses this symbol to remind one about Calvary or to identify Christianity in the secular world, say on the grave of someone who died in the Lord, I would not be worried so long as one does not even remotely associate any reverence to the object itself. One would also need to ensure that it not become a snare to someone else who might end up worshiping it.