Renewing Our Worship: Iconography, Part 1 of 3

Over at Monday Morning Insight, I was reading an article about megachurches. A photographer had toured the country taking pictures of their buildings. He commented,

It was physical and wholly alien from what my idea of organized worship had been. Christian iconography was either stylized into abstract obscurity or altogether absent. The subject had tension. It was visual, topical, and coolly secular.

I thought to myself, “How ridiculous! Why purposefully strip worship spaces of all religious symbols? How can that encourage worship of God?” And then I realized, “Oh, yeah, I’m a member of the Church of Christ … and that’s how we do it!”

Strange, huh? Some years ago, I co-chaired the construction of our present church building. I toured churches all over the place searching for ideas, and I interviewed several architects. And they all commented on how Churches of Christ are adamantly opposed to images in their worship spaces. When they finally persuade a church to install stained glass, the images have to be entirely abstract. If a church member thinks he see Noah’s ark or a cross in the glass, it gets ripped out and re-designed.

Our building has a cupola on top. When it arrived from the manufacturer, the architect called me over the site, obviously worried. He showed me the cupola and asked if it was okay. I said it looked like the drawings. What am I missing? He sheepishly pointed to the cross rising above the top. He asked if he needed to saw it off. I said we were very much in favor of the cross. But, he explained, nearly every church he’d ever worked for insisted on taking the cross off with a hacksaw!

Why would a church composed of people saved from damnation by the cross be unwilling to worship beneath that symbol? Is it that we are so desperate not to be like the “denominations” that we’ll even reject the cross to make the point?

I think it’s really more complex than that. We need to go back to the Ten Commandments —

(Deu 5:8-10)  “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 9 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 10 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

And this passage, too —

(Deu 4:15-18)  You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, 16 so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, 17 or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, 18 or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below.

God was pretty serious about graven images — usually translated “idol” in the NIV. The Israelites had just left Egypt, where many gods were worshiped, many of which were in the image of humans or animals, and God was quite clear that his people were not to make an idol of any such thing.

The Jews took the commands seriously, so seriously that they not only wouldn’t make an idol, they wouldn’t make images of humans at all. After all, man is created in the image of God, and so to sculpt or paint a human would be to paint the image of God, they thought. Notice that the Jewish interpretation bans such images even if not used as idols. Therefore, when archaeologists dig up Israelite homes, one clear test of whether the house was owned by a devout Israelite is whether there are images of humans of any kind.

Although I’ve never heard a lesson or read an article condemning images in the worship area, the Churches of Christ have a culture prohibiting such things. In fact, it’s fairly recent that many churches have been willing to have steeples and stained glass. In most older buildings, the only images found would be a Jordan River scene behind the baptistry.

I well remember the first time I set foot in my home congregation’s former building. I nearly refused to go in because they had a large wooden cross above the baptistry — and crosses on the end of each pew! I was horrified. Somehow, when I was fresh out of Lipscomb, I felt crosses were wrong, even though I didn’t know why I felt that way. (For a hilarious commentary on our steeple and other peculiarities, click here.)

In fact, all my life I’d found it silly when our preachers condemned girls for wearing crosses on their necklaces. “A cross was a cruel form of torture,” they’d say. “Would you wear an electric chair around your neck?”

If I was around, I’d reply, “Yes, if that electric chair saved me from hell!” But I was an obnoxious child.

I think this peculiar attitude we have stems from our Calvinistic roots. Barton W.Stone, the Campbells, and Walter Scott were all raised Presbyterian. Most of their converts came from Baptist or Presbyterian backgrounds. And although they rejected Calvinist atonement theology (TULIP is the acronym), they continued in their culture shaped by Calvin. And Calvin had been rigidly iconoclastic. Indeed, when the Calvinists took over formerly Catholic properties, they whitewashed the paintings and destroyed the statues.

As was very typical of the age, rather than being content to merely correct the errors they found in Catholicism, they went to the opposite extreme. This is from the Wikipedia

Some of the Protestant reformers, in particular Andreas Karlstadt, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin encouraged the removal of religious images by invoking the Decalogue’s prohibition of idolatry and the manufacture of graven images of God. As a result, statues and images were damaged in spontaneous individual attacks as well as unauthorised iconoclastic riots. However, in most cases images were removed in an orderly manner by civil authorities in the newly reformed cities and territories of Europe.

Significant iconoclastic riots took place in Zürich (in 1523), Copenhagen (1530), Münster (1534), Geneva (1535), Augsburg (1537), and Scotland (1559). The Seventeen Provinces (now the Netherlands and Belgium and parts of Northern France) were hit by a large wave of Protestant iconoclasm in the summer of 1566. This is called the “Beeldenstorm” and included such acts as the destruction of the statuary of the Monastery of Saint Lawrence in Steenvoorde after a “Hagenpreek”, or field sermon, by Sebastiaan Matte; and the sacking of the Monastery of Saint Anthony after a sermon by Jacob de Buysere. The “Beeldenstorm” marked the start of the revolution against the Spanish forces and the Catholic church. See Flanders for more on its history.

During the English Civil War, Bishop Joseph Hall of Norwich described the events of 1643 when troops and citizens, encouraged by a Parliamentary ordinance against superstition and idolatry, behaved thus:

Lord what work was here! What clattering of glasses! What beating down of walls! What tearing up of monuments! What pulling down of seats! What wresting out of irons and brass from the windows! What defacing of arms! What demolishing of curious stonework! What tooting and piping upon organ pipes! And what a hideous triumph in the market-place before all the country, when all the mangled organ pipes, vestments, both copes and surplices, together with the leaden cross which had newly been sawn down from the Green-yard pulpit and the service-books and singing books that could be carried to the fire in the public market-place were heaped together’.

The keen puritan William Dowsing was commissioned and salaried by the government to tour the towns and villages of East Anglia destroying images in churches. His detailed record of his trail of destruction through Suffolk and Cambridgeshire survives:

We brake [sic] down about a hundred superstitious pictures; and seven fryers [sic] hugging a nun; and the picture of God, and Christ; and divers others very superstitious. And 200 had been broke down afore I came. We took away 2 popish inscriptions with Ora pro nobis and we beat down a great stoneing cross on the top of the church. (Haverhill, Suffolk, January 6, 1644)

Protestant Christianity, however, was not uniformly hostile to the use of religious images. Martin Luther argued that Christians should be free to use religious images as long as they did not worship them in the place of God. Zwingli and others for the sake of saving the Word rejected all art; Luther, with an equal concern for the Word, but far more conservative, would have all the arts to be the servants of the Gospel.

“I am not of the opinion” said Luther, “that through the Gospel all the arts should be banished and driven away, as some zealots want to make us believe; but I wish to see them all, especially music, in the service of Him Who gave and created them.” Again he says: “I have myself heard those who oppose pictures, read from my German Bible. … But this contains many pictures of God, of the angels, of men, and of animals, especially in the Revelation of St. John, in the books of Moses, and in the book of Joshua. We therefore kindly beg these fanatics to permit us also to paint these pictures on the wall that they may be remembered and better understood, inasmuch as they can harm as little on the walls as in books. Would to God that I could persuade those who can afford it to paint the whole Bible on their houses, inside and outside, so that all might see; this would indeed be a Christian work. For I am convinced that it is God’s will that we should hear and learn what He has done, especially what Christ suffered. But when I hear these things and meditate upon them, I find it impossible not to picture them in my heart. Whether I want to or not, when I hear, of Christ, a human form hanging upon a cross rises up in my heart: just as I see my natural face reflected when I look into water. Now if it is not sinful for me to have Christ’s picture in my heart, why should it be sinful to have it before my eyes?”

Obviously, Calvin and other Reformers were reasoning from the command against graven images, but that command is addressed to idolatry, not all imagery of any kind.

Now, from my childhood, I was taught that all the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament — except the command to honor the Sabbath. But that’s not right. The command banning graven images is also omitted. And this is fortunate, because we violate it every day — even the strictest among us do.

Consider flannel graphs. These are unquestionably images of humans, even of Jesus himself, and yet I know of no church that considers them wicked. Just so, the many movies made of the life of Jesus show images of Christ — God the Son.

Walk into any Church of Christ primary department, and the rooms will be filled with graven images — icons — because they know that children learn visually.

As a child, I loved flannelgraphs, because I loved seeing the stories. My kids loved Bible videotapes when they were young. And yet none of us ever found ourselves tempted to worship the flannelgraph of Jesus — or of the Spirit descending as a dove on Jesus after he was baptized. It really is okay.

But we have this unspoken, un-considered, un-examined idea that our auditoriums are holy spaces and so too holy for the icons with which we decorate our classrooms and homes. No crosses in the worship area or the outside of the building. No glass that looks like an image. It’s all very Puritan, very Calvinist, and quite unnecessary.

As argued by John of Damascus back in Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images (circa 725),

Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter.

In other words, as Jesus transformed from transcendence to materiality, it is no longer wrong to represent him as material — so long, of course, as there is no hint of worshiping the image. God became flesh, and in so doing, became capable of being an image.

Okay. Maybe that argument is a bit too scholastic. Here’s a better one: God never condemned the making of images, only the worshiping of images. And if it’s okay at home, on the TV, in the movies, and even in our Bibles, it’s quite okay in the auditorium — so long as there is not a hint of worshiping the images.

Hence, stained glass can have an image of the crucifixion or of the stoning of Stephen or of Elijah being taken to heaven. It’s not wrong to have the images in our Bibles, and it’s not wrong to have the images in our windows. We shouldn’t worship either, but I really don’t think we are at risk on this one.

And it’s quite permissible to have a cross somewhere in the auditorium or on top of the steeple or cupola. It’s okay to wear a cross as jewelry — so long as the jewelry is modest and displays our Christianity rather than our wealth.

Other symbols of Christian worship and culture are fine, too. The fish symbol, taken from earliest Christianity, connects us with our most ancient brothers and sisters in Christ. The dove reminds us of Jesus’ baptism — as well as the Creation and the rebirth of Creation after the Flood.

There are countless images that remind us of who and whose we are as children of God. And these symbols connect us to one another around the world — crossing the barriers of language and culture and even the barriers of time and space, connecting us with the earliest Christians. We should revel in them!

And it’s important because our youngest members — and our own children — love Christian iconography. They enjoy the symbols and the heritage they represent. They relish being connected to ancient tradition. Symbols speak volumes to the Post-modern generation. It’s a language that connects with even the lost of that age, a language we should learn to speak.

And it’s part of the great artistic tradition of Christianity. You see, Martin Luther had it right all along.

Would to God that I could persuade those who can afford it to paint the whole Bible on their houses, inside and outside, so that all might see; this would indeed be a Christian work.

We should permit our artists to express their faith through their gifts. Our churches should be festooned with murals and paintings and sculptures and all sorts of art that shows a bit of the glory of God. It’ll help our worship to let our hair down and enjoy creating. You see, there’s nothing more like God himself than being creative.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink.
My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.

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6 Responses to Renewing Our Worship: Iconography, Part 1 of 3

  1. Royce says:

    Jay,

    Thanks for this article. Well written as ususal and truthful…as usual.

    Royce

  2. mark says:

    I have to admit there is a church of Christ emotion in me that blushes at the awkwardness of embracing faith in future. Yet like telling your children about where babies come from one eventual recovers from the embarrassment.

    I think many of the more progressive churches with praise teams or coffee shops or multimedia rooms have crossed over into a lot of iconic symbolism. Even our a capella music is symbolic in that many of them are cross over’s from Christian radio. Our church experimented with communion with a CD playing in the background with instrumental music. Nothing could express the sinking feeling I had when I passed the communion tray to my parents. But they just smiled! I was hoping my parents just couldn’t hear. But they did! Yikes I almost hate to say that but it seems to me times are changing and they are changing with blessing of old and the young.

    Yes we use to have 25 years ago churches of Christ boundaries …parents, preacher, and congregation with protest of the latest trend in denominationalism. But those days within the mainlines of holding on to a purist ideology are slowly going away.

  3. Joe Baggett says:

    Have you ever notices how fundamentalist groups are always the last ones to hear, learn of or understand trends in the broader scope of Christianity in America? It is because of the attitude that you refer to Mark. We don't think we have anything to learn from anybody. For a long time most people in the churches of Christ would not even read material written or published by those outside of the churches of Christ. This led to ignorance of what was going on the broader scope of Christianity and religion in America. Quite literally in the 1930-mid 1980 many churches mission could be described in one word "We are against anything and everything that may be wrong". So the best way to accomplish this was to censor ourselves from the rest of denominational Christianity.
    The architecture and art associated with emerging Christianity tell a story if we pay attention. They tell a story of theology that is becoming more concerned with people as God is concerned with people. This is shown in facilities are very utility in serving other such as Gyms, Large Kitchens and Fellowship halls. Our last church was a Red Cross Shelter and when Hurricanes Ike and Gustav blew through we housed about 100 in our Gym for couple of weeks. Without this facility we would not have been able to do this.
    They also tell a story of an America that is becoming more diverse in everyway. They tell a story of theology that is more focused on the heart of a person their inner being rather than their outward appearance. They tell a story of relationships being "key" to kingdom building, and the associated atmosphere that is less up tight (I.E. Coffee shops). There was not much art in the modern church building of the mid last century maybe a picture or two, but no tapestries or murals and no architecture that resembled a Christian spirit of Joy and hope, only rigid intuitionalism. You know when I go in one of these old church buildings for a funeral or wedding, they all have that “school” institutional smell to them. It brings back a flood of memories from my childhood. This was characteristic of modernism; no art or only art that support dogmatic modernism. The churches built during the middle part of the last century seemed to have the architect. If you travel the country you can see striking similarities in the floor plan, colors, baptistery, and so on. Let’s continue to build Icons that represent the changes in our theology and culture I believe it is a part of mission. You know in the book unChristian George Barna says that the image problem that traditional Christianity has is with its icons. Old buildings represent failed traditionalism, failed theology, failed religious dogma and white (Caucasian) pietistic middle class culture that no longer exists. One person interviewed by Barna said that when he goes to a traditional church building he feels as if he is back in grade school.

  4. nick gill says:

    I haven't read the next two articles yet, so I don't know if you mention it there — but Ray Vander Laan makes a pretty good point about the cross, anyway. Jews were crucified, too — by the wagonload — and when they see us waving our crosses around, it really doesn't generate a setting for rational discourse.

    Yes, we're saved by it — but their families were destroyed by it.

  5. Jay Guin says:

    Nick,

    That's an interesting point — and one I've not addressed.

    It seems to me that most Jews are quite accustomed to seeing crosses and no more take offense at a cross than you or I would take offense at a star of David. However, when we are in a setting with more conservative Jews (as Ray Vander Laan was in school), we need to be aware of their sensitivities. And maybe that means we wear an olive twig — symbolic of the branch of Jesse — rather than a cross as RVL does. I have trouble questioning his wisdom on the subject.

    On the other hand, Paul wrote and taught at a time when crucifixions were a present reality, not a historical memory, and he taught in synagogues about the cross. In fact, Acts makes clear that whenever he visited a new city, he'd first attend the synagogue and preach Jesus. And his teaching was very cross-centered.

    (1 Cor 2:2) For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

    (Gal 3:1) You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.

    (Gal 6:14) May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

    Hence, Paul often spoke of the "offense" of the cross.

    (1 Cor 1:22-23) Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block [offense] to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,

    While Paul didn't wear a cross as jewelry, I doubt you could have spoken with him for long without hearing him celebrate the cross. And so I have trouble with the notion that we should refrain from wearing the universal symbol of the Christian faith. I mean, the cross must have been vastly more offensive in 50 AD, and yet Paul centered his teaching on the cross — more so than we often do. And if Paul spoke of nothing but the Messiah crucified, how can we do less?

    And so, I think we should gladly put crosses on our buildings. But if I were invited to attend a reception where orthodox Jews would be present, I might take RVL's advice — not for fear of giving offense, but to show my sensitivity to the Jewish roots of my faith and so perhaps engage in a cross-centered conversation. It's one of those all things to all people things.

  6. rey says:

    Check out this icon That angel looks like he can wipe the floor with you. Don't you dare behead a saint! Or he'll come give you what for!

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