Is it wrong to wear a cross?
The bigger issue here is that of Christian symbols. The Bible does not exclude all figures, images, and visible tokens of our faith. At God’s command the Israelites carved many such images into the Levitical tabernacle. Moses shaped a bronze serpent to remind them of God their healer (Num. 21:8, 9). Later that serpent was demolished when it became an object of worship (2 Kings 18:4). Thus, not mere making of images was prohibited in the Decalogue, but explicit worship of them was prohibited (Exodus 20:4-6).
While the New Testament allows that physical objects may signify spiritual realities, it also rejects their use for worship. A dove, for example, reminds us of the Holy Spirit, while bread and a cup represent the Lord’s body and blood.
With this background, we examine the unique case of the cross as a symbol of faith, and for evidence that Christ’s followers may, or may not, use it.
- The word cross: In Greek, stauros means a stake or post of uncertain shape, standing upright to receive a human unto death. New Testament writers use the word for 1) the physical instrument on which Jesus died, 2) the message of His death, and 3) the self-denial Christ urged upon His disciples.
- The physical instrument: Though first century Romans may have executed criminals by nailing them to a single upright stake, other torture stakes were also used by that time, shaped like the letters T or X, for example. The + shape for Christ’s cross may be implied by the facts that an inscription hung above His head (Luke 23:38) and that more than one nail was used for His hands (John 20:25).
- Pre-Christian crosses: Those who oppose the cross as a Christian symbol point to its use by worshippers of other gods in ancient Babylon. Every practice in pagan religion, however, is not therefore banned for Christians, as candles, incense, washings, sacrifices and other items illustrate. If others used the cross as a symbol, it does not follow that the church must not: her Savior and Lord died on one.
- Cross in Christian devotion: It is true that stake and tree are more accurate words for the instrument of Christ’s death than cross, and that the traditional two-beamed “cross” became prominent in Christian devotion after the first century. It is also true that the Bible’s homage of the cross (Gal. 6:14, for example) refers to Christ’s sacrifice and the redemption accomplished there–more than to the rugged instrument of torture and death. A symbol’s role is precisely that — a visual reminder of an unseen reality.
Debates over wearing a cross should remind us of Romans 14. Here the apostle teaches that, when opinions vary in secondary matters of faith and practice, Christians are to withhold judgment toward other believers who differ and exhibit grace toward them instead. Wearing the cross is a case in point. The conviction here (v. 5b) is that nothing is wrong with the symbol when worn for the right reasons. We should never worship the cross but rather the Christ who died on a cross.
Regardless of its origin, the cross has become a precious symbol for Christians of the salvation Jesus won there. If we choose to wear one, let it signify — and our conduct confirm — that we trust and obey the One who died for us all.
— Elder Calvin Burrell, July-Aug. 2007
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