Why don’t we use the image of a cross—symbolizing the crucifixion of Christ—as a symbol of our faith? Should you use a cross as the symbol of yours?
The symbol of the cross is used around the world to represent Jesus Christ and Christianity. Yet, if you visit a congregation of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association (which sponsors this website), and meet our members, you may notice that they are not wearing or displaying the cross to demonstrate their faith. You may also notice that the cross is not displayed on our website or any of our publications—even though we are Christians. We believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ and recognize Him as our Lord, Savior and the Head of our Church (Colossians 1:18).
So why don’t we use the image of the cross—typically symbolizing the crucifixion of Jesus Christ—as a symbol of our faith? Should you use the cross as the symbol of your faith? Is wearing a cross idolatry?
The Bible and history help provide answers.
The cross predates Christianity
A study of ancient history reveals that the cross was used as a religious symbol long before the first century A.D.—when Jesus Christ walked the earth, was crucified and resurrected. The Bible does not record the use of the cross as a physical religious symbol in either the Old or New Testaments. But historical records of other civilizations do make record of the cross as a symbol.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, records: “From its simplicity of form, the cross has been used both as a religious symbol and as an ornament, from the dawn of man’s civilization. Various objects, dating from periods long anterior [preceding] to the Christian era, have been found, marked with crosses of different designs, in almost every part of the old world” (Vol. 7, p. 506).
George Willard Benson, in his book The Cross: Its History and Symbolism, writes: “Centuries before the Christian era ancient crosses were in use as pagan emblems. They have been found carved in stone dating back to remote ages” (p. 16). It is a historical fact that the cross has been used as a symbol of pagan religions going back to antiquity. Further study reveals that the cross can be found in the ancient religions of Babylon, India, Syria, Egypt, Rome and other ancient pagan cultures.
The Bible is clear that God forbids the practice of syncretism—mixing elements of pagan beliefs and practice with the worship of the true God. Deuteronomy 12:29-32 plainly states that worshippers of the true God are to be extremely careful not to try to worship and honor God in the way that pagan nations worshipped and honored their gods. It is very clear, based on history, that the cross was used to represent and worship the false gods of many cultures and religions.
Cross adopted after the Bible
The cross as a physical symbol is also absent from the writings of the New Testament. The Bible does not say anything about the apostles or early Christians representing their faith by displaying crosses. History records that the cross wasn’t adopted as the institutional symbol of Christianity until about 300 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Encyclopaedia Britannica records: “It was not until the time of Constantine that the cross was publicly used as the symbol of the Christian religion. … Under Constantine it became the acknowledged symbol of Christianity” (11th edition, Vol. 7, p. 506). Constantine the Great ruled the Roman Empire more than 250 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Not necessarily a cross
Many are surprised to learn that the Bible does not actually specify that Jesus was crucified on a cross. Though the word “cross” is used in most English translations of the New Testament, it is important to remember that the New Testament was originally written in the Greek language.
The word commonly translated “cross” in English is the Greek word stauros. According to Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, the word stauros means “an upright pale or stake.” This classic reference on biblical words also states: “Both the noun and the verb stauroo, to fasten to a stake or pale, are originally to be distinguished from the ecclesiastical form of the two beamed cross” (p. 248). Theologian E.W. Bullinger also noted this distinction in Appendix 162 of The Companion Bible: “Our English word ‘cross’ is the translation of the Latin crux (kruks); but the Greek stauros no more means a crux than the word ‘stick’ means a ‘crutch.’”
Even though it’s probable that Christ was crucified on a single piece of wood without a cross beam, we can’t be absolutely certain what the shape of the device was. Romans used crucifixion devices of all shapes—sometimes they were upright stakes, sometimes they had crossbeams and sometimes they merely crucified criminals on trees. The shape of the stauros is not important. What is important is the meaning and significance of Christ’s death to pay the penalty for the sins of all mankind (1 Peter 2:24).
Worship in spirit and truth
The Bible forbids the use of physical icons to worship and represent the true God. The Second Commandment plainly states: “You shall not make for yourself any carved image” (Exodus 20:4). God did not intend for His people to use physical icons, pictures or images to represent Him. Jesus Christ teaches us that, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
Based on the above reasons, members of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, do not use the physical image of a cross as an object of worship or as a symbol of our faith. We believe that we are to worship God “in spirit and truth”—focusing on the spiritual truths of His Word and not trying to represent Him through the use of any physical objects. We focus on the magnitude of the incredible truth behind the crucifixion of Jesus Christ—that because of Christ’s suffering and death we can be forgiven of our sins and be reconciled to God (Romans 5:8-11).