The cross is the most widely recognized symbol of the Christian faith. Crosses sit atop our church steeples and altars. They adorn our pulpits and the covers of our Bibles. And they are often found emblazoned on the t-shirts of modern Christians or fashioned into necklaces and other jewelry.
But should Christians wear crosses? Does adorning our bodies with the symbol of the cross lead us to self-serving or idolatrous practices?
Christians are not prohibited from wearing crosses. However, as with all of our choices, we must be sure to examine our motives and purpose for putting on a cross.
The History of the Cross
Though widely used today, the cross did not begin to emerge as a Christian symbol until the second century and did not gain widespread acceptance until the fourth century.
The timing of the cross’ rise in prominence as a symbol is worth our notice, as the fourth century coincides with Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and his declaration of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire.
Prior to Constantine, the Roman Empire had spent centuries growing increasingly hostile toward Christians, subjecting them to economic sanctions, imprisonment, and death.
During that time, no symbol represented Roman cruelty and oppression more vividly than the cross. The Roman cross was more than an instrument of execution, it was designed to inflict maximum agony for a prolonged period.
Death by crucifixion often took up to eight days before the body succumbed to the exposure, dehydration, shock, and lack of oxygen that cross gradually introduced.
Crucifixion was also a very public means of execution. The crosses of the condemned were regularly placed on prominent roadways or near city gates as a constant, visible reminder to the people of the authority and power of the Roman Empire.
It is no surprise, then, that the earliest Christians were slow to adopt the cross as a symbol of Jesus and his followers, opting instead to appropriate an image of a fish into early Christian iconography. And even today, some faith traditions and offshoot religions are reluctant to display crosses because of the brutality of their origins.
A New Debate
After the fourth century, the church experienced separation from the threat of crucifixion and became increasingly insulated against the horrific memories of prior eras. Over subsequent centuries, crosses made their way into our places of worship, our homes, and even our personal adornments.
In Orthodox traditions, believers were (and often still are) expected to wear a cross at all times. And in the Catholic tradition, crosses, though not required, were generally encouraged.
But a new debate emerged during the reform movements of the 16th century. Anglicans and Calvinists alike began to challenge the symbolic use of the cross, likening it to idolatry. This resistance culminated in the period of church history known as the Great Iconoclasm, during which religious symbols and artwork were destroyed by Protestants with the objective of ridding the church of idolatry.
When a Symbol Becomes an Idol
The destruction of religious symbols was not a new practice in the 16th century. In the Old Testament, as Israel gained new territory or enacted religious reforms, it was customary for the Israelites to tear down the Asherah poles and altars to Baal that were used in pagan worship.
In 2 Kings, we read that when Hezekiah became the king of Judah, in addition to smashing altars and removing Asherah poles, he “broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time, the Israelites had been burning incense to it,” (2 Kings 18:4). But the bronze snake didn’t start out as an object of worship.
Lessons from the Bronze Snake
During the 40 years that the Israelites spent in the wilderness between their exodus from Egypt and their conquest of the Promised Land, they routinely complained about their living conditions.
In Numbers 21, we read of one instance during which God responded to the grumblings of Israel by sending venomous snakes among the people, which prompted the people to repent and seek the Lord. Then God instructed Moses to craft a bronze snake and mount it on a pole so that anyone bitten by a snake could look at the statue and live.
But by the time of Hezekiah, the bronze snake which had once been a reminder of God’s sovereignty and mercy had become an idol worshipped by the people.
As Christians, we are wise to remember that any symbol, when it becomes disassociated from its meaning and purpose, can lead us to similar results.
The Cross Points to Jesus
Here in the 21st century, we’ve gotten over the bronze snake. And it has been centuries since we have been threatened by the torture and pain that the cross of Jesus’ day represented. Instead, today we sing about how we cherish the old rugged cross.
The Purpose of Symbols
Storefronts put big signs on their buildings to help us find the door. The store manager doesn’t want you to simply admire the sign, he wants us to come in and see what he has to offer.
We look to the cross as a reminder of the great sacrifice that Jesus made for us out of his great love for us. But the cross itself, as history reminds us, is not pleasant.
Only Jesus gives the cross meaning, and so the cross’ function today is to direct our hearts and minds to Jesus. Like the storefront sign, the cross invites us to enter through the door and see what Jesus has to offer.
But a cross that doesn’t direct our attention to Jesus becomes an idol, much as the bronze snake did. For God looks at the heart, not at outward appearances (1 Samuel 16:7). In many ways, it has become too easy for us to adopt the symbols of Christianity or the cultural elements of Christendom, and believe that we have done enough.
A cross around our neck does not replace Jesus in our hearts. If we display the outward symbols of religion, but our attitudes and actions do not reveal the presence of Christ in us, we live as hypocrites and do not honor Jesus.
Jesus reminds us that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21). In the same way, a cross worn as a badge of identity does nothing if it does not reflect the heart of the wearer.
But a cross worn as a reminder of the great things that Jesus has done, and of our reliance on his death and resurrection can be a powerful witness when it reflects the work of Jesus taking place in and through the wearer.