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Many years ago I was talking to a friend who occasionally went to church, and he recounted that on Sunday he had gone to his local Anglican Church and the vicar had got the whole congregation to join hands around the church and walk round it singing a chorus. He said that one half of the circle could not hear what the other half were singing and the whole affair was chaotic and embarrassing. I was not certain (and neither was he) what the significance of this act was but would presume that it was to invoke some form of blessing on the church. Ever since then, I have thought much about that incident as being a good example of the use of symbolism, in its many forms, that there are within the major Christian denominations.

One has only to look at the Anglican and R. Catholic churches to see the end result of what might be called the "symbolism syndrome" in a church. The High Anglicans have candles, etc. and services where fields, seas, animals and many other secular objects are "blessed". It is the Catholic church where it is most obvious, with the Mass, the worship of Mary, bowing to her statue and those of other saints, the seven stations of the Cross etc. The Eastern Orthodox have the worship of icons and many similar practices. A full list would be very long indeed.

But we can rightfully ask; why have symbols; what is their purpose?

The supposed benefits are said to be;

(a) They represent specific Christian events or truths that people need to be reminded of either at regular intervals or as an ongoing presence.

(b) They are visual and this helps people to remember them. This would certainly apply when the majority of a congregation were illiterate and could be instructed by simple pictures of the main Christian truths and events. This would hardly apply today.

(c)Other benefits??

But is the use of symbols acceptable scripturally and are they truly of benefit or are they a deceptive diversion from the path of God's truth?

What follows are just some comments on this subject.

1. Scripture.

There is the O.T. injunction - "You shall not make for yourself a carved image - ANY LIKENESS OF ANYTHING THAT IS IN HEAVEN ABOVE, OR THAT IS IN THE EARTH BENEATH.." [Ex.20:4]

Note that there was to be no carving of the stone into any shape that could represent a created thing. Ex. 20:25 repeats that even to use a tool on a stone alter would profane the stone; such is God's attitude to anything that might be even remotely 'idolised' or a centre of attention for any reason.

This is so important that it was made the second commandment, for God was well aware of fallen man's propensity to divert from the narrow way and adapt God's ways to conform to a more 'acceptable' method that appeals to his sensations and emotions. This second commandment was surely to prevent the Israelites from bowing down to and worshipping any images; an act that is abhorrent to God for it replaces His rightful centrality in all acts of worship. We will return to this later.

In the N.T. there is nothing specific on this subject, but in reading Acts, there is not a hint of anything remotely suggesting the use of symbols in the early church. In the few references there are to worship, the simplicity of the service is apparent. There are, of course, the two ordinances, clearly commanded in the N.T., that are to be followed;

(i) Baptism. This is a "one-off" act that is a public proclamation of a person's commitment to the Christian faith, and is a visible sign to all others.

(ii) Communion. This is a continual reminder that takes us back to the basic facts of Christianity. It is all to easy to become so involved with the activities of the Christian life that we forget what it cost God to give us this new life.

It might be thought that these symbolic acts would set a precedent and that others would be permitted. However, a quite different interpretation can be placed upon this. Knowing the propensity of "the natural man" in all of us to degrade spiritual values to a human level, and, bearing in mind the OT commandment above, these two, and ONLY these two, symbolic acts are authorised by God - AND NO OTHERS. If He had allowed man to formulate those he wanted, he would, by his own natural inclinations, have made many, including these two, as we see in denominations such as the Roman Catholic church. It is therefore suggested that it is for this reason God has given us only these two.

2. Worship of idols

The Bible forbids the worship of any idol. Yet many churchgoers perform this very act before the images in their church. They all claim that they are not worshipping the statue but the person behind it, but their actions cannot be differentiated from those of pagans. I cannot help feeling that Satan must be hugely enjoying such deception. As God is the only person to be worshipped, such acts are an affront to Him

On the subject of bowing to statues, I was once invited into the home of an ardent and very intelligent Catholic. On what was a home made altar where the family worshipped, were some small wooden statues of the saints. A close inspection of them showed that their faces were crudely carved and were quite hideous. That such a person as my host could not see the incongruity of bowing before such articles in an act of worship was surprising.

3. Religious piety

A great danger that symbolism brings is a false sense of spiritual piety. Having carried out a symbolic act, we can begin to secretly congratulate ourselves for our devotion, holy thinking, humility etc. etc. Thinking on these lines is firstly very subjective and secondly, very conducive to inward spiritual pride. We can say to ourselves "I must be holy; look at all the pious acts that I perform; surely God must be pleased with me?" We have then the error of performing acts for our inward satisfaction. God is far more interested in the true spirit within the heart that then naturally produces acts to other people - these acts then being the evidence of the change within. When we engage in any religious act in order to show to ourselves or to others that we are christians, we have completely reversed the correct order of spiritual priorities.

4. Reminder of spiritual values

There are times when churches hold services where their members can "rededicate" themselves to the Christian faith. It is questionable whether this is warranted. There should be good preaching throughout the year whereby the Christians are regularly reminded that their lives should be fully committed to God. To hold such a service is to acknowledge that there has been a general slipping of their faith and practice that requires correction. But does this not indicate that there is something wrong with the teaching that they have reached such a low spiritual stage that a mass correction is necessary? I do not think that this is the root problem, however, but just that such services are part of the "symbolism syndrome" that many find so appealing and attractive.

5. The small symbol

There are small symbols that are accepted with little thought to the implications - they are too small to make a fuss about. But behind such thinking is the same attitude to symbolism generally.

If the compass of a ship is only a fraction of a degree out, then if the course is set by it, eventually it will be many miles away from its destination - and possibly on the rocks. Seemingly small practices may be indicative of an underlying error unnoticed.

Man-pleasing and encrustation

Any denomination that treads the road of symbolism in any degree can, and often does, eventually lose the basic message of the Christian faith. It is a natural human tendency to avoid that which is unpleasant, and in Christianity this is what is known as "The Offence of the Cross". Symbolism can make churchgoing so much more attractive and "meaningfull". The end result is that the Cross becomes encrusted with and eventually buried under a host of superfluous activities - whilst the basic humbling of the proud human spirit is never dealt with.

7. The great danger

The majority of these symbolic activities are carried out in groups or publicly; symbolic pictures themselves, such as stained glass windows, are usually on public display.

For example, we may feel that we are "not good enough for God", and the end result could be self-flagellation as was practised by Luther before he realised how such activities, although approved by the spiritual leaders of his day, are totally worthless in the eyes of God.

Performing symbolic acts, whether privately or publicly, has overtones of feeling "holier than thou". Spiritual pride is one of the greatest dangers facing those who "hunger and thirst after righteousness". We can become worried about our relationship with God, and try to "improve" it or make a pathway for ourselves that we think will lead us closer to God.

Common to all wrong approaches to God is the self-centred attitude of how WE want to come closer to God, in OUR way so that WE can FEEL it - the inward emotional "high" when performing some pious act. All too often this can become a substitute for the real, God-given, sense of His presence.

Surely we should perform these acts because we know that we are honouring God, and not necessarily for any pleasure or satisfaction we may derive from it. We are constantly instructed to "not let the left hand know what the right hand is doing". Our most intimate relationships with God should in many cases be a private matter. Where there is an element of public awareness, we need to be extremely careful of our actions and motivations.

On this aspect of false piety and humility, I am always struck by the comment by C.S. Lewis in "Mere Christianity" in which, at the end of chapter 8 he notes that the truly humble person will not be a greasy, smarmy person that says that he is a nobody; he will be a cheerful person who enjoys life to the full. Lewis concludes - "He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all."

If we try to imagine a truly mature Christian, such a person will be far from the piously sentimental Christian who seeks to boost his flagging spiritual life by 'injections' of symbolic ritual exercises approved by his church. The correct path is to read or hear the Word of God, to accept this with the mind, and to then instruct our will such that we then perform the necessary actions, whether we want to or not. Any emotional feelings arising from Godly actions are then a bonus but not to be sought for as an end in themselves.

Indeed, is it not possible that carrying out symbolic acts is indicative of a lack of spiritual maturity? We all need to be reminded of basic truths of the faith, but when these reveal any weakness or inadequacy, we should deal with the problem direct. To choose the byway of practising symbolic acts has a strong appeal to the human mind but ultimately it can subtly deceive us away from following the highway of true holiness of life.


UPDATE December 2001

In the Daily Telegraph (**) there is a report of a proposal from a Methodist group that during a service to highlight the physical abuse of women, ladies in the congregation should smash crockery to symbolise the treatment they have received at the hands of violent husbands. Women can then give their testimony of what they have undergone.

Firstly, one wonders just how many women in the average middle class Methodist congregation has either been abused to this extent, or, even if she has, is willing to speak about this in public?

Secondly, I have difficulty in imagining all this taking place with any degree of seriousness. The picture of a series of women smashing plates during a service between the usual hymns and prayers becomes almost ludicrous. Incidentally, they were advised to put the plates in a plastic bag to prevent broken pieces of crockery flying around and hurting people. The mind boggles even more!

I quote this with a heavy heart, for I was a liberal Methodist for 17 years, and I find it deeply saddening to see the further decline of any real spirituality in that denomination.

This is yet another example of what leaders and congregations will "turn to" and "try out" when the preaching is less than spiritually filling to their souls. It is often with a sense of desperation that such practices are turned to to keep the congregation occupied with "activities" rather than engaging in the central task of the church - which is to train its members to become "mature Christians" - Eph. 4:11-13.

NEXT ESSAY AVAILABLE ON THIS WEBSITE - "The Final Curtain" - a dramatic allegory of the end of the "Drama of the Universe"