Do Catholics worship statues, idols and images? Is it right to have statues, idols and images in Churches and at our houses to help us in prayer? These are the questions asked by many within the Catholic Church and also outside.
The Catholic Church teaches that it’s o.k. for them to have images, idols, statues and pictures in order to pray and worship, as it helps one to remember God, Jesus, Mary and the saints who have been exemplary. The explanation sounds fine, but in doing so they are in direct opposition to what God has made very clear in the Bible.
In the Second Commandment in Exodus 20:4-6, God says,
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 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 parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
God here in this Second Commandment gives us a threefold command with relation to prayer and worship:
- Do not make for yourself any images (statues, idols, photos)
- Do not bow down before them
- Do not worship them
The purpose of this command is revealed clearly in the New Testament by Jesus Himself in John 4:23, 24:
“But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. 24 God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
From the beginning that is God’s desire, that everyone worships Him in spirit and truth, for He is SPIRIT. That is the chief reason that He did not want the Israelites to make any images in order to worship Him. He wants His people to worship Him from their spirits, understanding Him in their spirits with the help of the Holy Spirit and not with the help of idols, for He has no form. If we understand this everything else sorts itself out.
The Catholic Church is disobeying the command of God and bringing in human thinking and their own rationale. According to the Second Commandment, when God himself thinks that we need not keep these photos and statues to remember Him, why should we alter the commandment or give it a human explanation? What God has said is infinitely more important than our reasoning and excuses! Jesus told the Pharisees, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition”.
THE SECOND COMMANDMENT REMOVED
The Catholic Church has even failed to teach their members this Commandment. The Second Commandment has been all but removed; it has been put as a part of the First Commandment and has been tucked away in the ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’. The Catechism books of children do not have the Second Commandment, neither as a part of the First Commandment nor as the Second Commandment itself ! Children and adults are never taught this important Commandment. Whenever the First Commandment is mentioned all that is said is, ‘I am the Lord your God you shall have no other gods before me’, nothing more; no mention is ever made of God’s command not to bow down before statues and idols.
It is missing from the list of the Ten Commandments of the Catholic Church (except in a book which 99.9% Catholics would never read in their lifetime). When God has not kept this commandment a secret in some document but has revealed it openly and explicitly, why should the Church want to hide it and put it away as part of another commandment? It is absolutely vital to teach and follow this command as this is the only commandment that has an explicit curse attached to it…
‘… for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,‘6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
If then the second commandment is missing then how do we still have Ten Commandments?
The tenth commandment in Exodus 20:17 is, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbors.”, this commandment has been split into two commandments, the ninth, ‘Do not covet your neighbors goods’, and the tenth commandment, ‘ Do not covet your neighbors wife’ !
The Second Commandment has been merged with the First, and then the Tenth Commandment, ‘Do not covet’ has been split into the Ninth and Tenth Commandments in order to make up the Ten Commandments!
Let’s look at some of the reasons the Catholic Church gives for keeping idols and statues and merging the Second Commandment with the First Commandment:
REASON #1 : THE SECOND COMMANDMENT TALKS ONLY ABOUT NOT HAVING OTHER GODS
“You shall have no other gods before Me” is the first commandment and is distinct from the second. It is obvious through the Bible that our God is jealous God and He will not tolerate us following other gods but also that our God does not tolerate the keeping of idols and statues for the purpose of worship.
When Israel was about to enter the Promised Land, God commanded that when they enter the land they should destroy all the idols and the altars of the foreign gods and then in Deut 12: 4 the Lord said, “You shall not worship the Lord with such things”. ‘Such things’ here implies idols and also their other ways of worshiping their gods. In Deut 12:30-31 the Lord again said, “…be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” 31 You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates…”. We cannot worship our God the way people of other religions and cultures do! They worship and pray only with idols and statues, we cannot follow them and do the same; they cannot worship from their spirits so they need it but when we are born-again we don’t need it. Our Father wants us to worship Him in spirit and truth; there is no other way to worship Him. Our Father is seeking for such people to worship Him.
God is concerned about us worshiping Him alone (First Commandment) and also the way in which we worship Him (Second Commandment).
REASON #2 : DON’T WE KEEP THE PHOTOS OF PEOPLE WE LOVE?
This is one of the most common reasons. The leaders of the Catholic Church teach that since we keep the photos of people we love in our houses, we can also keep the images of Jesus or saints since we love them.
Yes, it is true that we keep the photos of our parents, brothers, sisters or friends we love. But the point is this: None of them have ever told us not to keep their photos or images with us, but God has! Supposing my dad tells me that he would not under any circumstance want me to keep His photos, but I went ahead and kept his photos with me, would he be pleased? Would that not amount to disobedience and disrespect for his feelings? I might have my reasons for keeping it, but he would still be unhappy with me if I did not value what he said. The reasons might be very good but it would still be disobedience!
If we are to obey and please our earthly fathers, how much more infinitely important it is to obey our heavenly Father in whatever He says. Our God has told us not to make, bow down or worship images, and as His children let’s not go against what our Father desires. We might like to keep idols and statues because we like it and we want to express our love for Him that way, but if our Father does not like it, isn’t it just right to do what He says because we love Him? Even though our reasons might seem to be very reasonable and good, obedience to God is better.
REASON #3 : IT’S ONLY VENERATION NOT WORSHIP
The Catholic Church says that the statues and images are there only to remind people and that they do not worship them but only venerate them. They say that they only pray in front of a statue but not to it! We need to understand clearly what God is saying here in this commandment:
Firstly, God did not make any distinction between veneration and worship in this commandment or anywhere else in the Bible. He did not say, ‘You can make and honor me through it but do not worship it’. He just plainly stated, ‘You shall not MAKE…
Secondly, God’s command is not only ‘Do not worship’, but also, ‘Do not MAKE…’ and Do not BOW DOWN..’. The command is clear even in the New Testament, ‘Keep yourselves from IDOLS. (I Jn 5:21). So, if you ‘make’ an idol to represent God it is idolatry. If you ‘bow down’ before a statue that also is idolatry.
Thirdly, you could go to any number of Catholic churches or houses and see people literally worshiping these idols. To venerate is to just show respect but worship goes much deeper. Once you keep an idol there are no boundaries and no can really define the boundaries of where veneration stops and worship begins. And when an idol is kept hardly anyone can stop just at veneration, it will almost always go into worship of the idol! To the worshiper the idol always embodies the fullness of the one he loves and desires to pray to or worship.
You can easily prove it by just asking anyone to remove the statue of Jesus or Mary from their house altars or from the churches and they would be so offended as though you have just asked them to remove Jesus from their lives, houses or churches. If at any time the photo fell to the floor they would be so upset! So, they don’t just think that it’s a photo or a representation; they believe the person to be present in it. Is that not worship and idolatry? You will find people kissing the statues, kneeling down before them, rolling in front of them, putting flowers on them, lighting candles before them, carrying the idols in procession, and even changing the statues clothes every day, if possible. Is that just veneration?
The church says that they only venerate or give respect to the person portrayed but do not give it the worship that is due to God alone; but the ground reality is quite different: people, including the leaders, do not know the difference between veneration and worship, except in its definitions! Actions speak louder than words!
REASON #4 : JESUS’ PHOTOS ARE OK!
In Deuteronomy 4:15-18 we read,
“Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in any form of any figure …” .
Many Catholics (and also many Protestants now!) believe that since God was revealed in the flesh through Jesus it is appropriate now to keep the statues and photos of Jesus and bow down before it and pray using it. They say that in the Old Testament, as the verse above says, man had not seen the form God, but now we have seen it in Jesus.
Firstly, it is of course true, as Hebrews 1:3 says, that Jesus is the ‘express image of God or the exact representation of God’. But that verse really refers to the fact that Jesus Christ is eternally the express image of God. Even before He became flesh He was already the exact representation of the Father and now after He has gone back to the Father he still is the exact representation of the Father. The looks of Jesus while on earth are not necessarily the looks of the eternal God… it is only an earthly representation. This is proved by the fact that when Mary Magdalene saw Jesus after His resurrection, she did not even recognize Him; she thought He was the gardener! His form had already changed. There may have been a resemblance but surely there was considerable change, else Mary would have easily recognized Him. That probably is also the reason that the two disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognize Him for a long while. Again, when the Apostle John saw Jesus in the book of revelation, we read,
12 Then I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the seven lamp stands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. 14 His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; 15 His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters; (Rev 1:12-15)
The description of Jesus in these verses tells us that Jesus in heaven looks quite different from the pictures of Jesus that we have! Now, which picture of Jesus are we going to keep? It drives home just one point that God still does not have any form, He is Spirit. That fact has not changed even now.
Again, in John 14:8, Jesus said, “He who sees me sees the Father”. Here obviously Jesus is not talking about seeing Him in pictures, idols or photos and through them seeing the Father! In fact, it is not even His physical looks Jesus is referring to but about seeing and understanding Him through our spirits, otherwise we who live in this century have no way of seeing the Father, as we have not seen Him physically !
Secondly, after Jesus was taken up to heaven, in the New Testament, we nowhere find the apostles or leaders encouraging anyone to keep His idols or statues even though they all knew exactly how He looked! In fact we find them doing the opposite. In Acts 17:22 – 30, when Apostle Paul found the people of Athens having objects of worship and an altar with the inscription,’ To The Unknown God’, he preached the word to them and in verses 29 and 30, he said,
Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. 30 Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent.
He did not ask them to replace it with an idol of Jesus, in order to help them worship the true God, but clearly said that God is not in the likeness of gold, silver, stone or anything shaped by the hands of men.
Apostle John said in 1 John 5:21, ‘Keep yourselves from IDOLS’. He could have very easily said, ‘Now since we have seen Jesus, keep yourselves from all idols other than the idol of Jesus’, but he did not.
The Apostles and church leaders in the Bible taught Christians to worship in spirit and truth. They kept to the command of God in the Old Testament and the words of Jesus in John 4:23 and 24. The church today needs to follow their example.
REASON #5 : IT IS JUST AN ART FORM LIKE MUSIC
Some Catholics like to believe that just as evangelical Christians use music and singing to help them worship God Catholics use idols and statues. They say that it’s just a creative way of expressing our worship, and that just as evangelical Christians raise hands as they sing and worship, Catholics raise their hands before statues and worship…that’s all ! According to them just as evangelicals are not worshiping the music, Catholics aren’t worshiping the idols but are just using it to exalt the true God.
All this sounds really good, but the question is not what our thinking is about a matter, but what has our God said about it.
As far as music is concerned, the Word of God makes it clear that the best way to worship God is through songs, music and dance. The old testament, especially the Psalms, and the new testament are full of teachings on worshiping the true God through music. God has never told us not to do it. So, using music in worship is obedience to God, not just an art form invented by man! But when it comes to using idols and statues in worship, we have God’s explicit command not to use them. So, using idols for the purpose of prayer and worship becomes an act of disobedience to God, even though it might seem like a very good idea. That’s the basic and essential difference between using music and idols – obedience and disobedience.
Some might ask, “Then what about movies that depict Jesus and the children’s bibles that have images of Jesus’? We need to understand that the command is concerning prayer and worship. No one watching a movie of Jesus would ever fall down before the movie screen or their t.v sets in worship! And if they did it would be wrong. Similarly, we use the children’s Bible to teach children Bible stories or about Bible characters, and not to make them pray to the pages they see in the Bible. If we did that we would be wrong.
REASON #6: GOD PERMITTED CERTAIN IDOLS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Some Biblical passages where God asked the Israelites to keep statues:
“In the sanctuary were two cherubim, each ten cubits high, [15 feet high!] made of olive wood…” (1 Kings 6:23-28, 7:23-26)
“Make two cherubim of beaten gold at the two ends of mercy seat, fastening them so that one cherub springs direct from each end” (Ex 25:18)
“Make [a statue of] a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it shall live. So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live” (Num 21: 4-9)
First, regarding the cherubim: The two cherubim were just there in the sanctuary at God’s command but no one prayed to it, remembered God through them, made intercession through them or bowed down to them. It certainly was not there to remind the Israelites of God.
Second, concerning the bronze serpent: God commanded Moses to make it for a one time purpose, but the Israelites converted it into an object of worship. That is why later we find King Hezekiah, in 2 Kings 18:3-4, after almost 700 years destroying it! All that while the Israelites preserved it and worshiped it. Here we need to understand that the Israelites did not choose to make it in order to remember God, but rather God commanded it for a purpose He saw fit. The sinful Israelites who were at the point of death were commanded to just look at it and those who believed the words of Moses and looked at it were saved from death. It is a shadow of the entire human race steeped in sin and on the verge of Hell, but those who choose to look at Jesus Christ on the cross and believe are saved (John 3:14-16). The Israelites were not to pray to it, venerate it or worship it but were asked to just look at it. It was a test of their faith in the command of God. They were not saved by any of their good works but by simple faith in what God said, just as we are saved today not by our efforts and good works but by simple faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
We cannot choose to keep any idols or statues just because we feel good with it when God has not commanded it. What God commanded was turned into an object of worship and needed to be destroyed by a righteous King. Is it any wonder then that the idols that are placed in churches and houses, contrary to the command of God, are leading people astray? Also, it is not right for the church leaders to say that it’s been practised for centuries, and that the early church fathers approved of it and so it is right! Sin does not get God’s approval just because it’s been practiced for a long while! Hezekiah took a stand for God against a tradition that was practiced over 700 years (that includes the reign of even King David), and destroyed it. He went by the clear command of God, not a tradition that had become an integral part of the Israelites’ lives. There’s a need for someone like King Hezekiah to rise in the Catholic Church to change the tradition from within and not give excuses.
REASON #7: IDOLS ARE ONLY THAT WHICH TAKES THE PLACE OF GOD!
It is absolutely true that anything or anyone that takes the place of God in our lives is an idol. In Colossians 3:5, we read, ‘…and covetousness, which is idolatry’. Therefore anything that takes the place of God in our hearts is idolatry. But that does not change the fact that a literal idol is also an idol. In Mathew 5:27- 28, Jesus said,
27 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery. 28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
We all understand that Jesus here saying that a man who looks at a woman to lust for her commits adultery does not mean that the old literal commandment of, ‘Do not commit adultery’, no longer stands. Jesus took all the Old Testament commands deeper but did not remove or reject any. It is the same with the second commandment – Jesus took it deeper. For the Israelites then it was only keeping of and praying to literal statues that were idolatry, for us now, it is that and much more, and by the grace of God we can obey.
REASON #8: PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY CHILDREN, NEED IMAGES TO PRAY
The fact is, people, including children, need it only if they have been taught to pray that way by their churches and by their parents. If from childhood people are taught to pray from their spirits they will do it with no difficulty. My children don’t need photos, pictures or statues to pray, because they have been taught that way. I was brought up in a catholic family and I needed photos and pictures every time I prayed. And when I was born-again, I needed it more because I thought that’s the way to pray and I thought that’s the way I could remember God more, focus more and pray better – that’s the way I was taught from childhood, that’s all I knew. But when I understood from the word of God that it was wrong, I removed all the pictures and photos of Jesus and the saints, and I was able to pray much better than ever before. I obeyed God’s word and His grace helped me. If we are willing to obey God His grace will find us! Jesus said in Mt 5:19,
“Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
We are to keep and teach men that which God our Father has commanded us, not what we have learnt from our forefathers that is not in line with God’s word.
In the Old testament in Judges 8:22-27, we have Gideon who collected the golden earrings from the people and made it into an ephod, in order to help people focus on the Lord who would rule over them. But verse 27 says,
‘Then Gideon made it into an ephod and set it up in his city, Ophrah. And all Israel played the harlot with it there. It became a snare to Gideon and to his house.’
In this case Gideon did not place the ephod at the command of God it was his own idea to help his people. The consequence was that it not only lead all the people he was leading astray but it also lead his own family into sin. Gideon who had responded to the call of God and co-operated with God at the beginning to remove idolatry fromIsraelunfortunately leadIsraelback into idolatry because of his carelessness and disobedience!
When we place an idol, image or photo (even just the photo of Jesus for prayer), in order to help someone it might seem like a very good and spiritual thing to do but it will end up being a snare and a trap for our own children, family and even a nation. Is that not the case with the Catholic Church? What probably initially was intended for good use has turned out to be a snare for an entire church – people and its leaders. And there is no excuse here because God never commanded it but from the beginning it is an act of carelessness and disobedience.
The bottom-line is this: Don’t let human thinking and ideas creep in, no matter how good they seem to be, just obey God and His word, which are eternally unchangeable. In Mathew 16:23,
Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.”(NLT)
We cannot choose to look at things from a human viewpoint but from God’s viewpoint. We cannot nullify the Word of God through our tradition nor use fine ways to set aside the command of God to keep our traditions (Mk 7:9,13). Everyone likes to pray and worship but God is seeking for true worshipers; and Jesus defined true worshipers as those that worship God in spirit and truth. So, let’s worship God in spirit and truth.