Church as we know it can sometimes be a bit weird and jarring. A few weeks ago at church, we heard an encouraging sermon on the second commandment (Exod 20:4-6). We heard that God cannot and must not be represented by or worshipped through images because images can only ever distort and misrepresent God. Yet the sermon was preached in a 150-year-old Cathedral building containing a plethora of accumulated religious imagery. As we listened to the sermon with our ears, our eyes were easily drawn towards a wooden statue of St Michael the archangel holding a gilded Bible, numerous large stained-glass windows depicting Jesus, a banner sewn with Mary and the baby Jesus, various crosses, and other striking images. Understandably, a few questions were raised after the sermon about the seeming disparity between what was heard and what was seen by the congregation.
The second commandment does not seem to be a blanket ban on the use of any concrete image in the spiritual life of God’s people. Just five chapters after he utters the second commandment, God himself commands that golden statues of angels be made to cover the ark (Exod 25:18-22). A little later, he commands that a fiery serpent be made so that people who were afflicted with a plague of snakes could look at it and live (Num 21:8-9). In the New Testament, water baptism and, perhaps, the Lord’s Supper also appear to involve a kind of imagery.
So what do we make of the second commandment? I offer here four principles about how we can honour the intention of the second commandment when it comes to our use (or abandonment) of images in Christian gatherings, and in Christian worship and obedience more generally. These aren’t intended to be comprehensive, but they may serve as a starting point for discussion.
The first principle is that God’s word must always be given pride of place in our worship, no matter where and when. God is known through what he says, not through any pictures we may make of him (e.g. Deut 4:9-19). It follows that, as we speak and obey his word, God will make himself known to us in his glory and splendour. The clear proclamation of God’s word, by itself, will go a long way towards relativizing the importance of images, and will remove many of the problems that we might otherwise encounter when God’s word is not spoken clearly. Who, having tasted the pure delight of knowing God truly through his word, would desire to go back to a bland and futile attempt to apprehend his glory through mere images?
The second principle in evaluating the use of images in our Christian lives is to consider their purpose. Why is an image being used? The cherubim in Exodus 25:18-22, for example, seem to have been used to show that God’s glory in the tabernacle and ark was essentially hidden. They actually discourage, rather than encourage, worship of God through created things. In our own lives, we should be discerning about the purpose of any particular image in the Christian life. For example, if we use children’s Bibles or drawings for the illiterate that depict Jesus, why are we doing it? Are the images there in order to represent God for the purpose of worshipping him through the image? This would be wrong. Or are the images there to illustrate the reality that Jesus was a human (because he is drawn just like the other human beings in the story)? Or is it just a quick illustration to guide the readers towards focusing on God’s word—such as the images from Two Ways to Live that I often use to explain the gospel? Then it could be all right. One way to determine what the purpose of something is to ask what would be lost if we took it away. The more upset somebody is at the idea that a picture could be removed, the more likely it is that the image is being used for an idolatrous purpose.
The third principle is related to the second: it concerns the context of the image. The bronze snake that God commanded Moses to make, for example, later had to be destroyed because it had become an idol to which the people of Israel were making offerings (2 Kgs 18:4). An image that was necessary in one context became unacceptable in another. The same is true today: we may accept the argument, for example, that in medieval times, stained-glass windows were good and right because they used a common pictorial symbolic language to depict events in the life of Jesus. But even if we do accept this argument, all we have gained is interesting knowledge about medieval history. The question that matters is what do the stained-glass windows achieve in our context? Are they merely there for educational purposes? Or are people using them as a way of gaining access to God somehow? Has there been that (some say, inevitable) ‘leakage’ where a simple image ends up actually representing God to the hearts and minds of God’s people?
The final principle follows from all the above. It is the principle of love. Those who are Christians—who are gripped by the gospel of God’s love to us in Jesus’ death—will want to do everything for the sake of others, not just ourselves. This applies to what we do with images. We could use Romans 14, for example, to argue that those who tend towards an auditory learning style (that’s you, if you like to learn through listening and discussing) should take into account people like me who learn a lot better with diagrams and pictures. However, 1 Corinthians 8-10 pushes us towards another important application of the principle of love in Christian fellowship. There, we learn that love is expressed when we curtail our own freedoms in order to help a Christian brother or sister by removing any temptations towards idolatry. So from 1 Corinthians 8-10, the onus of love may well be on us visual learners to strip away and remove images from our lives and fellowship. Even though the images may hold no temptation for us (we’re merely using them for an entirely innocent purpose), we may decide to get rid of them for the sake of our brother who struggles against the tendency to turn those images into idolatrous worship of God.