For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are begin saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18, NASV)
The cross has become the almost universal symbol for Christianity. But should it be? Are there legitimate alternatives that are less offensive in our post-Christian culture?
Whenever I see a building that looks like a house of worship, I can quickly distinguish whether it as a church, a synagogue, a Mormon stake, a mosque or a Buddhist or Hindu temple by one visible symbol. A cross.
Christian churches aren’t the only organizations that use the cross to identify themselves. Hospitals are often marked with a cross as are first aid stations and emergency vehicles. Even the landing pad for a medical emergency helicopter is marked by a cross.
How about the Red Cross, a international institution known for its blood drives and for providing assistance after natural disasters? (I find it interesting that another biblical symbol, a snake wrapped around a pole, is also used by the medical field. You may see it on the next ambulance that passes you with sirens screaming. But have you ever wondered why a snake is used as a symbol for saving lives? Check out the story of the brass serpent in Numbers 21:5-9.)
So, lately I have been wondering. Are there other legitimate Christian symbols less offensive in our post-Christian culture?
We love to sing about the cross. Consider these familiar lyrics: I love that old cross where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain… So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross...”
What’s not to be grateful about the message of the cross? It was there that the “dearest and best”, the innocent and pure Son of God suffered and died in our place. It was there he shed his own blood to purchase my salvation. It was there he paid the debt I could never pay through my self-efforts. It was there on the cross he declared that his mission to seek and to save the lost was completed. There on the cross, he had paid the debt of my sin in full, so that I will never face condemnation again since he was condemned in my place. I am free! Forgiven!
Sadly, some have chosen the cross as a symbol of conquest and supremacy. The cross has been used to justify violence and oppression—a fact that can only please our adversary.
Consider the crusades. “Christian” armies (now there is an anomaly) from mediaeval Europe invaded Turkey and the Holy Land to resist the spread of Islam and to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim control. The crusades were sanctioned by the State Church and considered holy wars to justify their mission. Subsequently, every piece of territory won by the crusaders was eventually lost to the Turks. The greatest defeat was not the lost battles or lost lives but the violence that discredited the name of Jesus Christ. It was He, after all, who taught us to not seek revenge, but to trust God. The Crusader Cross not only brought disgrace but created a visible offense that remains a barrier to Muslims o this very day.
Closer to home and our modern era, how about the cross of the Klu Klux Klan? Following the Civil War, so-called “Christians” hiding behind masks and hoods torched churches and homes to intimidate and retain control over recently “freed” black slaves. Under the banner of a cross blacks were lynched. Certainly these villains in white sheets were not following Christ, nor was their cross a legitimate reflection of the cross of Christ. Sadly, some professed Christ-followers still justify oppression and intimidation in order to preserve their privileged positions. Strangely, both klan members and the black church members sang the same hymn about the old rugged cross. I suspect only one of them really cherished the cross and the savior who died there.
Both noble and ignoble- praiseworthy and shameful- deeds have been done under the banner of a cross. So do we abandon the cross as our symbol? Do we remove the cross from our church buildings, as it is being done in China by the Communist party? Do we exchange the cross for something more palatable?
I could offer a few biblical symbols that describe Christians. Jesus called us “The light of the world” and the “Salt of the earth.” So, how about a lamp or a salt shaker? (I think not.)
Early Christians (given that title of derision by their critics) wore the name proudly but preferred to call themselves “followers of the way” or “brothers and sisters.” But those titles would be difficult to portray with a symbol.
Christians in the first and second century did adopt a rather creative symbol to declare their allegiance to Christ. Jesus had invited his disciples to follow him and he would make them “fishers of men.” These early Christ-followers took Jesus seriously and adopted the symbol of a fish to declare their identity. Today, some contemporary Christians still use the fish symbol to declare their identity. You see the fish on a bumper sticker or in a business advertisement or on a letter head or as a piece of jewelry.
Skinning and filleting the fish (sorry, pun intended) we discover deeper reasons for our First and Second Century brothers and sisters to choose the fish symbol. The Greek word for fish is transliterated into English as ichthus was an acronym, stating Christian teaching or belief. Each letter of the Greek word declared their belief in who Jesus was and what he accomplished through his life, death on a cross and resurrection from the dead.
The first Greek letter, iota, is also the first letter in Jesus’ name. The next letter, the Greek chi, is the first letter in the word Christos or Christ. Early Christians believed that Jesus was the Christ, or the promised Jewish Messiah. The third letter in the word for fish, theta, our English dipthong th, is the first letter in the Greek word for god, theos. The next letter in ichthus is the Greek letter upsilon– the first letter in the word uios, ttranslated “son.” Finally, the sigma or our English “s” is the first letter in the Greek word sotor or savior.
In that one simple Greek word for fish the early Christians subtlety- yet- boldly professed their belief that “Jesus Christ- Iesous Christos was God’s son -Theou Uios and their savior-Sotor” That simple profession—tucked away in the symbol of a fish—distinguishes Christianity from all other world religions.
There is nothing offensive or militant or aggressive about the fish symbol. Nothing that smacks of superiority or of privileged position. Just an innocent fish that provides food and sustenance for all who will eat (believe). That was a wonderful picture of the early Christians, persecuted and considered unworthy of life, yet by their godly and unselfish lives won the day and turned the world upside down. That remains the mission of the church today—to transform the world one person at a time, not with swords or militant banners or political clout—but by living such unselfish lives that people ask the reason for our hope in a seemingly hopeless world.
So, should we tear down the cross from our steeples? Should we refrain from singing about the cross? Remove the cross from our preaching?
Never! God forbid!
We can and ought to remove all unnecessary barriers that prevent people from choosing to follow Jesus. Denominational names, although important, are not sacrosanct. Some teachings or practices that divide Christians need to be relegated from essential to preference. But, one truth, one stumbling block—the cross—cannot be tampered with or removed if we are to remain Christ-followers.
Paul was willing to discard cultural and religious traditions to improve the odds of winning a person—Jew or Greek—to Christ. One thing, however, was not up for debate. The cross of Christ was core to his message. Although the cross might offend a Jew or be considered stupidly foolish to a Greek, Paul told it like it was. (See 1 Corinthians 1:17-25) Christ crucified, buried and raised again on the third day was the Christian message.
It still is!
Remove the cross from the message and Christianity becomes just another world religion, encouraging its followers to “try a little harder to please God (or the gods).” It doesn’t work, because that kind of religion has removed the supernatural power to change human nature.
In the words of a contemporary Christian song, “O, the power of the Cross!”
So, I will continue to look for a cross on a church building. I will pray that the symbol on the steeple is more than a symbol. I pray that the message of Christ’s death on the cross remains the core of the message preached and taught in that building.
I choose to continue singing about the old rugged cross, and someday anticipate exchanging that symbol for a crown.
How about you?