Of Evangelicals and Icons (redux)

This past weekend was the commemoration of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. In the late 700’s AD there was a controversy in the Church about the use of icons. For those who don’t know, icons are images (usually two dimensional) of Christ, the saints, angels, important biblical events, parables, or events in the history of the Church. These images were, and are, part of Christian worship stretching back into antiquity. There was a group of people called the iconoclasts who said that icons were idolatrous and should be destroyed, so they went around from church to church destroying icons and persecuting those who affirmed the use of icons. Ultimately this came to a head and a council was called. At the council it was decided that the use of icons in worship was tied into Christ’s Incarnation so an attack on icons is an attack the Incarnation. After this council in 787 AD icons were restored for use in worship though there were still some flare-ups against them.

This issue arose again during the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers forbade the use of icons and art in worship because they believed that using them in worship would lead to idolatry and unfortunately this is a misunderstanding that exists to this day. I self identify as a quasi-evangelical and as evangelicals we are children of the Reformation even if we do not believe the doctrinal distinctives of the reformers. Many evangelical or fundamentalist churches would agree with forbidding the use of icons, preferring to decorate their walls with nothing but a cross, although in some cases churches have been experimenting with integrating art, including icons, in their services. I believe though that we as evangelicals have our own icons even while we deny them or see them as idolatrous (I don’t by the way).

Let me explain. How many of you have gone to a seeker friendly church service? What did you see? You will probably feel as if you’ve been plunged into an immersive atmosphere complete with rock concert like music, fancy Pro Presenter slideshows, pictures of the pastor, and logos and branding of the church. For churches that don’t do this sort of service there are still images. In the church I spent my teenage years the ministerial staff would take turns sitting in groups of three or four on the stage directly behind the pulpit. During the service the pastor would occasionally turn to them to emphasize a point or to engage them in the service. All of the staff ministers dressed in exactly the same style suit, had the same type of haircut, tried to drive the same fancy cars, and tried to display a level of material prosperity their theology demanded. In the seeker service the lights, music, slides, and media function as icons because they are meant to lead people into a worship experience with God. In the church I attended as a teenager the staff sitting on the stage facing the congregation function as icons. As the pastoral staff they functioned as pictures of people who will help the congregation in their walk with God. The way they dress, the way they sit, the way they speak, the way they carry themselves all relate something about what they, and that church, believed about God.

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If my assertion is true, and it may not be as this entry is sort of off the cuff and very unfocused, the image a church presents to its community is directly tied into the images included in their worship. It is my contention that many times the image a church presents is vacuous because the images in worship can be driven by cultural trends and market strategies rather then by the images inspired by Scripture. Like the icons we have rejected, what we replace them with tell us something about what we think about God and the church. Scripture says Jesus is the icon of God, and it also says we are created in the image of God. This means then that human beings themselves are also icons of God. Oftentimes the image that we reflect is composed more of things that don’t transform rather than the beauty of Christ and the reality of what it means to be saved, to be part of those whom God has called out of this world into his kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. The images of this world and the trappings of the free market are poor images indeed that may look and seem amazing for a time, but ultimately will fall short of displaying the fullness of the life Christ has offered to us and has asked us to reflect.

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