Q: Is the use of crucifixes a Roman Catholic practice? Doesn’t the empty cross provide a better symbol for Lutherans? How does the LCMS feel about using a crucifix in church? [Note: A crucifix is a cross with a statue of the crucified Christ on it].
A: A common misunderstanding among some Lutherans is the opinion that a crucifix, or the use of a crucifix, is a “Roman Catholic” practice. The history of Lutheranism demonstrates that the crucifix was a regular and routine feature of Lutheran worship and devotional life during Luther’s lifetime and during the period of Lutheran Orthdoxy. It was also the case among the founding fathers of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. If you were to visit most of the original congregations of the LCMS here in the United States you would find lovely crucifixes adorning their altars, and in addition, beautiful statues on the altar of Christ and the four evangelists, or other such scenes. There is nothing uniquely Roman Catholic about this.
Many Lutherans and Lutheran congregations use crucifixes. Crucifixes are used in the chapels of both of our seminaries and our International Center. Lutheranism has always considered the crucifix to be a powerful reminder of the sacrifice our Lord Jesus made for us and our salvation, on the cross. A crucifix vividly brings to mind the Apostle Paul’s divinely inspired words, “We preach Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23). Interestingly enough, while there is certainly nothing “wrong” with an “empty” cross, the practice of using an “empty cross” on a Lutheran congregation’s altar comes more from non-Lutheran sources. At the time of the Reformation there was conflict between Lutherans and Reformed Christians over the proper place of pictures, images, statues and the like in the church. Lutherans stood with historic Christendom in realizing that such art in the church was not wrong, and was a great aid for helping to focus devotional thoughts on the truths of the Word of God, no greater truth can be found that the death of Jesus Christ our Lord for the world’s salvation.
The “empty cross” is not a symbol of Christ’s resurrection, as some say, for the fact is that the cross would have been empty regardless of whether or not Christ had risen from the grave. The point to be kept clear here is that both an “empty cross” and a crucifix, symbolize the same thing: the death of Christ our Lord for the salvation of the world. Many feel that the crucifix symbolizes this truth more clearly and strikingly. That has been the traditional opinion of historic Lutheranism, until the last 50 years ago, due to the influence we will now mention. Some Lutherans began to move away from crucifixes during the age of Lutheran Pietism, which rejected much of Lutheran doctrine and consequently many Lutheran worship practices. At the time, Lutheran Pietists, contrary to the clear position of Luther and the earlier Lutherans, held that symbols such as the crucifix were wrong. This was never the view of historic Lutheranism. Here in America, Lutherans have always felt a certain pressure to “fit in” with the Reformed Christianity that predominates much of the Protestant church here. Thus, for some Lutherans this meant doing away with things such as crucifixes and vestments, and other traditional forms of Lutheran worship and piety.
It is sad when some Lutherans are made to feel embarrassed about their Lutheranism by members of churches that teach the Word of God in error and who do not share Lutheranism’s clear confession and practice of the full truth of the Word of God. Lutheranism has always recognized that the use of any symbol (even the empty cross) can become an idolatrous practice, if in any way people are led to believe there is “power in the cross” or that a picture or representation of a cross has some sort of ability, in itself, to bring us into relationship with Christ and His Gospel. Any of God’s good gifts can be turned against Him in this life and become an end in themselves. Page 22 of 22 Lutherans have never believed that banning or limiting proper artwork in the church is the way to prevent its improper use. Rather, we believe that proper teaching and right use is the best way, and the way that is in keeping with the gift of freedom we have in Christ to use all things to the glory and honor of God. Thus, many Lutherans use and enjoy the crucifix as a meaningful reminder of our Lord’s suffering and death. It might interest you to know that our Synod’s president has a beautiful crucifix adorning the wall of his office, constantly reminding him and visitors to his office of the great love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord. In short, and this is the most important point of all: there is nothing contrary to God’s Holy Word, or our Lutheran Confessions, about the proper use of the crucifix, just as there is nothing wrong with the proper use of an empty cross, or any other church symbol by which we are reminded of the great things God has done for us. We need to guard against quickly dismissing out of hand practices that we believe are “too Roman Catholic” before we more adequately explore their use and history in our own church. In Christian freedom, we use either the crucifix or an empty cross and should not judge or condemn one another for using either nor not using either symbol of our Lord’s sacrifice for our sins. Usage: We urge you to contact an LCMS pastor in your area for more in-depth discussion.
Published by: LCMS Church Information Center