Ornamental or Idolatrous Representations—Which?
PERSONS desiring divine approval need to know whether certain representations are idolatrous or simply decorative, ornamental. One who cannot discern just what constitutes an idol would have difficulty in heeding the Bible’s commands: “Flee from idolatry.” “Guard yourselves from idols.” (1 Cor. 10:14; 1 John 5:21) This could be disastrous for the individual concerned. Why? Because idolaters are specifically named among those who will not inherit God‘s kingdom.—1 Cor. 6:9, 10.
What, then, makes something an idolatrous representation? Is a statue, picture, or the like, an idol because the creature or thing represented was at one time an object of worship? Can something be an idol in one part of the world but merely serve ornamental or decorative purposes in another part of the world? What should guide a Christian in determining whether he should get rid of certain items because of their idolatrous association?
The Holy Scriptures make it plain that not all pictures, statues and other representations are idols. Whether an object is an idol or not primarily depends on how it is viewed. This might be illustrated by ancient representations of bulls.
In the courtyard of the temple built by Solomon stood the “molten sea.” This large vessel rested upon the figures of twelve bulls. These representations thus served both a utilitarian and an ornamental purpose. But they were never worshiped. Supporting as they did a vessel that normally held around 11,600 gallons of water, the bulls were a fitting symbol of strength or power. (1 Ki. 7:26) They called attention to the truth enunciated at Psalm 62:11: “Strength belongs to God.”
On the other hand, the golden calves set up by King Jeroboam at Dan and Bethel were idols. They received actual worship in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Even though the claim was made that the golden calves represented Jehovah, this did not make the relative worship given to them acceptable. (1 Ki. 12:28; 14:7-9) Declared Jehovah through his prophet Isaiah: “I am Jehovah. That is my name; and to no one else shall I give my own glory, neither my praise to graven images.” (Isa. 42:8) By making the golden calves (evidently young bulls) and using them in worship, the Israelites made themselves guilty of exchanging God’s glory for something that misrepresented him. How insulting it was to the supreme Sovereign of the universe to be represented as a bull, “an eater of vegetation”!—Ps. 106:20.
The fact that the bull was an object of worship in the Northern Kingdom of Israel did not make the bulls at Solomon’s temple idols. Similarly, the fact that various creatures, plants and heavenly bodies—all part of God’s creative works—have been and still are being given veneration would not in itself make them unacceptable for decorative or ornamental purposes. Many things that were at one time worshiped by the ancients have lost their idolatrous significance and are generally regarded as being merely ornamental.
However, the Christian has to be careful that he does not begin to look upon any object as being something more than it actually is. This aspect was well expressed by Jehovah’s faithful servant Job: “If I used to see the light when it would flash forth, or the precious moon walking along, and my heart began to be enticed in secrecy and my hand proceeded to kiss my mouth, that too would be an error for attention by the justices, for I should have denied the true God above.”—Job 31:26-28.
Accordingly, if a Christian felt that the presence of a certain picture or object could stir up worshipful feelings because of its ancient idolatrous association, he would want to get rid of it. This could include personal ornaments, jewelry and the like. And, of course, he would not want to keep things that presently have a supposed sacred significance or that are specifically designed for use in false religious rituals. That would be true even if the items in question no longer had any religious significance to him. Like Christians in ancient Ephesus, he would destroy appendages of false worship, regardless of how expensive they may have been, so that no one else could misuse them.—Acts 19:19.
A Christian also has to keep in mind that he must give consideration to the consciences of others. Whereas personally he may not entertain any worshipful feelings toward a certain picture or object, others, because of their particular religious background, may view things quite differently. That this may even be the case among Christians is stressed by the apostle Paul’s inspired counsel: “Make this your decision, not to put before a brother a stumbling block or a cause for tripping. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is defiled in itself; only where a man considers something to be defiled, to him it is defiled.”—Rom. 14:13, 14.
So the person who desires God’s approval does well to examine the pictures and objects in his home to see whether he should make some changes. He might ask himself: Would persons in the community where I live regard certain pictures and objects in my possession as being more than mere ornaments or decorations? Do these people attach a certain religious significance to them, regarding them as holy or bringers of good fortune? Would certain pictures or objects in my home suggest to others that I am in agreement with false religious systems or practices? Do some of the things I have misrepresent the teachings of the Bible? If the answer to any of these questions is “Yes,” the wise course would be to eliminate from one’s home any possible cause for stumbling oneself or others.
Of course, there is no need to go to unreasonable extremes in this matter. Even encyclopedias and dictionaries contain illustrations of false gods and religious symbols. But one’s having such reference works in no way implies to others one’s agreeing with false concepts. A Bible with religious pictures and symbols might be viewed in the same light, that is, as a reference work.
It should be remembered, however, that the effect pictures and other representations have on people varies considerably. No one can make rules for others. So if a person found that he simply could not look at a picture without feeling the pull of false religion, he would be acting wisely if he were to get rid of it. Whenever there is any reasonable doubt, it is always best to choose the course that will leave one with a clear conscience before God.
Thus it becomes apparent that every person who desires God’s approval should give serious thought to this matter, in order to be sure that he understands what is pleasing to God. Once having done so, he can clean up his home religiously. As a result nothing that he has will detract from his giving exclusive devotion to his Creator, Jehovah God.