Are Christian Symbols Biblical?

Ultimately, we must each ask ourselves: Whatever the symbol, what does it mean to us? What does the symbol say to others who associate us with that symbol? And how does a symbol represent who we are — in our hearts?

Doctor holding cross necklace

In the nearly 40 years my wife and I have been married, my wedding ring has scarcely left my finger. I remember that I took it off for a few days once after a bee sting. Well, not entirely accurate — my brother-in-law had to file it off my terribly swollen finger as a result of the sting. A few times I removed my ring to play golf, and my hand was hidden by my glove.

Like most other people, even when my ring itself is removed, the remnants of it can be seen on my finger. Where the ring had been my skin is rather indented and pale. The removal of the ring then did nothing to change my marriage, nor my commitment to that marriage. And the indentation it left on my finger, and on my heart, were still quite evident.

We all have heard of those who remove their wedding rings at times when they choose to not let others know they are married, for whatever their motives or intentions might be. Others choose to not wear a ring at all — believing it is nothing more than material and has no impact on their marital relationship.

All in all, my wedding ring did nothing to change my love for and my commitment to my spouse, but always served to inform others of that love and that commitment. Although the ring did nothing to alter my devotion, it sometimes served to remind me of the promises and commitment of a life together.  

Christian symbols are no different.

Religions and Their Symbols - What Are Some Christian Symbols? 

Religions are filled with symbols. There is usually some specific symbol that seems to stand in for various faiths. The cross for example is the most recognizable religious symbol that exists and is of course associated with Christianity. The Star of David is almost always associated with Judaism, as the crescent and star with Islam.

There are, however, other symbols within each religion that are not often associated with the religion by outsiders. Instead, they normally have meaning that is immediately understandable only by those inside the religion. There is often rich history behind those symbols, but it is not a history with which outsiders may be familiar.

Such symbols are often an important part of religion, and Christianity is no different. There are a variety of symbols that only really make sense to Christians. Some are still recognizable as Christian symbols to outsiders, but the history and the meaning of the symbols is lost on them. That said, Christians often think that those common symbols come from the Bible. In reality, however, they come from Christian history and tradition.

For example, the exchange of wedding rings was born from the customs of Europe in the Middle Ages and adopted into Christian marriage ceremonies. Thus, our modern tradition is borne out of what had been a Christian symbol.

Common today is the use of the fish — after the cross and crucifix, probably the most easily recognized Christian symbol today. Most people believe the fish came from the passage about disciples becoming “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). However, the symbol actually comes from the phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”

The first letter of each word, written in Greek, spell out the Greek word for “fish.” The symbol was used during the early years of Christian persecution and allowed Christians to identify each other.

There is a level of controversy with the cross and crucifix. Catholics tend to emphasize the redemptive power of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. Protestants and evangelicals underscore the power of the resurrection, and faith that Christ is alive.

Are Christian Symbols Biblical?

Some Christians turn to the second commandment as a “rule” against any form of symbols or images.

“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20:4).

But does this verse mean that it is sinful to possess an image of Christ? Or the cross? Or even a fish? If it does — where is the line drawn exactly? Is an image of Christ forbidden, but the symbol of a fish is okay?

One thing that Jesus made clear was that he came to fulfill the Old Testament law. According to the author of Hebrews, Jesus rendered the Old Covenant obsolete. “By calling this covenant new, he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear” (Hebrews 8:13).

Paul specifically referred to the Ten Commandments as the “ministry that brought death…engraved on letters of stone…” (2 Corinthians 3:7).

The second commandment forbids the worship of man-made things that represent false or lesser gods. We usually think of these gods as “graven images” or idols, but we can make idols out of anything we place before God. “For everything in the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — comes not from the Father but from the world” (1 John 2:16).

The lust of the flesh. The lust of the eyes. The pride of life. All of these can be idols. All of these can take the throne of God in our lives. The moment any of them takes importance over God, then we have made for ourselves an idol.

The arguments for or against wearing a cross or a fish are slightly different. Few people would ever seriously question whether we worship a cross or a fish, even if they would question whether we worshipped an individual whose picture we owned.

The cross, the fish, the Star of David, the crescent, the skull and crossbones, all are symbols of who we are, not items to be worshipped.

For example, there are scriptures on modesty and not letting our apparel overshadow our lives (1 Tim 2:9; 1 Peter 3:3). Yet none on precisely what clothing is allowed and what is not.

Wearing a cross or having a fish symbol on your car is in essence no different from wearing a wedding ring. One symbolizes that its wearer is married; the other symbolizes that its wearer is a Christian.

In both cases, though, we shouldn’t need the symbol. Our lives should reveal who we are without it, but wearing the symbol makes clear how we identify ourselves. And I know of no scripture that would forbid wearing such symbols.

The reverse is also true. We should not wear or display Christian symbols if our lives do not reflect our faith.

What Should Christians Do about Christian Symbols?

I once heard Pastor Chuck Swindoll say that he will simply not put a Christian symbol — a fish or anything else — on his car for all to see. His reason is that he never wants his driving to dishonor his faith. I wholeheartedly agree with that. Why should I let my poor driving, or more to the point, my less-than-Christlike response to other drivers reflect on my faith or on Jesus Christ?

There are many — far too many, in my opinion — who wear a cross around their neck yet live anything, but a life dedicated to Christ. The Mafia was known for it, and crosses can still be seen on gang and cartel members.

I once had a church consultant tell me they would never do business with someone who advertised with a fish — as their experience with such had never gone well. How very sad that is.

With all that, no matter the discussion or opinions to the contrary — if you are one who believes that wearing or carrying or displaying images of Christ, or crosses, or crucifixes, or fish symbols is a sinful act — then for you it is sin, and you should not do so (Romans 14:23).

If we do choose to wear or carry or display a Christian symbol, then we have chosen to make a statement about who we are and what we believe. We ought to ensure that our lives reflect well on the one in whom we say we believe. It certainly does not mean we must be perfect, but we must remember for whom we are ambassadors.

Ultimately, we must each ask ourselves: Whatever the symbol, what does it mean to us? What does the symbol say to others who associate us with that symbol? And how does a symbol represent who we are — in our hearts?

For further reading:

How Can I Recognize Biblical Symbolism?

Is There Any Significance to Colors in the Bible?

Why Is the Dove Often a Symbol for the Holy Spirit?

Does the Bible Contain Allegory?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Image Plus/Florin Cristian Ailenei


SWN authorGreg Grandchamp is the author of In Pursuit of Truth, A Journey Begins – an easy-to-read, conversational-toned search that answers to most common questions about Jesus Christ. Was he real? Who did he claim to be? What did he teach? Grandchamp offers perspective as an everyday guy on the very same journey as his readers and listeners – as a disciple of Christ Jesus, and learning life's lessons along the way.