Why I Discourage Making the Sign of the Cross

So I need to say a few words to my congregation about making the sign of the cross, but it’s the kind encouragement and exhortation that I don’t mind others listening in to and applying to their own situations with wisdom, so I’m posting it here.

Anyone who attends Trinity Reformed Church knows that we are a robustly liturgical church. I preach in a white robe, our prayers, hymns, and order of service draw heavily from the great reformational and catholic tradition. And so it may come as a surprise to some that it has not been our practice to use the sign of the cross or encourage its use in our worship services. As it happens, we do have families and students from a variety of backgrounds, and when we’ve had folks come in from Lutheran or Anglican backgrounds where making the sign of the cross was as normal and pious as saying Merry Christmas or the equivalent of raising hands in prayer or worship (as is common in other traditions), we’ve assured those folks that they are welcome to continue to pray in those ways, even though that isn’t our common practice. However, I’m sure from time to time some folks have wondered about whether it isn’t something they should begin to do, and in recent months, it appears to me like there may be some slight surge in the practice. So in what follows, all I’m arguing for is the continuation of our current common practice, and I’m writing in order to discourage people who didn’t grow up with it (as an act of sincere faith) from picking it up.

Now, to begin, I want to be clear that I’m quite familiar with the traditional arguments in favor of the sign of the cross, largely falling into the categories of adiaphora, biblical symbolism, and ancient, venerable tradition. Working backwards, yes, of course the sign of the cross reaches far back into the depths of the Christian tradition. Yay, Athanasius. Yay, Luther. And yes, I know that we are to glory and boast in the cross of Christ, and yes, we have been crucified with Christ. Amen. And yes, much like Christmas trees or banners or candles, I believe Christians are free to use these signs and symbols (or not) depending on whether they truly assist people in remembering Christ and living for him. Adiaphora. Got it.

However, a number of considerations go in to my plea that our common practice remain as is, and why I would generally discourage the practice in our reformed and evangelical churches.

First, while there is a tight-shoed formulation of what is called the “Regulative Principle” that is unsupportable biblically — e.g. are there verses that positively command the exact order of worship, whether women may take communion, or whether there may be a pulpit, lectern, or even a communion table up front? So if we agree that many of these elements must be faithfully, thoughtfully, and prayerfully deduced from Scriptural principles and common sense, then there we are all agreeing that our worship must be according to Scripture but without all the huffing and puffing. And the point here is simply that we must never fall into the assumption that we get to decide what practices are most useful for us. We are not, to put it bluntly, the lords of our salvation. We are the slaves who need redeeming. We are the sick who need healing. We are the dead who need raising. If the Lord sends us to a dirty stream and commands us to dip seven times, then that is what we need, regardless of how we feel about it. If the Lord hands us a loaf of a bread and says, ‘Take, eat, this is my body,’ then we take and eat. If He says that the preaching of the Word of God is food for our souls, then we listen and obey. But if the Lord doesn’t say, thou shalt touch thy head, thy abdomen, thy left and right shoulders — that should give us significant pause, no matter how many other people are doing it, no matter how venerable and ancient the tradition may be, no matter the so-called symbolism.

Second, and closely related, would be the concern that we actually do what the Lord says to do before we begin introducing other “good” ideas. As it happens one of the significant problems with the ancient and medieval church was in their misunderstanding of the goodness of creation, the body, and music. Now, to be clear, it was a complex scene, and many good men were fighting in the right direction given the forces they faced on the ground, but that doesn’t justify pretending that we are in the exact same spot in the battle or pretending that the Spirit hasn’t given the Church any forward progress. So for example, the Psalms command God’s people to shout, clap, dance, and play many different musical instruments to the Lord. David danced before the Lord with all his might and made his wife blush. While in some ways, I certainly understand that the sign of the cross may have been a pious attempt at embodying prayer (one cheer), the fact remains that they largely failed to obey the explicit commands of Scripture in the ways that Scripture actually commanded them to embody prayer. As King Saul learned the hard way, obedience is better than sacrifice. Obeying what God actually commands is far better than making up our own ways that we think enable us to obey His commands. Not only is it better; God considers our innovations to be rebellious and arrogant. I’m not saying we know yet exactly how to do all of those things that the Psalms command, but what we know is that those are things that the Lord for sure loves. If we know that the Lord loves those things, shouldn’t we be working over time to do those things? And shouldn’t that aim earn first place, way ahead of gestures that God didn’t command? Related to this point and the previous one, given all of the very particular things God does command His people, it should once again be a rather striking thing that God hasn’t commanded this. He could have very easily taught the Hebrews to make the sign of the cross, but He didn’t. Paul could have reminded the churches to remember to make the sign of the cross, but He didn’t. Instead, he’s always reminding us greet one another with the kiss of peace. Well, huh.

Third, Jesus warns explicitly against public shows of piety. If you want to cross yourself in private where no one but the Lord sees you, that’s between you and God. But when we gather together as the people of God, we gather as an army, in battle array. This is what liturgy means. It is the work of the people, our spiritual sacrifice, our reasonable service. This is why it is also called our “common prayer.” It is what we do together, as a body. While I would still protest on the grounds mentioned above, I would have less concerns with making the sign of the cross in a congregation that did so together, in unison. But this has not been the historic practice of the presbyterian and reformed churches, not to mention American evangelical churches. And thus, to make the sign of the cross in our church is to stand out, to act the individualist, to make a show and a spectacle of your prayers. And Jesus says that you should not do that. Do not pray in order to be seen by men. And for the same reason, I tend to frown on the practice of folks raising their hands sort of willy-nilly during worship services. Though it should be pointed out, at least they have Bible verses! And truth be told, even in many “non-liturgical,” semi-charismatic churches, everybody does raise their hands at roughly the same time during the chorus, (almost like it was planned!).

Lastly, some questions to consider: When we gather for worship, what is our aim? Is our aim to make sure we *feel* worshipful, to make sure our needs are being met? Or is our aim to bow before the Lord of the Universe in humility and joy and in obedience? Should our greatest concern be with what *I* can do or is it more about what *we* have gathered to do together? Would you ever raise your hands or clap your hands during a hymn (all by yourself)? If not, why not? If you’re going to stand out and do something different, why not do something you know the Lord loves? Are our postures, gestures, etc. encouraging others to join together in one heart and one voice? Or is there any chance that our personal preferences are creating barriers, distractions, or confusion for others who may not understand or be confused by our actions?

The point here may in some ways come down to Paul’s exhortation to love your brothers, and especially when it comes to questionable matters, why allow anything to interrupt fellowship or be a potential cause for confusion or division? There are enough non-questionable matters that the Church still needs to figure out that will be challenging enough as it is. And besides, if you are a Christian, you already bear the sign of the cross. Your baptism is the indelible sign that God placed on you that forever proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus.

And, as I recall flirting with promoting the sign of the cross many years ago, I’m filing this post under “retractions.”

  1. Nathan March 17

    What is the difference between encouraging the whole congregation to make the sign of the cross and practicing the tradition of the Ash Wednesday Service? I ask this assuming that there might not be a correlation…

    • Nathan, Ha. I was waiting for that question. But short version would just be that I think a service of repentance once a year is quite a bit different than a regular, routine gesture. I don’t think putting ash in the shape of the cross is essential to the service at all. Some churches just sprinkle a bit of ash on the head, and many churches begin the season of lent with a special service but without any imposition of ashes at all. Cheers!

  2. Brigid April 11

    I am a 21-year-old who became Anglican about 2 years ago after being reformed presbyterian my whole life. When I read this I was immediately struck by several things: you seem to fall into illogical thinking in several areas, you seem to be fairly mocking throughout, and your attempt to summarize the arguments for crossing oneself were more than a little half-hazard. I understand that this article is addressed to the members of your church in an attempt to dissuade them from taking up the habit of crossing, and you argue that we shouldn’t just pick up practices willy-nilly that seem to suit us. We don’t get to pick what practices are most useful and that: “If the Lord hands us a loaf of a bread and says, ‘Take, eat, this is my body,’ then we take and eat. If He says that the preaching of the Word of God is food for our souls, then we listen and obey. But if the Lord doesn’t say, thou shalt touch thy head, thy abdomen, thy left and right shoulders…” First I think sarcasm is best left out, but more importantly, I would ask: are you claiming that everything in your liturgy is there by the direct command of God? Jesus never commanded his disciples to say the Nicene Creed, nor did he command that in order to preach they must wear a white robe and after every Scripture reading say “This is the word of the Lord”. Why do many Christians cross themselves? It’s symbolic and traditional. Why do we say the Nicene Creed? Tradition. Why do you wear a white robe? Well, it’s symbolic and traditional. Why do we have crosses at the front of churches? It’s symbolic and traditional. The road very much runs both ways and can’t be used as an irrefutable proof against the putting on of the Trinity through a physical sign. Second, you say that “we need to make sure we do what God says before introducing other “good” ideas”. And to be perfectly honest with you, you sort of lost me because we somehow ended up in what appeared to be the Crusades (though I believe this to be my fault). But I did catch the claim that the Church has improved in leaps and bounds and therefore to put on Christ in such a way has been proven irrelevant since the 21st century is so noticeably tame and peaceful (forgive my moment of weakness for falling to sarcasm). I personally was bullied in school, and though I was not an Anglican at the time, would sign myself with the cross before entering the building to remind me of what God had done for me, for who was pleased with me, and who loved me deeply when others didn’t. The world isn’t tame, the church isn’t perfect, physical and spiritual warfare is all around us, and I’m fairly sure any missionaries to a third world country would be shocked by that section. Yes, Christ triumphs, and we know the outcome, but there is still war around and devils below. Your concluding argument is the Pharisee and public signs of piety. First, to cross yourself is a sign of humility and it’s a reminder of what Christ has done for you. To say that when people cross themselves it is to be different and to stand out in their piety is the sweeping argument equivalent of saying you only wear robes to show off how pious you are to your congregants. The claim, of course, is ridiculous, and I would never presume to accuse you of such a thing. I also don’t understand how it is making a show of the prayer if one crosses himself during prayer as everyone’s heads are bowed and eyes closed (as per tradition). Crossing oneself is not an incredibly noticeable act, it isn’t done with loud speeches, beating of chests, tearing of clothes, or sprinkling of ashes; it is a silent and quick motion of the right hand and is far less conspicuous than the raising of hands during service. So to conclude, I would say if a few people crossing themselves is enough to cause other congregants to be confused or divisive in your church then there is a deeper issue in play. If someone is confused it is the work of a moment to simply ask the person why they do this or to ask a pastor. You say that we should rather devote ourselves to doing things that are different that God loves, but I have not found, in your post or any others, sufficient cause to believe that God hates the invocation of the symbol of the cross.

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