Pastor's Pastor

Careful! Your symbol is showing!

What do your symbols say?

James A. Cress is the Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

What do your symbols say? Christians have always employed meaningful symbols to describe their faith, to identify their understanding of mission, to embrace an ideal, or to rally the faithful to spiritual warfare.

Likewise, Scripture is full of symbols. Think of a few that are used to describe Jesus a lion from Judah as deliverer; an innocent lamb offered in sacrifice; the rejected cornerstone, the rose of Sharon, the balm in Gilead, or the rock cut without hands that crushes all in its path to victory.

Symbols are not wrong. God Himself employs their communicative ability. "I have given symbols through the witness of the prophets" (Hosea 12:10). "And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse, who shall stand as a banner to the people" (Isaiah 11:10, NKJV).

Sometimes, however, the symbols we use are meaningless or, worse, offensive. Imagine my horror when our Pathfinder club was notified that its flag was offensive because it was similar to a Nazi banner from that tragic era preceding World War II.

With the cross of Jesus . . . going on before! If in these words you hear the refrain of a great Christian hymn and are reminded of the power of the gospel to advance into all the world, you will find the cross a magnificent symbol of triumph. However, if you were on the receiving end of the great crusades during the Middle Ages, you would view the same cross as an imperialistic symbol of those who wish to force either your conversion or your eradication through the force of numbers.

Our editors once recounted a story I had shared of changing the church signboard. Instead of three angels, in an artistic but vague symbolic style, we chose the more familiar emblem of the cross. Our change was intentional. While the angels had portrayed our self-understanding of a unique last-day message, they conveyed no meaning to the community. We wished to state clearly that we were Christians with our ministry centered in the Saviour.

A few days after the signboard was in place I met an unchurched friend at a business luncheon who remarked that she had noted our new design. Commenting on the clarity of the cross for a Christian organization, she added, "Every time I passed your church before, I wondered what those three bugs were all about." Imagine! We had portrayed angels. She had seen insects.

Do your symbols say what you mean? While those angels held deep meaning to anyone who understood what they were and what they represented, they were meaningless to the uninitiated.

On the other hand, I had little realized how much emotion and energy can be stirred by a simple change in symbols. Certain individuals immediately pounced upon this change to prove that our congregation had abandoned the faith. They declared that cross a Romish compromise that was just the tip of the iceberg on our journey to apostasy.

Even our reminder of the powerful scriptural impact of the cross could not persuade those critics whose fervor was exceeded only by their ignorance. They were not interested in the words of the apostle Paul. But God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. Their minds were made up. They had found their cause. They were disinterested in what the community saw in our "three insects" as long as there was no compromise in "the way we had always done things."

Recently I saw another new church sign where the angels look like three swimmers in competition. At least the church is in Atlanta, host to this year's Olympics. Perhaps viewers will conclude that this congregation embraces the spirit of international games!

We should consider what our symbols say. If we use three angels, they may communicate effectively to our members but ineffectively to the world. We should consider for whom our symbols are intended. Early Christians used the symbol of the fish to identify each other as believers. But they used the scandalous cross to proclaim the essentials of salvation through Jesus Christ. Personally, I prefer symbols that are so unambiguous that no one need wonder about either our message or our mission.


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James A. Cress is the Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

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