Icons : Worshiping the Dead or venerating those more alive than us?

What is the difference between worship and veneration ?

Kissing the dead, that is what I saw happening when I was in Romania a few years ago with my bride.  We entered a monastery that had the bones of a saint who had been dead over one hundred years. His skull was sticking out of his glass coffin for parishioners to “draw grace from” by kissing or “venerating” him.  My question for this post is,  “Is it not a subtle slippery slope from veneration to worship of these dead or of their icons?

The very first commandment is to have no other God nor to worship any other.

One of my dear cousins’s little son was bowing down to an icon, and they got it on film.  Many people in the community were praising and giving positive feedback on Facebook.  I posted a detailed response saying how I admired the fact that that precious boy was praying, and worshiping, which is what we need to do more of!  In Luke 18:6 it says “Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”!  I also raised concerns about bowing down and worshiping images, even images of saints.

However, for reasons I don’t know nor do I judge, my comment was erased from that board, while those who praised the bowing down were left there.  Now this is a common thing that happens no matter what the community it is.  If you go against what that community is doing, whether it is a religious one or a gang,  whether it is the President’s Cabinet or the Mafia, they will not be happy with you.  But that is the price one must pay if he stands up for his convictions, even if it is done in respect and love, they will not like it!

Now to be fair, we must ask our Orthodox brethren why they do bow down in front of and kiss their icons?

The Orthodox Christians claim that they do not worship Icons.

According to the Orthodox Christian Information Center, they claim that they only venerate not worship these icons.

“…For each time that we see their representation in an image, each time, while gazing upon them, we are made to remember the prototypes, we grow to love them more, and we are more induced to worship them by kissing them and by witnessing our veneration (proskenesin), not the true adoration (latreian) which, according to our faith, is proper only to the one divine nature, but in the same way as we venerate the image of the precious and vivifying cross, the holy Gospel and other sacred objects which we honor with incense and candles according to the pious custom of our forefathers. For the honor rendered to the image goes to its prototype, and the person who venerates an Icon venerates the person represented in it. Indeed, such is the teaching of our holy Fathers and the Tradition of the holy catholic Church which propagated the Gospel from one end of the earth to the other.

They site the Seventh Œcumenical Synod, which decreed in its Oros.

One of my well meaning Catholic  cousins would not tell certain jokes next to his status of Jesus, as if Jesus was localized near the status of him and not omnipresent.  By the way, he had a headless Jesus statue! The head broke off but he did not want to “throw away Jesus.”  As you can see how slippery the line gets between veneration and idolatry.

Now what did the great Apostle Peter say when someone bowed down to him? Well let us do something radical as Christians…let’s look in the Bible ? “

But Peter took him up saying, ‘stand up; I myself am also a man.” Acts 10:26 he does the same in acts 14:15.

Even the angels of God refused it when others bowed down to them.

“…No, don’t worship me. I am a servant of God, just like you and your brothers the prophets, as well as all who obey what is written in this scroll. Worship God! ” Rev 22:8-9

Do you think that if the people told The Apostle Peter, “no, we are not worshiping you, we are just venerating you,” that his response would have been different?

He would have directed people toward God again. The same can be said of the Mother of our Lord. If we treated a living person today the same way as they treated the icons of the saints would it be considered blasphemy ?  It seems it would. Since the Orthodox claim these saints are alive, not dead, then the same would apply to them.

What we bow down to might easily slip into what we worship if we are not ever watchful and careful. We might build churches around them or even hang them on our home walls thinking that we somehow are right with God and protected from Satan with them without regard to our actions and heart toward God.

There was a time in the biblical history of the chosen people that they took an icon that was a symbol of God’s salvation to the earth and began to misuse it and venerate it to the point of bowing down to it, i.e. worshiping it. (2 Kings 18:4) King Hezekiah had this icon destroyed because devotion was given to it that should have only been given to God. It was not the icon that went wrong, but it was the people. There is no error in having icons, but it is more than an error and even sin to give them them the devotion that should be given to God alone.

Some Orthodox scholars will note that it is not the icon that is given the devotion but the image it represents. What is the difference between this and what the Buddhists say when they mediate in front of a statue of Buddha or the Hindus say when they pray in front of a statue of their gods like Vishnu?  How are we different than them as believers in the invisible God who became flesh?

I am not saying that icons are idols, no, what I am saying is they can very easily slip into becoming them right undeMary iconr our noses. I fear many already have. Now the issue of Icons is not just for veneration, but also for prayer to them (or the saint painted on them)

What did Jesus say when he was asked how we ought to pray? He began with “Our Father, who art In Heaven…”. The prayer was directed to God. The saints in biblical history prayed to only one being –God who is Jesus Christ. (There is another issue here. What about an Icon of Christ? Is that to be venerated or worshiped?) We pray to Jesus because he is the only mediator between man and God (1 Tim 2:5)

He is the incarnation, 100% man 100% God. Why not pray to others? Well the scriptures tell us he is a jealous God. “I the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not share your affection with any other.”

When we knell to St. Peter, or St. Paul, we are very close to insulting them in our “veneration” of them. Prayer to saints is seen and done, but is it wise? It is to be done when Christ is God’s mediator for us? Why do we need another mediator?

Why not pray to God? For he is all good beyond what we can image, loves us more than we can dream and hears all our petitions. We would like a rational biblical answer to this. Are icons the determiners of ones spirituality with Christ? Does an icon need to be in my home for me to be a believer? What are the traits of a true believer? Membership? Veneration of Icons? Prayer to Saints? Taking of Communion? Pilgrimage? Schooled in Theology? No.

The Apostle Peter goes on to list some of the traits a true believer should have: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance (II Peter 1:3-10). What is the ultimate sign that Jesus gave us that we can show people that we really are Christians? “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love for one another (John 13:55). I am not saying that if a person is ethical that they are thus a believer. No. A believer is one who is born of the spirit of God, repented from their sins and has accepted the eternal Gift that God has given them, forgiveness by the death of his son on the cross, and as evidence of this has the fruits in their life that St. Peter spoke of.

I leave my Orthodox and Evangelical brethren with two things, one question and one comment.

George Kakaletris makes this point, “If professing Christians claim to love God and yet hate one another, no amount of icons in the home (or religious activity) will cause the world to take notice. If anything, the icons (a symbol of religion to the unbelievers) are unfortunately going to become associated with the hate that’s exemplified, and will give the world one more reason to ridicule the church, Christianity and God. ”


“we ought not be iconoclast as much as they should be idoloclasts,”

wisely said Madline L’angle. There are many icons in our owns lives that if we don’t deal with them wisely will also become idols right under our noses. I close with the immortal words of C.S. Lewis:

“He works on us in all sorts of ways. But above all, He works on us through each other: Men are mirrors or ‘carriers’ of Christ to other men. Usually it is those who know Him that bring Him to others. That is why the Church, the whole body of Christians showing him to one another; is so important. It is so easy to think that the church has a lot of different objects-education, building, missions, holding services…the Church exists for no other purpose but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became man for no other purpose. It is doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other reason.”

Finally, in light of this, where does the Eastern Church draw the line so that veneration does not become worship and worship does not lead to relying on icons for grace rather than the biblical stance that it comes from Christ alone?

For the record, I do have an ancient icons of Jesus in my office to remind me that He is my God and witness to others.

In all this, there are men wiser and much more holy than I who disagree with me.  That I understand, and write this with much respect and humility.

See this  short video on the debate between veneration and worship from the John Ankerberg show.

Although it has a Catholic Priest and Protestant, the basic problem remains and is expressed clearly.


What do you think? 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Please provide the explanation for the basis of icons or iconography in the Orthodox Church and then we can move to understand the basis for the veneration of icons. Without this most important explanation, you will not know or understand Orthodox Christianity.

    • Hello Robert

      Great question!! Sorry it took so long!

      It is my understanding that icons were created in part as an apologetics for Jesus being the icon of God, or the exact representation of his being on earth, both as 100% God and 100% man. Furthermore, when worshipers honor the image, the honor goes to its prototype,”the person who venerates an Icon venerates the person represented in it.” it also reminds the believer that there is more to the world than the material or natural. There is more, of course. Am I off base?

      • You are almost Orthodox. lol The answer is the Incarnation. That is the basis of iconography and the reverence afforded to the veneration of icons of His saints. The invisible became visible. Unfortunately, as ancient church history attests, many heresies were born that denied the incarnation such as gnosticism which believed matter was evil and that God would not assume human flesh. He was a phantom. Arianism and Nestorianism denied the incarnation which gave birth to Islam. Anything or anyone who denies the incarnation or even minimizes this reality has fallen astray and cannot be a Christian. Once we reaffirm the Incarnation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we can proceed to speak and to understand the historical usage of icons in the church. The book of Genesis is quite clear in whose divine image we are made in. The divine image is our story. We the people of this earth composed of flesh and bones where the Holy Spirit dwells therein. This is the very same Holy Spirit that leads us into all truths. It is the very same Spirit that is to guide our lives and to acknowledges Jesus. Christ Jesus can be seen in the sanctified lives of His followers. We, who are made in His Image, are called to sanctification or deification. This could not have happened if He was not Incarnated nor Resurrected. We are called to live in holiness so others can witness Christ in us. This holiness is the power of Christ. Those who have been sanctified are often referred to as saints. Another English word in lieu of saints is holy. We are to imitate the holiness of Jesus in our minds, bodies and souls. We do not selfishly take credit for our humility but always point to God Incarnate for this free gift of grace that stems from His Divine Essence. The church in her wisdom always acknowledges Christ in the lives of her saints. Less than this is not acceptable. The saints that walked the earth were always imitating Christ. They had nothing to exalt about themselves, no pride and humbled themselves before our Lord. We read in Scriptures how people were lead or full of the Holy Spirit. What would you be willing to do to get this close to someone who was full of the Holy Spirit? Would you not reverence them and honor them due to the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives? Would you not want the very same Holy Spirit in your life and in the lives of others? Need I remind you that the Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Holy Trinity and we have historically acknowledged His Divine operation amongst us and amongst men? Unfortunately, many “Christians” blaspheme the Holy Spirit and deny his presence in His holy people or His saints. Instead, His saints are accused of worshipping themselves and are told that they don’t have the presence of God in them or worse that they are really unfit to have God in them. These arrogant views are the least charitable and do the most damage against the unity of the Body of Christ, the Church, or the icon of the Holy Trinity. The unfortunate view that we venerate dead people is far from the truth. The truth of the matter is the Holy Spirit does not abandon the souls that have served Him and continue to serve Him. The teaching of the Orthodox Church on the soul is that it does not die. The human body may cease to function as we know it but its soul continues to live until the Day of Resurrection where both will be united again by the power of His Holy Spirit. There is much respect and care for the human body since it is a divine creation and if you recall made in His image . How can we speak of God being with us but go around denying the role of the Holy Spirit in His saints? Why does God call us to be holy as He is holy? Just for kicks and to abandon us when we need Him the most?! He did not create anything else in His image other than us because of His immense love for us. The presence of God does not mean the end of humanity but the beginning fulfillment of it and a return to Paradise. Meditate on the fact that we, who are comprised of flesh and bone, created by the Holy Spirit are not abandoned by His divine guidance even at our death. It will be His divine guidance that unites us, who are made in His image, with Him in the end in Paradise.

        • The following link is a interesting read for the Protestant mindset that grapples with this very topic.

          • Thanks for that… I like this line from it:

            The real question should not be, “Is venerating Icons worshiping an idol,” but, “What am I worshiping?” In reality, if we are honest with ourselves, we tend to not want to venerate the Saints because we really worship our own egos and intellects. Venerating another person is humbling to ourselves, and our nature goes against that. Yet, veneration of others is what Paul was talking about in Phil 2:3, that we esteem each other as more important than ourselves. There is nothing like bowing and kissing another that illustrates this attitude better. Then we should ask ourselves, “Can I properly set my mind on the Saints above through honoring them through their Icons and make a heavenly reality more real to me?” If so, then you are within the teachings of the Church and are free, even encouraged to show the proper honor and respect to the Saints, the Theotokos, and to worship Christ as God.

          • Piet Van Assche

            Hello Robert and Khaldoun,

            Many thanks for your very interesting dialogue.

            I have nothing further to add to Khaldoun’s question; “Can I properly set my mind on the Saints above through honouring them … ” An affirmative answer to his question, to my mind, fully clarifies the issue.

            In my mind, the same question applies to the Bible. “Do I read the Bible, which I considered an inspired (through the Holy Spirit) book, with proper respect to make the heavenly reality more real to me?”. This ensures that one does not consider the Bible as the verbatim divine Word (as is the case for the Quran) and, with respect, does not make the Bible the sole source of revelation (through the Holy Spirit). Icons, Saintly relics and traditions of different Christian Churches can also make a heavenly reality more real.

            By the way, after reading through your dialogue, I searched for the Orthodox teaching on the status of sin of Mary.

            The Orthodox teaching that

            (i) Mary, the Panagaia, committed no actual personal sins, and that;
            (ii) both through God’s grace and her free cooperation with God’s grace, she committed no sin, and that;
            (iii) She overcame every temptation to sin and thus remained ever pure, even in her mind and soul, and that;
            (iv) There is a synergy going on between God and the Panagia.
            (v) She exercises her free will to respond to God (free from Saint John Maximovitch).

            is, in my mind, a more logical, consistent and more revering teaching than the Roman Catholic Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. An other Mystery I understand a bit better.

            Thanks again,


        • Thanks Robert for your insight and details regarding iconography!! It is appreciated.
          However my question which is ” where does the Eastern Church draw the line so that veneration does not become worship?” Where do you draw that line as a practicing Orthodox Christian?

          Or to put it another way, “how does one avoid making an icon an idol?”

          Some put them in their wallets and living rooms and cars to “protect them” when they cheat on their taxes, wives and each other. They never give their hearts to the Lord of all, but have multiple icons in their position, Some think they are magical talismans to protect from the devil. When the devil works on their hearts making them worship something other than God, the violation of the very first commandment:

          Exodus 20:3 “You shall have no other gods before me.”

          Looking forward to your insights.

          Thanks again for your thoughts

          • One avoids making an icon an idol when one acknowledges the role of the Holy Spirit in His righteous people that follow the divine will. It is the Holy Spirit leads us, guides us and saves us. The Old Testament also reveals that the Holy Spirit was a manifestation of God’s presence. When David confessed his sin, he pleaded with God: “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me” (Psalm 51:11). We worship the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Holy Trinity. The Holy Spirit may function in different roles at different times, yet, as the third Person of the Trinity, His nature is always the same. The same Spirit involved in the creation of the universe lives within those who follow Christ today. Christians enjoy the daily benefit of a personal relationship with God through the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit who strengthened Samson and caused David to dance now empowers us and fills us with joy. “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). The Church in her wisdom knows and acknowledges her saints (holy ones) and that her saints are not dead since the holiness of God does not die or cease. The images or icons that are made by human hands are made under divine inspiration. The very same divine inspiration you ascribe to the Holy Bible as we do as well. The Protestant tendencies seem to limit the role of the Holy Spirit and seems to refuse the role of the Holy Spirit in lives of sincere, holy people living in Christ. It would be foolish to deny the millions of saints that were martyred lacking the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not abandon its people, the church unless the people have ceased following the Faith. Icons as you may understand are windows to heaven always pointing to the Holy Trinity. Communion with the Holy Trinity is the goal of sinners born on the earth. A return to Paradise. God had no problem creating us in his image and sending us His Holy Spirit to be with us till the end of time on the day of Pentecost. You seem to have this problem and continue to be dazzled by this great mystery. We as Orthodox are in awe of this awesome and great mystery. I hope you embrace the role of the Holy Spirit in His holy people that follow his divine will and in the hope we be one. Please don’t confuse holiness of righteous people with the wickedness of others. Let’s pray that the wickedness of people is transformed into holiness and ascribed to the role of the Holy Spirit. Don’t we have the most respect for those living sincere Christian lives and pray for those who are in need?! Let’s remember that we are made in His image and being made in His image, we love one another made in His image. The act of veneration for one another is a revelation of the Divine who is only worthy of worship. As Christians, we are to see Christ in one another since we acknowledge Him who made us in his likeness. We do not worship one another but venerate one another. We worship the One God who dwells in us and calls us to sanctification. We have no problem portraying holy people who have fought the good fight and acknowledge God in their lives. I leave you for now with this verse from the book of St. John 14: 16 “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; 17 that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you. 18″I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.…

  • Piet Van Assche

    Hello Khaldoun,

    Best wishes for 2016 to you and your family.

    Thanks for posting this interesting subject.

    In my mind, “eikó” stands for image,
    resemblance or more broadly incarnation. An “eikón” therefore tries to
    represent the incarnation of the transcendent, immanent God into a human person, Jesus. They are only visual accounts of the mystery of Christianity.

    However beautiful pieces of art icons, paintings
    and statues in Churches are, I stand by the Protestant caveat that one can
    easily slip from adoration, when using the icon to focus one’s mind on the
    worship of God through the intercession of Jesus, into worship of the objects
    or the saint represented themselves.

    However is the Bible also not a kind of a
    written icon?

    Does it make a difference if the intercessor
    Jesus is described with the written word rather than with images?

    Both icons and the written word of the Bible are
    mere attempts to describe God and His incarnation Jesus. Images were probably
    used by the early Church before the gospels reached their final form. Up to the
    end of the Middle Ages, when about 95% of the people of Christendom were
    illiterate, icons and other images were the “Word” rather than the text of the
    Bible (only accessible in Latin and Greek).

    Since the reformation the textual description in
    the Bible (rather than images) has become the “textual image” of choice to
    worship God.

    Therefore as long as someone understands, that
    an icon, bones of exemplary Christians, or the Bible are tools to worship God,
    all is well. If someone starts believing that the bones themselves have divine
    powers or that the Bible is the literal representation of God or Reality (and
    not a mere divinely inspired textual image) then worship of God through an icon
    or through the Bible text might turn into worshipping the icon or the Bible.

    In my humble opinion, Orthodox and Roman
    Catholic Christians have to be on guard not to start worshipping images whereas
    Protestants should always consider how literal the Bible should be read.

    • Hello Piet,
      Thanks for your insights. Yes on can raise the Bible to an idol to worship, but my question is how and when is this done? Do you know of any examples? Yes, the literal reading of the entire Bible is not wise, as some parts of it are not meant to be literal. But all of it is meant to be taken seriously.

      • Piet Van Assche

        Hello Khaldoun,

        Thanks for your response.

        I fully agree with you that the Bible has to be taken seriously as it is the best written source we have to describe the Word, Jesus. It is however not the Word. My exegetic knowledge is too limited to give an opinion on accuracy of the original Bible text and the translation in different languages.

        I did not write that the Bible is raised to an idol and know no example of such practice.

        What I wanted to say is that one should be careful in our scientific age to raise the textual witness of Christianity (the Bible) above other possibly inspired human works (such as icons and maybe even relics of saints).

        In my mind, the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy (1978),


        , is already close to turning the Bible into the word instead of a representation of the Word. However reading through it, I must admit, that it is very well worded statement and certainly worth contemplating.

        For me the Bible text also works best as the description (to be taken seriously) of the Word and the mystery of Christendom. However every time I look up to the ceiling of the the Sistine Chapel (when the length of the queues does not discourage me) the sight inspires me as much as reading the Bible. Maybe some Christians get the same inspiration by bowing down to images of saints.

  • Nina Weathers

    Although I am not yet well studied in all the various religions I also often wondered how certain religions pick people to “excessively honor” for instance, Mary. I suppose I classify as an apostolic christian, and so far it seems as though the catholic religion either prays to Mary or include her in there prayers, and although she was the mother to Jesus, I often wonder why she is a main figure in the church and how they semi worship her almost as much as Jesus or God himself. I agree that mothers do deserve much respect, but at what line do we draw from paying respect or holding her up high to also praying to her. Like I mentioned I am not fully knowledgeable about Catholicism so right now this is a general observance and I agree that we have to look at what point does our adoration turn into worship.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Nina.

    • Anna

      Catholics ask Mary for her intercession because of her high position in heaven and closeness to her Son. She is given the title of mediatrix because of this. The following article can explain this much better than I and I really recommend you read it and hope it helps you.

  • Kan Enas


    I am new to the discussions and comments on this site, but I have been reading the many great articles on here for a while.

    This topic is very interesting to me personally, as I have been torn on this subject for a long time due to the many different family members who have entered my family through marriage and have shared and enriched me with their views and religions contrary to my own ever changing and evolving religion and theological beliefs.

    I first read this article Dr. Khaldoun Sweis about a year ago and I was intrigued. I did some research and read the work he referenced By George Kakaletris (Icons: The Concerns Inherent Within The Theology of The Eastern Orthodox Church on Iconography).

    After reading and pouring through that work, I realized that the experiences, doubts, issues and questions I had growing up, where more widespread than just in my own community.
    Although I grew up Orthodox and involved in the Icon culture, after reading the work above, I realize that there is a fine line and I had crossed it, along with many in my family and circle of friends.

    Anyone who has any questions about Icons should read the work that Dr. Sweis referenced (Icons: The Concerns Inherent…). That work answered all my questions above and beyond of what I was looking.

    I wanted to hold what I believed would be a Biblical and God honoring view on Icons (and all of my Christian beliefs) and now I believe my view is Biblical and God Honoring. I have not removed my Icons from my home or office, but I no longer treat them in the way I used to, meaning, venerate, worship and alike.

    I followed up with mr. Kakaletris and in our discussion, I learned that he is following up that work with another which delves in more technically on the work “proskynesis” and Icons in Eastern Greek theology. Something I am looking forward to read.

    I still have family who treat icons as though they are the third person in a room. Crying before them and kissing them and praying to the depiction with no thought, conscious or otherwise, to the God or Christ or the Holy Spirit. In fact, they are never mentioned or invoked during their prayers.

    To me, this is devastating, sad and tragic.

    I look forward to more readings and discussion on this topic in the future.

    Thank you Dr. Sweis for your writing and Passion!

    To all,

    Respectfully and In Christ


    • Hello Kan
      Thank you for your kind words! I knew George K back at Trinity–he was a body builder~! 🙂 Say hello to him! Glad to see we are on the same page, I am still learning and growing in this area. And it is devastating and sad to see people I love worshiping money and icons at the same time. Most of them do not have or want a real relationship with the real Christ, they prefer the one on their desk, or wallet. Of course not all are like that. One of my good friends is a priest who knows the balance.

  • Monica

    From briefly scanning the previous comments I feel like my thoughts are rather very simple. What an idol or icon can simple be is a direct tangible “thing” in the form of an statue, a picture or an amulet that connects them to god. It is hard to remember that god is omnipresent so what some people have taken upon them to have a physical cue or reminders that god is with them. Perhaps it is the evolution of religion and society that developed this practice. To have a token with you to ward off evil and protect you out in the world. Say in a moment of fear or weakness you pause for a moment, grasp a chain with a charm in the shape of a cross around your neck and pray for strength or peace. In that moment you are seeking something from god and that amulet is what allows you to feel that connection. I personally do not think it appropriate to worship physical things rather it is best to have respect for what an object represents; how it makes you feel closer to your faith.