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Is Venerating Icons Idolatry?

by Timothy Copple

When I was first looking into the Orthodox Church, I was a bit puzzled by the veneration of icons, not having a real context to know what it really meant. So, like a good Protestant, I did a Biblical word study on the acts of veneration in the Bible to help see how it was used in the context of worship and otherwise. I originally wrote this back in 1996, but have updated and adjusted it since then a few times. - Reader Timothy Copple

One of the most difficult things for Protestants to grasp when considering Orthodoxy is the veneration of Icons. The immediate reaction of many is that it is worship, or at least borders on worship of the Icon rather than simply honoring the Saint depicted. After all, most Protestants do have pictures and do use them to remind them of people, yet they do not bow to them or kiss them. It is the bowing and kissing of Icons that seems to cause the most problems. Protestants see in these actions a "worship" of the item. There are two questions to answer concerning this view. One, is this idea and impression Biblical? Two, why do we see these actions as worshiping the Icon?

First, let's look at the Biblical examples and the relationship of bowing and prostrating to worship. To start, we will examine the Hebrew words and examples in the Old Testament. The primary word in the Hebrew for worship and bowing is described in Strong's concordance as:

shachah, shaw-khaw'; a prim. root; to depress, i.e. prostrate (espec. reflex. in homage to royalty or God):—bow (self) down, crouch, fall down (flat), humbly beseech, do (make) obeisance, do reverence, make to stoop, worship.

However, this word is very context sensitive. There are many places where this word is translated as "worship" (Exo 12:27 (Uses "qadad" to bow the head and "shachah" to indicate worship); 1 Chron 29:20; 2 Chr 7:3; 20:18; 29:29-30; Neh 8:6; Psalm 22:29; 95:6). "Worship" in the context of this word specifically refers to the god which one serves.

At the root of this word, is the idea that one bows to another who is to be respected and/or is in authority over you. Bowing was a sign of submission to another person and showing honor. Also, it was a humbling of yourself before another person. The position makes one vulnerable to the other person. With head bowed, you are at the mercy of the other person who could at that point kill you if he wished. In that way, you are submitting yourself to that person.

Consequently, this word is not just translated as "worship" but also frequently translated as "bowing" in context that would not suggest a worshiping attitude. It suggests a respect or recognition of another person's authority. This was frequently done in greeting another person. (Gen 27:29; 33:3-7; 37:10; 41:43; 42:6; 43:26; 47:31; 48:12; 49:8; Ruth 2:10; 1 Sam 20:41; 24:8; 25:23, 41; 28:14; 2 Sam 9:8; 14:22, 33; 18:21; 24:20; 1 Kings 1:15, 23 (obeisance), 31(reverence), 47, 53; 2:19; 2 Kings 2:15; 4:37; 1 Chr 21:21; Est 3:2 (reverence); Isa 60:14).

It is also translated as "bowing" concerning God's command to not bow and serve any idol or graven image (Exo 11:8; 20:4-5 ("shachah" used as bowing to an idol to serve it, thus being in submission to it); 23:24; Lev 26:1; Num 25:2; Deut 5:8-9; Joshua 23:7; 23:16; Judges 2:12, 16-19; 2 Kings 17:35; 2 Chr 25:14). That we could have no other God before us results in not bowing to another god. As Jesus says, we cannot serve two masters equally. Bowing in submission to an idol (the Hebrew word for "idol" means "empty and vain") suggested that they had taken their submission away from God. The emphasis of the bowing was to show whom  one served when done to one perceived as a god.

Context is all important. The word could mean worship, or it could mean a simple sign of respect, or even affection in friendship as when David bowed before Jonathan. It is in this context that the word finds it's broadest meaning. However, when we apply the action to a god, it becomes an act of worship. In that act of bowing to a god, it is an indication of submission to it and that you will serve it. It is the person's heart which is critical; who are they serving? In the Bible, whenever bowing to God or an idol is mentioned, the context of serving that god is usually included, the implication being that it is to the exclusion of other gods. It is this attitude of being in submission to God that the word "worship" holds for the Jew. It is not just offering up words and bowing, but an attitude of the heart to serve God and Him alone.

Therefore, one can see that bowing itself is totally context sensitive in the Hebrew mind set. Their worship was full of bowing, as their word for worship is so strongly linked to it. Bowing was done in greeting, in honoring, in showing respect, and in acknowledging authority. It is easy to see that this attitude would have prevailed in the early Church as a natural extension of that mind set.

Another Hebrew word used almost exclusively in the context of worship, and is usually translated as "bowing" is:

qadad, kaw-dad'; a prim. root; to shrivel up, i.e. contract or bend the body (or neck) in deference:—bow (down) (the) head, stoop.

Usually, this references the bowing of the head, sometimes the bowing of the body. It is almost always done in the context of worshiping God (Gen 24:26, 48, 52; Exo 4:31; 34:8; 1 Chr 29:20; 2 Chr 20:18; 29:30; Neh 8:6) and is frequently combined with the previous word translated as "worship" so that often you find the phrase "bowed their heads and worshiped." There is only one time where it is questionable, in Num 22:31 it is used in reference to bowing to an angel of the Lord. The angel does not rebuke Balaam, who also fell flat on his face. Apparently, there was some aspect of "worship" in this, but is not stated as such, but probably more out of fear. Either that, or sometimes it is implied that the "angel of the Lord" may actually be the Christ, and thus such worship would not be out of place. 

An example of the way these two words work together:

(Gen 43:28 KJV) And they answered, Thy servant our father is in good health, he is yet alive. And they bowed down their heads, and made obeisance.

"bowed" - "qadad"

"obeisance" - "shachah", Eng. word means to bow in respect and honor. (NKJV says they prostrated themselves and to Joseph at that!)

Another word which is used is:

kara', kaw-rah'; a prim. root; to bend the knee; by impl. to sink, to prostrate:—bow (down, self), bring down (low), cast down, couch, fall, feeble, kneeling, sink, smite (stoop) down, subdue, X very.

This word is used in a broader context to mean falling down. It is used in reference to one who dies (Judges 5:27), people who bow down to get a drink (Judges 7:5-6), one in pain (1 Sam 4:19), giving birth (Job 39:3), and bowing under pressure (Isa 10:4). 

They also "fall down" in reference to people (Est 3:2, 5; Psalm 72:9 (to the king)). It also is used in reference to bowing to an idol (1 Kings 19:18) and to God (2 Chr 7:3 (bowed); 29:29: Psalm 22:29; 95:6; Isa 45:23). When used with God, it definitely indicates an attitude of worship, usually of prostration before Him.

One key passage in the Old Testament is the story of Naaman, who was healed of leprosy by Elijah.

(2 Ki 5:17-19 KJV) And Naaman said, Shall there not then, I pray thee, be given to thy servant two mules' burden of earth? for thy servant will henceforth offer neither burnt offering nor sacrifice unto other gods, but unto the LORD. {18} In this thing the LORD pardon thy servant, that when my master goeth into the house of Rimmon to worship there, and he leaneth on my hand, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon: when I bow down myself in the house of Rimmon, the LORD pardon thy servant in this thing. {19} And he said unto him, Go in peace. So he departed from him a little way. ("shachah" is used both for the word "worship" and "bow" in this passage.)

Naaman, after being healed, proclaimed that the God of Israel was the one true God, and announced that he would no longer offer sacrifices to any other god. Yet, he realized that his master would require of him to bow before the god of his house, but in this the intent of his heart was not to worship or serve the god in bowing to it, thus the prophet pardoned him in this act. Remember, Naaman was saying in this, "My outward actions would indicate that I am subjecting myself to this god, but my heart is subjected to the God of Israel." As always, worship is done in "spirit and truth". It is expressed by our actions, not defined by them.

Now let's examine the Greek words and usage in relation to bowing and worship. The primary Greek word for worship is:

4352. proskuneo, pros-koo-neh'-o; from G4314 and a prob. der. of G2965 (mean. to kiss, like a dog licking his master's hand); to fawn or crouch to, i.e. (lit. or fig.) prostrate oneself in homage (do reverence to, adore):—worship. (combination of: 4314. pros, pros; a strengthened form of G4253; a prep. of direction; forward to, i.e. toward. and 2965. kuon, koo'-ohn; a prim. word; a dog ["hound"] (lit. or fig.):—dog.)

Kind of a strange way to come up with the word for worship of God, but I would imagine that the attitude would be the same that a dog has for his master. Although the elements of "kissing" and "prostration" are included in the definition, the word is never translated as such in the New Testament, but always as "worship". It occurs 60 times in 54 verses, so I won't quote all of them here. The word is frequently used in relation to the way people approached Jesus. This was the way in which the Gospel writers intended to relate that Jesus was indeed God, for consistently through the New Testament, this worship is reserved for God alone and condemned when directed toward men or other beings. So its free use in relation to Jesus shows the attitude of the writers toward Him, that He is indeed God and worthy to be worshiped.

It is also appropriate to note here that while in the New Testament this word is used exclusively for worship to God, in general usage of the Greeks themselves this is not the case. The Greek translation of the Old Testament uses the word much like the Hebrew uses "shachah". A different Greek word is used there and in the Church Fathers to indicate divine worship specifically. In the New Testament, however, the writers used this word to do that job.

The word used often to indicate a prostration in relation to worship is the Greek word:

4098. pipto, pip'-to; a redupl. and contr. form of peto, pet'-o (which occurs only as an alt. in cert. tenses); prob. akin to G4072 through the idea of alighting; to fall (lit. or fig.):—fail, fall (down), light on.

This is a broad term that basically means to fall down. It is used in a variety of context, like the blind leading the blind and both falling into a ditch, or that God knows when a sparrow falls to the ground. In relation to use with "worship", it refers to falling down before the one to worship.

The three incidence of improper worship of a person in the New Testament indicate the interaction of these two words.

(Acts 10:25 KJV) And as Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him, and fell down at his feet, and worshipped him.

(Rev 19:10 KJV) And I fell at his feet to worship him. And he said unto me, See thou do it not: I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren that have the testimony of Jesus: worship God: for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.

(Rev 22:8-9 KJV) And I John saw these things, and heard them. And when I had heard and seen, I fell down to worship before the feet of the angel which showed me these things. {9} Then saith he unto me, See thou do it not: for I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren the prophets, and of them which keep the sayings of this book: worship God.

It is for this reason that "to worship him" or "and worshipped him" are included, for otherwise it would be saying that they just fell down, but no reason as to why. Did they trip? Due to grief? Did someone push them? Or were these two people simply honoring the ones the fell down towards? No they fell down because they were worshiping them. The falling down would mean nothing without a word that defines what the falling down was meant to convey. In these context, the word "worship" is included for that purpose, which is "proskuneo".

There are several other words used in various context to indicate a bowing, kneeling, prostration action:

1120. gonupeteo, gon-oo-pet-eh'-o; from a comp. of G1119 and the alt. of G4098; to fall on the knee:—bow the knee, kneel down.

To a person: Matt 27:29 (mocking Christ as a king)

5087. tithemi, tith'-ay-mee; a prol. form of a prim. theo, theh'-o (which is used only as alt. in cert. tenses); to place (in the widest application, lit. and fig.; prop. in a passive or horizontal posture, and thus different from G2476, which prop. denotes as upright and active position, while G2749 is prop. reflexive and utterly prostrate):—+ advise, appoint, bow, commit, conceive, give, X kneel down, lay (aside, down, up), make, ordain, purpose, put, set (forth), settle, sink down.

To a person: Mark 15:19 (mocking Christ as a king)

2749. keimai, ki'-mahee; mid. of a prim. verb; to lie outstretched (lit.or fig.):—be (appointed, laid up, made, set), lay, lie. Comp. G5087.

2827. klino, klee'-no; a prim. verb; to slant or slope, i.e. incline or recline (lit. or fig.):—bow (down), be far spent, lay, turn to flight, wear away.

Luke 23:5 (bowed before angels); John 19:30 (Jesus bows his head)

2578. kampto, kamp'-to; appar. a prim. verb; to bend:—bow.

Rom 11:4 (in reference to bowing to an idol); 14:11 (in reference to bowing to God); Eph 3:15 (to God); Phil 2:10 (bow to God)

The interesting thing among these words and the Hebrew ones, is that the Greek has the actions of bowing and prostrating separated from the word for worship, which was not the case in the Hebrew. Hebrew was much more context sensitive while the Greek seems to use the word "proskuneo" to only refer to worship which can only be given to God. It is never used to refer specifically to prostration or bowing, though the elements of that are included in worship to God as indicated in the definition. However, to indicate a bowing action or a prostration, separate Greek words are used which are not always in the context of worship.

Biblically speaking, bowing, and even prostration, was not in and of itself an indication of worship as much as it was a sign of respect and recognition of authority. However, they were used extensively in worship, for the ultimate recognition of respect and authority is to be recognized in our worship of God. Thus, bowing is used both to other people and to God. When it is used in relation to God, or anything being recognized as a god, it was designated as an act of worship.

But what was the dividing line in the three instances where it was recognized that the people fell down to worship when it was improper to do so? Obviously it was clear to Peter and the angel that the intent of the actions being done to them was not just respect and honor, but an act of worship. What "clues" to that effect were given we are not told, just that these people were bowing and prostrating themselves with the intent to worship Peter and the angel. It is significant here that the prostration had to be qualified that it was with this intent to worship. If falling down to another person in and of itself could only be interpreted as worship, there would have been no need for the further clarification.

Bowing and prostrating are totally context sensitive both in the Old and New Testaments. It basically conveys a respect and submission to another person. When done to God, it becomes an act of worship, our ultimate act of submission to the King of Kings. When done to God, it becomes an act  of worship in that from our hearts we are devoted to serve Him and Him alone. No other gods before us. Therefore, we cannot judge a person who bows to another as worshiping them, there simply is no Biblical support for such a conclusion.

The other action done to Icons also falls within this realm. Often, Icons are kissed along with a bow. Yet, kissing has a wide range of meanings depending upon the one doing it and the context of it. The Hebrew word for it is:

5401. nashaq, naw-shak'; a prim. root [ident. with H5400, through the idea of fastening up; comp. H2388, H2836]; to kiss, lit. or fig. (touch); also (as a mode of attachment), to equip with weapons:—armed (men), rule, kiss, that touched.

It is used in reference to a kiss of greeting (Gen 29:13), a romantic kiss (Song of Sol 1:2), worshiping an idol (Hosea 13:2), and the Son of God (Psalm 2:12).

The Greek word is:

2705. kataphileo, kat-af-ee-leh'-o; from G2596 and G5368; to kiss earnestly:—kiss.

This comes from the word for brotherly love, "phileo", which is also translated as "kiss" in some instances, as it is in referring to the famous kiss that Judas gave to Jesus (Matt 26:48-49).

5370. philema, fil'-ay-mah; from G5368; a kiss:—kiss.

This word also comes from "phileo". It is used by Paul on four different occasions when he tells those he writes to give the brethren a holy kiss (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Th 5:26) as well as Peter suggest the same thing in his epistle (1 Pet 5:14). It becomes evident in Jesus' encounter with the pharisee and the woman that a kiss was an expected custom to show respect and affection (Luke 7:44-45).

As with a bow, the context of the kiss is the deciding factor in what it means to kiss someone or something. When done to God, it becomes worship. To other people, it shows affection, love, and respect. Biblically, kissing an Icon cannot be construed to be worship in and of  itself. It has to be done with that intent as does the actions of bowing and prostration.

That details the Biblical side of the question, but why do Protestants have such a hard time with this? Why does bowing and kissing an Icon come across to many as worship or boarding on it?

There is a two fold reason. First, our culture has lost the meanings behind these actions that were common in the Bible and much of Christian history. Second, the use of an inanimate object can make it appear that we are doing these actions to the object and not to a person; the concept of "Icon" has been lost.

In our American culture, Protestants simply don't do a whole lot of bowing and kissing. We rarely bow to anything, except in prayer to God. The bowing and kissing when greeting another has been replaced with the handshake, and if real familiar, a hug. Respect for another is demonstrated by being kind and using good manners. Even with the President of the United States, usually a standing ovation is how he is greeted with respect when he enters the chambers of a gathering. The only context that Protestants have for bowing is in prayer to God. So, when we bow to another person or an Icon representing another person, Protestants tend to lump the action together along with prostrations as an action of worship simply because they have no other cultural context for it. It is basically a result of "culture shock".

This context began to be lost at the Reformation. Even before the Reformation, certain areas like France had rejected the proper understanding of the veneration of Icons. Different groups decided that the seventh ecumenical council was wrong and felt that Icons and veneration to them was sinful and idolatry. Though not fully accepted by all groups, it gradually resulted in a lack of practice in most all denominations which then lost the proper context of Icons, and the meaning behind bowing in venerating them. If that aspect of Christian worship had not been lost  at the Reformation, no doubt this cultural problem would not be present today.

Kissing is another action that has missed much of its proper context. American culture has reduced it to primarily romantic (eros) love meaning and has lost the brotherly (phileo) love which shows respect and acceptance. It is socially unacceptable for men to kiss men in our society. The only place the Biblical context has held a hold in our society at all is in the family kiss. I remember as a boy giving my Dad a bedtime kiss; that is a "phileo" kiss.

Consequently, when kissing is placed outside of that context, it tends to be lumped into the same "unknown" group of suspected behaviors. Since we don't know what is meant by it, Protestants tend to assume that it is also a form of worship as well. However, unlike bowing, we really don't have a set idea that kissing is only done in worship to God. So, there is more room to define it in the right context, as showing brotherly affection and respect to another. Since that concept is still in our culture, though not used quite as frequently, it can be more readily understood.

Probably the biggest reason that Protestants might feel that these actions are worshiping an idol is the fact that they are being done to an inanimate object, and not to a person. After all, the above Scriptures in bowing and kissing were all to persons, not objects. Therefore, they tend to equate it with worshiping idols which are prohibited in Scripture.

But there is a big difference between an Icon and an idol. The idol is seen as a god in itself or as pointing to a god other than the God of Israel. The Icon only points to another person that cannot be present with us. They really serve the same function as our photographs do, to remind us of loved ones, though we must define "rememberance" as a making present of a heavenly reality. "Windows into Heaven" as they are called. The physical pictures of the Saints and Christ remind us that  they are alive, that they are a "cloud of witnesses" surrounding us, and that we are joining them in worship around the throne. The reality of the Saints is pointed to by the Icons of them in our midst.

Now, when we walk into the church, do not most Protestants greet one another? Of course. We would consider it an unfriendly church to not do so. If we walked into a church, and St. Peter were standing there in the flesh, would we not want to greet him properly? You bet we would. We would even want to hug him if possible. Since the Saints are not there in body, the Icons remind us of them, and give us a means whereby we can indirectly greet them as we enter the church to worship with them. It adds to the reality of our heavenly worship. Just as the proverbial soldier in the field might take out a photograph of his wife or girlfriend and kiss it, the bowing and kissing of Icons is not directed at the inanimate, lifeless picture before us, but to the Saint, alive and well in heaven to whom we are giving this greeting and respect to. Thus, it is not directed toward the Icon itself but the person it represents. We are bowing and kissing a person through the Icon. This is why Icons are called "windows into Heaven," for they act as a channel whereby the reality of their life and prayers can be concretely represented.

Once a Protestant puts this in the proper light, it can be seen for what it is. They are not idols for they are not viewed as a god, nor do we even feel they point us to a god (except in reference to Jesus) so how can they be worshiped? You have to have a "god" to worship before it can become idolatry. Nor do we feel what we are doing is "worship" in the strict sense of the word, except as it lifts up the grace of Christ exemplified by the lives of the Saints. Bowing and kissing an Icon is no more idolatry than a Protestant kneeling at an altar is idolatry. Bowing and kissing are only "worship" when done unto God with a heart of faith.

When they are directed towards another person, they are signs of respect, love, honor, and greeting. There is no way Biblically nor logically that a person can claim that it is idolatry unless the intent of the person doing it is to that end. Only Christ can see their heart, so we had better not worry about the other person and focus on our own hearts.

The fact is that the Bible is filled with people bowing and kissing one another and it was never declared to be idolatry. Neither is it today. The American Protestant has simply missed out in the last 500 years on a vital and real Christian practice of honoring the Saints that has existed since the early Apostles passed on and consequently the reality of the Saints in heaven has been dimmed and in some cases lost altogether. After all, we are instructed by Paul to "Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth." (Col 3:2 NKJV) The Saints are in heaven worshiping around the throne. We could do a lot worse than setting our minds on them. 

So where is that dividing line between worshiping and honoring?

To understand that, it is best if we go back to the Seventh Ecumenical Council, where this very issue was hashed out. Here is the relevant section quoted: 

"To make our confession short, we keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether in writing or verbally, one of which is the making of pictorial representations, agreeable to the history of the preaching of the Gospel, a tradition useful in many respects, but especially in this, that so the incarnation of the Word of God is shown forth as real and not merely phantastic, for these have mutual indications and without doubt have also mutual significations.

"We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images,  as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people. For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men  lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honourable reverence, not indeed that true worship of faith which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented. For thus the teaching of our holy Fathers, that is the tradition of the Catholic Church, which from one end of the earth to the other hath received the Gospel, is strengthened." (Decree from the Seventh Ecumenical Council)

Note here that an Icon points to something in reality. Since the Saints are real, live people; their Icons direct us to them, not the Icon itself. The difference in whether an action is honoring and respect or worship is whether it is considered to be divinity which it points to. When someone venerates an Icon of St. Peter the Apostle, they are not showing honor and respect to the wood and paint, but to the person of St. Peter. Since they also do not see St. Peter as a god, but as a fellow servant, they are not worshiping him, but only giving him proper respect and honor as one of God's servants who ran the race well.

Then too, if someone bows to an Icon of Christ, that is not seen as bowing to the wood or paint, but to Christ Himself seated on His throne in Heaven. In this case, it is God to which veneration is being given, so in this instance it is worship as well.

Also, we must bring up the second commandment in this regard, for often the charge is heard that the veneration of Icons violates the second commandment. Let us review the second commandment and see if indeed this does violate it or not.

(Exo 20:4 NKJV) "You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;...."

It is here that most people like to stop, for this of itself would seem to settle the matter. However, if this stood alone as it is, that would mean that all forms of pictures and images are forbidden, period. But there are two more verses which are part of the second commandment which qualify what is said in verse 4:

(Exo 20:5-6 NKJV) you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, {6} but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

OK, so you shall not make an image in order to bow down to them. But, for what purpose? We have already seen that bowing was context sensitive, and we know that the Israelites had many images in their temple. It specifically says that you shall not bow down in order to serve them, that is, over and above God. It is because this would take the place of God that God indicates that He is a jealous God who will not have other gods before Him, as He clearly states in the first commandment.

So, for the veneration of images to violate the second commandment, it would have to: 1. Be an image of some type, 2. We would have to bow to it, 3. We would bow to it in order to serve it, 4. And to serve it as a god, to supersede God. Thus, it would turn into worship and break the second commandment. Veneration of the Saints through their images only applies to 2 of the 4 qualifications, thus it is not worship of the Saint or the Icon, nor does it break the second commandment. It seems the real concern of those who hesitate at this point is that they are afraid that if they bow to an Icon and kiss it, that they might find themselves someday falling into worship rather than just veneration and honor. Like one day they would wake up and realize that all this time they had been worshiping Mary instead of just giving her honor. The truth of the matter is that you simply cannot accidently worship an Icon. Worship is intentionally giving veneration to a god. As long as that god  is the God, then you have nothing to worry about. No one can accidentally worship a Saint. Worship is a purposefull activity and you do it on purpose and with intent.

Let's take the Protestant problem of Bibliolatry for instance. Some Protestant groups and people have been charged with worshiping the Bible. In some of the cases, that may actually be true, I don't know. But in most cases, if you were to ask such people who seemed to come across that way whether they believed that the Bible was a god or not, they would naturally tell you no. So strictly speaking, such people would not be worshiping the Bible even if they placed undue attention and emphasis on it to the point of seeming to go overboard. Rather, they say they would hold the Bible in such high esteem because it is through the Bible that they know who God is, who Christ is, and the whole revelation of God. Thus, it is important to them. As long as those Protestants do not view the Bible itself as a god, nor do they understand it to be pointing to some other god than the one in it's pages, then they are not worshiping it.

No matter what actions are being expressed, it is from the heart that the real line can be drawn. It goes back to what Jesus was saying in Matt 5:27-28. Even if the person does absolutely nothing, but were to turn the Icon into some sort of god and pledge his allegiance to it, he would be worshiping an idol even if he never fell down in prostration before it. This is exactly what has happened when "cults" have started. A man is turned into a god, is worshiped by the people, and instead of  stopping them he enjoys it for it boost his ego. They may not bow to him, or kiss him, or prostrate themselves to him, but they worship him all the same and are condemned for it. It is from the heart that true worship takes place, either for the one true God or some other god.

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.

The bottom line? Venerating Icons is only worship if the person doing it does it for that purpose. When we understand the cultural context of veneration of Icons and the traditional way that it has been taught and practiced through out the Church's history, it becomes clear that not only is this something that is permissible and good, but necessary to safeguard the faith that Christ really did come in the flesh. Not to mention the richness and depth they add to worship, connecting us with the broader worshiping community of the faithful down through the ages. You've heard the slogan "Have you hugged your kid today?" Well, for the Orthodox it would be "Have you bowed to and kissed a Saint today?"

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