The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society publishes the following explanation of why their followers, known as Jehovah’s Witnesses and called by this article “true Christians”, do not use the cross in worship. (What Does The Bible Really Teach?(c)2005 Appendix pg. 204-206)
THE cross is loved and respected by millions of people. The Encyclopædia Britannica calls the cross “the principal symbol of the Christian religion.” Nevertheless, true Christians do not use the cross in worship. Why not?
An important reason is that Jesus Christ did not die on a cross. The Greek word generally translated “cross” is stau·ros′. It basically means “an upright pale or stake.” The Companion Bible points out: “[Stau·ros′] never means two pieces of timber placed across one another at any angle…There is nothing in the Greek of the [New Testament] even to imply two pieces of timber.”
In several texts, Bible writers use another word for the instrument of Jesus’ death. It is the Greek word xy′lon. (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24) This word simply means “timber” or “a stick, club, or tree.”
Explaining why a simple stake was often used for executions, the book Das Kreuz und die Kreuzigung (The Cross and the Crucifixion), by Hermann Fulda, states: “Trees were not everywhere available at the places chosen for public execution. So a simple beam was sunk into the ground. On this the outlaws, with hands raised upward and often also with their feet, were bound or nailed.”
The most convincing proof of all, however, comes from God’s Word. The apostle Paul says: “Christ by purchase released us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse instead of us, because it is written: ‘Accursed is every man hanged upon a stake [“a tree,” King James Version].’” (Galatians 3:13) Here Paul quotes Deuteronomy 21:22, 23, which clearly refers to a stake, not a cross. Since such a means of execution made the person “a curse,” it would not be proper for Christians to decorate their homes with images of Christ impaled.
There is no evidence that for the first 300 years after Christ’s death, those claiming to be Christians used the cross in worship. In the fourth century, however, pagan Emperor Constantine became a convert to apostate Christianity and promoted the cross as its symbol. Whatever Constantine’s motives, the cross had nothing to do with Jesus Christ. The cross is, in fact, pagan in origin. The New Catholic Encyclopedia admits: “The cross is found in both pre-Christian and non-Christian cultures.” Various other authorities have linked the cross with nature worship and pagan sex rites.
Why, then, was this pagan symbol promoted? Apparently, to make it easier for pagans to accept “Christianity.” Nevertheless, devotion to any pagan symbol is clearly condemned by the Bible. (2 Corinthians 6:14-18) The Scriptures also forbid all forms of idolatry. (Exodus 20:4, 5; 1 Corinthians 10:14) With very good reason, therefore, true Christians do not use the cross in worship.*
The explanation given relies mostly on the meaning of the Greek words stau·ros, xy′lon and its equivalent from Hebrew. Stau·ros does indeed mean an upright pole, but does not exclude cross bars. Xy’lon has the primary meaning of tree or wood, most trees have branches and are not a simple pole, and wood in an of itself certainly does not imply only one piece. In Japanese the word is also translated as wood, or tree which uses the Kanji symbol 木 which, by example, looks more like a cross than a pole or stake. While these words could mean an upright pole, it is far from the conclusive proof needed for a core belief of “true Christians.”
Further, the quotation from The Companion Bible that “… There is nothing in the Greek of the [New Testament] even to imply two pieces of timber,” is downright dishonest.The presence of an ellipsis in the quote leaves me wondering what is missing. (I have been unable to verify the quote as it is not adequately referenced, but I have noted that the cover of The Companion Bible does picture a cross.)
A plain reading of the crucifixion accounts shows that a sign was placed above Jesus’ head, NOT above his hands, indicating, though not conclusively, that his hands were outstretched. Also, Thomas’ statement in John 20:25, says that nails, plural in the original Greek, left marks in Jesus’ hands which clearly indicates that the hands were apart; and more than one nail was used as would be required on a cross. In addition, Jesus later prophesied regarding Peter’s crucifixion that his hands would be stretched out. (John 21:18-19) Church tradition and second century historical accounts say that Peter requested to be hung upside down on his cross so that he would not be crucified as Jesus was. That request would not have been necessary if Jesus had been crucified with his hands upraised. However, Peter was about to be executed with his hands outstretched and made the request to be in a different position because he knew Jesus was executed with his hands outstretched.
Interestingly, “the most convincing proof of all,” according to the Watchtower’s anonymous writer, I find to be the least convincing. Most translations of Galatians 3:13, and it’s corresponding equivalent in Deuteronomy, agree with the King James Version in translating the word “tree,” and although the NIV does use the word “pole,” I found no translation using the word “stake” outside of the Watchtower’s own New World Translation. Additionally, Paul’s point here is not the shape in which Christ died, but the shame that he endured by the kind of death he suffered, hanging on a tree, pole, stake, or cross. One final point on this paragraph is that the Watchtower insists on saying Christ was impaled. Even if he did die on a single pole with no crossbar, the Bible clearly says Jesus was crucified, NOT impaled, which would mean that the actual cross penetrated through his body.
There is evidence from the second and third centuries that the cross was in use as a Christian symbol well before the conversion of Constantine. The Staurogram or Tau-Rho was in use by Christian writers in the early second century according to the March/April 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. The statement given that the cross had nothing to do with Christ is completely unsupported, and it is admitted that Constantine’s motives are unknown. The pagan origins of crosses notwithstanding, Christians since the apostolic age have viewed the cross as a symbol of the redeeming love God showed for us by dying for our sins.
Conversely, the pole is specifically condemned in scripture (Deut. 16:21) and is to this day viewed as a sex rite symbol. A phallus is still a phallus after all. God abhors the use of Asherah poles and their use was a primary reason for punishing Israel with exile. (See multiple references throughout Chronicles and Kings) While it is often argued by Jehovah’s Witnesses that God would not have used a pagan symbol, the cross, to execute the Messiah, the stake or pole has equal if not greater ties to paganism.
Anyone who makes an idol of the cross does not understand the Christian faith. Christianity is about the redeeming work of Christ for all of us. We are not deserving of this gift because we have a fallen nature but Christ died to redeem us from the wages of sin and clothes us with his righteousness. The cross serves as a symbol of this redemption as it was itself redeemed from its pagan roots; and its use as an instrument of a tortuous death to a symbol of God’s love and life in Christ. True Christians do not use the cross in worship, but they do view it as a symbol of their faith.
Displaying a cross in our churches or homes or wearing a cross as a testimony to our faith is not an act of worship to the cross, nor is it idolatry. Of course, we must take care not to make an idol of it or view it as a talisman or lucky charm, but this is true not just of symbols but also of organizations of men and the rules they make. The Apostle Paul wrote, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14 NIV) and, ““Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.” (2 Corinthians 10:17, 18 NIV)
The leaders of the Watchtower commend themselves as God’s organization and his mouthpiece. They set policies that all within the group must follow and agree with including belief that Jesus was impaled on a torture stake. Choosing to believe that Christ was crucified on a stake, as opposed to a cross, is a matter of Christian freedom and certainly not a core belief on which our membership in Christ’s body should be considered dependent. The shape of the cross does not save us, the blood of Jesus does. All we have to do is believe.