The Statue Problem in Christianity

Monuments, statues, memorials, etc. frequently find themselves the center of heated debate. Should they exist to help us remember history? Should they be placed in museums if they‘re images of immoral people or ideas? Should they be destroyed because we disagree with what they represent? Where do Christians belong in this debate?

It is impossible to avoid controversy

No matter what, throughout the entire past, present, and future, there will be controversy over statues. It doesn’t matter what they represent, it’s a fact that there will be conflict around them. Read the following, and consider how it’s applicable today:

About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way of Jesus. A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said:

“You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” – Acts 19:23-27

You might be thinking, from the Christian perspective, that the worshippers of Artemis are objectively in the wrong, and therefore any statues depicting specifically a god shouldn’t be promoted. But whether it’s right or wrong doesn’t matter here, it’s what good it does trying to reason with anyone involved:

When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theater together. Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater.

The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. The Jews in the crowd pushed Alexander to the front, and they shouted instructions to him. He motioned for silence in order to make a defense before the people. – Acts 19:28-33

The Jews in the crowd pushed Alexander to the front. The Jews had a reputation for destroying idols, so they didn’t want to be the victims here, connected with a controversy started by Paul, a Christian. So like all angry groups, they look for the nearest spokesperson, someone who can connect with the other side. Who can do this? Someone who’s likely worked with Demetrius. Alexander fits the bill, he works with metal too, but he’s woefully unqualified because he’s a false teacher much like many leaders today:

Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message. – 2 Timothy 4:14

This is an example of futility, because it doesn’t matter what Alexander said, the Artemis followers discredit him simply because he’s a Jew.

But when they realized he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” – Acts 19:34

Where’s Paul in all this? Uninvolved. He wanted to go in, but the disciples held him back.

Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater. – Acts 19:30-31

A lot of times we want to engage the crowd, even when it’s obvious what is right and wrong. But sometimes it won’t change a thing, sometimes the chaos just goes away on its own:

The city clerk quieted the crowd and said:

“Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.

After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly. – Acts 19:35-41

What an interesting summation! Even the city clerk acknowledges that the whole thing is pointless, and he worships Artemis!

There’s something more important

Do you find yourself somewhere in the crowd? Are you trying to avoid controversy and find yourself sometimes seized by the crowd like Gaius and Aristarchus? Are you actively engaged in the crowd, like the Jews or the Artemis followers? If you answered yes to any of those, then you’re likely to experience what the entire assembly experienced: confusion.

The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. – Acts 19:32

What did Paul experience? Not confusion, that’s for sure! What was Paul’s response to this whole thing?

When the uproar had ended, Paul sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said goodbye and set out for Macedonia. – Acts 20:1

Pretty simple. He encouraged the poor guys who were involved in the confusion, and moved on. This is what’s important when it comes to controversies surrounding things like statues and monuments: encouragement and peace. God does not promote confusion, so we know it’s wrong when there’s chaos.

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. – 1 Corinthians 14:33

Sometimes we’re forced into the controversies, and it’s hard. But God provides people to encourage us, like Paul. Other times we’re able to be like Paul himself, and avoid the crowd. Your job then is to encourage and bring peace to those who are seized by the crowd.

What does God see?

Paul laments of his experience in Acts in another passage:

If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? – 1 Corinthians 15:32

What was Paul fighting? He didn’t really do anything amidst the crowd, right? Or was his battle somewhere else? Herein lies the point of this entire post. It’s not about the statue, the monument, the controversy. It’s about the message of Jesus, which brings peace and understanding to the chaos and confusion. I find it no coincidence that the controversy of statues and monuments can be summed up by a passage from the book of Ephesians, a book written to the Christians of Ephesus itself. Paul had more than human hope when he fought the wild beasts of Ephesus:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. – Ephesians 6:12

And how do we encourage those who are seized by the crowds? Let’s look in the same chapter of Ephesians, where we’re shown exactly what someone in that situation needs. This is a prayer that I would encourage you to incorporate into your life.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.

Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. – Ephesians 6:18-20

Encourage those around you, spread Jesus’ message. There will always be controversies and confusion out in the world, but there is also one God who stands above it all.

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. – Ephesians 4:1-6

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