Is a live-streamed pastor on the big screen an “icon”?

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

Those of you who have studied church history will remember that one of the most sustained conflicts in the church was over the use of icons or images in Christian worship.  The debate raged for centuries between the seventh and the end of the ninth century.  An icon refers to a two dimensional image of a Christian theme, usually of Christ, one of the Apostles or early church fathers.  In an age when the vast majority of Christians were illiterate, the icons were living “windows” into the mysteries of the faith, rich with symbolism, role models for faith and devotion, and historical records of the saints and martyrs of the church.

Those who favored the use of the icons were known as iconofiles, meaning “lover of icons.”  Those who rejected the use of icons were known as iconoclasts, meaning “destroyer of icons.”  The iconoclasts argued that the use of images was idolatry and a clear violation of the Ten Commandments, especially the second command:  “You shall make no graven image.”  The iconofiles reminded the church that there is no more powerful ‘image’ of Christ than the holy sacraments themselves which Christ himself instituted.  Likewise, the widespread use of crosses, images of Christ “at the door knocking” or Duhrer’s praying hands demonstrates that even “low church” Protestants find Christian images comforting and compelling.

My own view is that the church actually dug a theological hole (without realizing it) before the first icon was ever made.  When the church was fighting emperor worship in the first century they insisted that to worship an image of the emperor was the same as worshipping the emperor.   A Christian could not show honor to an image because “there is one emperor, not two.”  To put it another way, the honor that is given to the image “passes over to the prototype.”  Once this argument was accepted it became difficult to dismiss the iconofile notion that honoring an image of Christ brought glory and honor to Christ himself.  The orthodox view is that the “image” is merely a window to the true reality and is not a form of idolatry.  It is actually the opposite of idolatry because, in the case of icons, the true reality is pointed to, whereas in idolatry, a false reality is being pointed to.  The dissenting view is that the “image” distracts from the true and sole worship of God and that to honor an image brings no honor to the Risen Christ.

What is interesting for us today is that this whole issue is descending in fresh form on the church once again.   What is the role of art in the church?  What is the role of visual imagery in worship?  Is the “image” of the preacher extended from one “live” service to a second streamed service in a remote location the same as the presence of the preacher?  What are your thoughts on this?


  • Joshua says:

    On the subject of art or visual imagery in worship, do they take away from the purpose of worship? Is God the subject or is it purely the art or visual imagery that is focused on? Personally, imagery is the least of my concerns when I am worshipping God in a communal or individual atmosphere. The purpose of worship is to give God the glory and praise. It is not a means to make something happen because that is left up to God. Is that what the art or visual imagery is being used for, or is it simply a there to accent this purpose?

    On the subject of “satellite” locations or online streaming of a service, I am not sure I have much of an opinion. Typically, however, I would say that it is simply not the same. On the other hand, it might not be so for someone else who access those resources.

  • JAy. says:

    Personally, I feel that reducing the issue to “for or against icons” is missing the whole point of the commandment against graven images. The point is to worship the one true God, not something that represents God, who was at the time unrepresentable. After Jesus came, we have a way to represent at least one form of the triune God.

    The real issue surrounding artwork, icons, and the like (including physical copies of the Bible) is the attitude of those who encounter the item. Is reverence given to God, or to the item itself. If we start to look at physical items as important beyond their worth simply because they are a representation of God, then we are idolizing them. That is what we are prohibited from doing.

    To answer your questions, art and visual imagery, as well as the preacher and/or worship leaders, should only point to God; these are not items due reverence.

    As far as telecasting a preacher, I see no theological issue. There may be a sociological issue in the fact that it becomes more difficult to build a community when the leader disappears at the end of the meeting (worship). So, no, I don’t see it as the same, but I don’t see it as a big hinderance to the spreading of the message.

    Now, if we value the preacher more than the community, we have a bigger issue, but that is true regardless of the physical presence of the preacher.

  • Teddy Ray says:

    I have struggled with the notion of streaming preachers into other locations. I have heard all of the arguments for efficiency (less people having to prepare, more people hearing the same message, a new version of circuit riding) and effectiveness (stream our best preachers and we can get rid of some of the worst), but I still think the problems outweigh the benefits.

    I think my main problem is on the other side of the icon debate… The image is NOT the real person. I think that makes an incredible difference. When we beam an image into a worship space, we suggest that the speaker’s presence means very little to us. We proclaim the incarnation and believe that the Son of God’s actual, bodily presence in the world was crucial. I don’t think it’s stretching too far to say that we should value actual, bodily presence today as a result. This is something we may too quickly overlook in a technological age. An e-mail doesn’t carry the same significance as sitting with someone in his living room. A preacher on a screen doesn’t carry the same significance as a real, live, breathing one, who can actually look you in the eye, recognize a laugh or a raised eyebrow, and speak to you afterward.

    I went to an Elton John concert a couple weeks ago. It was enormously expensive (a pretty big splurge!) If someone across the street had told us that for free they would pump in the music, stream the video, and have the place rocking just as much, I doubt I would have bothered to even make the drive. I spent a lot of time watching the video screen. But still, there was something significant to actually being in the room where he was.

    • JAy. says:

      I agree completely with you regarding the preacher being streamed. It isn’t the same.
      I have to disagree somewhat regarding a concert such as Elton John (wish I could have been there!), and that is because of a fundamental difference between the events. When we go to a concert, we are going to see a specific person: the entertainer(s) on the stage. When we go to church, we are supposed to be going to worship a specific person: Jesus Christ. I realize this goes somewhat against where I agree with you above, but I still think it is an important distinction.
      Heck, for my Sunday School class, we frequently watch pre-recorded lessons, and then discuss them as a class. But that works in a Sunday School class setting (designed to be an interactive discussion) better than a worship setting (responsive worship with non-interactive preaching portion). Hence, the presence of a preacher holds the worshipers attention better.

      • Teddy Ray says:

        Great points, Jay. I should have been careful not to so closely link the preacher to a stage-performer. The point was only supposed to show that our responses and appreciation are significantly changed by someone’s actual presence — a rebuttal to those who say, “Everyone looks at the screen anyways. It really doesn’t matter if the person is there.” We should no more worship the preacher than we worship Elton John.

        Your point about the Sunday School class setting is helpful, too. I think there can be a place for using technology. Heck, I might even be okay to put a preacher on screen for a special, rare occasion. But to have anyone’s primary proclamation of Scripture come from a talking-head seems to deny the crucial nature of incarnational mission and witness.

    • Donna says:

      Usually there’s a campus pastor on site in places where the message is streamed. There’s also a full staff, live music, small groups, and occasional visits by the streamed pastor himself. So although a bit odd (particularly when people respond to the screen as if the pastor is in the room), it’s not idolatrous or even non-incarnational. I think of it more as one of those “greater things than these” that the apostles could not have imagined.

      Of course, that doesn’t mean there are no pastors receiving worship. A few may even encourage it. But it’s not because they’re on a screen. Everything’s on a screen now: our relationships, commerce, God’s Word, and even this discussion. It’s just a place where we connect.

  • Alan says:

    Interesting this debate is just now heating up when for decades Billy Graham broadcast his Crusades around the world!

    • JAy. says:

      I in no way mean to be a jerk, but I think that there is a significant difference between Billy Graham’s Crusades and a preacher being telecast to multiple locations. Graham’s intent was to get people interested in Jesus so that they would go seek out a community, a church. Graham was not church-building with his telecasts. Telecasting preachers every Sunday is the opposite: the intent is to remotely shepherd a community. It doesn’t work with sheep, and I am not convinced it is really effective when it comes to churches, either.

      • Alan says:

        Jay, Your points are all well taken in a specific discussion of effective strategies of church building versus evangelism, but I’m thinking our topic here is “Is a live-streamed pastor on the big screen an icon?” – meaning generally is it sinful to broadcast the image of someone proclaiming the Word of God?” I would again submit that I thought the debate was settled a long time ago (except among Amish who think even photographs are sinful) when live broadcasts of Billy Graham Crusades were so widely accepted around the world.

  • John says:

    My view of this issue is shaped by what I call “cognitive spirituality”. Dr. Tennent speaks of an “age when the vast majority of Christians were illiterate”. During this age, the icons were “windows into the mysteries of faith” that were used by the people to connect with the “saints and martyrs” of the church. This, I believe, is a result of them expressing their belief as that of a child whose mother has left the room. The child begins to cry because they cannot see their mother anymore. In their understanding, mother is out of sight, therefore she is gone. No display of language in any demonstrated form can be used to assuage the child’s grief at the presumed separation/loss. However, the moment that the mother re-enters the room, the tears are replaced with sobs of joy, and laughter by the restoration of the bond between them. This behavior, of course, of a right, disappears as the child matures into the understanding that mother did indeed go out of the sight of the child by leaving the room, but had not actually “gone” anywhere.
    “Icons”, when viewed in this respect, can be seen as a necessary, and even vital part of the development of a vital “family” relationship with God.
    Were we not made in the “image” of God ourselves? And perhaps in the end could this not have been so for the purpose of teaching us that in each other we could “gaze” through this “window of faith” into the face of the one who created us?