Sunday, October 9, 2011


Why don’t Protestants make the sign of the cross?

This is a question that comes around more often these days. Maybe more Protestants are showing curious interest in the action, and wonder, “Why not?”

The simple, but not always satisfying, answer is that making the sign of the cross as a physical gesture was one of the casualties of the Protestant Reformation. Superstition was rampant, and the Reformers saw the incessant signing that went on as a kind of magical action done to coerce divine action. If that’s all there is to it, that would be enough.

But there’s more—it is a relevant question for our time. For example, the baseball player stepping up to the plate signing himself with the cross—is he calling on the Almighty to put lightening in his bat? Or could he be making a gesture of faith, thanking God for the ability with which he is graced?

What about the prize fighter, standing in his corner of the ring ready to do physical combat—is he soliciting divine power in his punch? What if both boxers sign themselves—on which side is the Lord? Or, is it possible that one or both might perform the sign as a prayer for a clean bout?

Probably for most of us such signings are chalked off as superstitious, and ultimately silly. God does not have a batting average, nor is there divine intervention to empower or pull boxers’ punches in any way.

So what about making the sign of the cross in worship—why don’t Protestants?

Well, some do: Episcopalians, some Lutherans, and even some Methodists and Presbyterians.
But for the most part, Protestants do not, and for several reasons.
They agree with Calvin and his ilk—it smacks of superstition, and we’re too rational (not necessarily too faithful) to go for it.
They don’t know how to do it, because there is no one to teach them how in their church.
They’ve tried it, and it feels awkward.
If the Catholics do it, then Protestants shouldn’t because it’s catholic. (As in so many other ways, we let those with whom we disagree about some things to influence our opinions on everything uncritically.)

The last reason, of course, is the primary one. So much for the Ecumenical Movement and understanding among Christians.

The implied question in all this is, “Is it appropriate for Protestants to sign themselves with the cross?” The answer can only be, “If they find it appropriate for themselves.” Many Christians, other than Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and Orthodox, find signing themselves to be an affirmation of baptism and a recollection of Christ’s redemptive death in a most personal way. As a liturgical gesture, this can be an authentic expression of praise and commitment.

Do you know of Protestants who cross themselves? How about Protestant clergy who make the sign of the cross over their congregations? Or at baptisms? Or clergy who cross themselves during worship? Are there any Protestant congregations you know where it is acceptable for people to cross themselves?


  1. I am always grateful for your excellent reflections.

    I suggest that might be another reason not to lift up making the sign of the cross-- the
    emphasis on how we understand the atonement.

    See Violence in Christian Theology by J. Denny Weaver online at

    Check out the Amazon posting for excerpts of The Nonviolent Atonement by J. Denny Weaver

    Maybe those of us fond on Celtic spirituality should make the sign of the cross and an a cirlce so ours is a Celtic cross with the circle representing eternal life, victory over the instrument of torture.

    Grace and Peace,
    Bruce Gillette,
    Co-Pastor, Limestone Presbyterian Church
    Wilmington, DE

  2. When "signing" is done by rote or habit, it can sometimes be a meaningless gesture.
    I believe this "sign of the cross" reflects the central tenet of our faith, that Christ gave his life on the cross for our redemption. It also reflects the central mystery of the Trinity: "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."
    Think of it as bookends: at the beginning of and the ending of a prayer-- the introduction and the conclusion of what comes in the middle. It prepares and it finishes.
    It's too bad that signing has been given a bad connotation as "Catholic" when in essence it prepares one for the "prayer frame of mind" and also provides a reaffirmation of our faith.
    I've only seen it used once in our church in the past 40 years, and I think it was YOU who used it in the benediction when you were our guest preacher. All I could think was, "Wow!"


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