Making the sign of the cross, also called “crossing one’s self,” is a practice common in certain branches of historic Christianity, such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. However, it is much less common in Protestantism. Why?
Most Protestants don’t make the sign of the cross because they are not persuaded that there is a biblical basis for the practice. A minority of Protestants, mostly Lutherans, make the sign of the cross because Martin Luther encouraged it as an outward expression of their faith and love for Jesus Christ.
What Protestant denominations make the sign of the cross? Why don’t most Protestants make the sign of the cross? What is the biblical basis for making the sign of the cross for Catholics and Protestants who do it? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
What Protestant denominations make the sign of the cross?
While most Protestant denominations don’t make the sign of the cross, a few practice it with varying degrees of frequency. The Lutheran and Methodist traditions both incorporate tracing a cross in the air over a person to externally symbolize an inward truth.
- Lutheranism: Lutheranism has the most extensive history of making the sign of the cross in comparison to all other Protestant traditions. The tradition’s founder, Martin Luther (1483-1546), encouraged Christians to make the sign of the cross routinely (see below), which cemented the practice in the spiritual lives of many Lutherans. Lutheran denominations, like the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, teach that their members have the freedom to cross themselves or not (more below).
- Methodism: The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, encouraged Christians to make the sign of the cross on certain occassions such as after baptizing children. The United Methodist Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church have traditions that include tracing the cross over adults and children on special occassions like Ash Wednesday.
What is the basis for making the sign of the cross? Lutheranism and Methodism believe Christians have the freedom to cross themselves or not. Making the sign isn’t a matter of obedience, and not making it isn’t a matter of disobedience. Evidence that early Christians routinely made the sign of the cross dates to the second century after Christ. Early church fathers like Tertullian (155-220) and Basil the Great (330-379) both wrote positively about the practice.
Why don’t more Protestant denominations make the sign of the cross?
Protestant traditions answer this question differently, but one, two, or all three of the reasons below are often cited:
- It lacks a clear biblical basis: Many Protestants believe that the biblical basis for making the sign of the cross is weak (more below). This doesn’t necessarily mean making the sign of the cross is wrong, but it does mean that it’s not mandatory.
- Its association with Catholicism: Protestant traditions trace their historical lineage to the 16th-century Reformation in Europe, in which many Christians challenged certain doctrines and practices of the Catholic church. Most Reformers associated making the sign of the cross with Catholicism and discouraged the practice. Not all Protestants today believe making the sign is sinful, but some argue that making it confuses observers who associate it with Catholicism.
- It’s a violation of the second commandment: Some Protestants believe that because the sign of the cross is an image, even if an invisible one, that it is a violation of the second of the 10 commandments: ““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.” (Exod. 20:4, ESV)
What is the biblical basis for making the sign of the cross?
Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox often cite three verses in defense of crossing themselves. None of the verses cited specifically mention tracing the shape of a cross over their head and chest, but practitioners believe crossing themselves is an application of what these verses describe.
- Genesis 4:15: “Then the LORD said to him, ‘Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.’ And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him.” (ESV)
- Ezekiel 9:4: “And the LORD said to him, ‘Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.'” (ESV)
- Revelation 22:4: “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.” (ESV)
What do the marks in these passages mean? The mark described in each of these passages signifies that a person belongs to God and doesn’t directly refer to making the sign of the cross. Therefore, making the sign of the cross isn’t a matter of obedience or disobedience for Protestants.
Because Scripture does not mandate the practice, some Lutheran denominations, like the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod teach that its members have the freedom to cross themselves if they desire but they also have the freedom not to.
“Lutherans who do not join in that practice are also exercising their Christian freedom. Making the sign of the cross can be a helpful reminder that Christians are redeemed children of God—people who enjoy salvation only because of God’s forgiving love and not because of anything they have done (Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5-7). 
Is making the sign of the cross analogous to wearing a wedding ring? Some Protestants who make the sign of the cross say that it’s like wearing a wedding ring. While the Bible includes many instructions for marriage and to husbands and wives, there’s no biblical basis for wearing a wedding ring. Nevertheless, wearing a ring to signify marriage is common among Christians as an outward sign of a commitment they have made.
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