Is Praying to Saints Idolatry?

To Catholics, Mary is a saint to whom they may pray.
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Praying to saints is one of those subjects that put a great divide between Christian groups. Mostly, Christians who pray to saints are found in the Catholic, Orthodox and some Anglican denominations. Beyond that, Christians, in general, believe in praying only to God in the name of Jesus Christ. Even though both sides use the Bible to defend their beliefs, "praying to saints" remains a disputed issue.

1 Who Are the Saints?

The word "saints" is used differently throughout Christianity. For the most part, especially among Catholic and Orthodox Christians, the saints refer to holy persons who've died and now exist in the heavenly realm with God, and who have a sincere interest in helping people on earth. In a broader sense, though, the saints are all Christians in good standing with God who will eventually serve God in heaven. For example, Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "From Paul... to the church of God at Corinth and to all the saints in the whole of Achaia." Here Paul was obviously writing, not to people in heaven, but to living humans -- fellow Christians.

2 What is Idolatry?

Idolatry, basically, is the worship of idols. Since prayer is part of Christian worship, any prayers sent to what is considered an idol is an act of idolatry. But while someone's first thought of an idol might be of an inanimate object, an idol can really be anything, including a person -- spirit or human -- that receives unauthorized worship or veneration. For example, the apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians about "covetousness, which is idolatry." Knowing this while also remembering the Bible commandment, "thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife," it's clear that if a man did covet someone else's wife, he'd be idolizing her.

3 Those Who Say, "Idolatry"

Since giving a person, in either the heavenly or earthly realm, undue attention could be an act of idolatry, many Christians consider praying to saints -- even if these saints are believed to be in heaven -- an act of idolatry. They base this conclusion largely on what Jesus Christ said in the book of John: "No one comes to the Father except through me." When teaching his followers how to pray, Jesus said, as recorded in the book of Matthew: "Pray like this: Our Father who is in heaven." Christians against praying to saints believe that Jesus taught two important principles: Prayers should be directed to the Father, and this should be done in Jesus' name.

4 Those Who Say, "Not Idolatry"

Defenders of praying to saints often cite Scripture, Revelation 5:8, which paints a heavenly scene of saints figuratively pouring out golden bowls of incense, which represent "the prayers of the saints." This proves, they say, that saints in heaven receive prayers, which they, as intercessors, then offer to God. Historian Will Durant suggested that some Christians justify and prefer prayers to saints rather than prayers directed to God because saints seem more approachable, having lived on earth as imperfect people and having been canonized by church authorities.

Aaron Charles began writing about "pragmatic art" in 2006 for an online arts journal based in Minneapolis, Minn. After working for telecom giant Comcast and traveling to Oregon, he's written business and technology articles for both online and print publications, including and "The Portland Upside."