Question: "What is a sacred cow?"


A sacred cow, as a figure of speech, refers to an idea, tradition, or long-established institution that is above challenge, criticism, or change. Sacred cows are given excessive and unwarranted respect, to the point of idolization. They are usually hard to recognize and even harder to deal with because sacred cows are considered untouchable. In Christian circles, opinions about the church building, appropriate attire, and church politics often become sacred cows.

The term sacred cow is associated with Hinduism and that religion’s belief in the sanctity of the cow. Hindus revere cows, particularly the Brahmin species, as sacred animals. Many Hindu families own a cow for the sole purpose of worshiping it.

The biblical symbolism of the sacred cow traces back to ancient Egypt, where many gods and goddesses were portrayed as livestock. The early Egyptians especially revered the bull as a fertility figure. Pagan groups throughout Egypt dedicated themselves to the bull. Likewise, the queen goddess Isis and other Egyptian goddesses such as Athor were typically illustrated wearing cow horns on their heads.

Like present-day Hindu people, the Egyptians of the Old Testament adored their sacred cows. It’s no wonder that, when the Israelites rebelled against God at Sinai, they fashioned a golden calf to worship (Exodus 32). Later, King Jeroboam I celebrated the birth of the Northern Kingdom by setting up two golden calves (1 Kings 12:28–30). The prophet Hosea denounced these idols as religious syncretism—the merging of pagan worship with the worship of the one true God—a practice the Lord forbids (Deuteronomy 6:5, 13–15; Matthew 22:37; Luke 4:8).

It is possible to spot sacred cows grazing in Christian churches still today. When methods, objects, and even people are elevated to an untouchable place of importance, so much so that they cannot be re-evaluated, varied, exchanged, or removed, a sacred cow is likely in the sheepfold. These are just a few examples of sacred cows in modern church life:

• The idea that there is only one suitable Bible translation.
• The belief that a formal offering, with the obligatory passing of the plate, must be observed in every church service.
• The insistence that Sunday School cannot be tampered with.
• The notion that a church must have an altar, and the altar must have a cross at its center.

Talking about taboo subjects (like sex) in a sermon, the way communion and baptism services are handled, and what songs, instruments, or music styles are allowed during worship all have the potential to become sacred cows. These exalted ideas and traditions have no biblical basis and no bearing on the essentials of the Christian faith, but people treat them as if they do.

Sacred cows in the church are human traditions that can “nullify the word of God” if we aren’t careful (Mark 7:13). Ancient Israel had their ancient golden calf, and we have our current-day idols. Throughout history, idolatry has been an ongoing temptation for God’s people—a practice that leads to further sinful conduct (Romans 1:21–32). As Christians, we need to search our hearts, examine our lives as the Bible encourages, and “keep away from anything that might take God’s place in [our] hearts” (1 John 5:21, NLT).