The Most Holy Catholic Church is always being accused of idolatry by the non-Catholics simply because of bowing before the sacred images of the saints. They insisted that Catholics worship them and the worship of them is forbidden by God Himself, quoting Exodus 20:4-5 (KJV) “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them:” However, does bowing really mean worship?
The exact same Hebrew phraseology used in first commandment in Exodus is used by righteous Isaac in speaking to Jacob in Genesis 27:29: “May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you.”
There are also lots of instances in Scripture when men bow to one another and it is legitimate. It was a common form of reverence in the Middle East.
⚫ 1 Kings 1:16
“Bathsheba bowed low and knelt before the king. ‘What is it you want?’ the king asked.”
See? No rebuke from David.
⚫ 1 King 1:22-23
Then Bathsheba bowed low with her face to the ground and, kneeling before the king, said, “May my lord King David live forever!”
⚫ 1 Kings 1:31
“Then David went out of the cave and called out to Saul, ‘My Lord and king!’ When Saul looked behind him, David bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.”
⚫ 1 Samuel 24:8
“And when Abigail saw David, she hasted, and lighted off the ass, and fell before David on her face, and bowed herself to the ground, And fell at his feet, and said, Upon me, my lord, upon me let this iniquity be: and let thine handmaid, I pray thee, speak in thine audience, and hear the words of thine handmaid.”
⚫ 1 Samuel 25:23-24
“And she arose, and bowed herself on her face to the earth, and said, Behold, let thine handmaid be a servant to wash the feet of the servants of my lord.”
⚫ 1 Samuel 25:41
“Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.”
⚫ 1 Samuel 28:14
“When Mephibosheth son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, came to David, he bowed down to pay him honor. David said, ‘Mephibosheth! . . . Don’t be afraid, for I will surely show you kindness . . . Mephibosheth bowed down and said, ‘What is your servant, that you should notice a dead dog like me?'”
⚫ 2 Samuel 9:6-8
“Then the king summoned Absalom, and he came in and bowed down with his face to the ground before the king. And the king kissed Absalom.”
⚫ 2 Samuel 14:33
“Then Ahimaaz called out to the king, ‘All is well!’ He bowed down before the king [David] with his face to the ground . . .”
⚫ 2 Samuel 18:28
In David’s song of praise to the Lord: “You made my adversaries bow at my feet.”
⚫ 2 Samuel 22:40 and Psalm 18:39
“While she was still speaking with the king, Nathan the prophet arrived. And they told the king, ‘Nathan the prophet is here.’ So he went before the king and bowed with his face to the ground.”
⚫ In 1 King 1:22-23, Nathan, the great prophet of the Lord, bowed to King David. Is that idolatry? Did Nathan worship David? (cf. Exodus 34:14).
⚫ 1 Kings 2:19
“When Bathsheba went to King Solomon to speak to him for Adonijah, the king stood up to meet her, bowed down to her and sat down on his throne.”
⚫ 1 Kings 18:7
“As Obadiah was walking along, Elijah met him. Obadiah recognized him, bowed down to the ground, and said, ‘Is it really you, my lord Elijah?'”
NOTE: In verse 3, it says that Obadiah was a devout believer in the Lord.
⚫ 2 Kings 2:15
“The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, ‘The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.’ And they went to meet him and bowed to the ground before him.”
See also: 2 Samuel 15:5; 2 Samuel 24:20; 1 Kings 1:53; 2 Kings 4:37; and 1 Chronicles 21:21.
With respect to Peter correcting Cornelius’ bowing, this is not always the case when people bow down to holy men in Scripture (see Genesis 19:1, Numbers 22:31). It was not simply the bowing that Cornelius was rebuked about but the worshipping. In Acts 10:25 (NLT), it reads: “As Peter entered his home, Cornelius fell at his feet and worshiped him.” See? Cornelius did not simply bow down before Peter but also worship him. This same incident occurs in Revelation 22:8 where it explicitly says that St. John fell down to worship at the feet of the angel. The angel rebuked him, Worship God! Thus it was the worship he was objecting to; not the bowing. As a matter of fact, there are no any occurrences in the sacred Scriptures of people bowing to angels and being rebuked simply for bowing.
On a number of occasions in the Old Testament, people bowed down to one another, even prophets to kings or people to prophets, without anyone indicating that something is wrong. Why? Because bowing in Eastern culture is a form of honor, and not exclusively associated with worship. This is evident because very frequently, when the Scriptures speaks of bowing down in worship to a deity, it says explicitly, so and so bowed down and worshiped. But in other places, when people bow down to other people in a non-worship context, it simply says that they bowed down.
Thus, worship is not inherent in bowing. cf. Genesis 24:26; Genesis 24:48; Exodus 4:31; Exodus 12:27; Exodus 32:8; Exodus 34:8; Deuteronomy 29:26; 1 Kings 1:47; 2 Kings 21:3; 2 Kings 21:21; 2 Chronicles 25:14; 2 Chronicles 29:28; 2 Chronicles 29:30; 2 Chronicles 33:3; Nehemiah 8:6; Matthew 2:11; and a number of other places.
According to Oxford Dictionary, to bow (verb) is to bend the head or upper part of the body as a sign of respect, greeting, or shame. See?! Even the civil scholars agree that to bow does not immediately mean to worship.
Like what the great prophet Joshua did in Joshua 7:6 (NIV) where he “tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the LORD,” he did not worship the ark itself but the Lord Whose presence is in it. The Catholics also bow down before the sacred images of the saints, not to worship them but revere whom they represent, the heroes of the faith; and bow down before the tabernacle of the Most Holy Eucharist not to worship the tabernacle itself but Him Whose presence is in it.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2132), speaks: “The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, ‘the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype,’ and ‘whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.’ The honor paid to sacred images is a ‘respectful veneration,’ not the adoration due to God alone: Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.”