For many American Christians, particularly Protestants, the use of incense in worship can be see as either exotic or legalistic. Roman Catholics, some liturgical Protestants, and the Eastern Orthodox still use it frequently in their services. If you have ever had the chance to experience this, you have to admit that it brings a sense of awe and wonder to the service. The noxious perfume or cologne of the person sitting next to you for a moment becomes irrelevant and you seem to travel back in time when the Levitical priests filled the Tabernacle or Solomon’s Temple with aromatic smoke. Even the visions of heaven seen by John the Apostle included the burning of incense before the Lord (Rev. 8:3-4).
The reason for using incense is not entirely clear. Perhaps it was because the ancient people lacked deodorant and God wanted worship to be associated with the pleasant smells of frankincense and myrrh instead of sweat and acrid body odor of daily life. Maybe he knew the smoke rising from the censor would connect with people when describing prayer. Or it could be God wanted to redeem a form of worship that the neighboring people, Egyptians and Canaanites, were using. Whatever the reason, the act of burning incense was considered a highly devoted act of worship among both Jews and Christians.
So it should come as no surprise that when Christians were expected to show their loyalties to the state, they refused to burn incense to Caesar. Now it should be noted that the required amount of incense to be burned was a trifle in comparison to the amount usually burned to God and the Greco-Roman deities. And there was also a matter of calling the emperor Dominus which means “Lord” in both the political and religious sense. And considering the Caesars and their successors often thought of themselves as gods, they didn’t see the two connotations in opposition but united. So did the people of Rome. If you refused to repeat the pledge and burn the incense, you were both an enemy of the state and a hater of the gods.
Thus when it came time for the Christian to show his or her loyalty to the state and to Caesar, the believer was also being called to profess the emperor’s divinity. This was quite problematic since Christians are commanded to obey and observe the authority of those in power (Romans 13:1-7). Yet to acknowledge and worship Caesar as a god would be idolatrous and a betrayal to their faith. For some, the consequences of rejecting Caesar outweighed the benefits of standing firm in the faith. For a great many others, there was but one God deserving of such acts of worship. It is from these that the Church finds her greatest heroes of faith, the martyred saints.
I wonder how well we would react today if American Christians faced the same kind of choice. To some extent we already do. For the last 10-15 years, the nation has been undergoing a series of cultural changes. Among them is the status of same sex marriage. If you asked the average person on the street 10 years ago if same sex couples should have the same rights and benefits as married heterosexuals, he’d probably be unsure or indifferent. 15 or 20 yrs. ago, the answer would be a confident no. Today, he’d be very agreeable to the idea. As a result of this shift, it has become popular to view those who believe homosexuality to be wrong as bigots and promoters of unlawful discrimination. Often the test is whether the business will provide the demanding couple with cake.
Now, I expect a few people will say that I’m making an outrageous comparison. Yet take a close look. Instead of offering incense, the Christian is being asked to offer services as a photographer to a gay wedding. Or the business is being asked to produce a shirt that promotes a gay pride parade. And the legal and social consequences are similar as well. Doing so is to comply with state and federal law against discrimination and to show tolerance at the cost of the believer’s convictions of faith. To refuse is to break the law and to be socially branded as a bigot. Again, its a tough choice to make.
Of course there is the claim from some who say that as believers we shouldn’t rock the boat but let the social currents decide what is right. Instead we should simply focus on loving others. I find this response cowardly and unworthy of a Christian. For those who might think this harsh and not Christ-like, consider these things. First, making a public stand for the faith does not mean you cannot show the love of God. St. George, who in legend killed a dragon and in history served as a member of the praetorian guard to Diocletian, prayed for the forgiveness of his executioners. Second, it rejects the life Christ says we will have as believers (Mark 8:34-38, Matt. 10:16-25). And third, it cheapens the courage of those like Daniel and his three friends who boldly defied their sovereigns’ decrees to break the Law of the Lord.
Thus we are left today with the same two choices the early Christians faced. Do we stand with those who came before us, and boldly declare that we shall obey God over men? Or do we deny our faith and burn incense for Caesar?