This is the final post of a five part series.
Like today’s coerced obedience to the state religion of “tolerance,” so Rome demanded that its citizens show their allegiance to the empire by worshiping the deity of dead emperors and the “genius” of the living emperor (“genius” was loosely defined, somewhere between an external soul and a guardian angel).
Also like today, this forced obedience escalated in an era known for its tolerance. Marcus Aurelius (161-80) was a peaceable Stoic philosopher, yet as emperor he enforced emperor worship in order to promote unity. Those who did not comply were often killed, as was Justin Martyr, or used as cheap combatants in the gladiator games, as was Russell Crowe.
Also like today, the person offering service did not need to be sincere. He only had to go through the motions. Rome didn’t much care what was in his heart, as long as he offered a sacrifice, drank the libations, pinched a bit of incense and said, “Caesar is Lord.”
Also like today, Christians responded to this demand in various ways. Some completely capitulated to save their own necks, though they rationalized it away by saying it wasn’t what it seemed. The ceremony was merely a political, not a religious test. The Romans didn’t care that the Christians worshiped Jesus, as long as they announced their allegiance to Rome. That’s all this was. No big deal.
Other Christians knew it was wrong to participate in the ceremony, but they knew someone who knew a guy who could get them the official certificate that said they had. Others, like Tertullian, refused to do either. He told his Roman friends that he refused to patronize them. They may think he is being stubborn by refusing to do something as simple as offer a pinch of incense to their god, but he refused to take advantage of them and perform an action that he did not believe.
He explained: “Some, indeed, think it a piece of insanity that, when it is in our power to offer sacrifice at once, and go away unharmed, holding as ever our convictions, we prefer an obstinate persistence in our confession to our safety. You advise us, forsooth, to take unjust advantage of you; but we know whence such suggestions come, who is at the bottom of it all, and how every effort is made, now by cunning suasion, and now by merciless persecution, to overthrow our constancy. No other than that spirit, half devil and half angel, who, hating us because of his own separation from God, and stirred with envy for the favor God has shown us, turns your minds against us by an occult influence, molding and instigating them to all that perversity in judgment, and that unrighteous cruelty, which we have mentioned at the beginning of our work, when entering on this discussion” (Apology, chap. 27).
As in Tertullian’s day, more than a few Christians are working hard to rationalize participation in a ceremony that even the Romans could not have imagined. They say enthusiastic participation is the way of love (bake two cakes!). Tertullian said it’s patronizing. True enough, the Romans told the Christians they didn’t have to mean it. But Tertullian thought his fellow image bearers of God deserved more respect. When you pretend to honor something you don’t, you take advantage of the person who thinks you might be sincere.
I’ll close with a question. Of the three groups of Chrstians—those who sacrificed, those who obtained certificates, and those who refused—which one is our ancestor? Which one survived the test of time? Hint: we’re still talking about Tertullian.