Tuesday, June 08, 2010
Incense in Christian Worship
By Robin G. Jordan
Does incense have a place in Christian worship? In the worship of the Tabernacle and the Temple incense was regularly offered each day on the altar of incense. God appointed Aaron and his sons and their descendants to make this daily offering of incense. The Old Testament relates how on several occasions others took upon themselves to offer incense to God and were punished for doing so.
The offering of incense is also associated in the Old Testament with the worship of idols and other gods beside God. In several places the Old Testament relates how Kings Hezekiah and Josiah who honored God tore down the high places of the people of Israel where they worshiped other gods and destroyed their incense altars upon which they offered incense to these gods. The Old Testament also tells us how the elders of Israel sinned against God by offering incense to other gods in secret.
Psalm 141:2 asks that the prayers of the Psalmist should be counted as incense before God and the lifting up of his hands as the evening sacrifice. Isaiah 1:3 speaks of how incense is an abomination to God because the people of Judah have committed evil deeds before God’s eyes. Malachi 1:11 looks forward to a day when incense and a pure, or unpolluted, offering will once more be made to God. All of these passages are references to the worship of the Temple, in which the Aaronic priesthood offered incense on the altar of incense every day.
The ceremonies and rites that God gave through Moses are not binding on Christians. Christ’s offering of himself on the cross, once for all, made unnecessary the worship of the Temple with its animal sacrifices and incense offerings. The only offerings that God requires from Christians are praise, thanksgiving, and ourselves, our bodies and our souls.
The New Testament references to incense are incidental to a narrative (Luke 1:9-11), a description of the “Most Holy Place” in the Tabernacle, and a description of heavenly worship (Revelation 5:8 and 8:3-4). Revelation 5:8 equates the golden bowls of incense that twenty-four elders hold in God’s presence in his John’s vision with the prayers of the saints. Revelation 8:3-4 describes an angel offering incense with the prayers of all the saints on a golden altar before God’s throne. It does not appear that either author’s intention was to establish a precedent for the practice of using incense in Christian worship.
The use of incense entered into Christian worship not from the worship of the Temple but from the practices of the imperial Roman court in which incense was burned as an honorific to the emperor. Before Constantine became emperor, emperors were regarded as gods and incense was offered to their images. Christians were crucified, burned alive, feed to hungry lions and other wild animals in the arena, and suffered agonizing deaths in a number of cruel ways because they refused to burn a pinch of incense before the emperor’s statue. They acknowledged only one Lord, Jesus Christ.
Conservative Evangelicals do not use incense for a number of reasons. One is that they do not find a passage of Scripture that clearly bears out the practice in Christian worship. On the other hand, they do come across a lot of passages in Scripture that make them uncomfortable with the practice in the absence of an unambiguous warrant. The offering of incense, as far as they can make out, belongs properly to the worship of the Old Covenant and not that of the New. The New Testament emphasizes worshiping God in spirit and in truth and offering spiritual sacrifices to God in the form of praise, thanksgiving, and ourselves. The kind of worship that God wants from us are lives that honor him—what he had also wanted from the people of Israel and Judah. It was not until the post-Constantine era that incense became a part of Christian worship and the practice may have been a corruption rather than an enrichment of Christian worship. Incense before this time was associated with the cult of the Roman emperors and the cults of the pagan gods and goddesses of the ancient Mediterranean world. The use of incense in the worship of the medieval Church would become associated with the doctrines of sacrifices of Masses for the living and the dead and Transubstantiation. About the only acceptable use of incense from a Conservative Envangelical perspective would be to impart a pleasant fragrance to the church building on the occasion of major church festivals and thereby to mark the occasion, as was the practice in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I:
“THe Countrey Parson hath a speciall care of his Church, that all things there be decent, and befitting his Name by which it is called. Therefore first he takes order, that all things be in good repair; as walls plaistered, windows glazed, floore paved, seats whole, firm, and uniform, especially that the Pulpit, and Desk, and Communion Table, and Font be as they ought, for those great duties that are performed in them. Secondly, that the Church be swept, and kept cleane without dust, or Cobwebs, and at great festivalls strawed, and stuck with boughs, and perfumed with incense. Thirdly, That there be fit, and proper texts of Scripture every where painted, and that all the painting be grave, and reverend, not with light colours, or foolish anticks. Fourthly, That all the books appointed by Authority be there, and those not torne, or fouled, but whole and clean, and well bound; and that there be a fitting, and sightly Communion Cloth of fine linnen, with an handsome, and seemly Carpet of good and costly Stuffe, or Cloth, and all kept sweet and clean, in a strong and decent chest, with a Chalice, and Cover, and a Stoop, or Flagon; and a Bason for Almes and offerings; besides which, he hath a Poor-mans Box conveniently seated, to receive the charity of well minded people, and to lay up treasure for the sick and needy. And all this he doth, not as out of necessity, or as putting a holiness in the things, but as desiring to keep the middle way between superstition, and slovenlinesse, and as following the Apostles two great and admirable Rules in things of this nature: The first whereof is, Let all things be done decently, and in order: [I Cor. 14:40]The second, Let all things be done to edification, I Cor. 14 [:26]. For these two rules comprize and include the double object of our duty, God, and our neighbour; the first being for the honour of God; the second for the benefit of our neighbor. So that they excellently score out the way, and fully, and exactly contain, even in externall and indifferent things, what course is to be taken; and put them to great shame, who deny the Scripture to be perfect.” 
Such a practice is neither enjoined nor forbidden, is thing indifferent, and therefore is allowable. If this practice is adopted, the body of the church and the chancel (if there is one) should be fumed before each church service. Pure frankincense or a high quality grade of incense should be used. Cheap or poor quality incense should be avoided. It should be clearly understood by all that the incense is burnt not as an offering to God but as a fumigant to give a pleasant fragrance to the worship environment and to mark a special occasion. The congregation is also spared the smoke of burning incense which some find an irritant. Alternately, the legs of the chairs or the bases of the pews might be rubbed with essential oil distilled from frankincense. This provides a pleasant fragrance suitable to a great festival without any lingering smoke.
 George Herbert, A Priest to the Temple, or, The Countrey Parson, His Character, and Rule of Holy Life,(London :T. Maxey, Printer, 1651), a book on the Internet at: http://anglicanhistory.org/herbert/parson.html
Posted by Robin G. Jordan at 2:27 PM