Asserting that Jesus Christ is Lord, and living a life of obedience to Him, will inevitably cause the Christian to walk against the grain of the common culture. I was reminded of this truth a few weeks ago, as I had the opportunity to take a class at Western Seminary. Part of the reading for this class was The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, by Greek Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann. Beginning in Acts, Schmemann traces the origins and history of the Orthodox Church. On page 34, he discusses religion in Roman antiquity, and how Christians related to state-sanctioned/ordained worship of a pantheon of gods. About Roman worship, he writes;
“Rome demanded… outward participation in the state cult as an expression of loyalty; all that was required of a citizen was to burn a few sticks of incense before the images of national gods, call the emperor “Lord,” and celebrate the rites… Religion was not a problem of personal choice but a family, tribal, and state matter.”
Schmemann repeatedly makes the point that for most Romans, this act of idol worship was not as much a matter of faith as it was a matter of loyalty to the Roman state. Our professor for this class, Dr. Marc Cortez, more heavily emphasized the cultic component, stating that for a great many people this act of worship was far more religiously significant, as their belief in the gods was real and vibrant. Sure, maybe the Roman leaders were more concerned with loyalty to the state, but for the common man and woman, whose belief in the false gods was genuine and central, the religious component of idol worship could not be ignored. After all, if the Roman citizens did not perform the proper religious rites, then their very livelihood would be threatened by un-appeased and vengeful deities. Natural disasters, droughts, famines, plagues, conquering enemies, and all manner of hardships were to them the work of gods who had not received proper worship. Thus there would be a peer-level response to any fellow citizen who was not pulling their own weight in matters of rite and religion. One who holds to this worldview is not going to be too thrilled with the neighbor who has been virtually begging the gods to rain fire on their block by refusing to light the incense as of late.
So when the Christian proclaims allegiance to Christ, and refuses to affirm that the emperor is lord or bend the knee/light the incense in homage to any false god, that Christian is risking cultural attack from two directions. She is provoking the state by her disloyalty to the empire, and she is facing pressure from her peers who see her as the local lunatic, upsetting the apple cart and risking the wrath of the gods. But for the Christian, it is not an option to bow down to any other god, for Jesus alone is not just the Messiah, but also the Lord (Acts 2:36 [Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)] ), there is no other name by which men and women are saved (Acts 4:12 [Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)] ), and there is no Gospel other than the Gospel of Christ crucified, raised from the dead, and now reigning on high (Galatians 3:6-10 [Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)] ). Christians are thus called to both inwardly and outwardly demonstrate allegiance to the God who saves, even if it risks displeasing authorities and peers, facing cultural pressure from multiple directions (Acts 5:29-32 [Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)] ).
Surely, that pressure will and has indeed come from multiple directions. There are of course modern versions of ‘risking the wrath of the gods,’ and thereby facing the scorn of our peers. In the eyes of many culture-makers, we Christians undercut the progress of society, so to speak, by holding onto this ‘ancient mythology’ which we call the Word of God, and some components of Christian ethics are seen more as a blight on society than an advantage to it. Still, we must stand with our forefathers and only bow the knee to Christ as Lord. By this I don’t mean that we unnecessarily pick fights in the name of Christ (there’s a difference between worshiping Christ exclusively and relishing in the role of the outcast). Rather, we reserve our worship for only the Triune God, doing this with love, with grace, with compassion, with humility, with meekness, with wisdom, and with discernment. All the while we stand firmly on the truth of God’s Word and the lordship of Jesus Christ, even if by doing so our neighbors see us to be risking the wrath of the gods.