Should Christians Use Perfume?

Should Christians Use Perfume? January 18, 2023

St. Paul wrote the following to the church in Corinth:

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing;to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.

2 Cor 2:14-16

The Early Church Fathers and the Bible

The early church fathers took their Bible seriously. Not only the parts about how Christ saves us, but also about how that salvation applies to our concrete, day-to-day living. Handbooks, or enchiridion, for Christian living have thus been part and parcel of Christianity from its earliest days. Of course, such manuals for practical living were not exclusive to Christianity, the most famous non-Christian manual being the Enchiridion of the stoic philosopher, Epictetus.

One of the earliest Christian manuals was Clement of Alexandria’s (153-217 AD) Paedagogus,  or “Instructor,” written in three books sometime between 182-202 AD. Clement, a pagan philosopher prior to his conversion, was himself quite familiar with Epictetus and stoicism. Given this familiarity, he drew inspiration from the stoics for the construction of such a manual on public and private morals and daily behavior. However, unlike Epictetus, the source for the development of the Paedagogus’ moral and behavioral judgements was nothing other than the Bible, regardless of what many modern critics might say. Drawing out very practical applications from general biblical principles was of great concern to early church fathers like Clement.

For Clement, therefore, being in Christ meant we cannot just live in the way the culture that surrounds us lives. Nor can we take things for granted, regardless of how “normal” they may seem to us. How we live our lives in every moment affects us spiritually, drawing us either closer to the divine nature and, consequently, to greater degrees of holiness, or moving us further away from God, and, subsequently, further away from spiritual purity. Before I go on, let me remind the reader, that no one actually desires to be “impure,” even if we might find the activities that make us impure very exciting. Finally, our daily living reflects either positively or negatively on our witness to a non-believing culture. And so Clement, like many of his time, was quite serious in thinking biblically about everything. To honor Christ in all our ways, was also to show Christ through our ways.

On the Use of Perfumes and Ointments

Clement’s concern with purity in the Christian life included how we treat our bodies. For him, the way we use our bodies, or what we use on our bodies, can have real spiritual consequences. In Book II of the Paedagogus, Clement speaks in detail about several day-to-day issues: food, drink, clothing, sleep, table manners, joking etc. There was no aspect of life on Clement’s view that did not warrant being considered in light of one’s life in Christ. If salvation had occurred in the individual, then all aspects of one’s being were caught up in Christ. There was no justification or right of the believer to reserve some part of himself for himself. If Christ is Lord, then He is Lord of all

For example, in speaking of the use of perfumes (or colognes) and other ointments, Clement says:

For it is not right that ensnaring garments and unguents [perfumes] should be admitted into the city of truth; but it is highly requisite for the men who belong to us to give forth the odour not of ointments, but of nobleness and goodness. And let woman breathe the odour of the true royal ointment, that of Christ, not of unguents and scented powders; and let her always be anointed with the ambrosial chrism of modesty, and find delight in the holy unguent, the Spirit.

Pedagogues II, Chapter 8

According to Clement, using fancy or luxurious perfumes or ointments (or clothing) to make ourselves more “attractive,” puts us in danger of violating one of the fundamental moral principles of Christianity: modesty. First, the use of such luxuries presents a false self to the world. Second, the motivation behind such uses is often self-promotion or self-glorification. Thus, on account of Christ, we should reject using anything that draws unwarranted attention to ourselves, especially a false version of it. This attitude reflects the mind of Christ, which Paul speaks about most poignantly in Philippians 2:3-8:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Christ, who was perfectly glorious, abdicated His glory, which entails His perfect beauty, to take on the most humble form. For us to do essentially the opposite of this divine movement, would be not to emulate Christ, but, at best, to ignore His example.

Moreover, if we do draw attention to ourselves, it should be because of our Christian virtues, like our purity and goodness, not on account of some physical feature we possess or fabricate that is only “skin deep.” Isaiah’s prophecy is fairly clear about the coming Messiah’s own lack of physical attractiveness:

For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

Isa 53:2

It is unfortunate, therefore, that time after time when Hollywood, or other production companies, make movies about Jesus, they always cast actors like James Caviezel, Jonathan Roumie, or Diogo Morgado in the lead role of the Savior. Not to detract in any way from these actors’ thespian skills, but their sheer comeliness may, inadvertently, shade our understanding of what it means to be like Christ.

We would do well to recall that Jesus was a member of one of the lowest social and economic classes of His time, that He spent most of His public ministry in the wilderness or around small fishing villages, and that He fasted often. Would it be a stretch to imagine Jesus as very gaunt, perhaps even bony and emaciated with fairly sunken features? I think not. And yet, the Gospels are unified in their depiction of Jesus as charismatic. He attracts great crowds, yet we have no description of His physical appearance. It is not Jesus’ looks (or smell) that are attractive; it is Jesus’ words, His works, His character and His authority that attract.

Thus, it is not externals, like odors or looks, that matter. It is Christ-like character that matters. 

Clement continues:

And as we have abandoned luxury in taste, so certainly do we renounce voluptuousness in sights and odours; lest through the senses, as through unwatched doors, we unconsciously give access into the soul to that excess which we have driven away. If, then, we say that the Lord the great High Priest offers to God the incense of sweet fragrance, let us not imagine that this is a sacrifice and sweet fragrance of incense; but let us understand it to mean, that the Lord lays the acceptable offering of love, the spiritual fragrance, on the altar.

Excess is not only the enemy of the Greek stoic. The Jewish Jesus and Paul also set the example of the life of modesty and simplicity. Christ’s public ministry is that of the transient prophet. It does not mean that Jesus refrained entirely from simple pleasures. However, even when we see Jesus interacting with or in the homes of the rich, it is never merely for the sake of pleasure or entertainment. Jesus is always on a mission, the mission to save and set free lost souls. Paul, adopting the attitude of His Lord, tells us as much in a more didactic form:

10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it.11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.

Phil 4:10-14

Finally, the only anointing the true Christian requires is that offered by our Lord and High Priest, Jesus Christ. It is the “spiritual fragrance” of the Holy Spirit we are meant to give off. Because of this holy fragrance, we do not need or desire any artificial variant. As such, we should think carefully about what kinds of perfumes or aromas we use to adorn our bodies, as well as what motivates us to use them. We should ask the questions of ourselves: why am I doing this, and how does it reflect my life in Christ?

One should note, however, that Clement goes on to make exceptions for ointments that can be employed for medical reasons: to aid, comfort or repair injuries or revive physical strength. Christians have never been anti-medicine, regardless of what some cultural myths might claim (or what vaccine fanatics might have you believe). Further, I might also add, that Clement is not talking about being unhygienic. To be intentionally dirty, unkempt or malodorous can also cause undue attention to one’s person. In other words, refraining from fancy or luxurious perfumes does not mean you should neglect to use soap.

In sum, it is appropriate and deeply biblical to think and consider every aspect of our daily life as it relates to our life in God. It is, like Jesus, also a very Jewish way to be, as any student of Torah will tell you, and as any modernist will cringe at. After all, to even consider the notion that God has rights to every part of your life, to include your use of Coco Chanel, is the height of oppression for post-modern man, who desires autonomy in all things great and small.

Epilogue: A Preemptive Response to My Cultured Despisers

As is now becoming the norm, several, but certainly not all, of the commentators to this blog will respond with a relatively predictable set of criticisms. I will try to preempt some of these in advance here, hoping to facilitate some discussion beyond that norm.

First, I will be accused of being a “Pharisee,” of adding to the Scriptures things that are not explicitly laid out in the text. It will be said that because Jesus nowhere explicitly forbade the use of perfumes or luxurious oils that, therefore, we have freedom to do so. It will be further claimed that to suggest otherwise, is to be legalistic and add to the already hefty burdens Christians must bear (although what those hefty burdens are, is usually left unmentioned).

In one sense this is true–Scripture simply does not tells us in explicit terms everything about how we should live. Neither Jesus, nor even dreaded St. Paul, touch on every possible moral issue, not even the issues of their own times. This often appears to us as very unfortunate. As a father of three boys, I sometimes wish we had a bit more info about Joseph or Peter’s relationship to their children, or perhaps more detailed instruction from Paul on how to handle a child who won’t eat their vegetables or do their homework at the designated time.

As such, while it is true that Jesus says nothing about the use of perfumes, Jesus also said nothing about the use of opioids, or whatever might have been the relevant drugs of his time and place; some form of hallucinogen, perhaps. Does that mean that Christians have the freedom to shoot up, or to drop acid? In short, sometimes Christians must make inferences from general principles to concrete application. The entire history of Christian theology, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, simply assumes this intellectual pursuit. And while the Reformers were careful to not go beyond Scripture too much, it was not as if Luther and his successors simply abandoned the pursuit of thinking morally about every issue of life. We can easily take the Puritans, or today’s Amish communities, as our finest, modern examples of the kind of prudential thinking which was common among the Church fathers.

Second, my commentators will err in conflating soteriological issues with issues of sanctification. This is a common theological mistake. As a Protestant, I do not see justification as an ongoing process (as Catholics are supposed to do, even if they often don’t). Salvation is, as it ever has been, by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone on account of God’s grace, alone. 

However, sanctification is not a process that is entirely passive. There is a concursive aspect to our sanctification, a working in concert with the promptings of the Holy Spirit. As such, when we pursue a life in Christ, we are not pursuing our salvation by our works. Rather, we are living out our salvation through them. The Pharisees sought to exclude people from the community of Israel on account of their unrighteousness. This is a false analogy to what Clement is pursuing in the Paedagogus, which is clearly meant for the person already justified, already made righteous, and who already lives “in the city of truth.”

Finally, I think it is fair to add that the now long-standing trend of antinomianism, or “cheap grace” as Bonhoeffer described it, has basically run its course in American Evangelicalism. Some of my favorite commentators (you know who you are) will accuse me of being “authoritarian” and “repressive” in this attempt to recapture something from the past. Of course, these same commentators presuppose any authority is always equivalent to domination and oppression–itself a presupposition born of allegiance to thinkers like Nietzsche, Freud and Foucault, and not to men like Paul, Clement, or Augustine.

However, if there is one thing becoming clear in our culture today, it is that young people are seeking authority and structure now more than ever. The facile and effeminate projects of self “liberation” propagated by post-modernists and existentialists are dying, if not already dead. The Church has failed to challenge young people, something that the meteoric rise of men like Jordan Peterson evinces. Young people in the church are not satisfied being told they can be whatever they want, do whatever they want, so long as they just “have Jesus,” whatever that may mean. To paraphrase my own pastor, the church has to stop preaching “sloppy agape,” or “greasy grace.” It is time to hold ourselves to the higher standard. St. Clement of Alexandria would approve, and so would His Instructor.

About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.
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