My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
I sometimes blog for two other organizations, the Canadian Baptist Historical Society and the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.
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Theodosius and Saint Ambrose (1615-1616) by Peter Paul Rubens https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodosius_and_Saint_Ambrose_(Rubens).
The recent events in the United States regarding the Catholic Church’s refusal of communion for pro-abortion politicians reminds me of an ancient tradition expressed in the famous words of Bishop Ambrose: “The emperor is within the church, not above it.”
There are many examples of early church leaders who refused to be cowed by the state, demonstrating that the convictions of the church were quite resilient and would not be easily eclipsed even by the advantages shown to Christians after the conversion of the emperor Constantine. Even in matters related to discipline.
When the state began to get embroiled in the schism occurring in North Africa, Donatus, the (in)famous cleric, declared: “What has the church to do with the emperor?”
Ambrose’s famous statement echoed a similar refrain: “The emperor is within the church, not above it.” Ambrose’s view of the state was sophisticated, but the point here was simple. When he opposed Christian rulers, such as when he demanded repentance from Emperor Theodosius I for his massacre of thousands in Thessalonica, he reflected the position of earlier leaders who believed that fidelity to Christ was primary. And church discipline applied to all, from the lowest to the highest in society.
Athanasius’s refusal to cower in the face of clerical and imperial power during his time as bishop of Alexandria is yet another example of that hierarchy of church over the state in matters of discipline.
Bishop Osius remarks to the emperor Constantius during the post-Nicene struggles with Arianism likewise demonstrate that the early church consensus on the right ordering of state and church spheres remained vibrant, and the ancient tradition to speak boldly to rulers was not lost: “Intrude not yourself into ecclesiastical matters, neither give commands to us concerning them; but learn them from us. God has put into your hands the kingdom; to us He has entrusted the affairs of the Church…It is written, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ [Matthew 22:21]. Neither therefore is it permitted to us to exercise an earthly rule, nor have you, Sire, any authority to burn incense.”
Chrysostom was also an ardent critic of government misrule. He understood the church to be “called to correct the imperfections of the secular authorities through critical engagement; the church was therefore not to be acquiescent but to be an uncompromising judge of society.”
Even what seems at first glance to be misguided and uncritical praise could have a covert or subtle prophetic message. For instance, Lactantius’ praise of Constantine, and the conflation of his reign with the reign of God, had prophetic elements to it. If praise and support was due to his piety then the converse was true as well: an ungodly ruler jeopardized the support of the church. The language of providence was also double-edged, for if God had raised up the emperor for divine purposes, the standard for the ruler’s behavior was high: the role required holiness, and rulers invited criticism if it was lacking.
Knowing when and how to be prophetic in the ancient or modern world is anything but simple. And there are serious risks involved going against the state. In some nations it will provoke violence, repression, and even martyrdom. In others, it can make life very difficult for the church, leading to the loss of privileges and other benefits accrued over the decades. And, in almost every case, it will raise questions about whether or not the church should get involved in such matters at all.
While the church’s ancient tradition does not provide specific instructions as to when or why or how to speak to the state, it does make one thing clear: “The emperor is within the church, not above it.” Church discipline applies to all who claim to be within the church. And, at appropriate times, even powerful rulers who claim to be Christian need to hear the prophetic word of the church.
 This blog draws upon my recent book Christians, the State, and War: An Ancient Tradition for the Modern World (Lexington/Fortress, 2022).
 Ossius, Letter to Constantius, as quoted in Gwynn, ed., Christianity in the Later Empire, 121.
 David K. Goodin, “Just–War Theory and Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Theological Perspective on the Doctrinal Legacy of Chrysostom and Constantine–Cyril,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 48.3–4 (2004) 256–57.
6/16/2022 07:23:42 am
This certainly makes sense to me, although since many of our modern 'emperors' are no longer members of churches, Ambrose's dictum wouldn't apply to all situations. But I do think it applies when a leader espouses Christianity. There's the story of how Lyndon Johnson worshiped at Bruton (Episcopal) Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1967, and the rector, Colesworth Pinckney Lewis, took the opportunity of the sermon to wonder what the rationale was for the war in Vietnam. He got in a LOT of trouble for that; both his church vestry and the governor of Virginia apologized for him; he received thousands of very negative letters; (and I feel pretty sure I wouldn't have been up to the task!;) but he weathered the storm. How lovely it would be if the patriarch of Moscow had a few stern words to say to his most influential church member, but the patriarch of Moscow is no Ambrose.
6/21/2022 12:01:12 pm
Thanks Alan. As you know, the Orthodox Church experienced horrendous persecution under the communist regime, but now has a special status of privilege. My hunch is that the church has no desire to go back to the "bad old days" of repression, and that concern has blunted its prophetic edge.
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