Church Discipline for the Emperor

Published October 30, 2012 by in Uncategorized

bishop.jpg  In 390 A.D., Bishop Ambrose of Milan barred the Roman Emperor Theodosius from attending church and from access to the Lord’s Table. The emperor had ordered a horrific massacre in Thessalonica, and the bishop took his life into his own hands to provoke repentance. Theodosius did repent, in tears—a defining moment in Church and State relations.

Both men were steely characters. Ambrose came to the episcopate during the Arian crisis as a staunch opponent of Arianism, the view that Christ was only a creature and not divine. When the Empress Regent Justina demanded that he hand over his church to the Arians, he refused, so it is said, even when the building was surrounded by soldiers.

Theodosius was also used to conflict, having waged successful military campaigns against the Goths in the east and against Magnus Maximus in Italy. He had a ruthless side, which he showed against the Thessalonians, who had rioted when their governor imprisoned a popular charioteer. In retaliation, Theodosius invited the people of Thessalonika to the games at the Circus; when the amphitheater was full, his soldiers killed them all—about seven thousand—regardless of age, gender, or guilt.

On Theodosius’ return to Milan, Ambrose leveled these strong, courageous, and pastoral words at the emperor:

You do not reflect it seems, O emperor, on the guilt you have incurred by the great massacre which has taken place; but now that your fury is appeased, do you not perceive the enormity of the crime? . . . You must not be dazzled by the splendour of the purple in which you are clothed, and be led to forget the weakness of the body which it enrobes. Your subjects, O emperor, are of the same nature as yourself, and not only so, but they are likewise your fellow-servants. For there is one Lord and Ruler of all, and He is the Maker of all creatures, whether princes or people. How would you look upon the temple of the one Lord of all? . . . How could you lift up in prayer hands steeped in the blood of unjust massacre? . . . Depart, then, and do not by a second crime augment the guilt of the first.1

The Emperor was grief stricken, but Ambrose was not easily persuaded to readmit him to fellowship. It was not until Theodosius had made public confession of sin and outlawed such indiscriminate punishment, that his access to the Lord’s Table was restored. In light of this affair, Augustine observed that Theodosius “rejoiced more in being a member of the Church than in being the ruler of the world.”2

The confrontation is instructive to pastors at several points. Firstly, Ambrose was willing to confront error, even in the most powerful member of his congregation, in this case the most powerful man in the world. His pastoral concern for the emperor was stronger than his fear of him or his desire for easy influence.

Secondly, Ambrose understood the relationship between Church and State. The state has the power of the sword (Rom. 13:4), but to the Church has God entrusted the keys to the Kingdom (Matt. 16:19). This was no confusion of Church and State; when the monarch was in church, he was subject to its censure in all areas of life, including his government of the nation.

Ambrose, as pastor to the emperor, saw two great results from his stand—the law of punishment was made more just, and Theodosius was himself changed. He came to a new realization that he himself was a subject of the heavenly King. So often today, the Church is unwilling to make waves for fear of losing her influence. If she fails, however, to confront error, even in world leaders, she fails in her duty. She fails the rulers as people and the nation as a whole. She would do well to follow Ambrose. Theodosius was surely right to describe him as “the first man who told me the truth” and “the only man who was worthy to be bishop.”3

article adapted from Kairos Journal 

First Baptist Church of Perryville is located at 4800 W. Pulaski Hwy., Perryville, MD

1 Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Book V, xvii , in History of the Church: From A.D. 322 to. . . to A.D. 427 and from A.D. 431 to A.D. 594 by Evagrius (London: Henry G. Bohn, n.d.), 220.
2 Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, trans. R.W. Dyson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 235.
3 Theodoret, History of the Christian Church, vol. 3, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity: From Constantine the Great to Gregory the Great, ed. Philip Schaff (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), 964.

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