- Should a pastor simultaneously act as a government official, such as a governor or as an ambassador?
- Should a pastor call out a politician by name for his policies?
- Should the church be willing to use state force to combat heresies?
Once Christianity became the religion of the empire, it found itself having to grapple with these questions, and struggling to figure out where to draw that blurry line between state and church. As the bishop of a city which often housed the emperor, Ambrose found himself at the center of many of these controversies.
Ambrose was born to Christian parents. His father was the Prefect of Gaul, which covered modern-day France, Britain, and Spain. His father died when he was a teenager, and the family moved to Rome, where he was educated to follow in his father’s footsteps. Eventually, he became a governor.
In Milan, where he lived, the Arian bishop had died, and there was a great conflict over his successor between the Catholics and Arians. Fearing a riot, he went to the church where the election was taking place and tried to talk the crowd down. During his speech, somebody yelled out, “Ambrose, bishop!” and soon the entire crowd was chanting it.
Ambrose fled and hid at a friend’s house, and this friend then turned him in. In the space of a week, Ambrose was baptized, ordained, and consecrated as a bishop.
He threw himself into this role, immediately selling everything he had, giving it to the poor, and adopting an ascetic lifestyle. He threw himself into the study of theology, which he had not had any schooling in previously.
1. Ambassador Ambrose
In 383 General Maximus was proclaimed Emperor by his troops, and then marched on and conquered Gaul, as well as emperor Gratian. He was marching on Italy and the 12-year old emperor Valentinian II when the Eastern emperor Theodosius sent troops to stop him. Ambrose was sent as ambassador to dissuade Maximus from proceeding further. The mission was a success, and resulted in Maximus being recognized as the western emperor.
How did you answer Question 1? If you said “no,” do you still think so? Would it have been better for Ambrose to stay out of political questions and consequently also fail to help the many people who would be killed in the resultant fighting?
2. Massacre at Thessalonica
In 390 in Thessalonica, a governor had arrested a popular athlete for trying to rape a male cupbearer. The people demanded his release, and when the governor refused, they rioted and killed him. The emperor was enraged, and sent out his troops. The people were invited to an exhibition in the Circus, where they were slaughtered. 7,000 people were killed.
He almost immediately thought better of the plan and sent a letter countermanding the order, but by then it was too late.
How did you answer question 2? How should Ambrose, who was the emperor’s pastor, have responded?
The following is a letter he wrote Theodosius after hearing of the incident:
What then was I to do? Must I disclose what I heard? But then I had reason to fear that the same result which I apprehended from your commands would ensue from my own words; that they might become the cause of bloodshed. Was I then to be silent? But this would be the most miserable of all, for my conscience would be bound, my liberty of speech taken away. And what then of the text, if the priest warn not the wicked from his wicked way, the wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but the priest shall be liable to punishment, because he did not warn him?
Is your Majesty ashamed to do that which the Royal Prophet David did, the forefather of Christ according to the flesh? It was told him that a rich man, who had numerous flocks, on the arrival of a guest took a poor man’s lamb and killed it, and recognizing in this act his own condemnation, he said, I have sinned against the Lord. Let not your Majesty then be impatient at being told, as David was by the prophet, Thou art the man. For if you listen thereto obediently and say, I have sinned against the Lord, if you will use those words of the royal Prophet, O come let us worship and fall down, and kneel before the Lord our Maker, to you also it shall be said, Because thou repentest, the Lord hath put away thy sin, thou shalt not die.
This I have written, not to confound you, but that these royal examples may induce you to put away this sin from your kingdom; for this you will do by humbling your soul before God. You are a man; temptation has fallen upon you; vanquish it. Sin is not washed away but by tears and penitence. Neither Angel nor Archangel can do it. The Lord Himself, Who alone can say I am with you; even He grants no remission of sin save to the penitent.
In America, a preacher who speaks against a political leader risks losing their church’s tax-exemption. Ambrose could have been exiled or even executed. In the end, the Emperor accepted the humiliation of public penance, and was eventually readmitted to communion.
3. Suppression of the Donatists
Remember the Donatists? They were still a force during the time of Augustine, roughly 100 years after the schism started. You probably answered “no” to question 3. Saint Augustine would have disagreed with you:
Again I ask, if good and holy men never inflict persecution upon any one, but only suffer it, whose words they think that those are in the psalm where we read, “I have pursued mine enemies, and overtaken them; neither did I turn again till they were consumed?” If, therefore, we wish either to declare or to recognize the truth, there is a persecution of unrighteousness, which the impious inflict upon the Church of Christ; and there is a righteous persecution, which the Church of Christ inflicts upon the impious. She therefore is blessed in suffering persecution for righteousness’ sake; but they are miserable, suffering persecution for unrighteousness. Moreover, she persecutes in the spirit of love, they in the spirit of wrath; she that she may correct, they that they may overthrow: she that she may recall from error, they that they may drive headlong into error.
Finally, she persecutes her enemies and arrests them, until they become weary in their vain opinions, so that they should make advance in the truth; but they, returning evil for good, because we take measures for their good, to secure their eternal salvation, endeavor even to strip us of our temporal safety, being so in love with murder, that they commit it on their own persons, when they cannot find victims in any others. For in proportion as the Christian charity of the Church endeavors to deliver them from that destruction, so that none of them should die.
One thing I did not mention previously is that the Donatists themselves had begun to turn violent. Sometimes they would loot and destroy Catholic churches. They also prevented people among their ranks from going over to the Catholic side by using violence. Does this change your view any?
And what are we to say of those who confess to us, as some do every day, that even in the olden days they had long been wishing to be Catholics; but they were living among men among whom those who wished to be Catholics could not be so through the infirmity of fear, seeing that if any one there said a single word in favor of the Catholic Church, he and his house were utterly destroyed at once? Who is mad enough to deny that it was right that assistance should have been given through the imperial decrees, that they might be delivered from so great an evil, whilst those whom they used to fear are compelled in turn to fear, and are either themselves corrected through the same terror, or, at any rate, whilst they pretend to be corrected, they abstain from further persecution of those who really are, to whom they formerly were objects of continual dread?
But if they have chosen to destroy themselves, in order to prevent the deliverance of those who had a right to be delivered, and have sought in this way to alarm the pious hearts of the deliverers, so that in their apprehension that some few abandoned men might perish, they should allow others to lose the opportunity of deliverance from destruction, who were either already unwilling to perish, or might have been saved from it by the employment of compulsion; what is in this case the function of Christian charity, especially when we consider that those who utter threats of their own violent and voluntary deaths are very few in number in comparison with the nations that are to be delivered?
What then is the function of brotherly love? Does it, because it fears the shortlived fires of the furnace for a few, therefore abandon all to the eternal fires of hell? and does it leave so many, who are either already desirous, or hereafter are not strong enough to pass to life eternal, to perish everlastingly, while taking precautions that some few should not perish by their own hand, who are only living to be a hindrance in the way of the salvation of others, whom they will not permit to live in accordance with the doctrines of Christ, in the hopes that some day or other they may teach them too to hasten their death by their own hand, in the manner which now causes them themselves to be a terror to their neighbors, in accordance with the custom inculcated by their devilish tenets? or does it rather save all whom it can, even though those whom it cannot save should perish in their own infatuation? For it ardently desires that all should live, but it more especially labors that not all should die.