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Disciplining an Emperor


Following his “conversion” in 312, Emperor Constantine decreed the legal toleration of all religions. He also reckoned himself to be the head of the church, “bishop of all bishops” and the “thirteenth apostle.” Thus, the distinction between church and state was compromised. Enter Ambrose of Milan (ca. 339–397), who dared insist that Christ was the sole head of the church, and furthermore, that all Christians were under that authority, including those that happened to be Emperors—namely, Theodosius I, successor to Constantine.

In the year 390, a Thessalonian mob murdered the governor of Illyria. In vain, Ambrose urged Theodosius to exercise restraint. The emperor sent an army “to massacre the Thessalonians.” When his anger cooled, he tried to recall his army, but seven thousand Thessalonians had already been slaughtered. Bishop Ambrose courageously reacted in faithful pastoral fashion.

Ambrose respected Theodosius because the emperor was a Nicene Christian who had called the Council of Constantinople (381), which decisively rejected Arianism. Nevertheless, when Ambrose heard of the slaughter in Thessalonica, he wrote a bold letter, calling the emperor to repentance. He wrote:

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I cannot deny that you are zealous for the faith and that you fear God. But you have a naturally passionate spirit; and while you easily yield to love when that spirit is subdued, yet when it is stirred up you become a raging beast. I would gladly have left you to the workings of your own heart, but I dare not remain silent or gloss over your sin. No-one in all human history has ever before heard of such a bloody scene as the one at Thessalonica! I warned you against it, I pleaded with you; you yourself realized its horror and tried to cancel your decree. And now I call you to repent.

This letter was a harbinger of the confrontation that would follow. Theodosius came to church, pretending that he had not received the letter. But Ambrose courageously barred his entrance to the church. When the emperor claimed he had repented, Ambrose responded that mere words were not enough—his contrition of heart must be demonstrated publicly before he could receive the Lord’s Supper. Ambrose challenged the emperor with these words: “How will you lift up in prayer the hands still dripping with the blood of the murdered? How will you receive with such hands the most holy body of the Lord? How will you bring to your mouth His precious blood? Go away, and dare not to heap crime upon crime.” In response, Theodosius pointed out that King David had been guilty of murder, but that he had been forgiven. Without hesitation, the bishop answered, “Well, if you have imitated David in sin, imitate him also in repentance.”

The emperor humbled himself, demonstrating the genuineness of his repentance by walking through the streets of Milan while confessing his sin. Ambrose nevertheless banned Theodosius from attending church for the next eight months. When the probation period was complete, the emperor was required to kneel before the congregation and publicly ask for God’s forgiveness. Theodosius complied.

This was the first time a bishop had used his spiritual authority with an emperor. As Ambrose asserted: “The Church belongs to God, therefore it cannot be assigned to Caesar. The emperor is within the Church, not above it.” The point was clear. No emperor, no king, no president is the ruler of the church—Christ is. Like all believers, even the highest civil authority, in matters pertaining to the church, is subject to the Lord Jesus Christ.

—Steven J. Lawson, Pillars of Grace (Reformation Trust, 2011), 199–200.



Posted 2018·09·03 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Ambrose of Milan · Church History · Discipline · Pillars of Grace · Steve Lawson

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