The Question of Authority

The Question of Authority

Church History I

First Baptist Church Dandridge Dr. Justin Terrell

Session Ten
Roman Christianity: The Question of Spiritual Authority



Following a successful victory over Maxentius in the battle at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine not only became Emperor of the Western Roman Empire, but he radically embraced the Christian faith and sharply changed the course of Christian history. His new faith was made evident by radical changes in his life, including passing laws that ended widespread persecution; making Sunday the official day of Christian worship and rest; constructing massive cathedrals and facilities for congregations to gather; banning crucifixion a method of punishment; and introducing a welfare system to help poor children with critical needs and discouraging the Roman practice of abortion. Constantine even constructed a new capital for the Eastern Roman Empire at the ancient city of Byzantium that would be a “New Rome” – a Christian Rome – which was later called, “Constantinople.” This new capital would have two magnificent churches and no pagan temples, which set the tone for a new Roman-Christian government. In other words, there was no longer a “secular state,” but now a “Christian state,” where the Roman Empire would be governed according to Christian values and standards, and the Church would be deeply involved with the Roman government – which in turn led Constantine to see himself as both a political and spiritual authority. Some, like Eusebius, believed this development was a fulfillment of the Kingdom of God, where Christ would establish a spiritual-political kingdom on earth. However, others saw this movement as a serious overreach and a departure from Scripture.

Question: But this event forces us to ask the question whether it’s God’s will for spiritual authority to reside with the state. In other words, does Christ want state governments to take on the role as spiritual authorities – even if they claim to be Christian? Who should be in control? What are the dangers? We see this question addressed through several controversies in the fourth and fifth centuries.

1. The Donatist Controversy

a. Background: In the wake of harsh persecution inflicted by Emperor Diocletian, the Church in Northwest Africa (Carthage) became sharply divided over a controversy regarding the newly appointed bishop of Carthage, Caecilian (AD 311). Many believers felt like Caecilian was unqualified because one of the bishops who ordained him had allegedly handed over Bibles to be burned during Diocletian’s persecution raids. Therefore, in the minds of some, he was not truly ordained and qualified to lead. As a result, the church in Northwest Africa split, each side claiming to be the true Catholic Church. One Church was led by Caecilian, and the other by a rival bishop named Donatus, whose followers were called “Donatists.”

  1. Action: After Constantine became Emperor of the West, he ordered that all church property that had been confiscated during the persecutions be given back. So, in Northwest Africa, the local government gave the property to Caecilian and his followers. This didn’t sit well with the Donatist, who appealed to Constantine to recognize them as they rightful owners of the property since they were the “true” Catholic Church of Northwest Africa. Constantine gathered a group of bishops to investigate and decide the matter. The decision was against the Donatists, which led to turmoil and violence between the two groups. Finally, and ironically, in an effort to “restore peace,” Constantine ordered African authorities to exile all Donatists and confiscate their church buildings, which was intended as a means of discipline that would hopefully lead them to rejoin the Church. But the decision failed. For the next 100 years, there would be a bitter divide between Catholics and Donatists.
  2. Result: Constantine’s intervention into the Donatist controversy meant that for the first time, an emperor had used the power of the state to govern the affairs of the church. Historians see this event as the beginning of a long line of Church-sanctioned, state-supported persecutions against religious nonconformists. In other words, church discipline and pressure imposed on others through the power and resources of the state.

2. The Arian Controversy

  1. Background: In AD 318, an elderly and cultured man named Arius (256-336), who had been a popular preacher in Libya, came to Alexandria teaching that the Father alone was God. The Logos, or Son, was a created being, formed out of nothing by the Father before the universe was made. In essence, there was a time when the Son did not exist. Only the Father was truly God – infinite, eternal, and uncreated. Such teaching sent shockwaves throughout the ancient church. Was Jesus not truly God? If not, how could he have lived a perfect life? How could he display the attributes of God, perform miracles, or receive worship? Arius was strongly opposed by Alexander, bishop of Alexandria (AD 313), who insisted that Jesus was fully and truly God. As a result, sides formed between Arias and Alexander, and some have called the Arian controversy the greatest theological controversy in church history.
  2. Action: Constantine felt that it was his duty as a Christian emperor to restore order to his Empire’s divided Church. He therefore summoned the first ecumenical council of bishops from all over the Eastern and Western Empire to settle the dispute. In AD 325, group gathered in Nicaea, in northwest Asia Minor, in what would be called the Council of Nicaea. Around 300 bishops were present, along with numerous presbyters and deacons. As the meeting began, Constantine took an active part in the debates and discussions of the Council, effectively acting as a chairman. Constantine’s advisor on Church matters, Hosius of Cordova, was a Western bishop and had a strong belief in Christ’s deity. Thus, Constantine affirmed this position, which resulted in drafting the Nicene Creed, an anti-Arian document affirming the full deity of Christ.
  3. Result: Following the seeds sown through the Donatist controversy, where the government became involved in “resolving” church conflict, Constantine’s participation in the Council of Nicaea meant that now the government was getting involved in deciding matters of Christian theology. The eventual banishment of Arius for refusing to sign the Nicene Creed was the first time the state had punished someone for being a heretic.


3. The Church-State Controversy

a. Background: In AD 380, the Eastern Roman Emperor, Theodosius I, took Constantine’s zeal for the church a step further by announcing his intention to lead all citizens in his territory to accept Christianity. He issued a series of anti-Pagan edicts, which led to closing all pagan temples, with most being demolished, and banning all pagan sacrifices. From this point forward, orthodox Christianity was to be the official religion of the Roman Empire. However, such government- backed Christian liberty once again gave way to government overreach. One example came when Constantius, who was Constantine’s son and Roman Emperor (337-361), and an upholder of the Arian heresy, used his power to advance the Arian doctrine in the Church and persecute orthodox believers. This led Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, to regard Emperor Constantius as an antichrist. Such support for false doctrine convinced Athanasius that emperors should have no authority over internal church matters. This belief was solidified when Constantius ordered bishop Hosius of Cordova to accept Arians at the Lord’s table, in which Hosius replied:

• Quote: “Do not intrude yourself into ecclesiastical matters, and do not give commands concerning them, but learn from us. God has put into your hands the kingdom; to us he has entrusted the affairs of his church. If anyone stole the Empire from you, he would be resisting what God has ordained; in the same way, you should be afraid of becoming guilty of a serious sin if you take upon yourself to govern the church. ‘Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ (Matt. 22:21). We are not allowed to exercise earthly rule, and you, your majesty, are not allowed to burn incense.” – Hosius of Cordova

  1. Action: As Hosius indicated, the Empire and the Church had their own areas of authority issued to them from God. The Empire rules in all earthly, civil, judicial, and political matters, and the Church rules over all matters of spirituality, theology, and discipline. These boundaries should never be crossed or blurred. However, the Eastern Empire (Byzantine) continued to allow the emperor to act as defacto head of the church. Some believe this understanding took root in the East because it was rooted in Hellenistic culture, which saw kings as divine figures. But in the West, clear distinctions were boldly made between political and spiritual authority.
  2. Example: One such example came when Ambrose, bishop of Milan, fiercely opposed and ruled over Emperor Theodosius. This took place after Theodosius made Milan the capital of the Western Empire, where Ambrose served as bishop. While Ambrose became his close friend and advisor, it was clear that he didn’t allow the emperor to rule the Church. Ambrose famously said, “The Church belongs to God, therefore it cannot be assigned to Caesar. The emperor is within the Church, not above it.” This understand took centerstage in AD 390, when a riot broke out in Thessalonica, which led to the murder of Botherich, governor of the province of Illyria. While Theodosius was a professing Christian, he was also known to have severe anger issues, resulting in fits of rage that frightened his own family. In response to the riots, he lost all self-control and sent soldiers to Thessalonica to massacre over 7,000 people as punishment. When Ambrose heard of this brutal act of revenge, he boldly excommunicated the emperor and exhorted him to deep, meaningful repentance. However, Theodosius appeared at the church in Milan the


following Sunday as if nothing had ever happened. But Ambrose refused to let him enter, indicating that his words of sorrow were not enough; he had to make his repentance public by walking the streets of Milan doing public penance. He was banned from attending worship for eight months. When he was allowed to come back in, the Ambrose made the emperor knell and beg for forgiveness before the whole congregation, which he did with intense sorrow, tears flowing from his eyes. Theodosius later said, “The only real bishop I know is Ambrose.”

d. Result: This episode between Bishop Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius was a critical moment to uphold the crucial line between spiritual and political authority, as demonstrated by an emperor submitting to the spiritual authority of a bishop. Ambrose would live under the biblical- agreeing laws of the Empire, Theodosius would live under the supreme laws of God.