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A Time of Weakness, A Time of Strength: AD 315-450

When Constantine converted and came over into the Christian Church, it was the beginning of a relationship which proved to be both blessing and curse. The Christians were favored by not having to pay the taxes imposed upon other members of the empire. Church buildings came into existence for the first time in history, with the congregation at Dura Europas on the Euphrates and one in Caesarea in Palestine being the first two known to exist. After Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, he became interested in the affairs of the Church. He paid close attention to what was happening among the Christians both with regard to what bonded them together and with regard to where they disagreed with each other. This served to create a situation which evolved into the issue of church-state relationships.

Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430)

“Saint Augustine in His Study” by Sandro Botticelli, 1480.

Augustine’s contribution through his massive City of God is that the life of the church is separate from the life of the body politic. This has taken the church down three divergent paths in the west: triumphalism, as practiced in the Middle Ages by the Catholic Church as superior to the state; church and state as separate partners as practiced by the Protestant-Reformed churches; and complete separatism as proposed by the Anabaptist Brethren-Mennonite-Amish reformers. All derive from Augustine’s City of God.

The Church in the East developed differently on church-state issues. It suffered unduly from the impact of believing rulers in the affairs of the Church. The Church did have men in the pulpit who challenged the rulers. The most vocal of these men was John of Antioch, later the archbishop of Constantinople, and better known through the succeeding centuries as John Chrysostom. St. John Chrysostom’s most famous and eloquent sermon, The Foolishness of the Cross Conquering, at some date between A.D. 398 and 402. He rattled the nerves of the Empress Eudoxia, wife of the emperor Arcadius. He was exiled twice: once in 403 but was recalled and then again in 404, this time sent to Armenia. But by extensive correspondence, he exerted such influence that Arcadius had him banished still further away. It did no good. Though he died in A.D. 407, just a few years before Augustine in Hippo and Patrick in Ireland, the power of his eloquence and influence after death marked him as the most articulate opponent of what is known in politics as caesaro-papism: the emperor; or we may say, the government is pope.

Caesaro-papism has been a thorn to the Orthodox Church and in early modern Russia. John Chrysostom also opposed the idea of any bishop having primacy of position within the body of the church. He once conceded to the bishop of Rome “the primacy of honor, but not the primacy of jurisdiction.

What is the point to this discussion? The issue of the relationship between the life of the church and the life of the state is an ongoing problem. Sometimes this gives rise to the problem of a “civic appeal to Christian belief and faith” which only has a facial quality and is not the real thing.

As for Augustine, he retains a position in Western Christianity, third in influence only to Jesus and Paul. He greatly influenced the reformers of the 16th century both in their doctrine of irresistible grace and the relationship between church and state.

Chrysostom is loved by both Eastern and Western Churches. He left to posterity not only his sermons but also commentaries on the Scriptures and the example of an unyielding allegiance to the truth of the gospel even under the pressure of a ruling elite.

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Category: Church History, Winter 2014

About the Author: Woodrow E. Walton, D.Min. (Oral Roberts University School of Theology and Missions), B.A. (Texas Christian University), B.D. [M.Div.] (Duke Divinity School), M.A. (University of Oklahoma), is a retired Seminary Dean and Professor of biblical, theological and historical studies. An ordained Assemblies of God minister, he and his wife live in Fort Worth, Texas. Walton retains membership with the Evangelical Theological Society, American Association of Christian Counselors, American Society of Church History, American Academy of Political Science, and The International Society of Frontier Missiology.

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