Monday, May 10, 2021

The Separation of Church and State


Significantly, for the first time ever the pope ignored the requirement that the emperor issue the summons to such a council and assumed responsibility for it himself.

The Age of Paradise: Christendom from Pentecost to the First Millennium, by John Strickland

The pope who called the Lateran Council was Theodore, but he died before the council was convened; the new pope, Martin, would preside over the council; the year was 649.  Never before was an ecumenical council called without being convened by the Roman Emperor.  This was a council was called by the bishop in Rome without the authority of the emperor in Constantinople.

The immediate issue was that of Monothelitism, but for purposes of this post the issue is secondary.  It is sufficient to note that this doctrine was developed as some sort of middle ground regarding the nature of Christ, an issue that divided the Church in the East.  The emperor, looking for ways to reunite the empire, sought support for a compromise position – hence, this doctrine, which satisfied almost no one.

More relevant is this issue of independence and separation, and how it played out in this first example of what would become a meaningful feature in the Western tradition and seemingly completely absent in the Eastern.

The act was the beginning of what might be called the heroic papacy, a self-conscious effort by successive popes to wrest doctrinal authority from caesaropapist emperors and to establish it instead as the prerogative of Rome.

Ironic, in that both the pope who called the synod and the author of the canons of the council, Maximos the Confessor, were both from the east.  These Eastern patristics would elevate the status of Rome and the papacy to a heroic status, a position never before occupied by any of the major bishoprics before.

Maximos was given complete leeway in setting the agenda for the council; his Greek theological credentials were impeccable.  And he did not work alone, as a large team of Greek monks and theologians assisted him, having travelled from the east; altogether, one hundred bishops were present.  And, it must be reiterated, all without imperial authority.

This council would reject Monothelitism as a heresy.  In the long run, this decision was vindicated, as demonstrated more than thirty years later, in 680-681, in the Sixth Ecumenical Council convened by Constantine IV in Constantinople. 

But things didn’t go so well in the short run; obviously, the emperor was not happy.  Both Maximos and Martin would pay dearly for their defense of Orthodoxy – a position contrary to the emperor’s wishes and at a synod called without the emperor’s authority.  They were both abducted in Rome and brought to trial in Constantinople:

Both were tortured; Martin was publicly flogged on the streets of Constantinople, and Maximos had his right hand chopped off and his tongue cut out to prevent continued theological influence.  Both died in exile, reviled by a caeseropapist state that demanded the final word in defining Christian doctrine.

Meanwhile, developments in the West would begin to offer a glimpse of an entirely different evangelism, and a further manifestation of the roots that would come to separate Eastern and Western governance.

Christianity began its spread in the Mediterranean basin, with people acculturated to Roman and Greek tradition.

As early as the fourth century, Christianity had indeed broken free of the empire in the East, being planted first in Armenia, and then, even more distantly, in Georgia.

Later, an even more distinct eastern Syrian form would emerge in the pagan Persian empire.  But in the West, Christianity would appropriate Roman civilization even while transforming it.  While initially spread in Latin, the Scriptures would be translated into native languages – Ulfilas, for example, with the Goths in the fourth century…

…though notably he elected to exclude the Books of Kings in fear that his militant audience would use these works to justify conquest.  The decision had little effect….

After the sixth century, the capacity of Byzantium to reach into western lands declined.  As this was the case, the benefit of the rulers’ adherence to Arianism as a means to remain separate from Constantinople waned; they soon found it more valuable to claim the Orthodox and catholic faith of their subjects.  A most significant example is that of King Reccared of Hispania, who ended his dynasty’s allegiance to Arianism in 589, with the council of Toledo.

The more difficult task was regarding the lands to the north, beyond the Rhine River.  The missionaries would focus their efforts on the nobility, hoping that with their conversion, the subjects would soon follow.  This was often, but not always, the case.

The result was a form of Christendom distinct from that of the Byzantine East.  Some historians have called it the adelskirche, or “nobility-church.”  It was a church culture centered upon the local court and expressing the values of warrior elites.  Militancy was its most notable expression.

Any familiarity at all with the environment of the West during the medieval period would make this reality clear.  Mercy and humility could be tough to square with this warrior militancy:

In one case, a group of warriors submitted to baptism on condition that they be allowed to wage war freely once they were Christians.  When the time came for their immersion, they held their right hands up out of the transformative water to prevent the loss, as they saw it, of the power to wield weapons.

Most notable of this class would be the Franks, beginning with King Clovis who, at the end of the fifth century, began a successful campaign of expansion to the West.  He would ultimately receive baptism in 508, firmly establishing a foothold for Christendom in what had been predominantly a land of Arianism.

Missionaries didn’t work only through the nobles.  A notable example is that of Boniface, who would boldly appropriate local cultural and religious symbols of the native population. 

Arriving at a pagan shrine, he would knock it to the ground, preaching a sermon on the powerlessness of idols, and call the native population to baptism.

His most famous, and notorious, act was felling the sacred oak at Geismar, using its timbers to then erect a Christian temple in which to baptize the locals.  Sooner or later, this was bound to bring on his end; the pagans martyred him in 754.


With the Reformation, centuries later, the West would return to a monopoly authority over both church and government – a state, in other words.  Despite the fanciful words we are taught, that there is some form of separation between church and state today thanks to the Enlightenment, it just isn’t so.

Churches in the West, just as they are all around the world, are evermore beholden to those who hold the levers of authority – be they state actors or nameless and faceless tyrants sitting on positions of global governance.

Until this tie is broken, and the Christian Church retakes its proper place, all hopes for liberty are lost.


  1. This is definitely Church Militant. Clearly, the state wanted them to do this. At least they are safe from eternal damnation because they wear those masks mentioned in Leviticus, or was it Kings?

    1. A Pentecostal order in the Catholic Church?

      Martin Luther would add a 96th to his list, I think.

    2. Rightfully so!

  2. There is separation of Church and State in the sense that the State struck out on its own and relegated the Church to the role of a quaint, harmless ritual at best, or as a subversive force to be suppressed at worst.

    For the most part the Church seems to have largely accepted that process, and so have the faithful. It seems to me that this outcome is largely the result of a lack of "boldness" in denouncing State policy antithetical to Christian values, and calling for action against it.

    Perhaps not so much with the Orthodox after the Bolshevik takeover. Maybe their example is a large part of why Russians are recovering their spirituality while the West is losing it?

    Without action, Christianity or any faith really is little more than quaint preaching: "don't do that, it really isn't very nice!"

    Strickland's book really paints the picture of a wholly different Christianity, one where even the highest leaders are willing to risk seriously annoying the secular powers. "Heroic" indeed. These days only the small fish will do anything like that.

    To be fair, that's hardly unique to the Church. What powerful institution in the West today isn't a sclerotic bureaucracy bent on justifying its own existence and scared to death of rocking the boat? The globalist NGOs and their backers, I suppose?

    1. I think of it more as subservience rather than separation.

      "To be fair, that's hardly unique to the Church."

      I agree, completely. The state has usurped the authority of all meaningful institutions.

      But it is the Church that has the unique calling, the certain truth, the knowledge that death has been conquered.

      It is the only institution that has as the last answer to the last "why" of action as love.

      So, it should be held most accountable.