Written by Vladimir Moss



     The Holy Apostles and Martyrs in the time of the pagan Roman empire believed, on the one hand, that the emperor’s power was established by God and should be obeyed whenever possible, and on the other hand, that he should be disobeyed if he commanded something contrary to God’s commandments. No authority, whether political or ecclesiastical, should be listened to if it contradicted the supreme authority, which is God. As the Apostles said to the Jewish Sanhedrin: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge” (Acts 4.19).

     According to Protestant writers, after the persecutions ended and the empire became Christian, the Church lost her independence and entered into a union with the State that made her a slave of the Emperors. Paradoxically, therefore, according to the Protestants, the triumph of the Church under St. Constantine was at the same time the end of the Church as an independent institution. Worse than that: according to some Protestants, as Fr. Irenaeos Plac writes, “the Church apostasized with the legalization of Christianity under Constantine, around 311-313 AD. The argument goes that with actual tolerance and later acceptance by the government, Church affairs became about power and worldly things, leading to the apostasy of the Church. This argument is rather easily disposed of, as many of the conventions these Protestants name as evidences of the apostasy are historically established to have been practiced well before the legalization of the Church. Whether it is icons, veneration of the Virgin mother, authority of bishops or most any other practice, the historical evidence for the universal practice of these marks of the faith are numerous. From the writings of St. Ignatius on bishops, to the excavation of 3rd century church buildings replete with icons, to ancient papyrus scrolls with hymns to the Theotokos, the idea that ‘everything changed in the Church with the edicts of Constantine is simply historically disprovable.[1]

     As regards the Church’s relationship to the State, the Protestants are also wrong: the fourth-century Fathers showed a heroic independence even in relation to the most Christian of the Emperors. Of course, the accession of the first Christian Emperor with its many major benefits for the Church and for the spreading of Christianity was welcomed by the Church, and the bishops willingly entered into a “symphony of powers” between Church and State. But when the Emperors betrayed the Faith – as did, for example, most of the emperors in the fifty-year period between St. Constantine the Great and St. Theodosius the Great – the Holy Fathers rose up in protest against them, using language that was as strong as anything uttered against the pagan emperors.

     Thus when St. Constantine’s son Constantius apostasized from Orthodoxy and converted to the Arian heresy, believing that Christ was not the pre-eternal God and Creator but a created being, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, who had previously addressed him as “very pious”, a “worshipper of God”, “beloved of God” and a successor of David and Solomon, now denounced him as “patron of impiety and Emperor of heresy,… godless, unholy,.. this modern Ahab, this second Belshazzar”, like Pharaoh, worse than Pilate and a forerunner of the Antichrist.[2] Again, St. Hilary of Poitiers wrote to Constantius: “You are fighting against God, you are raging against the Church, you are persecuting the saints, you hate the preachers of Christ, you are annulling religion; you are a tyrant no longer only in the human, but in the divine sphere… You lyingly declare yourself a Christian, but are a new enemy of Christ. You are a precursor of Antichrist, and you work the mysteries of his secrets.”[3]

     Constantius’ heretical cast of mind made it easier for him to assume the place of Christ as head of the Church. Thus at the Council of Milan in 355, he said: “My will is law”. To which St. Osius of Cordoba, replied: “Stop, I beseech you. Remember that you are a mortal man, fear the Day of Judgement, preserve yourself pure for that. Do not interfere in matters that are essentially ecclesiastical and do not give us orders about them, but rather accept teaching from us. God has entrusted you with the Empire, and to us He has entrusted the affairs of the Church. And just as one who seizes for himself your power contradicts the institution of God, so fear lest you, in taking into your own hands the affairs of the Church, do not become guilty of a serious offence. As it is written, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. We are not permitted to exercise an earthly role; and you, Sire, are not authorised to burn incense.”

     At about this time, the Persian King Shapur started to kill the Christian clergy in his kingdom, confiscate church property and raze churches to the ground. He told St. Simeon, Bishop of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, that if he worshipped the sun, he would receive honour and gifts. But if he refused, Christianity in Persia would be utterly destroyed. In reply, St. Simeon not only refused to worship the sun but also refused to recognize the king by bowing to him. This omission of his previous respect for the king was noticed and questioned by the King. St. Simeon replied: "Before I bowed down to you, giving you honour as a king, but now I come being brought to deny my God and Faith. It is not good for me to bow before an enemy of my God!" The King then threatened to destroy the Church in his kingdom… He brought in about one hundred priests and about one thousand other Christians and killed them before the saint’s eyes. The saint encouraged them to hope in eternal life. And after everyone had been killed, he himself was martyred.[4 

     This shows that the Fathers and Martyrs of the Church recognized the authority of kings and emperors only so long as they did not persecute the Church of God. At the same time, non-recognition – that is, recognition of the power as tyrannical - did not necessarily mean rebellion. Thus the Fathers did not counsel rebellion against heretical emperors such as Constantius, but only resistance against those of his laws that encroached on Christian piety.

     However, when Julian the Apostate (361-363) came to the throne, passive resistance turned into active, if not physical, attempts to have him removed. A baptized Christian who had studied together with Saints Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian in Athens, he tried to destroy the Orthodox Church and turn the empire back to paganism.

     Another act of Julian’s that elicited particular horror was his reversal of Emperor Hadrian’s decree forbidding the Jews from returning to Jerusalem and, still worse, his helping the Jews to rebuild the Temple…

     By a miracle of God the rebuilding of the Temple was forcibly stopped. St. Gregory the Theologian tells how the Jews enthusiastically set about the rebuilding. But “suddenly they were driven from their work by a violent earthquake and whirlwind, and they rushed together for refuge to a neighbouring church… There are some who say that the church doors were closed against them by an invisible hand although these doors had been wide open a moment before… It is, moreover, affirmed and believed by all that as they strove to force their way in by violence, the fire, which burst from the foundation of the Temple, met and stopped them; some it burnt and destroyed, others it injured seriously… But the most wonderful thing was that a light, as of a cross within a circle, appeared in the heavens… and the mark of the cross was impressed on their garments… a mark which in art and elegance surpassed all painting and embroidery.” [5 

     But if Julian had succeeded, then, wondered the Christians, what would have prevented him from sitting in the Temple as God – that is, from becoming the Antichrist himself? And so it is from this time, as Gilbert Dagron points out, “that the face of each emperor or empress is scrutinized to try and recognize in it the characteristic traits of the Antichrist or of the sovereigns, good or bad, who precede his coming…”[6]

     It is instructive to consider how Julian died… In the Life of Hieromartyr Basil of Ancyra (March 22), we read that on his way to fighting the Persians in the east, he stopped in Ancyra, where St. Basil (not Basil the Great) defied him. “Basil was brought before him and the emperor tried to persuade him to abandon his faith in Christ, promising him honors and riches. Basil answered the emperor; "I believe in my Christ, Whom you denied and Who gave you this earthly kingdom; but, that will be taken away from you, shortly. Have you no shame of the sacred altar under which you were saved when they sought to kill you as an eight year old child? That is why this temporary kingdom will be taken from you shortly and your body will not be buried when your soul is violently wrested from you in bitter pains." Basil was tortured and killed for Christ

     Julian went on to Antioch, where he reinstituted paganism and killed more Christians. Then, as we read in the Life of St. Julian the Hermit of Mesopotamia (October 18), the believers asked St. Julian to pray that he should be overthrown. St. Julian prayed for this for ten days, and then heard a voice from heaven: “The unclean and abominable beast has perished.” And it was true: the Apostate had perished in the war.[7]

      And it was not only St. Julian’s prayers that brought about this outcome. The Mother of God, St. Basil the Great and St. Mercurius the Great Martyr were also involved in this critical moment of Church history.Thus when St. Basil heard that Julian’s army was returning from the expedition against the Persians, “he gathered together the multitude of Christians, with women and children, and commanded them that they should keep a fast of three days. Afterward, with the faithful, he ascended the summit of the mountain of Caesarea [in Cappadocia] that is named Didymon (Twin), because it has two peaks. On that mountain was also the Church of the Most Holy Theotokos. It was there that the Christians betook themselves, entreating and beseeching with a contrite heart the only compassionate God and His most pure Mother, that the will of the impious emperor [Julian the Apostate] might be changed. While the saint stood with the people in prayer, he was counted worthy of a vision. He beheld a multitude of heavenly host encircling the mountain. In the midst of them, he beheld a certain Woman enthroned with great glory. She uttered to the angels standing by, ‘Call Mercurios to me, so that he might go and slay Julian, the enemy of my Son.’ It then was made manifest to Saint Basil that the Martyr Mercurios came. After he had taken up his weapons, he received his order from the Woman, who was the most holy Theotokos, and he quickly took leave…

     “After he beheld the vision, straightway, the saint descended with certain of the clergy into the city, where the Church of the holy Great Martyr Mercurios is situated. Within the church were to be found the precious relics of the martyr and his weapons, which were honored by the Christians. One hundred years had passed since the reigns of Decius, Gallus, Aemilianus, and Valerian, when the martyr lived and contested for Christ by his martyrdom in Caesarea. Upon entering those sacred precincts, Saint Basil could find neither the relics nor the martyr's weapons. He questioned the skevophylax [warden and keeper of the vessels] of the church to learn what happened to them. But he, not knowing the matter, solemnly replied that he knew nothing. The saint then came to know both that the vision was true, and that during that same night, the 26th of June, in the year 363, the ungodly emperor was slain.”[8]

     It turned out that a mysterious warrior had appeared to the Apostate in the desert and thrust him through; last words were: “Galilean [Christ], you have conquered!”St. Basil’s friend, St. Gregory the Theologian, rejoiced at the news of the Apostate’s death: “I call to spiritual rejoicing all those who constantly remained in fasting, in mourning and prayer, and by day and by night besought deliverance from the sorrows that surrounded us and found a reliable healing from the evils in unshakeable hope… What hoards of weapons, what myriads of men could have produced what our prayers and the will of God produced?” Gregory called Julian not only an “apostate”, but also “universal enemy” and “general murderer”, a traitor to Romanity as well as to Christianity, explicitly denying that his was a power from God and therefore requiring obedience: “What demon instilled this thought in you? If every authority were acknowledged as sacred by the very fact of its existence, Christ the Savior would not have called Herod ‘that fox’. The Church would not hitherto have denounced ungodly rulers who defended heresies and persecuted Orthodoxy. Of course, if one judges an authority on the basis of its outward power, and not on its inner, moral worthiness, one may easily bow down to the beast, i.e. the Antichrist, ‘whose coming will be with all power and lying wonders’ (II Thessalonians 2.9), to whom ‘power was given… over all kindred, and tongues, and nations. And all that dwelt upon the earth shall worship him, whose names were not written in the book of life of the Lamb’ (Revelation 13.7-8).” [9]  

     What made Julian the Apostate so terrible in the eyes of the Holy Fathers was precisely the fact that he was an apostate, a Christian emperor who then reverted to paganism. Apart from being an apostate, Julian was the first – and last – of the Byzantine emperors who openly trampled on the memory and legitimacy of St. Constantine, declaring that he “insolently usurped the throne”. (One of the Christians whom he killed was St. Eusignius, who had served in Constantine’s army at the Milvian Bridge.) In this way he questioned the legitimacy of the Christian Empire as such – a revolutionary position very rare in Byzantine history. If, as Paul Magdalino suggests, “each emperor’s accession was a conscious act of renewal of the imperial order instituted by Constantine the Great,” and “the idea of each new ruler as a new Constantine was implicit in the dynastic succession established by the founder of Constantinople”[10], then Julian’s rejection of Constantine was clearly a rejection of the imperial order as such. In this sense Julian was an anti-emperor as well as an anti-christ.

     That this is how the Byzantines looked at it is suggested by what happened at the death of Julian and the accession of the Christian Emperor Jovian in 363: “Themistus assured the people of the city that what they were getting, after Constantine’s son Constantius and Constantine’s nephew Julian, was nothing less than a reincarnation of Constantine himself.”[11] Jovian’s being a “new Constantine” was a guarantee that he represented a return to the old order and true, Christian Romanity (Romanitas, Ρωμειοσυνη). From this time new Byzantine emperors were often hailed as new Constantines, as were the Christian kings of the junior members of the Christian commonwealth of nations from England to Georgia. After Julian, nobody believed that all emperors were established by God. The principle of monarchical power was good and from God – that was what St. Paul meant when he said that “all authority is from God” in Romans 13.1. But St. Paul had specified what he meant by “power” by saying that the king was “a servant of God for good”, to reward the good and punish the evildoers. This could not apply to rulers such as Julian. They were not kings or authorities, but rebels and tyrants.

     St. Basil defined the difference between a true king and a tyrant as follows: “If the heart of the king is in the hands of God (Proverbs 21.1), then he is saved, not by force of arms, but by the guidance of God. But not everyone is in the hands of God, but only he who is worthy of the name of king. Some have defined kingly power as lawful dominion or sovereignty over all, without being subject to sin.” And again: “The difference between a tyrant and a king is that the tyrant strives in every way to carry out his own will. But the king does good to those whom he rules.”[12] This definition seems very strict. For what Roman emperor was not subject to sin and always did good to those whom he ruled? By this definition almost all the emperors were in fact tyrants… However, we can bring St. Basil’s definition more into line with how the Christians actually regarded the emperors if we make two important distinctions. The first is between the personal evil of many of the emperors, on the one hand, and the goodness of the institution that they maintained and incarnated, on the other. And the second is between the status of the pagan emperors before Constantine, on the one hand, and the status of the pagan or heretical emperors after Constantine, on the other.

     As St. John Chrysostom said, commenting on Romans 13.1: “Is every ruler, then, elected by God? This I do not say, he [Paul] answers. Nor am I now speaking about individual rulers, but about the thing in itself. For that there should be rulers, and some rule and others be ruled, and that all things should not just be carried on in one confusion, the people swaying like waves in this direction and that; this, I say, is the work of God’s wisdom. Hence he does not say, ‘for there is no ruler but of God’, but it is the thing [monarchical power as such] he speaks of, and says, ‘there is no power but of God’.”[13]

     And again he writes: “Is every ruler elected by God to the throne he occupies? Is every emperor, king, and prince chosen by rule? If so, is every law and decree promulgated by a ruler to be regarded as good, and thus to be obeyed without question? The answer to all these questions is, no. God has ordained that every society should have rulers, whose task it is to maintain order, so that people may live in peace. God allows rulers to employ soldiers, whose task it is to capture and imprison those who violate social order. Thus God will bless and guide any ruler and any soldier who acts according to these principles. But many rulers abuse their authority by amassing huge wealth for themselves at the expense of their people, by unjustly punishing those who dare to speak against their evil, and by making unjust wars against neighbors. Such rulers have not been elected by God, but rather have usurped the position that a righteous ruler should occupy. And if their laws are wrong, we should not obey them. The supreme authority in all matters is not the law of the land, but the law of God; and if one conflicts with the other, we must obey God’s law.”[14]

     Rulers like Julian, according to the Fathers, were not established by God, but were allowed to ascend the throne by Him in order to punish the people. As St. Isidore of Pelusium wrote: “If some evildoer unlawfully seizes power, we do not say that he is established by God, but we say that he is permitted, either in order to spit out all his craftiness, or in order to chasten those for whom cruelty is necessary, as the king of Babylon chastened the Jews."[15] And again St. Jerome said: “He often permits wicked kings to arise in order that they may in their wickedness punish the wicked.”[16]

     As for obedience to the rulers, the principle was the same in the post-Constantinian and post-Julian era as in the pre-Constantinian era. As St. Basil the Great put it: “It is right to submit to higher authority whenever a command of God is not violated thereby.”[17] Again, Blessed Theodoret of Cyr wrote: “Paul does not incite us to obey even if we are being constrained to impiety...”[18]

     Perhaps the most famous example of the Church refusing to obey the State was provided by St. John Chrysostom in his relations with the Empress Eudoxia. In 403 a silver statue of the empress was erected in Constantinople, before which the public games were performed. “These,” writes Socrates Scholasticus, “John regarded as an insult offered to the Church, and having regained his ordinary freedom and keenness of tongue [after his first exile], he employed his tongue against those who did these things… The empress once more applied his expression to herself as indicating marked contempt towards her own person: she therefore endeavoured to procure the convocation of another council of bishops against him. When John became aware of this, he delivered in the church that celebrated oration beginning with: ‘Again Herodias raves, again she is troubled, again she dances, and again she desires to receive John’s head on a platter’.”[19]

     Not only apostate or heretical emperors were opposed by the Fathers, but also any emperor who transgressed the Law of God. For, as St. Basil the Great wrote: “The Emperors must defend the decrees of God”.[20] And St. Gregory the Theologian wrote: “The law of Christ submits you to our power and our judgement. For we also rule, and our power is higher than yours. In fact, must the spirit bow before matter, the heavenly before the earthly?”[21]

     St. John Chrysostom wrote: “The priesthood is as far above the kingdom as the spirit is above the body. The king rules the body, but the priest – the king, which is why the king bows his head before the finger of the priest.”[22] “The Church is not the sphere of Caesar, but of God. The decrees of the State authorities in matters of religion cannot have ecclesiastical significance. Only the will of God can be the source of Church law. He who bears the diadem is no better than the last citizen when he must be reproached and punished. Ecclesiastical authority must stand firmly for its rights if the State authorities interfere in its sphere. It must know that the boundaries of royal power do not coincide with those of the priesthood, and the latter is greater than the former.”[23]

     This teaching came to be embodied in the canon law of the Church, as in the 30th Apostolic Canon, which defrocked any cleric who had obtained his post with the help of the secular authorities. Again, in the Apostolic Constitutions we read: “The king occupies himself only with military matters, worrying about war and peace, so as to preserve the body, while the bishop covers the priesthood of God, protecting both body and soul from danger. Thus the priesthood surpasses the kingdom as much as the soul surpasses the body, for it binds and looses those worthy of punishment and forgiveness.”[24]

     Perhaps the most striking and instructive example of the boldness of the fourth-century Christian hierarchs even against Orthodox emperors was provided by St. Ambrose of Milan.

     Ambrose’s views on Church-State relations were squarely in the tradition of the Eastern Fathers: “The Emperor is not above the Church, but in the Church,” he wrote. “If one reads the Scriptures, one sees that it is bishops who judge Emperors.”[25]

     Now in 390, a riot took place in Thessalonica that led to the murder of several magistrates. In his anger on hearing the news, the Emperor Theodosius ordered the execution of the perpetrators. But there was no trial, and many innocents were killed, perhaps as many as seven thousand.

     “News of this lamentable calamity,” writes Theodoret, “reached Ambrose. The emperor on his arrival at Milan wished according to custom to enter the church. Ambrose met him outside the outer porch and forbade him to step over the sacred threshold. ‘You seem, sir, not to know,’ said he, ‘the magnitude of the bloody deed that has been done. Your rage has subsided, but your reason has not yet recognized the character of the deed. Peradventure your Imperial power prevents your recognizing the sin, and power stands in the light of reason. We must however know how our nature passes away and is subject to death; we must know the ancestral dust from which we sprang, and to which we are swiftly returning.  We must not because we are dazzled by the sheen of the purple fail to see the weakness of the body that it robes. You are a sovereign, sir; of men of like nature with your own, and who are in truth your fellow slaves; for there is one Lord and Sovereign of mankind, Creator of the universe. With what eyes then will you look on the temple of our common Lord – with what feet will you tread that holy threshold, how will you stretch forth your hands still dripping with the blood of unjust slaughter? How in such hands will you receive the all-holy Body of the Lord? How will you who in rage unrighteously poured forth so much blood lift to your lips the precious Blood? Begone. Attempt not to add another crime to that which you have committed. Submit to the restriction to which God the Lord of all agrees that you be sentenced. He will be your physician, He will give you health.’

     “Educated as he had been in the sacred oracles, Theodosius knew clearly what belonged to priests and what to emperors. He therefore bowed to the rebuke of Ambrose, and retired sighing and weeping to the palace. After a considerable time, when eight months had passed away, the festival of our Saviour’s birth came round and the emperor sat in his palace shedding a storm of tears…” [26]


March 23 / April 5, 2017.


[1] Plac, Facebook, July 3, 2016.

[2] St. Athanasius, in J. Meyendorff, Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions, Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989, p. 36. In his History of the Arians (77) Athanasius also calls Constantius “’the abomination of desolation’ spoken of by Daniel”.

[3] F.W. Farrar, The Lives of the Fathers, Edinburgh, 1889, vol. I, p. 617.

[4] St. Demetrius of Rostov, Lives of the Saints, April 17.

[5] Quoted in Marjorie Strachey, Saints and Sinners of the Fourth Century, London: William Kimber, 1958, p. 78). St. Ambrose of Milan and the fifth-century Church historians Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret and Rufinus all confirm St. Gregory’s story.

[6] Dagron, Empereur et Prêtre (Emperor and Priest), Paris : Gallimard, 1996, p. 167.

[7] St. Demetrius of Rostov, Lives of the Saints, October 18, the Life of St. Julian.

[8]The Great Synaxaristes of the Orthodox Church, January 1, Holy Apostles Convent, Buena Vista, CO, 2003; Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, III, 19.

[9] St. Gregory, First Word against Julian, 35; Second Word against Julian, 26.

[10] Magdalino (ed.), New Constantines: the Rhythm of Imperial Renewal in Byzantium, 4th-13th Centuries, Aldershot: Variorum, 1994, pp. 2, 3.

[11] Magdalino, op. cit., pp. 3-4.

[12] St. Basil, quoted in Fomin, S. & Fomina, T. Rossia pered Vtorym Prishestviem (Russia before the Second Coming), Moscow, 1994, pp. 66, 102.

[13] St. Chrysostom, Homily 23 on Romans, 1.

[14]St. John Chrysostom, On Living Simply.

[15] St. Isidore, Letter 6 to Dionysius.

[16] St. Jerome, Commentary on Daniel, 2.21.

[17] St. Basil, The Morals, Rule 79 (Cap. 1).

[18] Blessed Theodoret, P.G. 66, col. 864, commenting on Romans 13.5.

[19] Socrates, Ecclesiastical History, VI, 18.

[20] St. Basil, The Morals, Rule 79.

[21] St. Gregory, Sermon 17.

[22] St. Chrysostom, On the Priesthood.

[23] St. John Chrysostom, quoted in M.V. Zyzykin, Patriarkh Nikon, Warsaw, 1931, p. 68.

[24] Apostolic Constitutions, XI, 34.

[25] St. Ambrose, in Michael Grant, The Fall of the Roman Empire, London: Phoenix, 1997, p. 156.

[26] Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, V, 17, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, pp. 143-144.

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