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Leadership powerful through struggles of church and state

The issue of church vs. state is an issue which has been on people’s minds recently.

While many look to the era of the founding fathers as the origin of these debates, this issue has been around much longer.

When thinking of ancient Rome, it is easy to imagine it as a polytheistic society which worshiped many gods. In this society, Jupiter reigned as the king of the gods on Mount Olympus and mortal rulers were often deemed to be favored by the gods. This view of pagan Rome is, however, horribly incomplete.

From the year A.D. 380 on, Rome was a Christian empire by law. Depending on your perspective on the eastern empire, this Christian empire would go on to last another 1000 years- essentially the same amount of time Rome was a polytheistic society. The emperor who converted the empire, Theodosius, is, for obvious reasons, viewed as an influential figure in Christianity. He was, however, not even the most influential figure of his period.

While he is often overlooked as a leader, St. Ambrose of Milan is, without doubt, one of the most adept and influential leaders of western society. While Ambrose initially pursued a career in politics, he eventually obtained the position of archbishop of Milan. It is clear through his future actions that Ambrose was, in fact, a very skilled politician and would use these skills for the betterment of Christianity throughout the empire.

It is important to note that there was no debate or power struggle between the church and state. While still practicing pagan religion, Emperor Augustus inherited the role of Pontifex Maximus, or Chief Priest. From this point on, the head of state was also the leading religious figure in the Roman Empire. This fact would not formally change until St. Ambrose came along.

With the emperor as head of state and religion, there was obviously little to no controversy over church vs. state as the church was under complete authority of the state.

It was, in fact, St. Ambrose who changed this.

After he twice refused to allow the Milan basilica to be used for non-Orthodox worship, Ambrose took quite possibly the most dramatic stand against state powers of all time.

When a riot was violently subdued in Greece, Ambrose excommunicated Theodosius from the Orthodox Church and would not allow any priests to hear his confessions. This move would previously been thought impossible. The emperor was clearly the most powerful person in the Mediterranean and under different circumstances possibly would not have bothered with Ambrose’s actions. Theodosius, however, was a devout Christian who was baptized too early in his life and needed to maintain his soul’s purified state.

Ambrose would eventually readmit the emperor after several months of penance. The power struggle, however, had already begun. Ambrose would go on to use similarly forceful tactics to further pull Christianity out of the influence of the state by removing the last vestiges of pagan society and undermining the support system for other non-official religions in the empire.

As a result, it is impossible to under appreciate Ambrose’s role in shaping the Christian church and its relation with future governments and societies. His unique method of leadership invigorated the spiritual portion of society in to a position of importance. It is not implausible to consider whether our current separation of church and state is a direct result of these actions.

Similarly, it would seem that it is not the state which needs separation from the church to survive but instead it is, in fact, the church, which requires separation from the state in order to thrive.

While St. Ambrose offers a different perspective on leadership, he is not the only non-political figure who has changed the world.

Offering leadership in non-typical fields, two recent entrepreneurs have used their imaginative skills to lead the world to “a great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day.”

Respond to Greg at

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