Church and State in Byzantium
THE founder of Christianity was very clear about the sharp distinction that should exist between his followers and the world of mankind alienated from God. Jesus told his followers: “If you were part of the world, the world would be fond of what is its own. Now because you are no part of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, on this account the world hates you.” (John 15:19) To Pilate, a representative of the political power of his day, Jesus declared: “My kingdom is no part of this world.”—John 18:36.
In order to fulfill their responsibility to preach “to the most distant part of the earth,” Christians had to avoid being distracted by secular affairs. (Acts 1:8) Like Jesus, the early Christians would not get involved in politics. (John 6:15) It was noticeable that faithful Christians did not get involved in holding public office or administrative positions. This eventually changed.
“Part of the World”
Some time after the death of the last of the apostles, religious leaders willingly began to change their views regarding themselves and the world. They started envisioning a “kingdom” that not only was in the world but also was a part of it. A look at how religion and politics intertwined in the Byzantine Empire—the East Roman Empire, with its capital at Byzantium (now Istanbul)—will prove instructive.
In a society where religion traditionally played a great role, the Byzantine Church, with its center in Byzantium, wielded considerable power. Church historian Panayotis Christou once observed: “The Byzantines saw their earthly empire an image of the Kingdom of God.” The imperial authority did not always share that view, however. As a result, the relationship between Church and State was stormy at times. The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium states: “The bishops of Constantinople [or Byzantium] displayed a wide range of behavior, including cowardly subservience to a powerful ruler . . . , fruitful collaboration with the throne . . . , and bold opposition to the imperial will.”
The patriarch of Constantinople, the head of the Eastern Church, became a very influential figure. It was he who crowned the emperor, therefore expecting him to be a staunch defender of Orthodoxy. The patriarch was also very rich, since he controlled the vast resources of the church. His power derived as much from his authority over the innumerable monks as from his influence on the laity.
The patriarch was often in a position to defy the emperor. He could threaten excommunication—imposing his will in the name of God—or resort to other methods by which emperors could be broken.
With the gradual decline of civil administration outside the capital, bishops often became the most powerful men in their cities, on a par with provincial governors, whom they helped to select. Bishops gave attention to court cases and secular business whenever the church was involved—and sometimes when it was not. A contributing factor was that priests and monks, all subject to their local bishops, numbered in the tens of thousands.
Politics and Simony
As the above shows, the pastoral office became inextricably intertwined with politics. Moreover, the great number of clerics and their religious activities of necessity involved large sums of money. Most high-ranking clergymen lived luxuriously. As the church gained power and wealth, apostolic poverty and sanctity disappeared. Some priests and bishops paid for their appointment. Simony was common all the way to the highest ranks of the hierarchy. Clerics supported by wealthy lobbies vied for ecclesiastical offices before the emperor.
Bribes were also a means to influence senior religious leaders. When the Empress Zoe (c. 978-1050 C.E.) had her husband Romanus III murdered and wanted to marry her lover and would-be Emperor Michael IV, she hastily summoned Patriarch Alexius to the palace. There the patriarch learned of the death of Romanus and the patriarchal service expected. That the church was celebrating Good Friday that evening did not make things easier for Alexius. However, he accepted the generous gifts offered by the empress and satisfied her request.
Subservience to the Emperor
At times during the history of the Byzantine Empire, the emperor used his de facto right of appointment when it came to the choice of the patriarch of Constantinople. During such periods, nobody could become patriarch against the emperor’s will or remain so for long.
Emperor Andronicus II (1260-1332) found it necessary to change patriarchs nine times. In most of such cases, the objective was to put the most pliable candidate possible on the patriarchal throne. According to the book The Byzantines, one patriarch even promised the emperor in writing “to do whatever he demanded, no matter how unlawful, and to refrain from doing anything that displeased him.” Emperors twice tried to impose their will on the church by consecrating as patriarch a prince of the royal family. Emperor Romanus I raised his son Theophylact, a mere 16-year-old, to patriarchal dignity.
If a patriarch failed to please him, the sovereign might compel him to abdicate or instruct a synod to depose him. The book Byzantium observes: “More and more in the course of Byzantine history higher authorities and even the direct influence of the Emperor [came] to play a preponderant part in the choice of bishops.”
With the patriarch at his side, the emperor also presided at ecclesiastical councils. He guided debates, formulated articles of faith, and argued with bishops as well as with heretics, for whom he had the ultimate argument—death at the stake. The emperor also confirmed and implemented the canons adopted in council. He charged those who opposed him not only with lèse-majesté but with being enemies of the faith and of God. “Nothing must be done in the Church that is contrary to the will and commands of the Emperor,” said one sixth-century patriarch. The bishops around the court—suave, pliant men, accessible to discreet gestures of favor and adroit bargaining—as a rule protested as little as their superior.
For instance, when Patriarch Ignatius (c. 799-878 C.E.) refused communion to Chief Minister Bardas, the minister fought back. Bardas implicated Ignatius in an alleged plot and treason. The patriarch was arrested and banished. As his replacement, the minister procured the election of Photius, a layman who within six days climbed the ladder of all ecclesiastical orders, eventually reaching the rank of patriarch. Was Photius qualified for that spiritual office? He has been described as a man “of consummate ambition, prodigious arrogance, and unsurpassed political skill.”
Dogma in the Service of Politics
Orthodoxy and heresy often masked political opposition, and political factors rather than a desire to introduce new doctrines influenced many an emperor. Generally speaking, the emperor reserved the right to dictate dogma and to exact the obedience of the church to his will.
For example, Emperor Heraclius (575-641 C.E.) tried hard to heal a schism regarding the nature of Christ that threatened to tear apart his exhausted and fragile empire. Trying to compromise, he introduced a new doctrine called Monothelitism.a Then, to ensure the allegiance of the southern provinces of his empire, Heraclius chose a new patriarch of Alexandria, Cyrus of Phasis, who endorsed the doctrine that the emperor supported. The emperor made Cyrus not just patriarch but prefect of Egypt, with authority over its local rulers. With the pressure of a little persecution, Cyrus managed to win the consent of most of the Egyptian church.
A Bitter Harvest
How could these developments and events reflect the word and spirit of Jesus’ prayer where he said that his followers would be “no part of the world”?—John 17:14-16.
Professed Christian leaders in Byzantine times and later have paid dearly for their involvement in the political and military affairs of the world. What does this brief consideration of history tell you? Did the leaders of the Byzantine Church win the favor of God and Jesus Christ?—James 4:4.
True Christianity has not been served by such ambitious religious leaders and their political paramours. This unholy mix of religion and politics has misrepresented the pure religion taught by Jesus. May we learn from history and remain “no part of the world.”
a Monothelitism holds that although having two natures as God and man, Christ has one will.
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“LIKE A GOD PACING ACROSS THE HEAVENS”
The events surrounding Patriarch Michael Cerularius (c. 1000-1059) are typical of the role that the head of the church could play in the affairs of State and the ambitions involved. After having attained the patriarchate, Cerularius aimed higher. He has been described as arrogant, presumptuous, and uncompromising—“seeming in his demeanour like a god pacing across the heavens.”
Out of his desire for self-promotion, Cerularius fomented the schism with the pope in Rome in 1054, and compelled the emperor to accept the division. Pleased with this victory, Cerularius arranged to put Michael VI on the throne and helped him consolidate his power. A year later, Cerularius forced that emperor to quit and installed Isaac Comnenus (c. 1005-1061) on the throne.
The conflict between patriarchate and empire escalated. Cerularius—assured of public support—threatened, demanded, and resorted to violence. A contemporary historian noted: “He foretold the Emperor’s fall in commonplace, vulgar language, saying, ‘I raised you up, you imbecile; but I’ll break you.’” However, Isaac Comnenus had him arrested, imprisoned, and banished to Imbros.
Such examples show how much trouble the patriarch of Constantinople could cause and how boldly he could resist the emperor. The throne often had to deal with such men, who were skilled politicians, capable of defying both emperor and army.
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(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Maximum Extent of the Byzantine Empire
Map: Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.
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Romanus III (on left)
Romanus I (on left)
Comnenus, Romanus III, and Michael IV: Courtesy Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.; Empress Zoe: Hagia Sophia; Romanus I: Photo courtesy Harlan J. Berk, Ltd.
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Heraclius and son
Heraclius and son: Photo courtesy Harlan J. Berk, Ltd.; all design elements, pages 8-12: From the book L’Art Byzantin III Ravenne Et Pompose