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Ambrose: A Man Who Confronted an Emperor

In the Middle Ages popes often directed political leaders. But this idea took time to develop. And probably the first incident of a church leader holding a political leader responsible for his actions, and demanding public repentance, occurred in 390 between the Christian Emperor Theodosius I and one of the great early church leaders, Ambrose.

Theodosius I (Roman Emperor from 379-395) enforced Christianity as the only religion people could practice in the Empire. This was astounding, because in less than 100 years, Christianity had gone from being hated and reviled in the Roman Empire, to being the official religion with all other religions being persecuted. So no one can say that Theodosius was not committed to Christianity.

Ambrose, although never pope, had more influence than any other church leader in the Empire in his day. One reason is that Theodosius made his official residence in the city of Milan, where Ambrose was Bishop.

Christian though he was, Theodosius had one great weakness: a short temper. This is a vice in most, but dangerous in a leader. And especially in an Emperor.

In 390 an incident occurred in Thessalonica (the same town where Paul addressed I & II Thessalonians) which brought out the worst in Theodosius and the best in Ambrose.

In that year the Romans jailed the favorite charioteer of the Thessalonians. When the local Games began, the Thessalonians clamored for their hero, but the Romans refused to release him. The Thessalonians rioted and killed the Roman general, Butheric.

When word reached Theodosius, he was outraged and decided the citizens would pay a terrible price. He dispatched a letter to the army directing vengeance.

The Roman army played a horrendous trick on the Thessalonians. They invited the city to special Games, and waited for the place to pack. Then they locked the doors and massacred all inside, men, women, and children. It is reported that 7000 died that day.

As horrible as that is, this is the tragic part. After sending this letter, Theodosius changed his mind and sent another letter canceling the first, but it did not arrive in time.

Ambrose, the bishop of the city in which Theodosius lived, sent Theodosius a letter and demanded that the emperor repent. He wrote, "The Lord Himself, Who alone can say, ‘I am with you,’ if we have sinned, does not forgive any but those who repent."

Theodosius did not immediately repent. Consequently, Ambrose withheld the Lord’s Supper from Theodosius. One story tells how Theodosius approached the church one day, only to meet Ambrose in his bishop’s robes; Ambrose told him to leave until he repented. Ambrose stood firm, even in the face of the Roman Emperor Theodosius.

Theodosius relented and asked for forgiveness in the church of Milan, kneeling down and weeping in public.

This established a precedent of the church over the state which would last over 1000 years.

The relationship of Theodosius and Ambrose strengthened after this. Theodosius later said that Ambrose was the first man he knew who told him the truth. Theodosius died five years later, in 395, with Ambrose at his bedside. In his funeral sermon, Ambrose told the soldiers: "Where unbelief is, there is blindness, but where fidelity is, there is the host of angels." Ambrose died two years after this, on Easter weekend of 397.

©2009 Mark Nickens

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