Murdered in His Own Baptistery

Since Christianity was, by 381/392 at the latest, the state religion of the Roman Empire, conciliar [council] decisions served as civil laws, as soon as the emperor ratified them. Local bishops were the first to perceive this, as they were obligated to uphold the opinions declared orthodox by the councils. Opposition to conciliar pronouncements led to civil sanctions; dissenting bishops were sent into exile and replaced with orthodox ones. However, since the bishops often had at their disposal a strong following, dismissal by force could not be carried out immediately, for the threat of revolt was too great. This was all the truer when, in the traditional hotbeds of unrest in the patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch, anti-Byzantine nationalistic reflex arose. During the tumult of that time there were many casualties, and in the case of the Melkite patriarch of Alexandria, Proterios, even murder: an angry mob killed the unfortunate patriarch in 457 in the baptistery of his cathedral. Other prominent victims were Flavian, the deposed archbishop of Constantinople, who was so badly injured by monks and soldiers at the so-called ‘Robber Synod’ of 449 that he died of his wounds three days later; and Bishop Severian of Scythopolis, who was murdered in 451 on the return from Chalcedon. For these reasons, in the large cities communities often remained divided, each with their own clergy and their own churches. Although a canon law assigned only one bishop per city, for a time Antioch had four vying for power! It was in this patriarchate that the battles between Miaphysites, Dyophysites and Melkites loyal to the emperor raged most fiercely.

However, the intensity of these theological disputes – unimaginable to us in the twenty-first century – cannot be explained just on the basis of political circumstances. As W. Klein has aptly stated, at that time ‘dogma was not yet the specialized science of a few theologians, but rather the stuff of everyday conversation, and it resembled modern disputes over party politics.’

Baumer, The Church of the East, pp. 37-38

Notice the knock-on effects of an earlier period of Christian nationalism. Local bishops forced to uphold the official state doctrine, or risk civil sanction or exile. Backing for other rival doctrines fueled by anti-nationalist sentiments. The physical assault and murder of church leaders, whose pronouncements were now just as political as they were spiritual.

Those now calling for a return to Christian nationalism would do well to chew on the times in the past where it has indeed been tried, and so often led to the corruption of the church and the loss of its spiritual power. There is a better option, what Baptists have called the spirituality of the kingdom of God.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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