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Yuri Koszarycz

Relations between Church and the Roman State

In order to understand how Christians were brought to this state of warfare, we have to reconstruct the main facts of the relations between the Church and the Roman State. The Christian Church first appeared in history as a fellowship of self-governing communities, scattered all over the empire, and spreading even beyond its borders. There was nothing compulsory about their unity: it arose organically from a deep realisation, shared by its members, that they all belonged to the same body, since they had all been born into the same new life. But from the fourth century, when these Christian communities received the protection of the Emperor, their constitution underwent a radical change; they lost their independence and became subject to the control of the State. Formerly, if any dispute arose within the Church, it had been settled by negotiation; but once the patronage of the Empire was granted, the Emperors began to use their political power to maintain unity among Christians, often inflicting severe penalties on those they deemed to be in the wrong.

The Emperors' intentions were praiseworthy: they wished to preserve peace and concord; but their methods were those of the old unredeemed world, and the results were fatal. The more they tried to suppress by force the disagreements among Christians the more bitter the conflicts became, until at last the Church was split up into several hostile bodies. Most of the schisms were caused by national and temperamental divergences among members of the Christian Church, but once the spirit of mutual charity had been lost, differences in doctrine made their appearance, for the divided Christian Churches fell into one-sided interpretations of the faith.

The first split appeared in the fourth century in North Africa, where the Roman and native Christians separated into two competing sects (the Donatist Schism). In the fifth century the Greeks and Copts quarrelled in Egypt, and simultaneously a split occurred after the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) in Asia Minor and Syria between the Greeks and Syrians (the Monophysite Schism). Later on the Christians in Persia broke off relations with the Byzantine Church (the Nestorian Schism). These quarrels, disastrous as they were, did not however affect the main body of Christians, who tenaciously clung to their unity, firmly believing that there could be only one Church and one Empire. Meanwhile, during the course of the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries the Catholic Church developed two distinct types of Christianity. The first was shared by all Latin-speaking Christians, who formed the Western Patriarchate of Rome. The second comprised the Syriac, Armenian and Greek-speaking world, which was divided into four Eastern Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.

The Byzantine and Latin traditions differed considerably, not only in liturgical practices and customs, but also in their outlook. The Christian East was mainly interested in doctrine; the Latin West in morals. The East possessed a particular gift for worship; the West for discipline and order. The East emphasised the divergence of gifts, the West the need for uniformity and obedience. It was not always easy for the two sides to understand each other; they often viewed a new problem from totally different standpoints, and sometimes these disagreements ended in an open breach between the occupants of the two principal sees of Rome and Constantinople. But the schisms invariably ended in a reconciliation, for both sides acknowledged that the Church of Christ must include both Eastern and Western Christians, and that their gifts were complementary.

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Copyright ©1999, Yuri Koszarycz. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.