This article studies the leadership of Ambrose of Milan and his view on the independence of the church from Caesar.

Source: De Reformatie. 3 pages. Translated by Elizabeth DeWit.

Ambrose of Milan: Shepherd or Church Monarch?

Church Historyā¤’šŸ”—

As bishop of Milan, AmbroseĀ gave daily leadership to the people of his parish, as we saw in the previous article. He was available to them and using the Bible, preached the teachings of God to them, urged them to a definite choice, walked beside people who were busy taking the greatest step of their lives, and also helped them further in the sanctification of their lives and in all kinds of problems that they encountered on their way.

He defended the confession of the church. That meant, in the real life situation of that time, that he defended the doctrine of the Trinity against the teachings of Arius. He had his place in the last phase of this battle in the old church. He took part in the synod of Aquilegia (sometime between his bishopric and the area of problem solving), where the appeal of two Arian bishops was served. They were questioned and when they would not depart from their Arian understandings, were condemned. It was now confirmed that bishops were required to stand for the doctrines of the church, as they were embodied in the confession of Nicea.

This synod was less successful when they also wanted to settle a conflict in the Eastern church in favour of an orthodox bishop. In the response they worded a subtle understanding that they would regulate their own business there.

Independent Churchā†ā¤’šŸ”—

AmbroseĀ promoted the independence of the church, on the basis of her confession, over against the Caesar. The question of doctrine and of the relationship between church and state were intertwined. If Jesus is not really the Son of God in the sense of also himself being God, then more room develops for a syncretism of the various religions in the kingdom under a ā€œhighest Godā€, an understanding that is politically attractive. On their part, the followers of Arius were leaders in the promotion of a strong influence of the government in the church.

AmbroseĀ was involved for a long time with the court of Caesar which chose the side of Arius. This choice of position was connected to power politics: Kaisarissa Justina viewed her own power threatened by the church, embodied in Ambrose.

The court demanded a church building in Milan be given to the Arians. AmbroseĀ foresaw that, upon giving in to this demand, all possible, comparable kinds of demands would follow. He refused: he recognized the authority of the government, but not over the affairs of the church: there the office- bearers have the responsibility. That which belongs to God must be left alone by Caesar. If the government would confiscate or forfeit church belongings, he would accept that, but that was the limit. He declared himself prepared to die if the government would use force. With this attitude of ā€œweaponless protestā€, he stayed in the church building, together with the congregation, continuously, for a number of days. In order to sustain morale, hymns were sung in the manner known to the Eastern church, that is hymns that could be easily sung by the congregation, and times of prayer were observed also during the night. The soldiers, who were themselves sympathetic to the Orthodox doctrine, did not dare to advance. Augustine later talked about this unforgettable experience.


AmbroseĀ gave leadership to office-bearers in various offices. He also applied much energy to this aspect of his work. He addressed his ethics to the office-bearers: ā€œThe duties of the ministersā€. He taught them to be examples for the congregation. He also gave them personal advice. For the ministers, he advised a tactful manner of speaking; he also paid attention to their presentation and showed his distaste for a special tone of speaking in sermons and for the assumption of weighty airs. He warned the deacons against profiteering, but he also urged them to gentleness.

He was an opponent of more or less automatic advancement in the hierarchy. Everyone must occupy the office for which he is most suitable. One must not always pay attention to age, but also whether someone has done well in an earlier function. The best would be that whoever has neglected his duties, would be dismissed from his office. As church leader of a large territory, he also corresponded with office-bearers in other places. He answered their questions and urged them to exercise care over cities that were vacant and over villages in isolated places. He exercised responsibility for the choosing of bishops in smaller centers; he saw to it that this happened peacefully.


AmbroseĀ was the son of a very high official, hence his aptitude in dealing easily with Caesars and other high-ranking officials in the kingdom. He had an outstanding rhetorical legal education. Before he was chosen as bishop, he held a senior management position. All this, added to his being raised as a Christian, made him perfectly at home on the bishopā€™s seat in the residence, prepared for the battle which he would have to wage. It also caused him, while very approachable, to naturally exude authority, even though he could sooner be described as small and slight rather than large and strong in build, and that he could, by his attitude, keep people at a distance. This must have added to the impression of him as ā€œchurch monarchā€, an impression that people later formed of him. Augustine, from a simple background, was a totally different person.

AmbroseĀ had political gifts. He was an adroit diplomat, with a feeling for the actual power relationships and for the right moment; in short, tactful. He was capable of interacting in a variety of styles, as the situation demanded. He could use flattering court language, but also be grouchy. He was mild, but also strong. He did not hesitate. He was undaunted.

His fellowship with courtly circles brought with it that he sometimes took up tasks at the behest of the court, for example, conducting certain negotiations. Still, he never let church and political affairs intermingle, as later became the disastrous practice in the church. He always carefully considered the question what, in the situations that arose, was his duty as church office bearer.

In his spiritual intercourse, something fatherly must have exuded from him, but he did not place himself above the common people. He was personally involved with them. He himself gave an example of what he preached: a sober lifestyle. As soon as he became bishop, he gave the management of his family estate to another. He was not married, but lived simply, in strong asceticism. He believed that an office bearer in the church should not derive his worthiness or dignity from outward things, but from the style of his proceedings. He observed many daily set periods of prayer.


AmbroseĀ was a true leader in the church. He did not covet the position. When he was chosen, he, just as the majority in his time, did his best to evade it, but he did not receive an exemption.

He worked for a church that was recognizable, with its own foundation, a clear message, carefully outlined: the confession of the Triune God. That was not a theory; he knew and served that God. For him it was not about the church in itself, but as congregation of God.

He expended effort for the continuing sanctification of the church. He gave leadership in her daily activities and to those who had a function in those activities. He attracted many people to the congregation and accompanied them in the way of dedication of their lives to God in the large and the small things.

He was a man of experience. One of his weaknesses was that sometimes, he placed too much emphasis on practice with an extreme theory. Thus, with the foot washing that was, at that time, practiced in Milan, he accredited it with an independent meaning in sacramental occasions. Also on the point of the Lordā€™s Supper, he said things that, alas, the church followed and expanded upon for centuries, so that, in the end, a deep cutting correction became necessary.

He defended the independence of the church; her right to function on her own foundation. He claimed space for that over against the highest powers on the earth. The congregation belongs to God- everyone must respect that. AmbroseĀ promoted theocracy: the rule of God on earth. That was a far-reaching point of view in the Roman empire.

He did this with the gifts that he had: energy and obstinacy.

Christ prayed for his church: ā€œSanctify them in the truth; your word is truthā€ (John 17:17). In the hearing and answering of that prayer, AmbroseĀ was moved into a working position, in a manner that bore fruit for church history up until this time.

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