Inception of Church-State Problem Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The church-state problem developed from conflicting interpretations of the relationship between the organized church and civil government concerning the extent of their powers within each other’s sphere of activity.

Summary of Event

The phrase “church and state” represents a framework for understanding how religion and politics are related when both institutions are allowed to make formal jurisdictional claims within the same society. Historians have recognized that church and state have managed to coexist in three basic ways: totally detached, distinguished but not necessarily separated from each other, and joined together as one. Since the time of the Roman Empire, Christian theology has swung back and forth between viewing the Church as supreme, with the state merely a vassal of the Church, to viewing the state as supreme, with the Church purely a spiritual power. Most societies exist with a mutually dependent church and state, as in the United States, in which church-state issues have centered on the U.S. Constitution and its First Amendment freedom of religion clause, interpreted by a large body of constitutional law. Constantine the Great Constantius II Constans I Athanasius of Alexandria, Saint Ambrose, Saint Gratian Theodosius the Great Augustine, Saint

The inception of church-state problems occurred with the organization of the early Christian Church within the Roman Empire and its recognition of the existence and legality of the state by praying for the good of the state and its magistrates. The empire, however, did not begin to acknowledge the legality or authority of the Church until the Edict of Milan in 313 c.e., which gave official recognition to the Christian religion. Before the edict, there was essentially no common ground of acknowledgment on which conflicts of jurisdiction could be settled or even discussed. Thus, the persecuted Church enjoyed considerable early freedom in its doctrinal formulations and other functions mainly because Rome denied its legal existence. The coming age of toleration made it evident that both church and state would soon find it necessary to define the limits of their respective boundaries. During the fourth century c.e., some church fathers adopted the stance that the two institutions should remain fundamentally separate, particularly in matters of faith. Others developed the opinion that the Church should be subject to the state, assuming that the major state religion was Christianity.

One controversial issue that emerged as organized Christianity developed within the Roman Empire involved the emperor’s title and influence as pontifex maximus. Beginning in 12 b.c.e., Roman emperors claimed this position with authority over all religious activities within the Roman Empire. When Christianity was recognized as the official state religion under Theodosius the Great, controversy developed as to whether Christianity should and could be governed by the same public laws as the earlier pagan cults. Before Christianity, Roman emperors and other secular rulers held religious and civil authority either in a priestly role as intermediaries between people and gods, or as actual gods themselves.

The inception of church-state problems was furthered by the teaching of the church and state as dual authorities, known as the two swords doctrine, and the activities of Constantine the Great, the first public leader to convert to Christianity. Tradition relates that Constantine became converted when he saw a vision of a cross in the sky on which were written the words “By this sign, thou shalt conquer.” The dualistic view advanced by Constantine actually began much earlier with the Jewish nation, which was forced to submit to conquerors from Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Medeo-Persia, and Greece but managed to retain an independent religious identity and thus a separation between spiritual and worldly matters.

Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, who favored a separation of church and state.

(Library of Congress)

Growing out of Judaism, Christianity preserved this distinction in the words of Jesus Christ recorded in the book of Saint Matthew, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Constantine assisted the new state religion not only by convening councils and actively supporting its propaganda but also by threatening heretics and implementing social restrictions against them. Constantine did not aspire to act as head of the Church, and he disclaimed any rights to define dogma or judge bishops in matters of the Christian faith. Under Constantine’s leadership, church and state first recognized each other as legal and independent institutions, clearly setting the stage for later jurisdictional conflicts. After Constantine’s death, the Roman Empire was divided among his three sons, Constantine II, Constantius II, and Constans I, which served to create three weak governments out of one relatively strong one.

Strife between church and state became inevitable when Constantius II sought to assume numerous controversial ecclesiastical prerogatives that his father, Constantine, had not attempted to claim. One notable example is that Constantius II sought to impose an Arian creed on all bishops, quickly bringing the protest of several Western clerics. The basis for Constantius’s attempts at controlling Christianity was derived from the same constitutional rules that previously had placed paganism under imperial control. The Arian incident resulted in conclusions from Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, Hilary, and Saint Ambrose that only a true and complete separation of church and state would avert further conflict. Problems initiated by church-state issues became more volatile with a trend toward Church leaders resisting the emperor’s authority in the spiritual domain, while allowing him more extensive jurisdiction in civil matters. The duties of defending and propagating the Christian faith and of taking disciplinary action against paganism were included under imperial authority and later began to be expected by the Church.

After Gratian became the first Roman emperor to refuse the title of pontifex maximus, future Christian emperors claimed their right to authority over the Church by saying that their office was conferred directly by God for the welfare of the Church. With decrees by Gratian and Theodosius making the empire legally Christian, the relationship between church and state became more confrontational, with intense disagreements between Bishop Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius. The theology of fourth century fathers, such as Athanasius, Hilary, and Ambrose, rejected the attempt to unite Church and Roman Empire within one institution but sought independent juristic existence, as long as the empire continued to guarantee the Church’s integrity.


The principle of separation between church and state became well established in the Western Roman Empire by the end of the fourth century c.e., but the Christian Church in the Eastern Roman Empire still looked to the emperor for guidance and approval in Church matters. The Western tradition of separation between the two powers was bequeathed to the medieval Church largely through Saint Augustine’s De civitate Dei (413-427 c.e.; The City of God, 1610). Augustine considered all earthly governments, regardless of their form, as representative of the fallen and imperfect “city of man.” Under his theology, the state was necessary to provide the “sword” to discipline fallen humankind through law and education. Augustine’s church represented the perfect and eternal “city of God” set up to preserve the divine values of peace, hope, and charity. Church and state were separate in that they occupied different realms and held different values but remained very much related. Gelasius, pope in the late fifth century, laid down many of Augustine’s principles for separate spiritual and temporal jurisdiction.

With the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 c.e., the Church gained enormous political and administrative power as it had become the main source of educated leaders. Charlemagne, Frankish emperor from 800 to 814 who greatly influenced Western civilization during the early Middle Ages, sought to subordinate ecclesiastical power and advance an independent secular state by personally appointing bishops and requiring political allegiance from them. Pope Gregory VII attempted to reverse Charlemagne’s trend and excommunicated Emperor Henry IV for his resistance. The Protestant Reformation, begun by Martin Luther in 1520, replaced the medieval doctrine of two swords with the doctrine of the sovereign state, under which the Church was clearly subordinated to secular authority in worldly matters.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnes, Timothy David. Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. An examination of church and state in the time of Constantine the Great and Saint Athanasius. Bibliography and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ferguson, Everett, ed. Church and State in the Early Church. Studies in Early Christianity 7. New York: Garland, 1993. A collection of articles, published 1935-1987, on church and state in the Roman Empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Free, Katherine B., ed. The Formulation of Christianity by Conflict Through the Ages. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995. A collection of papers delivered at a conference held at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, in 1993 on early Christianity and its relations with the state.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keresztes, Paul. Imperial Rome and the Christians. 2 vols. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1989. An examination of the relationship between the Roman Empire and the Christian Church, from Herod the Great to Constantine the Great. Bibliography and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Grady, Desmond. Beyond the Empire: Rome and the Church from Constantine to Charlemagne. New York: Crossroad, 2001. An examination of how the Church shaped the role that Rome played in Western civilization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Picket, H. W., ed. Aspects of the Fourth Century a.d.: Proceedings of the Symposium Power and Possession. Leiden, the Netherlands: AGAPE, 1997. A collection of essays from the symposium held by the debating society AGAPE in 1993. Centers on the Church in the fourth century c.e. and its relations to the state and society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rahner, Hugo. Church and State in Early Christianity. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992. An analysis of how church and state interacted in the early history of the Church.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Saint Ambrose; Saint Athanasius of Alexandria; Saint Augustine; Constantine the Great; Theodosius the Great. Church-state problem[Church state problem]

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