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V. Rev. Presbyter Nemanja S. Mrdjenovic


Symphony and tensions between the
Church and the State in relation
to the Ecumenical Councils

   In order to better understand the roots of the ideal Church-State relationship of Orthodox monarchism, represented in the person of the Monarch, we will have a closer look at the two sides of the same coin when it comes to this relationship in the context of the Byzantine Empire. The two sides would be symphony and tensions, which were most obvious at the Ecumenical Councils. One needs to expose the background and the emergence of the idea of the symphony, as well as to shed some light on frustrating issues, which brought up the tensions. With tensions being ever present in all dealings of this world, the most important thing here will be to isolate those tensions, which are in a specific and direct connection to the idea of symphony, and to bring them to the surface. Because of the broadness of these topics and issues, and because of the intended rudimentary level of the exposition, two main examples of the relationship among the Ecumenical Councils will be the Fifth held in Constantinople in 553 AD, which introduced the idea of Church-State symphony and the Seventh held in Nicaea in 787 AD, which probably experienced more tensions among the Church and State than any other.

   We live in a world of tensions today, especially when it comes to the role of the Church in society. Church is often seen as nothing more but a burden on the society because it does not pay taxes, it has “old-fashioned” worldviews; it does not or at least is expected not to advertise the consumerist lifestyle, etc. In a world in which the society sanctions abortions and euthanasia and even discusses euthanising children with mental and physical disabilities(1), the Church is an enemy. That is, it would be an enemy if it had any realistic strength to stand up to the world; in reality it is more of a nuisance. The majority of the society demands and expects from democracy a strict division between the Church (or religion as a whole) and the State, preserving the individual right to be religious in one’s own time and his or her obligation not to be guided by his or her faith once it comes to politics and public life.

   Naturally, Christians strive for a society in which Christian tradition and values are not just an excuse for marketing ideas but form the cornerstones of a society. Looking back there were many Christian nations as well as many of those who claimed to be Christian, however their social realities are the measure that we use to determine whether or not they are suitable role models for us today. The contemporary secular society will straight away bring to our attention the ‘dark ages’, the Inquisition, witch hunts, burning of scientists, banning of books, etc. But Christians might reply with references to secular regimes of Hitler and Stalin and their treatment of Christians. The truth is that both sides have much more presentable models, and our prime model would be that of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) which based its social values on its Orthodox faith.

   The Empire was headed by an Emperor, a human being and not some impersonal entity as are modern democratic governing bodies. The Emperor was a person with unique identity, personally responsible for his subjects before God. Its subjects were also persons and not impersonal individuals, as democracy prefers to observe its subjects today. The Emperor was in a personal relationship with God, caring and providing for the benefit of the people under his or her rule, just as the father cares and provides for the family. This vertical Lord-Emperor-Father is the axis that demands from people at all levels to demonstrate responsibility for their actions. God is the Father of all creation; Emperor through anointment acquires from God the authority of the father in the Empire; and father of the household gets his authority through rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s (Mt 22;21). At least that was, and arguably still should be, what the society aimed for, but the reality was often much more complicated.

   One can only imagine how confused the members of the Church were in IV century AD when the mighty Roman Empire firstly granted them freedom of belief and soon after accepted and adopted Christianity as the state religion.(2) To go, in one life-time, from persecution to public celebration, and from a pagan Emperor claiming to be Dominus et Deus to a Christian Emperor who is subject to public penance issued by the Church(3), surely was and still is the most encompassing (r)evolution in history. Once the Empire accepted the Church and Church accepted the Empire, the antagonism that flourished until that moment had to be reconciled. There was no other option for the future but to find a way in which these two entities could co-exist, caring for human beings, which simultaneously constituted both of them. Very often, the ideal of this relationship was seen as a symphony, but even more often the reality was nothing more but tensions. This dynamic relationship is best observed in the pinnacle of the meetings of these two realities, which are the Ecumenical Councils.

   The first conciliar meeting of the Church was the Jerusalem Council, held around 50 AD, described in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 15). The state authorities did not have anything to do with this gathering, nor was that expected. During the following centuries Christians were persecuted exactly for gathering together. Suddenly, in 325 AD, Emperor Constantine the Great, who at the time was not even a member of the Church, called for the great synod of Bishops to discuss the matters that were disrupting the Christian unity in the Empire. He even presided on this Council, held in Nicaea, known in history as the First Ecumenical Council.(4)

   As it turned out, the Church had to give in to the state authorities in many respects, and the state recognised this initiative as a sign of good will, thus letting the Church authorities to get more involved with the state affairs. This development was certainly new, uncharted territory for both parties. From this occasion grew new demands from both Church and state, to regulate this relationship through laws and decrees obligatory for the Church and the State.

   As described by prof. John Meyendorff, the Codex Theodosianus(5) published by Emperor Theodosius II (398-450) in the year 438 was the first great piece of legislation that dealt in depth with the issue of the Church-state relationship.(6) Meyendorff observes the significance of the year 312 as the starting point for the work of this magnitude as a sign that Constantine’s conversion will now be the new benchmark in the history of Roman legislature. However, the content shows that nothing has changed in the philosophy of the law, methods of government, social principles, etc. Two most illustrative examples in regards to legal and social permanence of the Romans would be that of marriage and slavery.(7)

   Marriage was differently legislated by the State and by the Church. Church could impose its rules to its own members, but could not interfere with civil legislation. Consequently, the Church gradually accommodated itself to the state legislation, “at least in its de facto approach to the marriage of lay persons”.(8) On the other hand, the Church heavily influenced the family ethics in state legislature; especially in regards to the rights of children, abolishing of celibacy, abolishing gladiator fights, condemning pederasty, etc.

   When it comes to slavery, the Christianisation of the Empire did bring some flexibilities to slaves, especially those slaves who were Christians, but it remains the fact that Constantine nor any of his successors even considered anything resembling the abolishment of slavery.(9) The Church and the state made compromises at every opportunity, and with this institutional support the Church rapidly gathered a lot of wealth and power, which was often balanced by social preachings of St John Chrysostom and alike, often coming from the egalitarian spirit of monastic communities.(10) Also, it is true that a lot of wealth went towards charity, where again a compromise between the Church and the state charactered philanthropy as an ecclesial affair.

   Beside material prosperity, Bishops also acquired power and prestige.(11) They were often equal in rights with civil magistrates, and sometimes even participated in elections of civil magistrates. The Christian clergy “…became willing agents for the establishment of the new, monolithically Christian social order desired by the emperors…” (12)

   Yet again, emperors were also disappointed with the lack of unity among the Christians and gave their best to help the Catholic Church to prevail against the sectarian groups of dissidents, heretics, etc. This policy was also important for the state, as it became more and more apparent that a good deal of tensions between Christian traditions came from ethnic tensions between Copts, Syriacs and others within Constantinople.

   Another important issue that has to be raised here is the role of the Emperor personally in regards to the Church. Meyendorff successfully challenges biased judgments of the “protestant historians” who describe this role as “caesaropapism”, or the Roman Catholics who describe the Emperor as a “usurper of papal authority” or even the secularists whose views were often a reductionist oversimplification.(13) Meyendorff reminds the public that the Roman Empire, through Hellenistic influences, already had an established culture that connected the Emperor with the divine. The Christians experienced this phenomenon in full capacity during the persecutions. Now, suddenly the Emperor went “from persecutor to protector”, which was seen as another act of providence.(14) In that sense, Christians saw Pax romana not as a creation of Augustus but of Christ, and the Emperor was now in that light seen not as divine but as “the providential manager of earthly affairs”.(15)

   The Emperor was certainly not worshiped anymore, but the sacred character of his office was preserved, as the Imperial power was now providing the Church its freedom and protection. The Emperor was regarded as both an image and an agent of Christ on Earth.(16) The imperium was understood as “particular personal charism bestowed directly by God”(17) through which the Emperor was granted “episcopal” functions “over those outside” (επίσκοπος των εκτός).

   Imperial “episcopacy” was not supposed to be liturgical nor was it ever understood in that manner from the Orthodox; it was an “earthly analogy”. The Emperor was held as the one with the opportunity and responsibility to help, protect and advance the mission of the Church.

   As mentioned earlier, another issue of grave importance to both the State and the Church was unity. One diocese could unite around its Bishop, but the plenitude of Bishops did not have a personal embodiment of unity among them besides the Emperor. Hence the Church often asked the Emperor to get directly involved in Church affairs and even to pick sides.

   The unsurpassed expression of the nature of the relationship towards which both the Church and state have strived, was given by Emperor Justinian I (Φλάβιος Πέτρος Σαββάτιος Ἰουστινιανός, also known as Saint Justinian the Great), in the famous Sixth Novella.(18)

   Justinian the Great reigned from 527 until 565 AD, and during that time he managed to re-establish the Roman state in almost all of its territories from the Roman golden age; he built many new churches and buildings – the most famous definitely being the Hagia Sophia church in Constantinople. But he is mostly remembered for his great work in legislature, namely for producing the Corpus Juris Civilis, which is the fundamental basis of European continental legal systems until this very day. An integral part of the Corpus Juris Civilis were also the new laws promulgated by Justinian, called Novellas.(19)

   These Novellas, namely the Sixth Novella, contained the most famous formulation of the principle of the symphony of powers: "The greatest gifts given by God to men by His supreme kindness are the priesthood and the empire, of which the first serves the things of God and the second rules the things of men and assumes the burden of care for them. Both proceed from one source and adorn the life of man. Nothing therefore will be so greatly desired by the emperors than the honour of the priests, since they always pray to God about both these very things. For if the first is without reproach and adorned with faithfulness to God, and the other adorns the state entrusted to it rightly and competently, a good symphony will exist, which will offer everything that is useful for the human race. We therefore have the greatest care concerning the true dogmas of God and concerning the honour of the priests..., because through this the greatest good things will be given by God – both those things that we already have will be made firm and those things which we do not have yet we shall acquire. Everything will go well if the principle of the matter is right and pleasing to God. We believe that this will come to pass if the holy canons are observed, which have been handed down to us by the apostles, those inspectors and ministers of God worthy of praise and veneration, and which have been preserved and explained." (20)

   Justinian in his Sixth Novella, originally addressed to the Patriarch Epiphanius of Constantinople, states that both the priesthood and the empire “proceed from the same source”, that is from God. This statement implies the ontological connection of the two different realities, which requests that the only natural relationship between them has to be that of harmony and symphony and also that every division or conflict is a distortion of God’s will and a direct disobedience.(21) And that all those points of the early Fathers that affirmed a strict separation of Church and State were just a result of the persecution of the Church by the pagan Emperors. But, now that unity in Orthodoxy had been achieved the emphasis returned to the common source and common end goal of the two institutions. The unity of the Christian world now, in this new reality for the Church, under one Christian Emperor was guaranteed by this “symphony” between the Emperor and the Patriarch.

   The idea was fundamentally to strive for fruitful and good-willing co-operation, without each side intruding the exclusive sphere of the other. The bishop is obliged to obey the Emperor as his subject, but his episcopal power comes from the Church. On the other hand, the Emperor obeys the bishop, as he is a member of the Church. The Emperor thus requests the spiritual support and prayers and his work from the Church, while the Church under an Emperor’s wing expands her mission of spiritual care for all, and all for the benefit and welfare of the people who are both citizens of the Empire and baptized Christians, thus members of the Church.

   Also, as Dr Vladimir Moss points out, it has to be noted that the symphony of powers existed, not only between the Emperor and the Patriarch, but it continued all the way down through the hierarchy of both institutions.(22) He further quotes Bishop Dionysius who writes: “Symphony in Church administration only began at the level of the Emperor and Patriarch, and continued at the level of the bishop and eparch (who also received the blessing of the Church for his service) and was completed at the level of the parish priest and its founder. With such a deep ‘churchification’ from all sides of the life of the Orthodox Empire, and the symphony of all levels of the Church-State pyramid, the violations of symphony at the highest level were, while annoying, not especially dangerous. The most important thing still remained the service of ‘him who restrains’, which was carried out by the Orthodox Emperor in symphony with the whole Church, and not only personally with the Patriarch. The decisive factor was the personal self-consciousness of the Emperor and the activity based on that. Thus, Justianian viewed himself completely as a Christian sovereign, and strived throughout the whole of his life to make the whole world Christian. His symphony with the Patriarch was desirable as a useful means towards that end, but it was not an end-in-itself. During Justinian’s time five Patriarchates entered into the Empire, including the Roman, and the Emperor did not establish ‘symphonic’ relations with all of them personally (as, for example, with Pope Vigilius, who did not want to accept the decisions of the 5th Ecumenical Council). But symphony with the whole Church did exist, and a proof of this is provided by the 5th Ecumenical Council, which was convened through the efforts of Justinian and accepted the dogmatic definitions against the heresies that he presented; and by the multitude of saints who shone forth during his reign and who related completely ‘symphonically’ to him (for example, St. Sabbas the Sanctified); and by the general flourishing of the Christian culture.”(23)

   Justinian wrote that an Emperor did not have authority over priesthood; or rather he understood that the clergy’s prime loyalty was to the Gospel and the Holy Canons and that this will not endanger their loyalty to the Emperor, as long as the Emperor himself stays equally loyal to the Gospel and the Orthodox faith. Consequently, the absolutistic principle of power of the Roman Emperors, that whatever the Emperor orders has the force of law, was constrained with words: “unless it contradicts the holy canons”. St. Justinian testifies to this in Novella 131: “The Church canons have the same force in the State as the State laws: what is permitted or forbidden by the former is permitted or forbidden by the latter. Therefore crimes against the former cannot be tolerated in the State according to State legislation.”(24)

   This symphony, however, never really functioned for long. In every-day practice it was repeatedly dishonored and abused. The Church was constantly subjected to caesaropapist attempts from the Emperors, who understood that they as the heads of the state should have the pivotal authority in Church matters equally as in state matters.(25) It seems that the Emperors of Byzantium, even the Christian ones, never completely lost the ballast of the pagan heritage and Roman pagan rulers who bore the title of Pontifex maximus, the High priest.(26) These tensions manifested most directly in the policies of heretical Emperors who convened and attempted to influence different councils, but probably the most obvious example would be the issue of the Seventh ecumenical council, held in Nicaea in 787 AD.(27)

   The iconoclastic position of Emperor Leo III, probably developed under a great influence of the emerging Islam, and it also coincided with a resurrection of the pagan model of the Imperator-Pontifex maximus. Furthermore, as the Muslim Caliph considered himself to be both the king and the prophet, one could assume that Leo was under the Islamic influence even in his understanding of monarchism and was confusing it with priesthood. (28)

   The main critic of both ideas of Leo III was St. John of Damascus, saying: “What right have emperors to style themselves lawgivers in the Church? What does the holy apostle say? ‘And God has appointed in the Church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers and shepherds, for building up the body of Christ.’ (I Corinthians 12.28). He does not mention emperors... Political prosperity is the business of emperors; the condition of the Church is the concern of shepherds and teachers.”(29)

   The fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council wrote to the Patriarch and Emperors: “God gave the greatest gift to men: the Priesthood and the Imperial power; the first preserves and watches over the heavenly, while the second rules earthly things by means of just laws”. This letter also produced a concise and inspired definition of the Church-State relationship: “The priest is the sanctification and strengthening of the Imperial power, while the Imperial power is the strength and firmness of the priesthood”.(30)

   Some years later the claim of Emperor Leo III, to be both king and priest was refuted by Pope Gregory II, but he also admitted that true Emperor is in some ways like a priest: “You write: ‘I am Emperor and priest’. Yes, the Emperors who were before you proved this in word and deed: they built churches and cared for them; being zealous for the Orthodox faith, they together with the hierarchs investigated and defended the truth. Emperors such as: Constantine the Great, Theodosius the Great, Constantine IV, the father of Justinian II, who was at the Sixth Council. These Emperors reigned piously: they together with the hierarchs with one mind and soul convened councils, investigated the truth of the dogmas, built and adorned the holy churches. These were priests and Emperors! They proved it in word and deed. But you, since the time that you received power, have not completely begun to observe the decrees of the Fathers... …You know, Emperor, that the dogmas of the Holy Church do not belong to the Emperor, but to the Hierarchs, who can safely theologise. That is why the Churches have been entrusted to the Hierarchs, and they do not enter into the affairs of the people’s administration. Understand and take note of this... …The coming together of the Christ-loving Emperors and pious Hierarchs constitutes a single power, when affairs are governed with peace and love… …God has given power over all men to the Piety of the Emperors in order that those who strive for virtue may find strengthening in them, - so that the path to the heavens should be wider, - so that the earthly kingdom should serve the Heavenly Kingdom.”(31)

   One has to admit that the idea of symphony of the Church and state resonates the Chalcedonian doctrine of hypostatic union. St Justinian the Great, as lover of theology, could have easily been inspired by the Chalchedonian creed when he was composing the Sixth Novella. Furthermore, it can be added that as the idea of the symphony of the Church and State reminds of Chalcedonian creed, so does the absolutist theory of Emperor and the Church reminds of both Monothelitism and Iconoclasm. Monothelitism denies that there is both Divine and human will in Christ, so the absolutist theory demands only one will in the government of the Christian Empire, affirming that the will of the Emperor overcomes the will of the Church. Also, as Iconoclasm distorts the relationship between the icon and its archetype, so absolutism destroys the relationship between the earthly type and Heavenly Archetype and the Emperor becomes an idol.

   Thus the Seventh Ecumenical Council brought to an end the discussion over the role of the Emperor in the Church. He was an icon of Christ the King, but only so long as he remained Orthodox, in a very similar way in which a Bishop is an icon of Christ the High Priest.(32) The Emperor had to come down to the positions of Theodosius I and to accept that he was a member of the Church, but not the head.

   Being blessed with the recorded history of Church-State relations in which we can clearly recognise the struggle of our ancestors to build a society that will provide peace, stability and prosperity for all its members we should pay attention to the lessons they left for us. If we want to learn from their mistakes and achievements we will put our faith in the centre of our ideals and our society will measure its achievements with national gross deification index instead of national gross domestic product.

(1) Smith-Park L & Magnay D, Belgium: Lawmakers back allowing minors to request euthanasia, http://edition.cnn.com/2013/11/27/world/europe/belgium-euthanasia-children/

(2) Sozomen, The Ecclesiastical History, II, 3.

(3) Ibid. VII, 25

(4) Socrates Scholasticus, The Ecclesiastical History, I, 8.

(5) General Codification of Imperial decrees published between 312 and 437

(6) John Meyendorff, “Church and Empire” in Imperial Unity and Christian divisions – The Church 450-680 A.D. (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood New York, 1989) 8.

(7) Ibid. 9

(8) Ibid. 10

(9) Ibid. 12

(10) Ibid. 13

(11) Ibid. 14

(12) Ibid. 15

(13) Ibid. 28

(14) Ibid. 29

(15) Ibid. 30

(16) Ibid. 32

(17) Ibid. 32

(18) The Enactments of Justinian I, Novels, VI, http://droitromain.upmf-grenoble.fr/Anglica/N6_Scott.htm

(19) Meyendorff, op. cit. 208.

(20) The Enactments of Justinian I, Novels, VI, http://droitromain.upmf-grenoble.fr/Anglica/N6_Scott.htm

(21) Vladimir Moss, Studies in Christian Rome, (Author’s edition, London, 2010) 32.

(22) Ibid. 32,33.

(23) Cited from Vladimir Moss, Autocracy, Despotism, Democracy, (Author’s edition, London, 2013) 431-432.

(24) The Enactments of Justinian I, Novels, 131, http://droitromain.upmf-grenoble.fr/Anglica/N131_Scott.htm

(25) Church and State in The Basis of Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, https://mospat.ru/en/documents/social-concepts/iii/

(26) Anton Kartashov, Васељенски сабори (The Ecumenical Councils – my translation), (PBF, Belgrade, 2009) 398.

(27) Ibid. 499

(28) Vladimir Moss, Autocracy, Despotism, Democracy, (Author’s edition, London, 2013) 184.

(29) St. John of Damascus, Second Apology against those who attack the Divine Images, (St.. Vladimir’s Press, NY: Crestwood, 1980) 12.

(30) Eds. Philip Schaff, Henrwy Wace, The Seven Ecumenical Councils, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.xvi.xvi.html

(31) Ibid. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.xvi.xvi.html

(32) Radomir Popovich, Васељенски сабори- изабрана документа (Ecumenical Councils- selected documents- my translastion), (SOC Academy for Arts and Preservation, Belgrade, 2007) 364.






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