State church of the Roman Empire

The state church of the Roman Empire is a historian term referring to the Nicene church associated with Roman emperors after the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 by Theodosius I which recognized Nicene Christianity as the Roman Empire's state religion.[1][2] Most historians refer to the Nicene church associated with emperors in a variety of ways: as the catholic church, the orthodox church, the imperial church, the imperial Roman church, or the Byzantine church, although some of these terms are also used for wider communions extending outside the Roman Empire.[3] The Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy, and the Catholic Church each claim to stand in continuity with the Nicene church to which Theodosius granted recognition, but don't consider it as a creation of the Roman Empire.

Earlier in the 4th century, following the Diocletianic Persecution of 303–313 and the Donatist controversy that arose in consequence, Constantine had convened councils of bishops to define the orthodoxy of the Christian faith, expanding on earlier Christian councils. A series of ecumenical councils convened by successive Roman emperors met during the 4th and 5th centuries, but Christianity continued to suffer rifts and schisms surrounding the theological and christological doctrines of Arianism, Nestorianism, and Miaphysitism. In the 5th century, the Western Roman Empire decayed as a polity; invaders sacked Rome in 410 and in 455, and Odoacer, an Arian barbarian warlord, forced Romulus Augustus, the last nominal Western Emperor, to abdicate in 476. However, apart from the aforementioned schisms, the church as an institution persisted in communion, if not without tension, between the East and West. In the 6th century, the Byzantine armies of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I recovered Italy and other regions of the Western Mediterranean shore. The Byzantine Empire soon lost most of these gains, but it held Rome, as part of the Exarchate of Ravenna, until 751, a period known in church history as the Byzantine Papacy. The early Muslim conquests of the 7th–9th centuries would begin a process of converting most of the then-Christian world in the Levant, Middle East, North Africa, regions of Southern Italy and the Iberian Peninsula to Islam, severely restricting the reach both of the Byzantine Empire and of its church. Christian missionary activity directed from the capital of Constantinople did not lead to a lasting expansion of the formal link between the church and the Byzantine emperor, since areas outside the Byzantine Empire's political and military control set up their own distinct churches, as in the case of Bulgaria in 919.

Justinian I, who became emperor in Constantinople in 527, recognized the patriarchs of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem as the top leadership of the state-recognized Nicene church (see the Pentarchy). However, Justinian claimed "the right and duty of regulating by his laws the minutest details of worship and discipline, and also of dictating the theological opinions to be held in the Church".[4][5]

In Justinian's day, the Christian church was not entirely under the emperor's control even in the East: the Oriental Orthodox Churches had seceded, having rejected the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and called the adherents of the imperially-recognized church "Melkites", from Syriac malkâniya ("imperial").[6][7] In Western Europe, Christianity was mostly subject to the laws and customs of nations that owed no allegiance to the emperor in Constantinople.[8] While Eastern-born popes appointed or at least confirmed by the emperor continued to be loyal to him as their political lord, they refused to accept his authority in religious matters,[9] or the authority of such a council as the imperially convoked Council of Hieria of 754. Pope Gregory III (731–741) was the last Bishop of Rome to ask the Byzantine ruler to ratify his election.[10][11] With the crowning of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800 as Imperator Romanorum, the political split between East and West became irrevocable. Spiritually, Chalcedonian Christianity persisted, at least in theory, as a unified entity until the Great Schism and its formal division with the mutual excommunication in 1054 of Rome and Constantinople. The empire finally collapsed with the Fall of Constantinople to the Islamic Ottoman Turks in 1453.[12]

The obliteration of the empire's boundaries by Germanic peoples and an outburst of missionary activity among these peoples, who had no direct links with the empire, and among Pictic and Celtic peoples who had never been part of the Roman Empire, fostered the idea of a universal church free from association with a particular state.[13] On the contrary, "in the East Roman or Byzantine view, when the Roman Empire became Christian, the perfect world order willed by God had been achieved: one universal empire was sovereign, and coterminous with it was the one universal church";[14] and the church came, by the time of the demise of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, to merge psychologically with it to the extent that its bishops had difficulty in thinking of Nicene Christianity without an emperor.[15][16]

The legacy of the idea of a universal church carries on, directly or indirectly, in today's Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as in others, such as the Anglican Communion.


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  1. ^ the Maronite Church was created by Maron in 410, and in 685 AD Pope Sergius I made John Maron the first Maronite Patriarch,[24][25][26]
  2. ^ The ROC severed full communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 2018, and later severed full communion with the primates of the Church of Greece and the Patriarchate of Alexandria in 2019.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Autocephaly or autonomy is not universally recognized.
  4. ^ a b Semi-autonomous part of the Russian Orthodox Church whose autonomy is not universally recognized.

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