New College, University of Edinburgh

Appealing to Rome: Didn’t The Apostle Paul Forbid It?

Why do Christians continue going to court when the Apostle Paul forbade them to do that in 1 Corinthians 6:1-11? Verse 1 (NRSV) reads: ‘When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints?’

The answer to Paul’s rhetorical question is, ‘yes, actually’. Because many Christians have dared to do precisely the thing that Paul prohibited.

But why? Perhaps better: when did Christians first start appealing to the civil authorities to resolve ecclesiastical disputes?[1]

It all started with Paul.

But not that Paul.

Paul of Samosata.

Around the year 272, a faction of the church in Antioch appealed to the emperor Aurelian requesting that the emperor adjudicate between the deposed bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosata, and themselves.  Eusebius relates in the seventh book of his Ecclesiastical History that Paul had gotten himself deposed for being a rather eccentric bishop to say the least. Among other things, Paul was alleged to have:

1) seduced women, 2) acquired great wealth, 3) built a lofty throne for himself, 4) taught his congregants to sing songs of praise to him, and 5) denied that Jesus was fully divine.[2]

Rembrandt’s Paul [not of Samosata]


The political situation surrounding this appeal to Aurelian is fascinating in its own right. The appeal was made to Aurelian in the context of his campaign to reconquer eastern portions of the empire that had been occupied by Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. One of the cities that Aurelian re-occupied was none other than Paul’s city of Antioch. And, if Paul had enjoyed the support of Zenobia (as Athanasius tells us he did), then Aurelian would have good reason to rule against Paul on this appeal.[3] But we will have to leave such matters for another time.  Getting back to the appeal itself, Eusebius records that:

…as Paul refused to surrender the church building, the emperor Aurelian was petitioned; and he decided the matter most equitably, ordering the building to be given to those to whom the bishops of Italy and of the city of Rome should adjudge it. Thus this man was driven out of the church, with extreme disgrace, by the worldly power.[4]

But what about the other Paul?

The one who rhetorically asked whether any Christian dare bring a lawsuit before the unrighteous (ἀδίκων) rather than the saints (ἁγίων).

Why did that not keep Paul [of Samosata]’s opponents from going to a non-Christian judge?  Eusebius does not shed any light on this.[5] But the precedent established by Paul’s opponents was followed in another ecclesiastical dispute, this time in North Africa.

Cicero [not either of the Pauls] arguing a case.


Four decades later, in the aftermath of the Diocletian persecution, a Carthaginian deacon named Caecilian was elected as bishop of Carthage. Caecilian’s opponents (later known to their enemies as ‘Donatists’) objected. Among other things, they alleged that Caecilian had been consecrated by Felix of Aptunga, a man who was tainted by charges of collaboration during persecution.  Following judicial precedent, Caecilian’s opponents appealed to the emperor Constantine asking him to appoint judges from Gaul to adjudicate the matter.[6]

One of Constantine’s responses in particular cannot have been encouraging to Caecilian’s opponents:

O what a madman will dare in his rage!  Just as if this were a common cause of heathen litigation, a bishop thought it proper to appeal![7]

The short version of the story is that Constantine (and the other judges he appointed) ruled against the party that became known as the Donatists.[8]  The remainder of the lengthy Donatist controversy was marked by repeated appeals from both sides for imperial adjudication, culminating in the Edict of Unity in February 405 and the Conference of Carthage of 411 (both adverse to the Donatist party).  Unfortunately, we know little from the Donatists themselves about their rationale(s) for making these appeals.[9]  But two of the Donatists’ opponents, Optatus and Augustine, offered justifications for Christians appealing to Rome.  For his part, when discussing the emperor Constans’ efforts to suppress the Donatist party, Optatus writes:

Paul is right to teach that we should pray for kings and rulers, even if the emperor were the sort who lived in a heathen manner; how much more when he is a Christian, how much more when he fears God, how much more when he is pious, how much more when he is merciful, as the event itself proves![10]

There is not much here of course.  But, as usual, Augustine managed to re-form an inchoate idea of a predecessor into a more comprehensive justification. In particular, Augustine seems to have picked up on the ‘how much more’ line of reasoning of Optatus.  The development of Augustine’s rationale is evident if one examines his letters 93 and 185. In letter 93, Augustine acknowledges to a Donatist bishop that the apostles did not appeal to imperial power:

You say that no example is found in the writings of evangelists and apostles, of any petition presented on behalf of the Church to the kings of the earth against her enemies. Who denies this? None such is found.[11]

But, Augustine goes on to say, the kings of the earth had not yet converted to Christianity during the time of the Apostles. And he offers the case of Nebuchadnezzar as a possible precedent for an imperial official favoring God’s people. Then, a decade later, writing to the tribune Boniface in letter 185, Augustine seems to have developed a more nuanced treatment of this issue, especially as it relates to the Apostle Paul.

For neither was the Apostle Paul taking precautions on behalf of his own transitory life, but for the Church of God when he caused the plot of those who had conspired to slay him to be made known to the Roman captain… Nor did he for a moment hesitate to invoke the protection of the Roman laws, proclaiming that he was a Roman citizen… and again, that he might not be delivered to the Jews who sought to kill him, he appealed to Caesar, a Roman emperor, indeed, but not a Christian. And by this he showed sufficiently plainly what was afterwards to be the duty of the ministers of Christ, when in the midst of the dangers of the Church they found the emperors Christians…[12]

Augustine’s rationale, developed a century and a half after the Antiochene appeal to Aurelian, is premised on the fact that the Apostle Paul himself appealed to Roman authority for protection.  And, in line with Optatus’s ‘how much more’ reasoning, Augustine points out that Paul did that when the Roman authorities were not yet Christians!  ‘How much more’ Augustine might say (following Optatus) should Christians appeal to kings when the kings had finally converted to Christianity.

Augustine arguing with the Donatists


All of which is just one example of how the Apostle Paul was creatively appropriated by the early church. There’s much more that could be said. But, for now, the next time you are wondering when the church began appealing to the state for adjudication of ecclesiastical disputes, just remember: it all started with Paul.

Which Paul?

You be the judge.


Written by Joshua Bruce



[1] This line of investigation about Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians was inspired by a kind question from Professor Gillian Clark following a paper on Donatist juridical appeals that I delivered at the 2016 British Patristics Conference.

[2]  Although, perhaps ‘eccentric’ is a poor label for Paul given the ongoing popularity of four out of five of these.

[3] For doubt about Athanasius’s version of events, see the excitingly titled Empress Zenobia: Palmyra’s Rebel Queen by Pat Southern (esp. p. 86).

[4] (EH vii, 30, 19).  See also, Fergus Millar’s article ‘Paul of Samosata, Zenobia and Aurelian: The Church, Local Culture and Political Allegiance in Third-Century Syria’ (JRS, 61, 1971).

[5] Eusebius also preserves a record of a prior rescript from the emperor Gallienus in 261/262 returning property to Alexandrian Christians (HE vii, 13) but that is outside the scope of this post.

[6] The fact that the Donatist party initially requested Constantine to appoint judges (iudices) from Gaul to adjudicate the case, rather than asking for a decision from Constantine himself, is an interesting aspect of their initial appeal to Constantine. The appeal, along with Mark Edwards’ discussion of its textual problems, is found in Mark Edwards’ translation and notes on Optatus, Against the Donatists.

[7] Optatus, Against the Donatists, p. 25 (Edwards trans.)

[8] The longer version is, as so often the case, ‘See Timothy Barnes’,  especially Constantine & Eusebius (pp. 56-60).

[9] Augustine’s letters reflect the possibility that some of the Donatists may have distinguished between appeals for imperial coercion — what they accused Augustine’s party of — and appeals for the recovery of their own property.  See, for example, Ep. 93.4.13.

[10] Optatus, Against the Donatists, p. 63 (Edwards trans.)

[11] Ep. 93.3.9 (c. 408 to the Rogatist bishop, Vincentius)

[12] Ep. 185.7.28

  • CSCO Team,
  • 1st March 2018


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