The year was 374 AD, and the city of Milan was in an uproar. Their former Bishop, Auxentius, had recently died, and there was no small controversy about who should replace him. Auxentius had been deeply influenced by the teachings of Arius, a heretic who denied the divine equality of Jesus with God the Father. Milan was divided between the followers of Arius (called Arians) and the orthodox Christians who believed the biblical teaching of the deity of Christ as affirmed in the Nicene creed. Naturally, both parties wanted Milan’s next Bishop to come from their own ranks. The stakes were high. Tempers flared. Elsewhere in the empire, tensions between Arians and the Orthodox had already erupted into violent riots!
Into this high-strung environment entered Ambrose, a young civil servant who had recently been entrusted with the governance of the city and surrounding countryside. As a tumult began to take place in the church where the election of Bishop was being held, Ambrose urged the crowd to refrain from violence and bloodshed. So moved was the crowd by his impassioned plea for clear heads that they all began to shout, “Let Ambrose be Bishop!”
Ambrose, however, did not wish to be Bishop. He was a committed believer to be sure, raised by a pious and godly mother. Yet he never desired a role in church leadership. And he certainly had no desire to be set in a position of authority over all the churches of Milan, a city which for some decades had been the seat of the Imperial Court. Ambrose viewed himself as utterly unqualified, having neither pastoral experience nor any formal theological training!
Naturally, Ambrose fled from the crowd and went into hiding at the home of a dear friend. His friend, however, soon decided to give him up, and Ambrose found himself abducted into the ministry. Ambrose determined that if the ministry was to be his calling, he would devote himself to it wholeheartedly. He poured himself into theological study, teaching, and liturgical reform. But perhaps one of the most profound aspects of Ambrose’s ministry was his deep pastoral heart for all those entrusted to his care. Ambrose saw himself as one who would give an account to the Lord Jesus Christ for his watch over souls (Hebrews 13:17.) This was a serious charge. He could not be a people-pleaser. He could not show favoritism to anyone, regardless of their station in life.
Unlike many in his day, Ambrose showed no favoritism to the wealthy. He exhorted them to steward their resources for godly purposes rather than selfish dissipation. He took time to minister to the practical and spiritual needs of the poor, giving them no less attention than members held in higher esteem by society. On many occasions, he would not allow the churches to accept donations from certain well-to-do citizens of Milan, if he had just cause to believe the motive behind the gift was to try to ingratiate the donor or to simply put on a show of false piety. On one occasion, Ambrose learned of a wealthy member who had donated a large sum of his inheritance to the church, yet left his sister penniless and without support. Ambrose returned the gift, and admonished the man to first care for his own in light of 1 Timothy 5:8.
Another example of Amrose’s impartiality was his refusal to allow political pressure to take precedence over church matters. When the young and inexperienced Valentinian II became Emperor, his mother Justina, a devout Arian, became the de facto leader of the Empire. Justina asked Ambrose for the use of one of the churches in Milan as an Arian meeting place, and Ambrose refused. She then influenced her son to send out the imperial army and seize the church by force! Ambrose barricaded himself within the church with a group of congregants, and a lengthy worship service began. They sang Psalms, read scripture, and stood their ground. When a delegation of the Emperor’s troops came into the church to command Ambrose to submit the church to the authority of the Emperor, Ambrose is said to have replied:
“Should he require what is my own, as my land or my money, I would not refuse him, though all that I possess belongs to the poor: but the emperor has no right to that which belongs to God. If you require my estate, you may take it; if my body, I readily give it up; have you a mind to load me with irons, or to put me to death, I am content.”1
Ambrose was no revolutionary. He did not deny the right of the Emperor to rule in civil matters. But he rightly understood that the state has no authority over the church. Christ is the head of the Church, and no political figure, however powerful, has the right to claim that which belongs to Jesus Christ. After a weeklong siege, the soldiers backed down. The Arians would have no access to any of Milan’s churches, in spite of the Emperor’s decree.
Ambrose was convinced that the church of Jesus Christ was no place for sanctimonious hypocrisy. When the usurper Gratian requested membership in the church, Ambrose refused him, citing a notorious murder that Gratian had committed without remorse. Likewise, when Emperor Theodosius II, a professing believer, ordered a brutal massacre (in retaliation for the death of his troops) which involved the needless killing of many innocent bystanders, Ambrose refused to let the Emperor take communion. Ambrose chided him for his vehement temper, and urged him to publicly repent of his sin before the entire congregation. Theodosius eventually complied, and was restored to fellowship. Ambrose was determined to maintain the purity of the church, which meant that not even the most powerful man in the Empire could be above discipline.
Another man who would soon cross paths with Bishop Ambrose was a young man by the name of Augustine. Today, he is known as one of the most influential theologians in church history. But when Ambrose first met Augustine, he was an immoral pagan! Augustine had been raised by a Christian mother, yet rejected his upbringing in favor of a life of sexual immorality and a bizarre belief system known as Manichaeism. Ambrose, however, befriended Augustine, and patiently answered his criticisms of Christian doctrine while exhorting him to forsake his life of immoral behavior. Augustine would later go on to write of Ambrose, “That man of God received me like a father, and looked with a benevolent and episcopal kindliness on my change of abode. And I began to love him, not at first, indeed, as a teacher of the truth — but as a man friendly to myself.”2 All church historians agree that Ambrose was undoubtedly the human instrument used by God in bringing Augustine to salvation.
The Apostle James writes, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (James 2:1.) Ambrose’ life exhibited the fruit of obedience to this command. His example calls all of us to be faithful in speaking the truth and ministering to the needs of the whole body, from the least to the greatest.