Midweek Medieval Blog: Innocent III and the Powerful Church Leader

For this week’s Midweek Medieval Blog I wanted to focus on a figure whom I find fascinating from the Medieval period: Innocent III. In keeping with the usual form, I will keep this blog brief (one could easily write quite a lengthy piece on Innocent). Over the last few weeks I have been following the Mars Hill Church issues and the accusations against head pastor Mark Driscoll. I don’t want to get into the details of the church or Driscoll’s leadership, but I have seen comments which note the danger of allowing a leader of a church to gain too much power. Well, there’s no easier way to segue to Innocent III than that.

Innocent III is the epitome of a powerful church leader. He was pope from 1198-1216, and during his papacy, he convened the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. The council produced 70 canons which Innocent simply presented, and these canons were not debated at all by those present. (F. Donald Logan, A History of the Church in the Middle Ages, London: Routledge, 2002, 195). The pope is powerful when he convenes a church council, simply presents the canons, and there is no subsequent debate regarding any of the canons. The council focused on reforms for the clergy, with the clergy being seen more as pastors than as rulers (Logan, 196). Innocent also “forbade through the council the founding of new rules; new orders would have to adopt existing rules” (Logan, 197).

I want to provide a quotation from Innocent regarding the papacy and authority from Alister E. McGrath’s edited volume, The Christian Theology Reader, 3rd ed. The quotation is from Innocent’s Sicut universitatis conditor (Just as the creator of the universe) from the beginning of his papacy in 1198. Innocent writes, “Just as the creator of the universe established two great lights in the firmament of heaven, so he also appointed two dignitaries for the firmament of the universal church. The greater of these rules the human souls (the ‘days’), and the lesser of them rules human bodies (the ‘nights’). These dignitaries are the authority of the pope and the power of the king. And just as the moon derives her light from the sun, and is inferior to the sun in terms of its size and its quality, so the power of the king derives from the authority of the pope.” (McGrath, 498).

I always enjoy the pope vs. king back-and-forth of the medieval period, seen for example in the crowning of Charlemagne in 800 CE by the pope. Secular authority vs. spiritual authority was a constant battle in the history of the church. To a twenty-first-century audience, Innocent’s passage comes across as standoffish and almost comical. However, Innocent’s power enabled him to enact sweeping reforms in the church. Therefore, one could say that papal power served a positive purpose and created a positive change in the lives of priests and especially congregants.

Today, in the United States especially, Christians are weary of church leaders and their power. The aforementioned Driscoll is just one example of many church leaders who have fallen out of favor with the general public because they became too powerful. While I tend to sympathize with those who are weary of authoritative church leaders, I can see some validity in a highly structured, hierarchical church practice (my high-church readers rejoice). I think that often having a single leader or bishop may allow for helpful reforms and changes to be enacted more quickly than having a leadership council endlessly debate ideas. The too many cooks in the kitchen analogy seems apropos here. I have attended many different church types with varying degrees of authority placed on one person. I think having someone to actually make the (informed) decision can be a good thing.

I want to close by asking for your thoughts: What benefits are there for having church hierarchy? What are the dangers? Can a church have a council of elders and a bishop that gets the final say? Can and should Protestants admire Catholic church practice?

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One thought on “Midweek Medieval Blog: Innocent III and the Powerful Church Leader

  1. Pingback: Midweek Blog: What Adrian Peterson Can Teach us about Parental Discipline | The Historical Christian

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