Reflections on the Past IV: Pope vs. Emperors

This blog post is based on the Covenant Reformed Seminary of Asia’s lesson on Church History Module – Lesson 4: POPE vs. EMPEROR: Who Wins?

There were two power-hungry figures in the history of the Holy Roman Empire: The Pope and the Emperor. So we ask, what is the relation existing between them? There were different theories that existed:

  1. Each is independently commissioned by God, the Pope to rule the souls of men, the Emperor to rule their bodies. Neither is set above the other, but the two are to co-operate and help each other.
  2. The Emperor was superior to the pope in secular matters
  3. The relation of the two powers as ordained by God includes the subordination of temporal to spiritual authority, even in civil affairs.

The last theory is called the Papal party’s argument. It says, As God had set in the heavens two lights, the sun and the moon, so also had He established on earth two powers, the spiritual and the temporal. But as the moon is inferior to the sun, and receives its light from the sun, so the emperor is inferior to the pope, and receives all power from him.

The dawn of the conflict

However, this is not the case when Charles the Great or Charlemagne ( from the Latin magnus, “great”) was crowned (800 AD). He was also called the “Moses of the Middle Ages” because he led the exodus of Germanic peoples out of the wilderness of barbarism. He also saw himself as the spiritual and political leader of the Holy Roman Empire which is directly opposed to the Papal party’s argument stated above. This started the conflict between the Emperors and popes.

The strife was mainly caused by the unlimited ambition of the pope for power. For centuries this sinful strife threw Europe into political disorder and dragged the Church through the mire of darkest crimes. One pope followed another in rapid succession, some being deposed, other cast into prison, and still others murdered. Let’s look at some of them.

Pope John XII. He was the pope who turned the Vatican into a whorehouse. He was charged by a Roman Synod with almost every crime of which depraved human nature is capable. He was said to have drunk to the devil’s health, and to have invoked the help of heathen gods and various demons as he threw dice. All in the Synod agreed that he was a monster of iniquity. To them John replied, “If you wish to set up another pope, by Almighty God I excommunicate you, so that you will not have power to perform mass or to ordain anyone.”

Pope Boniface VII. He put his predecessor to death by strangulation in 974. He was described by a Synod as a “papal monster, who in his abject depravity exceeds all mortals.” Question: If this said of popes, what was the condition of the lesser clergy? “Evil communications corrupt good manners.”

Pope Gregory VII (HILDEBRAND). He was a man of masterful spirit and inexhaustible energy, and he wanted to remodel the Church and the Christian world. His aim was to establish the supremacy of the Church over the State. He abolished simony and the right of the clergy to marry, and, above all, he determined to settle the disputed question of investiture (It was concerned with the claim of kings and rulers to appoint bishops and abbots.). His position was that any person holding office in the church committed sin if he received that office from the hands of a lay-man, that is, a man not ordained to church office.

But here is the Undeniable Fact: Kings and rulers could not overlook the fact that very extensive estates belonged to the Church – in France and Germany half of the land and wealth was in the hands of bishops and abbots and the right to tax and to require military aid would pass from the State if temporal rulers failed to assert their rights over land by means of investiture.

A Power Struggle: Popes and Kings

As soon as Hildebrand, with the title of Gregory VII, ascended the papal throne he began to enforce his reformations. His aims that followed the series of the reforming popes (Clement II, Damasus II, Leo IX, etc.) are to reform the papacy itself, and the purification of the Western Church from “simony” (which means, buying and selling position in the Church, e.g. a bishopric) and sexual immorality of the clergy (Needham, 155).

As a result, came into conflict with the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, who lived in Germany, and who frequently sold ecclesiastical positions or appointed his favorites to them. The pope pronounced his ban against five privy councilors of the Emperor as guilty of simony, which meant that they were expelled from the Church. This naturally enraged the Emperor. The Pope knew, however, that Henry had many enemies and this encouraged him to take a firm stand for what he regarded as his rights.

When the papal decrees were disregarded, Gregory summoned Henry to Rome; but instead of waiting on the Pope, Henry, in turn, pronounced the Pope deposed. Gregory replied in kind by excommunicating Henry and declaring him deposed. At the same time he pronounced the sentence of interdict against his subjects; that is to say, all Church services and practices were to cease. But the fight between the two men went on; time would tell who would prove the stronger.

Here he placed the archbishop of Ravenna on the papal throne as Pope Clement III; Clement then crowned Henry as emperor. For some time, there were two rival popes, one in Rome chosen by Henry, the other in exile chosen by reformers loyal to Hildebrand’s ideals — Pope Urban II (1088–99). Urban finally ousted his ecclesiastical rival.

Even then the quarrel between Church and State did not end; indeed it continued for centuries. In 1106 Henry died, dethroned by an unnatural son whom the enmity of another Pope had raised in rebellion against him. The investiture conflict continued unabated. Urban’s successor, Paschal II (1099–1118), was so committed to the independence of church from state that in 1110 he offered an astonishing proposal to the new emperor, Henry V. If Henry would give up all pretense of investing bishops with spiritual authority, Paschal would surrender all the church’s possessions in Germany to the emperor; bishops would live in simple poverty.

This proposal was not to the liking of most German bishops, and Paschal had to withdraw it. However, the distinction Paschal made between the spiritual and secular aspects of investiture provided the key to the settlement of the controversy in 1122.

At Worms that year, Pope Calixtus II and Henry V agreed on two points: 1. The emperor would invest a bishop or abbot with his authority over the land that went with his office. 2. The bishop’s spiritual superior (his archbishop) would invest him with his spiritual authority over the church — the emperor would no longer confer the ring and staff.

The lesson that we can glean is that Great wisdom is needed in discerning how rightly to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). May God grant us that wisdom today.

There was a vast difference between the spirit of these two figures on the one hand, and the meekness and lowliness of heart of the Lord Jesus Christ, on the other. The so-called representative of Christ, which the Pope claimed to be, was filled with pride and arrogance, while the Emperor cherished hatred and revenge in his heart.

On the contrary, the people of God, the citizens of the Kingdom are humble, poor in spirit, merciful, peacemakers and righteousness-seekers. Hence, they are called blessed (Matthew 5:1-12).



  • Akinbode, Ayomide. John XII: The Pope Who Turned the Vatican to a Whorehouse. 2019, Accessed 26 Aug. 2021.
  • Houghton, S M, and B J Bennink. Sketches from Church History. Edinburgh ; Carlisle, Pa., Banner Of Truth Trust, , Printing, 1980.
  • Needham, Nick R. 2000 Years of Christ’s Power. Volume 2, the Middle Ages. London, Grace Publications Trust, 2016.

Published by Jeff Chavez

Sinner saved by grace

3 thoughts on “Reflections on the Past IV: Pope vs. Emperors

  1. Sad but true. “There was a vast difference between the spirit of these two figures on the one hand, and the meekness and lowliness of heart of the Lord Jesus Christ, on the other. The so-called representative of Christ, which the Pope claimed to be, was filled with pride and arrogance, while the Emperor cherished hatred and revenge in his heart.”

    Blessings brother.

    Liked by 1 person

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