Who Is Ambrose?

By Jessica Wolstenholm

God’s people have amazing stories! As we approach All Saints Day, we’d love to share the story of some heroes of the faith and of the church that you may not know a lot about. These are people who God has used to shape His Church. We hope you’ll journey with us the next few weeks as we take this adventure together.

How (and when) did we begin singing songs of praise and worship in church?


The answer may surprise you!

It was the year 373. At age 33, Ambrose had it all – a successful career as a lawyer, an important position as governor of Milan, the approval and friendship of the emperor, and a large estate.

Then the Bishop of Milan died. A religious group known as the Arians was spreading several heresies at that time which threatened to destroy the church. One of their beliefs was that Jesus Christ was not God. Who would be elected to be the next bishop, a Catholic or an Arian? A riot broke out, and as the governor of Milan, Ambrose went to settle the argument. He called for peace between the two groups as they settled on a new bishop. To his surprise, the crowd began shouting, “Ambrose for bishop!”

Being a bishop during these times was a dangerous job! Ambrose had no interest in giving up his comfortable lifestyle for that of a bishop. Ambrose ran away, and begged the Emperor to overturn this decision on the basis that he hadn’t even been baptized! The Emperor did not overturn the decision, and eventually Ambrose had no choice but to step into the role of bishop.

Instead of continuing to live the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed, Ambrose chose to give his possessions to the poor and immerse himself in Scripture and theology. He chose to change his lifestyle to that of a humble, simple man. Ironically, the same stubborn character trait that he displayed while running away from his position as bishop was what he used to fight heresy and restore sanctity in the church.

When the Goths invaded the empire and took captives, Ambrose paid out all the money he had in ransom. He said the best and most effective charity was ransoming captives and hostages. He even took all gold vessels belonging to the Church and had them melted down. He said,

It is a better thing to save souls for the Lord than to save treasures. He who sent forth his apostles without gold had not need of gold to form his Church. The Church possesses gold, not to hoard, but to scatter abroad and come to the aid of the unfortunate.

Would not the Lord say to us: “Why have you let so many needy perish of hunger? Since you had gold, you should provide for their needs”…Could we say: “I feared to leave the temple of God without ornament.” But that which can’t be bought with gold does not take its value from gold. The best way to use the gold of the Redeemer is for the redemption of those in peril.

It was clear that Ambrose was always more interested in helping the poor than in reveling in his power.

When the emperor died, the Empress Justina, an Arian, became regent for her four year old son. Maximus, a former Roman soldier, realized the emperor’s death might weaken the empire enough for his army to conquer it. Justina begged Ambrose to negotiate with him. In spite of the fact that she was his enemy, Ambrose went on a diplomatic mission that convinced Maximus not to invade. Instead of gratitude, Justina instead set out to destroy the Christian church. She convinced her son to pass a law that not only legalized Arian beliefs, but also forbade Christians to argue against Arians and their heresy–the penalty being death.

One Palm Sunday when Ambrose was preaching, the Arian army surrounded the basilica. To calm the very scared people, he taught them how to sing hymns, which he had composed, of praise and worship. This was the first time recorded in history that there was communal singing in church!

Ambrose died in 397, at age 57. To this day, when we sing our favorite hymns in church, we can think about Ambrose. He loved the Lord, believed in the Trinity, loved the poor, and gave us a beautiful way to worship the Lord through hymns!

Lisa Strnad is an independent contractor in Christian media as a writer, marketing consultant, and public relations specialist. She speaks to Christian women’s groups on the issues of motherhood, home schooling and raising a child with special needs. Lisa and her family make their home in Nashville.