Christianity had suffered greatly under Rome’s persecution, but the Church had advanced remarkably in influence and size composing ten to fifteen percent of the Roman population early in the fourth century. In A.D. 312, Emperor Constantine waged war with his rival for the throne, Maxentius. Emperor Constantine prayed to the “Unconquered Son,” the Roman patron deity, for assistance in battle. Supposedly, Constantine and his army witnessed a cross ablaze in the sky on which they read the words, “In this sign conquer.” In his sleep that night, Constantine claimed that he was commanded to distinguish his soldiers with the monogram of Christ to ensure victory. Upon applying the monogram, Constantine won the battle at the Milvian Bridge due to Maxentius’s drowning before the battle was even underway.
After this impressive victory, Constantine claimed that he was “under the tutelage of the God of Christianity.”
He gradually began to change the status of Christianity in Rome. In A.D. 313, Constantine superintended the Edict of Milan granting religious freedom to all groups in Rome and restoring Christian’s property which had been repossessed by a predecessor Constantine, Diocletian. During Diocletian’s reign as emperor, the ruling party viewed the great number of people becoming Christians in such a short amount of time as alarming. Around A.D. 303, Diocletian denied Christians the right to serve in the military, demolished Christian books and buildings, and imprisoned many clerical leaders. Succeeding Diocletian, Constantine attempted to regain loyalty from Roman Christians who had been mistreated under the previous rule.
During this time, Constantine also supported Eusebius, a trusted religious figure, to compose Ecclesiastical History, a comprehensive account of Christianity from the Church’s beginnings to the Council of Nicea. Enjoying this religious freedom foreign to Christianity, the Church was no longer forced to gather in seclusion, and they were free by law to evangelize and distribute Scriptures. Not only did Constantine acknowledge gratitude to Christ, he tended to bestow support upon Christians more than any other religious groups. During this time, Christianity became popular for Romans due to the Emperor’s obvious favoritism. Due to Constantine’s support of the Church and the growth of those professing to be Christians since A.D. 313, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman state in A.D. 392.
Historians have recorded their enquiries concerning Constantine’s motives in his allegiance to Christianity. Due to his rival party in the easter part of Rome, Constantine could have benefitted from the aid of a group that composed a large percentage of the Roman population. While assisting Christianity, Constantine never openly committed himself solely to the cause of Christ. In the midst of resorting churches that had been destroyed, he was also active in rebuilding pagan temples and supporting pagan practices. His own moral behavior echoed the practices of former pagan emperors. Constantine killed his wife, children, and other family members when he suspected them of sedition. Despite his support, Constantine did not outwardly commit to Christianity until he was baptized on his deathbed.
Appearing to some to be an incredible victory for Christians in Rome, many people have viewed the Christianization of Rome as the greatest tragedy of the Church. Instead of the Christians changing the way Romans lived, the morals of the Roman Empire infested the Church in Rome. Under Roman governmental control, the Church was suspect to a compromising nature in an attempt to appease the Roman government which had rescued the Church from their former persecution. Due to Constantine’s graciousness, the Church’s leaders allowed him to have control and influence in areas in which they should have retained control for themselves.
After the Christianization of Rome, more people associated themselves with the religion of Christ but had no real devotion to the teachings of Jesus. Some dedicated Christians distanced themselves from the Church in an attempt not to compromise their own Christian integrity, but this separation led to many churches having an absence of solid leaders. Rome’s acceptance of Christianity also hurt the evangelization throughout the rest of the world. People of most nations became wary of an imperial government’s official religion. With the influx of pagans into churches, the message of Christ became diluted in Rome, and due to the Roman Empire’s acceptance and encouragement of Christianity, the degree to which Christians evangelized declined.
Join me tomorrow for the state of the present Church and what I think has to happen to remedy it.
This blog post was 1 of 4 posts concerning Christian persecution. These writings are from my senior seminar paper in college when I graduated in 2003. For more info, check out:
Travis Agnew serves as the Lead Pastor of Rocky Creek Church in Greenville, SC. His most recent book is Just (About) Married.
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