The Christian message of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ alone had spread since the time of Jesus’ ascension to heaven and it constantly met opposition from the leaders of the dominant Roman Empire. Acts 17:5-7 is just one biblical example of Jesus’ followers causing a stir in Rome because of their faithfulness to God’s mission. Christian persecution increased after the time of the Apostles. Roman Emperor Septimius Severus ruled from 193-211 and passed an edict in 202 that all people under Roman rule were forbidden under penalty of death to become Christians. New converts were sought out and killed in public arenas. Perpetua was a twenty-two year old Christian in Carthage when she was condemned to death for her faith in 203. She wrote a journal while imprisoned that has been preserved and is likely the oldest document in existence that is written by a Christian woman. The journal records conversations she had with her father during imprisonment as well as encouragements for Christians to be faithful. The account of her death along with four others in the public arena is brutal and difficult to hear. After surviving through attacks of wild animals, she was beheaded, although the inexperienced executioner’s first blow to her neck missed the intended spot and left her marred and bloody. Perpetua, confident in her faith, is said to have placed the sword back on her mangled neck in the right spot so the executioner finished her with one more strike.
Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, was condemned to death by burning at the stake in A.D. 202. His famous response when asked to renounce his faith was, “For eighty-six years I have been [Christ’s] servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
These examples are just a couple among many of Christian martyrs who suffered at the hands of wicked Roman rulers. The first Christian Emperor, Constantine, should be perceived as a relief to the Christian world. In the sense of less persecution, his reign was relieving. However, the Church became directly aligned to the Roman Empire under Constantine’s leadership and that alignment negatively impacted the church’s understanding of salvation and leadership organization that would forever deter God’s mission through His Church.
The Edict of Milan
Christian history volumes will briefly explain, “in 313 Constantine and the Eastern emperor Licinus issued the Edict of Milan, granting full toleration to Christianity.” It was not that easy, however.
Peter Leithart explains that Constantine and Licinus were together in 313 in Milan to celebrate Licinus’ wedding. They did confer in Milan about imperial policy toward Christianity but there was no official edict given there. Two letters were signed from the emperors and sent to Nicomedia and Caesarea that contained the language that is usually credited as the Edict of Milan. In part, they wrote “it was proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best . . . all Christians are to be permitted, freely and absolutely, to remain in it, and not to be disturbed in any ways, or molested.”
The Edict of Milan, or these letters to Nicomedia and Caesarea, were significant for Christianity, but circumstances around them must be understood. In 306, the Roman Empire was divided between four leaders: Constantine, Licinus, Maximinus Daia, and Maxentius. Constantine marched into Rome, Maxentius’ territory, and defeated him by a surprise attack. Tradition records that on the eve of this battle, Constantine had a dream where he was commanded to place the Christian symbols of Chi and Rho, the first two Greek letters of the name Christ, on the shields of his soldiers. Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, of which its authenticity is debated, is believed to have started with this vision. Constantine met up with Licinus after this victory and formed an alliance, which included agreeing then to stop Christian persecution. However, Maximinus Daia was still persecuting Christians.
Despite the agreement between Constantine and Licinus, Licinus eventually balked and started persecuting Christians again. Maximinus Daia committed suicide in 313 when Licinus’ armies moved in on him, leaving Constantine and Licinus as the two Augusti. In 317, the two made a peace treaty at Serdica which led to six years of placid rule. After that six years, Licinus changed his attitude toward Christianity and began persecution again. Battles ensued between the armies of the Augusti, resulting in Constantine’s victory in 324. Constantine then become sole emperor in Rome.
Christianity was at least another political tool on Constantine’s arsenal. Westbury-Jones summarized the relationship of the Church and State:
Aligning Christianity to the Roman Empire Negatively Impacted the Church
Christianity made an impact on Rome. Constantine founded Constantinople (currently Istanbul) in 330, making it a symbolic capital of Christianity. Laws became more humane, such as abolishing executions by leg breaking and the branding of felons on the forehead. Criminals who would have faced gladiatorial contests were sent to the mines instead, resulting in a decrease of the cruelties long associated with the gladiator arena. New laws were created upholding the sanctity of the family and the home. Adultery and seduction became punishable crimes. Edward Johnson explains further:
Earlier discriminatory measures against the unmarried and the childless were repealed. The exposing of sickly and unwanted infants was ended, and provision was made for children whose parents could not support them. A program for the emancipation of slaves was enacted, with Christian priests performing the ritual of manumission in the churches. Only such manumission was permitted on the Christian sabbath along with agri- cultural labor. All courts and government offices were ordered closed on the sabbath. Soldiers on active duty attended services in the open fields.
Christianity changed Rome and Rome changed the Christian Church. However, the church’s changed understanding of church leadership and salvation were detrimental to the Church.
A Changed Understanding of Church Leadership
Constantine ran his political leadership into the church. Church historian Eusebius wrote:
Hence it was not without reason that once, on the occasion of his entertaining a company of bishops, he let fall the expression, “that he himself too was a bishop,” addressing them in my hearing in the following words: “You are bishops whose jurisdiction is within the Church: I also am a bishop, ordained by God to overlook whatever is external to the Church.” And truly his measures corresponded with his words; for he watched over his subjects with an episcopal care, and exhorted them as far as in him lay to follow a godly life.
Eusebius is known for viewing Constantine very highly, so while his writing sounds like Constantine benefitted the Church, the greater mixing of the Church and State brought confusion to church leadership.
Constantine felt like Christianity would help unify the Roman empire so he was still open to pagan practices. People would become Christians out of a personal conviction, but after Constantine, some were becoming Christians to please the emperor. Unauthentic conversions led to immorality in the church. Pagan practices like objects of adoration, saints, and the cult of relics mixed into the church and weakened the strong faith there.
A generally weakened church would naturally lead to weakened leadership. However, Constantine’s pro-Christian laws actually negatively impacted church leadership. Laws were created that exempted clergy from paying tribute money or fulfilling civic duties, resulting in an influx of men desiring clergy positions. Of course the result was that men were seeking clergy positions to escape the demands of the State, not because they felt called by God to serve the Church according to the way He gifted them.
Robert Baker notes that in the early church, leaders had equal status to the people in the church because they realized that they all were serving according to the ways the Holy Spirit gifted them. However, during the second and third centuries, this view changed and led to a disparity among leaders and people in the church. Certain positions were singled out and exalted, which would ultimately lead to problems in the church. Writings exist from the year 150 that indicate a president of the ministers in a single church. As time went on, a separation developed between bishops and other ministers called presbyters, although the Bible uses those titles to describe different functions of the same office. This development was evident in the time of Constantine when he convened a council in Nicea in 325 to try to solve a theological dispute. Writings from that council reveal that directions were given for the bishop of Alexandria to exercise authority over Egypt, Alexandria, and Pentapolis. The bishop of Antioch would have power in areas adjacent to his city and the bishop of Rome would exercise dominant influence over areas around his city.
Constantine intensified this practice of taking the leadership of the church away from the biblical pattern. He made a division into “external” and “internal” administration, giving leadership of the internal affairs, mainly doctrinal matters, to Church councils and bishops. But He directly handled the external affairs like ministerial disputes, property divisions, trespass arguments and similar affairs.
This changing leadership organization was leading the church away from the biblical instructions of two offices of church leadership, pastors and deacons, and would pave the way for the hierarchical structure later seen in the Roman Catholic Church.
A Changed Understanding of Salvation
The changed understanding of leadership contributed to a changed view of salvation. The New Testament is clear that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8) and this was the proclamation of the early church. However, as bishops developed to oversee groups of churches and give instruction to all of them, churches became known more as a collection of bishops rather than all believers. Consequently, those church leaders were exalted to positions of having spiritual influence that should have only belonged to Jesus Christ and the practices of the church began to reflect that misunderstanding.
Baker summarized this change well by writing:
By 325 faith had lost its personal character as a person’s direct dependence on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Although Christ was a part of the system, faith was to be directed toward the institution called the church; and salvation did not result from the immediate regenerating power of the Holy Spirit but was mediated by the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
This departure from biblical teaching about salvation would increase as the Roman Catholic Church developed later and became a great stumbling block to many people who were deceived into thinking that salvation came through an institution instead of through Jesus Christ alone.
It would be easy to think that aligning the Christian Church to the Roman Empire would be advantageous for the Church. Those who were being persecuted and executed for the faith would find solace in the protection offered by the empire. Other benefits like financial breaks would be enjoyed by the Church. However, Constantine used the Church more as a political tool to keep peace and coerce people into confirming to his ideals, leading to some great hindrances for the Church that still plague it today: different understandings of church leadership and salvation.
- Sandra Sweeny Silver, Rome Versus Christiantiy 30-313 AD (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2013), 32.
- Ibid., 34-40.
- Joseph Early Jr., A History of Christianity: An Introductory Survey (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2015), 21.
- Robert Baker and John Landers, A Summary of Christian History. 3rd ed. (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2005), 25.
- Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of An Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 99.
- Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 1 (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1984), 107.
- Leithart, Defending Constantine, 99-105.
- . Westbury-Jones, Roman and Christian Imperialism (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Pres, 1971), 201-202.
- Early, A History of Christianity, 71.
- Edward A. Johnson. “Constantine the great: imperial benefactor of the early Christian church.” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 22, no. 2 (1979): 165.
- Eusebius of Caesaria, “The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine,” in Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Ernest Cushing Richardson, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890), 546.
- Early, A History of Christianity, 72.
- Westbury-Jones, Roman and Christian Imperialism, 204.
- Baker and Landers, A Summary of Christian History, 46.
- Edward Johnson, “Constantine the great”, 165.
- Baker and Landers, A Summary of Christian History, 44.