In Romans, the Apostle Paul encourages us that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.” Indeed, God has worked in the lives of His people since Creation. In fact, the story of the Bible and of Christianity since is the story of ordinary people being given God’s extraordinary grace and responding to Him in the midst of the happenings of life. So when events happen, such as with the rise of Constantine the Great to power in the Roman Empire (306 A.D.), the question of its impact may best be measured by the response of God’s people.
One of the major developments of Constantine’s rule was not only the end of persecution for Christians (313 A.D.) but also the emergence of Christianity as a socially respectable religion. That, however, did not necessarily serve to further the cause of Christ. Constantine, though favoring Christianity, did not fully abolish paganism or its practices. In fact, he continued participating in pagan rituals until the end of his life when he was baptized as a Christian. So, though inclined to Christianity, he was not a true convert and certainly not a strict adherent to the Gospel. His personal life was sprinkled with compromise and his faith was intermingled with Christian and pagan beliefs. This diluted religious experience trickled down into society, both sacred and secular. Pagans were now experimenting with Christian belief and practice. But, just as the emperor was doing, they simply added the Christian god to their already long list of deities. In this way, God was mocked and the Christian message robbed of its true glory and power.
Many in the Church welcomed the new era of Imperial Christianity, seeing it as a triumph. After all, the Church did enjoy special favor. But this favor did not come without a price. The involvement of the emperor meant having to deal with the authority of the emperor. When Constantine called himself “bishop of bishops” he was crossing the line. The church was never meant to be governed by a state official. Though ruler of the Byzantine Empire, ruler of the Church was not Constantine’s place and he overstepped the boundaries at times. But this applied to many church officials as well whose misplaced authority and power were going to their heads. Living in a Christian empire must have been exciting, but it undermined the basic truth that God’s kingdom is not of this world.
During Constantine’s rule the Church grew greatly in numbers. At first glance, this would seem to be a positive thing to a Church called to make disciples. But that is precisely what the numbers prevented. With more people passing through the doors of the church there came less accountability and more anonymity for the churchgoer. It was quantity without quality. This lack of community and spiritual training coupled with the absence of persecution made for some pretty weak Christians. Social Christianity was born.
Today, in the 21st century Church there is great effort being made to make the Gospel relevant in the current culture. We take the trends and trappings of this world and use them as media for the Christian message. This is nothing new. The Church in Constantine’s day took on many characteristics of the culture around it. The new places of worship were patterned after the architecture of the beautiful basilicas. Priests traded in their street clothes for ornate robes. Many new traditions were formed. The unfortunate outcome is that, as time went on, these traditions were retained as almost sacred in themselves. What was once contemporary had become the proverbial old wineskin. Most seen in the Orthodox Church, Byzantine Christianity is still alive today, yet is hindered in many ways by its old world trappings. Becoming more relevant to its surrounding culture has been an ever-present issue for it, especially in the West.
Many of the issues that the Imperial Church faced have been encountered many times over in the history of the Church. The difference is that Constantine’s rule presented some of these issues for the first time. The partnership of the Church and State was a bittersweet one. It brought some corruption and compromise to the Church. That cannot be excused. But its positive effects can be praised and appreciated. It brought an end to the horrible persecution of the Church. It made possible the Council of Nicea and many other ecumenical councils after that. Most importantly, it opened up the world to evangelism and the spreading of the Gospel. Through Constantine, God once again accomplished His purposes on earth, as He has done throughout Church history. As Gamaliel said of the early Christians, “So my advice is, leave these men alone. If they are teaching and doing these things merely on their own, it will soon be overthrown. But if it is of God, you will not be able to stop them. You may even find yourself fighting against God.” (Acts 5:38-30, NLT)