Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Constantine entered into the annals of Church History at a time when Christianity seemed to have undergone a bit of persecution. Well “a bit” may just be the understatement of the millennium. It has been calculated that between the first persecution under Nero in 64 to the Edict of Milan in 313, Christians experienced 129 years of persecution and 120 years of toleration and peace. The total number of Christians martyred in the early church is actually still unknown.
During the rule of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (reigned 306–337), Christianity became a dominant religion of the Roman Empire.So what do we learn from the triumphs and errors of this eccentric Emperor? This is an excerpt from a Church History lecture (transcript here) by Pastor Michael Phillips…
Having consolidated his civil power, Constantine was quick to legalize Christianity and began endowing the church with many royal favors, only a few of which I can presently mention:
1.Sunday was declared the “Christian Sabbath”, as a result of which work was forbidden and church attendance encouraged.
2.Pagans were generally removed from their government posts and replaced with Christians.
3.Pastors were relieved of military obligation and given a tax-exempt status.
4.Pastors became the salaried employees of the state, paid by the taxes levied on Christian and Pagan alike.
5.Church buildings were erected, enlarged, and richly furnished throughout the Empire.
As might be expected, the Church was deeply grateful to the Emperor. Indeed, too grateful. For in accepting his favors, they were inadvertantly submitting to his sovereignty. After all, “whoever pays the piper calls the tune”. The evils produced by this illicit union cannot be exaggerrated, no matter how well-intentioned Constantine or the church leaders of the time may have been. The latter in particular acted with inexcusable stupidity and pride. The immediate effects were disastrous.
It became fashionable to be a Christian, and therefore, worldly men, motivated by pure self-interest, joined the church. Augustine complained that “the church fills itself daily with those who sought Jesus, not for Jesus, but for worldly gain”. Worldliness was, alas, not confined to any sect in the church, but the church in general. The rich lived in the most decadent luxury, without a thought of their poorer brethren. Gregory of Nazianzen described their behavior thusly, “We repose in splendor on high and sumptuous cushions, upon the most exquisite covers, which one is almost afraid to touch, and are vexed if we but hear the voice or a moaning pauper”. The poor, however, were no better. Their leisure time was often spent in rioting and murder.
Conclusion: We must resist all state intrusion into matters spiritual. For it was Constantine, not Christ, who brought the state into the church.
Beware of felt prosperity (temporal or spiritual). It is the forerunner of disaster. We must resist the temptation of introducing worldly methods into the church. A coerced faith is no faith at all.
Constantine’s favors, therefore, rather than enriching the church with members only corroded it with hypocrites. It was, therefore, a total failure.
A wise Puritan once mused, “It is not want of numbers, but want of holiness which hinders the church”.