Constantine’s Conversion: Good or Bad?
How did the scattered and hiding congregations of apostolic times become Catholic or universal Christianity? What made it possible? These questions can be answered and traced back to the conversion of Constantine itself. Many historians hail him as a good emperor because of his positive contributions to the Church. Before his reign, the church was underground and was hardly recognized as legitimate religion in the Roman Empire. In fact, Christians were viewed as either cannibals (because of the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper) or atheists (Christians do not believe in pantheon of pagan gods) and hated for their lifestyle of secrecy.
Historically, Christianity began as a tiny offshoot of Judaism; but three hundred years later it became the preferred and eventually the officially sanctioned religion of the whole Roman Empire. Despite the extensive and determined efforts to eradicate the new faith, it continued to live on and flourish. By the time the Emperor Constantine reigned (312-337), who was the first Christian emperor, “there were churches in every large town in the empire and in places as distant from each other as Britain, Carthage, and Persia.”
Obviously, the most popular change that Constantine had contributed to the Church was the acceptance of Christianity by the Roman Empire as its legal religion; in fact, it had become the official religion of the state. The then persecuted church has become, because of the Emperor’s conversion, a ruling religion. Prior to A.D. 312, Christianity had been outlawed and persecuted. Suddenly it was favored and pampered. Constantine thrust it into public life.
There are scholars who have considered Constantine’s “conversion” a political maneuver because even then, plenty of paganism remained. He conspired; he murdered; he even retained his title “Pontifex Maximus” as head of the state religious cult. But a purely political conversion is hard to maintain in the light of his public and private actions. From the year 312, he favored Christianity openly. He allowed Christian ministers to enjoy the same exemption from taxes as the pagan priests; he abolished executions by crucifixion; he called a halt to the battles of gladiators as a punishment for crimes; and in 321 he made Sunday a public holiday. Thanks to his generosity, magnificent church buildings arose as evidence of his support for Christianity. This public Christianity was matched by changes in Constantine’s private life. Making no secret of his Christian convictions, he had his sons and daughters brought up as Christians and led a Christian family life. Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia baptized him shortly before he died in 337. After his baptism, Constantine refused to wear again the imperial purple and thus left this life dressed in his white baptismal robe.
The advantages for the church were real enough, but there was a price to pay. Constantine ruled Christian bishops as he did his civil servants and demanded unconditional obedience to official pronouncements, even when they interfered with purely church matters. There were also the masses that now streamed into the officially favored church. Prior to Constantine’s conversion, the church consisted of convinced believers. Now many came who were politically ambitious, religiously disinterested, and still half-rooted in paganism. This threatened to produce not only shallowness and permeation of pagan superstitions but also the secularization and misuse of religion for political purposes.
The belief assumed major importance after Constantine’s conversion. After the emperor’s conversion to the Christian faith, and because the “conversion” itself was due to his turning to the Christian God for help, consequently he turned to the church and counted upon it to bring new life into the weary empire. But, to do that, first, the church itself had to be united. A quarreling, divided Christianity could not bind the crumbling empire together. Constantine was troubled by reports from all quarters of the bitterness Christians were displaying over theological issues. The same believers, who, while Diocletian and Galerius ruled, had been the victims of terrible persecution, were demanding now that their fellow Christians who differed from them on points of doctrine be suppressed or banished from their churches by the power of the state. Constantine had no choice but to intervene and to stop this constant bickering to make his Christian subjects agree on what their own beliefs were. He knew that the explosive issue had to be defused. So, in A.D. 325, he called for a council to meet at Nicea not far from Nicomedia in Asia Minor, to settle these gaps then existing in the church. In this first Council, the Arian heresy was defeated (the belief that Jesus was just a man, advocated by Arius – bishop of Alexandria), and the famous Apostolic Creed was forged. In view of this particular victory over Arianism, this first imperial synod accomplished a very significant feat; a triumphant stride indeed for the Church. Along with Constantine’s conversion to Christianity were considerable changes he implemented during his reign. He put to an end to the persecution of Christianity along with other religions. Paganism was no longer the only conventional religion. After Constantine, however, in the hands of his successors, the Christianization of Roman culture and its social order advanced by fits and starts. His sons, for instance, had forbidden authorized pagan sacrifices in 341, but did not shut down the temples. Even though all temples in all cities were ordered closed in 356, there is confirmation that established sacrifices did not cease. Under another ruler, the temples were reopened and sacrifices officially recognized once again.
Comments and Analysis
Contemplating upon the contributions of Constantine to the church, I find it not easy to delineate or separate the “good” from the “bad.” Any pastor has to be very discerning to be able to judge. However, with the history of the church (from its birth till present) recorded, we have now in our possession something through which we can analyze our present status. What is the contribution of Constantine? I think, to state it quite frankly, if there ever was a contribution that he had made to the church in general, where lasting impact is continually seen and felt, it is the establishment of the Roman Catholic religion. Many historians judged differently as to his impact to the church at large. The work of the Church of Jesus has not changed in the process of time. It still is the teaching (discipling) of all peoples of the doctrines of Christ. How is the church faring with regards to this measurement? Can a common man of today identify very easily the church as it was very easy for anybody in the first century (or before the time of Constantine) to identify Christians? In my opinion as a pastor, today, Christianity in general is a mixture of Biblical beliefs and different traditions – past and present. Accommodation is the rule of the day for the church. This has no difference as it was in the days of Constantine. In fact, I have come to believe that if there is any lasting influence Constantine has contributed to the present church of Jesus, it is not that good. Paganism and Christianity have merged. People today who call themselves Christians could not distinguish between paganistic and true Christian practice. True Christian evangelism and teaching have become very difficult for preachers of the Bible. Human tradition is deeply rooted and has become an authority more powerful than the Bible. The work of a pastor is never an easy one, at least for a real, sincere and God-fearing one. A pastor is employed in the establishment made and owned by God, and the job description is such that unless the pastor understand that enemies are real and existing, he will just have a career or just a ‘mere job.’ Perhaps, as many believe, no pivotal conversion aside from the conversion of Saul of Tarsus has influenced the church or the kingdom of God than Constantine’s spiritual conversion. Many doubted his conversion (I do too) and that is part of the question ever since. We may remain doubting and the next generations of Christians as to the reality of his (Constantine’s) faith, it shall perhaps to the benefit of the true church of Jesus if we try to repair the damages the event had contributed to Christendom.
Reviewing what has been said thus far, Constantine’s conversion has both a good and bad consequences. There were ‘rewarding’ features and we have covered that already. It had been advantageous for Christians that day because during this period the Christians enjoyed considerable freedom to practice their faith and the exercise of the basic beliefs surrounding that faith (preaching, assembling etc). They benefited greatly from Constantine’s declaration to Christianize the whole empire to a certain extent.
We cannot deny on the other hand the flip side of the story. The disadvantages (the bad consequence) were colossal and even ‘irreversible’ to a certain degree. What are these? As revealed in the book, the primary drawback is the mixture or amalgamation of paganism and Christianity. Prior to the event, Christians for the most part were “convinced believers,” that is, their convictions were clear and sure. Whereas the developments of this brand of Christianity under Constantine contributed to a sad condition wherein the motives or motivation for conversion was no longer pure
To this day, it has contaminated real Christianity as modeled by Jesus Christ and the early apostles. This so-called amalgamation tended towards a combination of man-made concoction of beliefs and traditions which are downright superstitious. Practices like the use of intermediaries or mediators/mediatrix are questionable in Apostle Paul’s day, and yet many of the developing nations today have embraced such kind of religion. To those orthodox Jews who believed in the Old Testament command not to worship and make images of any form in their worship, who got converted to Christianity, it was simply despicable and abhorrent to incorporate such in their new belief. I wish to point one practice that speaks a lot about Constantine’s philosophy and reflects his innate beliefs inspite of his claims. The uses of carved images and of the crucifix as aids of worship confuse many. Christian tradition contends that Constantine chose the labarum for the only reason that he had a mental picture of it, and that this symbol led him to his conversion. Despite that, Constantine’s assumed conversion is dubious to many since apparently he continued using “Sol Invictus” linked imagery and phraseology on Roman currency for his entire reign. He also retained the “Pontifex Maximus” (the ancient pagan priest’s title) title in his entire life, and was only baptized on his deathbed; and even his “baptism” is arguable since the only witnesses were the same people that asserted that Constantine had been Christian that long in his life. Many people see Constantine’s intention for choosing the labarum as his symbol as political rather than religious, implying, as revealed in the unified banner to mean as supporting either of the two most important religions of the Roman Empire at the time (Christianity and Romanism). Constantine understood unity and conformity as the means to attain political solidarity and exhausted an enormous amount of time making efforts to decrease or minimize disagreements (e.g. by holding the Council of Nicea to settle the question of Arianism). Although many Christian groups treat the sign as having always been wholly and absolutely Christian, certain Protestant groups – mainly Restorationists – uphold the assumptions of secular scholars, and as a result, regard the sign as non-Christian, rejecting it.
And that is just the physical, more obvious side of it. The deeper ramifications include a system of beliefs and practices that incorporate towards family values, relationships, public policy, upbringing of children, health system and society’s structure whose key influence in these elements have become vague and have departed from the simplicity and purity of the early church.
It is difficult to persuade people today to go for the basic and fundamental tenets of Biblical Christianity. Their options have become very extensive and the philosophy of this day lean towards pluralism and relativism, and this is the main repercussion that Constantine contributed. This (relativism and pluralism) is actually a major threat to evangelism because the people being convinced hold a belief in Jesus Christ but at the same time embrace other beliefs to make sure that they get the best benefits from all the other religions. It’s like shopping and getting things from here and there, which tastes probably like a good recipe. That can be good for food but for faith and life (eternal life), it is toxic. We are in the middle of a highly secularized society wherein to be serious in matters about faith would mean persecution to a degree. We have many in the media, the justice/judicial system, the legislative body that don’t care whether our faith is being trampled upon so long as what they deem as ‘constitutional freedom’ is defended and those who exercise their faith in the teachings of the Bible be opposed. On the one hand is relativism, and on the other hand is opposition. Imagine the efforts to remove “God” from our classrooms, from the constitution buildings, and from our currency. If these efforts succeed, it’s just a matter of time and they will perhaps succeed in removing “God” from our pulpits. Who can tell its outcome? It’s unimaginable, but that can be possible. If it happened to bigger and larger nations, it can possibly happen to us. Even now, on a personal level, I can easily deviate or depart from “fundamental” Christianity with all the bombardments around me. The struggle is tremendous. If this is not God’s work – meaning, Him doing it through His ministers/servants – it will be very impossible to arrest the attention of people and convince them to consider genuine and Biblical Christianity.
Ehrman, Bart, and Andrew S. Jacobs.2003.Christianity in Late Antiquity 300-450 C.E. Oxford University Press, USA.