Constantine was the first Roman emperor to profess Christianity. By doing so, he profoundly influenced world history. He embraced this previously persecuted religion and set it on a path that led to the formation of Christendom. Thus, so-called Christianity became “the strongest social and political agent” ever to influence the course of history, according to The Encyclopædia Britannica.
WHY should you care about an ancient Roman emperor? If you are interested in Christianity, you should know that Constantine’s political and religious maneuvers have affected the beliefs and practices of many churches right down to this day. Let us see how.
THE CHURCHES—LEGALIZED AND THEN USED
In 313 C.E., Constantine ruled over the Western Roman Empire, while Licinius and Maximinus ruled over the East. Constantine and Licinius granted freedom of worship to all, including Christians. Constantine protected Christianity, believing that the religion could unify his empire.*
Constantine was thus appalled to find that the churches were divided by disputes. Eager for consensus, he sought to establish, and then enforce, “correct” doctrine. To win his favor, bishops had to make religious compromises, and those who did received tax exemptions and generous patronage. “Getting the ‘right’ version of Christian doctrine,” said historian Charles Freeman, “gave access not only to heaven but to vast resources on earth.” The clergy thus became powerful figures in worldly affairs. “The Church had acquired a protector,” says historian A.H.M. Jones, “but it had also acquired a master.”
“The Church had acquired a protector, but it had also acquired a master.”—A.H.M. Jones, historian
WHAT KIND OF CHRISTIANITY?
A result of Constantine’s alliance with the bishops was a religion with tenets that were part Christian, part pagan. It could hardly have been otherwise, since the emperor’s goal was religious pluralism, not the pursuit of religious truth. He was, after all, the ruler of a pagan empire. To please both religious camps, he adopted a stance of “conscious ambiguity in his acts and government in general,” wrote one historian.
While professing to champion Christianity, Constantine kept one foot in paganism. For example, he practiced astrology and divination—occult activities that the Bible condemns. (Deuteronomy 18:10-12) On the Arch of Constantine in Rome, he is shown sacrificing to pagan deities. He continued to honor the sun-god by featuring the deity on coins and promoting the sun-god cult. Late in life, Constantine even permitted a small town in Umbria, Italy, to construct a temple to his family and himself and to appoint priests to serve there.
Constantine postponed his “Christian” baptism until a few days before his death in 337 C.E. Many scholars believe that he held back in order to retain the political support of both Christian and pagan elements within the empire. To be sure, his life record and the lateness of his baptism raise questions about the sincerity of his professed faith in Christ. However, one thing is certain: The church Constantine legitimized became a powerful political and religious entity, one that thus turned its back on Christ and embraced the world. Jesus said of his followers: “They are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world.” (John 17:14) From this church—that was now worldly—sprang countless denominations.
What does all of this mean for us? It means that we should not take the teachings of any church for granted but that we should examine them in the light of the Bible.—1 John 4:1.
The sincerity of Constantine’s Christian convictions has been much debated, in part because of “his apparent concessions to pagan cults, even late in his reign,” according to one reference.