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Sermon : Sodom and Gomorrah

Constantine and Christianity

Christianity began over 2 000 years ago, and has had a complicatedly intricate history. Through two millennia, the Christian movement has grown to massive proportions. Amidst all the peace and chaos associated with historical progress, one event looms above the Christian Church: the conversion of Constantine, one of the most recognized emperors of the Roman Empire. With his conversion, Christianity would experience a dramatic rise in numbers, as it was only inevitable that the citizens of his empire would follow his religious example. The focus here, however, is not how Christianity rose to its position, but how it fell in value - in pious quality - as it rose in stature. Through certain advances, the Empire may have influenced the Church in such a way as to distort the pure and devout underground 'Jesus movement.' Most notably, with the new relationship between state and church, a compromise and an exchange in values would result. Moreover, even the ultimate elimination of Christian persecution may have affected Christian piety in an unconstructive way. Therefore, what Constantine left in his wake was a Christianity with lowered standards and a diluted doctrine.

With the death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus the Christ, the establishment of the Christian Church came about. From the outset, the Christians were distinguished from the rest of the pagan religions within the Roman Empire, but the Church was still in need of establishing its own mark.1 That is, it had yet to significantly develop its own distinct way of doing things.2 Such a thing was important, for how would anyone be able to make the distinction between converts and pagans otherwise?3 Eventually, Christians would become widely known for their great love and compassion, so that their care for the poor has been testified for abundantly.4 The care for the victims of plagues was remarkable, for the Christians would risk their health and even their lives for those who were not even Christians themselves.5 In these times, mystery religions became popular throughout the Empire, as the old Greco-Roman religions were decreasingly satisfying, due to their increasing age and an escalating sense of failure in the areas of morality and spirituality.6 While Christianity had much in common with these so-called mystery religions of the time, it also had many profound differences.7 Two of these dissimilarities were that Jesus was a real, historical figure, and that Christianity was exclusive, so that it would tolerate no other gods.8

In the early years of Christianity, paganism was usually tolerant towards other belief systems, even as the Romans were quite accepting of other religions;9 any citizen could worship whatever they wanted insofar as they would continue to acknowledge the sovereignty of the State.10 Here, the Christians would be noticeably distinguished from their pagan counterparts, for the Christian could in no way assign God's sovereignty to anything other than God Himself. Therefore, Christians appeared disloyal because they claimed Jesus' lordship over that of the emperor.11 In addition, Christians were seen as atheists for they did not worship any visible image.12 However, gross misunderstandings were not limited to the Christians' monotheistic worship. Errors of perception in regards to Communion, for example, led to charges of cannibalism.13 The Christian refusal to attend arenas, theatres and public baths also resulted in a certain degree of suspicion.14

While early Christians attracted relatively little attention from the government, this all ended during the reign of Nero (54-68 AD).15 Up until this time, Roman rulers would treat Christians as Jews.16 The emperor Gallio, for example, would not preside as judge over complaints brought against Christians, declaring such matters the concern of Jewish religious law.17 With the rising popularity of emperor-worship, however, came with it the inevitable widespread awareness of Christians who refused to worship any earthly man. Christians suffered savagery of torture and burnings at the command of Nero: Brutality that caused those indifferent - and even those in open opposition - towards Christians to question the actions of their leader.18 Regardless of the people, succeeding emperors continued in the example of Nero's persecution. Some emperors, such as Nerva (96-98 AD), the appointed successor to Domitian (81-96 AD), as well as Gallenius (260-268 AD), the successor of Valerian, did in fact reverse the policies of persecution against Christians held by their predecessors.19 Nevertheless, many others, such as Valerian (253-260 AD), struck the Christians, and struck them hard.20 Trajan, reigning between 98 and 117 AD, persecuted Christians in Syria, but came to be impressed by the manner in which they died; believing they had great bravery in the face of death, he would release those who would deny being Christian.21 Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD) would blame Christians for all of Rome's troubles therefore persecuting them, and concentrating in North Africa and Egypt.22 Decius (249-251 AD) was the first to persecute Christians throughout the entire empire, and he did it as a matter of state policy, attempting to unite the people out of desperation.23 As Aurelian (270-275 AD) restored the unity of the Empire and re-established a firm currency base, he planned to renew Christian persecution - but his officers murdered him before he had the chance.24 Thus, peace for the Church continued for a few more years. In 283 AD, however, Diocletian ascended to power and initiated a reform.25 As a part of this reform, the emperor developed a new version of paganism, which placed himself under the protection of Jupiter, and his junior emperor in the West, Maximian, under the protection of Hercules.26 Since his wife and daughter were allegedly Christians, some believe that Diocletian introduced this new paganism to win a certain acceptance from the Christians, possibly implying a link between his system and the Christian's Father-Son conviction.27 Of course, no Christian could consent to a modified paganism in substitution for Christianity.28

  1. Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire (AD 100-400) (London: Yale University Press, 1984), 74.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 92.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Paul R. Waibel, Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale Hosue Publishers Inc., 2000), 8.
  7. Ibid., 9.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Harold Mattingly, Christianity in the Roman Empire (New York: W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1967) 33.
  10. Waibel, History, 9.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Mattingly, Roman Empire, 39.
  16. M. A. Smith, From Christ to Constantine (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1971), 23.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid., 25.
  20. Mattingly, Roman Empire, 53.
  21. Waibel, History, 10.
  22. Ibid., p10-11.
  23. Ibid., 11.
  24. Mattingly, Roman Empire, 54.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid., 56.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.