Most Christians today have no idea that the basic tenets of their faith, religious practice, and doctrine come from the integration of the church and the state1 during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine. That may not initially seem so alarming, but actually it has had a very significant effect on what Christians have believed down through history, and how they have lived, even to the present day. Although Christians would universally say they are taught from the words of Christ himself, the effect of those words is radically different than it was two thousands years ago. The gospels and epistles have been carefully preserved, yes, but their influence, interpretation, and application stem not from the pattern of the first-century church, but from the writings and councils of the early “church fathers” of the third and fourth centuries. It was a time when the church was in its last phase of transition into its current form.2
For nearly two centuries the church had experienced a steady decline from its original vibrancy of living together in community, when love was the glue which held their life together.3 That love, resulting in the real unity of “having all things in common,”4 was the fruit of the gospel first preached by the apostles. Yet the book of Jude already records, near the end of the first century, the writer’s alarm and distress, as Jude pleads with all the churches to contend earnestly for “the faith” that was delivered to them once for all by the apostles themselves. That term “once for all” means there was no other foundation upon which a valid church could be established.5 “The faith” delivered to them by the apostles was their spiritual foundation, the result of the gospel they had received. It was expressed through the visible and tangible life they shared together, having a community of goods. This was the outward expression of their “obedience from the heart”6 to the good news of salvation they had received.7
Jude describes it as their “common salvation” which all the churches universally held, having been established by the apostles. These men, God’s special ambassadors,8 were supremely loyal to their Savior. Jude 1:4 tells how that life was threatened, challenged, and ultimately destroyed by apostates. An apostate is one who has departed from being devoted to the fellowship of the original apostles and their teachings, while, deceptively, maintaining a pretense of it.9 Peter himself says these apostate “brothers” were the very ones perverting the gospel. In the end, as the apostles testified, it would result in their destruction, according to their deeds.10
For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny our only Master and Lord Jesus Christ... These are grumblers, complainers, walking according to their own lusts; and they mouth great swelling words, flattering people to gain advantage.” (Jude 1:4,16)
The second letter to the Corinthians also speaks of Paul’s alarm over the imminent loss of the original simplicity and purity of “the faith” he had passed on to them. Through craft and scheming the apostates twisted the scriptures, even the very gospel of the Lord, delivered through the apostles. They rejected the authority of the apostles and sought to promote themselves as those who are first among their brothers.11
For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully!... For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For even Satan transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore, it is no surprise if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works. (2 Corinthians 11:4,13-15)
There is a consistency in the writings of the apostles in the way these treacherous apostates (self-proclaimed apostles) are described. They held to a form of godliness, but did not have revelation or power from the Holy Spirit. They were natural men, not spiritual, and like brute beasts they ravaged the sheep, causing confusion and division within the church and its leadership.12 They knew well the hardships of the churches in every place and played upon this very fact to captivate a receptive audience.
Subtly, these false ministers gained an advantage, motivated by selfish desires, not seeking the welfare of the sheep or its fold, but only to promote themselves, their own name, for their own glory.13 With self-sacrificing love no longer being the standard by which a true believer’s confession of faith could be judged, another standard had to be found. So it was no wonder these “deceitful workers”14 were able, through their speech and persuasion, to captivate the mind and intellect of the fallen church remnant. Community was no longer the “litmus test” by which the authenticity of their faith could be judged, but doctrine was hailed as the standard to determine whether one “believed.” Their gospel required nothing more than mental assent, producing a dead religion of “belief” only. Hence, by the end of the third century, the church was splintered by bickering bishops and a docile laity, ready for a new era.
According to some scholars, this new era brought the completion of a fatal transition from which the church would never again recover its original Judean pattern.15 Community, which had long ago dissolved,16 was the only means by which those first disciples had shared a “common salvation.” Its original structure and spiritual foundation was a communal life, yet by the fourth century the church had become entirely different in nature from the original pattern that is explicit in Acts 2:41-47 and 4:32-37, and assumed throughout the epistles.17
After a lengthy period of persecution, spiritual decline, and constant friction from within, Constantine baited the already-weakened ranks of the church. The Roman world during the second and third centuries had long been divided by the continual unrest of civil war, foreign invasion, and disorder of every sort. Constantine sought a means to unify the crumbling empire. At the same time, the churches of the western and eastern provinces suffered tremendously under the strain of both the Empire and the constant influence of apostates. Over two hundred years of factions from within and persecutions from without held the church continually in the place of compromise and hypocrisy.
Early in the fourth century, Constantine resolved to protect himself and his own provinces against the threat of other challenging Roman rulers and marauders who contended for control of the weakened empire. He went to war against Maxentius in order to secure his territories. The account of Bishop Eusebius, an ardent admirer of Constantine and a devout Christian, says that as Constantine approached Rome he was given a vision to conquer under the sign of the Cross. He had this emblem affixed to the shields of his soldiers (most of whom were pagans) as they went into battle. Far outnumbered by Maxentius’ army, Constantine won a decisive victory. From then on, he worked tirelessly to unite the fractured church and bring it into intimate fellowship with the Roman state. This merger of church and state set the stage for Christianity’s development over the next 1700 years.
Seizing the opportunity, Constantine maneuvered the church and its leaders through flattery, luring them into an inescapable relationship with that of the state. Eusebius proudly notes Constantine’s gifts of money, property, and a massive church building program as the blessing of God to His once-struggling, persecuted church.18 Publicly acknowledging the Christian God for the victory gained, Constantine believed this same God would now protect the Roman Empire from harm as long as the emperors worshiped Him and the church remained both united and devoted to the Empire. Sniffing the hope of an end to persecution and a path to prosperity, the leaders of the fourth-century church swallowed the bait, hook, line, and sinker.
Constantine called a series of church councils to bring unity among the bickering bishops. He didn’t simply command them to come; he paid their expenses and even provided their means of getting there. Then, while still holding his position as the head of the state pagan religion, Constantine presided over the councils and enforced their decisions. These councils and the creeds that came forth from them are held in the highest regard in Christianity. They formed the basis of identifying what is and what is not Christian faith, practice, and doctrine ever since. From then on, they have been the foundation for all orthodox Christian faith and practice, both of which are far different from the life of the apostolic churches as recorded in the New Testament.19
After nearly three centuries of struggle, the walls between the church and the world came tumbling down,20 completing its transformation.21 Constantine promoted Christians to positions of prominence within the state and surrounded himself with Christian advisers. He exempted the clergy from the heavy and difficult duties of Roman citizenship.22 After all, ethically and morally speaking, the Christians’ code of living raised the standard of Roman society. Before long Constantine even had Christian bishops accompany his troops into battle to ensure God’s favor and to strengthen the moral character of his armies. He built magnificent cathedrals and Roman buildings in honor of the Christian God and began paying salaries out of the state treasury to church leaders. He passed laws in favor of the church in exchange for obligatory state service.23 He believed that a united and loyal church would ensure God’s blessings on the entire empire.
One of the main reasons the religion of Christianity became the favored religion of governors and emperors was that it allowed Christians to be totally involved in nearly everything that any average citizen of the empire was involved in. Constantine groomed Christianity as his “pet religion” because of its docile, compromising nature. While in the past the church had been persecuted for its stance against the Empire’s evils, it was now accepted as both church and empire “turned over a new leaf” in their development.
It was no little change when the “pinch of incense” previous emperors had demanded (but usually not received) was now freely given for the sake of imperial protection and support. Indeed, what other emperors had never gained from Christians by the sword — the recognition of their own divinity — the church now freely gave to Constantine! As the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Constantine the Great puts it:
The imperial power was increased by receiving a religious consecration. The Church tolerated the cult of the emperor under many forms. It was permitted to speak of the divinity of the emperor, of the sacred palace, the sacred chamber and of the altar of the emperor, without being considered on this account an idolater... For what his predecessors had aimed to attain by the use of all their authority and at the cost of incessant bloodshed, was in truth only the recognition of their own divinity; Constantine gained this end, though he renounced the offering of sacrifices to himself. Some bishops, blinded by the splendor of the court, even went so far as to laud the emperor as an angel of God, as a sacred being, and to prophesy that he would, like the Son of God, reign in heaven.24
Thus, as the American visionary Roger Williams wrote, “Christianity fell asleep in the bosom of Constantine, and the laps and bosoms of those Emperors who professed the name of Christ.”25
In this sleepy state, the distinction between Christians and non-Christians was broken down, and more and more pagans became “believers,” since Christianity was now the favored religion, offering a greater hope of worldly success and prosperity. Nor was Constantine insensitive to the vast pagan population of his empire. To ease their way into his new, but up-and-coming Roman religion, Constantine set aside the “venerable day of the Sun” as the official day of rest of the Roman Empire. This was the first day of the week, which we know as Sunday, and the day on which most of his people already worshiped the sun god.26 He did this in A.D. 321 in the following very clear words:
On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed.27
But it was no mere political concern that empowered Constantine... something far greater was at work. In this act, ironically, Constantine was an instrument of God to do His will. In taking the sign of the Sabbath down he was only proclaiming what had long been true — that Christians were no longer God’s people, loving His word and keeping His commandments — including the Ten Commandments! The fourth commandment, the longest of the ten, is certainly more than a mere “jot or tittle” of the Law, the setting aside of which makes you least in the kingdom of heaven.28 The Ten Commandments were, according to Exodus 34:28, “the very words of the covenant” between God and His people. And the Sabbath was explicitly “a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you.”29
Therefore, changing the day of rest could only be done by the authority of “another Jesus” and “another spirit,” as Paul warned in 2 Corinthians 11:4. The authority of the gentle Lamb of God, who came “not to destroy men’s lives but to save them,”30 was set aside for the new savior — the one who proclaimed from the heavens on the eve of battle, “In this sign, conquer.” Truly, Constantine “did not know what manner of spirit”31 he was of to think that the Savior was validating or commanding the killing of those He came to save. Tragically, those who should have known better enthusiastically joined Constantine in his quest for world dominion. Those who gain the whole world lose their own soul.32
Proclaiming the day of the Sun to be the new day of rest for Rome, Constantine and the church leadership were busy creating a new religion, one the world calls Christianity. And this new sign of who God’s people are has taken hold the world over, hasn’t it? Constantine’s “venerable day of the Sun” is everywhere recognized as the set-apart day of Christians — no less than the Jewish Sabbath, or Friday as the Muslim day of prayer.33
Thus, Constantine, who had been a pagan solar worshiper, now looked upon the Christian deity as a bringer of victory. Persecution of the Christians was ended, and Constantine’s co-emperor, Licinius, joined him in issuing the Edict of Milan (313), which mandated toleration of Christians in the Roman Empire. As guardian of Constantine’s favored religion, the church was then given legal rights and large financial donations.34
Hailed as the deliverer and emancipator of the church, Constantine was then and still is viewed as a savior, securing the church’s position in the world that would span the centuries. Most of the Christianized world today is content with the doctrines of faith that came down through the spiritual lineage of a nationally recognized Roman religion, never questioning very deeply the roots of their Christian religion or the foundation of the gospel they have trusted in. The legacy of Constantine is a church at one with the world that it was commissioned to call others out of. That legacy remains.
So, is this intimate cooperation and compromise with worldly power a good tree from which to pick good fruit? The Son of God said that a tree is known by the fruit it produces.35 He said His disciples would be known by their love.36 And this love is what all the Law and the Prophets hang on, as the Savior said:
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:37-40)
Not only did He come to fulfill the Law and Prophets;37 but obviously, He commands us to fulfill them also. Therefore His words condemn both Constantine and Christianity, and all who claim to believe in Him are exposed as false if they do not keep these words: loving God with all their heart, soul, and strength, and in the same way, loving their neighbor as themselves.