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Defining Moments in Church History…(3)

The second of our eight key moments in Church history took place in A.D. 313 amidst the governmental hierarchy of the Roman Empire. At this time, the divided empire was ruled by Constantine in the West and Licinius in the East.

During these warless years, according to historical accounts, it was Constantine that called for a meeting with his eastern counterpart to take advantage of such peace time for “domestic investment.” The Western ruler had some agenda he wished to address for the good of the Empire. So the two met in Milan.

First on their docket was to discuss the “reverence paid to Deity.” How fascinating that these political powerbrokers chose to discuss religious matters as agenda item number one. But history suggests that Constantine had a specific agenda in mind–to give some measure of legal status to Christianity. To this time, Christianity had often been viewed as an enemy of the state, principally for their insistence on worshipping only one God and their refusal to bow to the Emperor. This monotheism had made Christians a target in the Empire’s difficult times as some believed the gods were punishing the Romans for the Christian (and Jewish) refusal to worship them.

But that was to be no more as Constantine put forth his agenda. Many believe the Western ruler himself had become a Christian, and his actions would seem to affirm such thinking. Whatever his true motives, the Edict of Milan (issued from this meeting) granted Christians full religious freedom and the restoration of the property that had been taken from them. Constantine had legitimized Christianity for the Empire. That it was his lead agenda item adds weight to the belief that he had come to faith in Christ himself.

In fact, over the next century, Christianity rose beyond its equal status with our religions to become the primary faith of the Empire. Sadly, some of the same persecutions and confiscated property stories that Christians once lived became reality for other religions in the Empire as the Church flexed some newfound political muscle. The new alignment of Christianity with government authority brought an end to its persecution, and the beginning of new day for the Church.

It’s this new day that historians and churchmen today wonder at. Was the legitimacy granted by the Edict of Milan a good thing for the Church? Surely in its moment, Christians found relief in their new legitimacy, but many today describe Constantine’s alignment of the Church with his Empire as the “fall of Christianity.” Indeed, the subsequent years saw the Church grow in political power, often at the expense of its own righteousness. Other religious ideas within the Empire began to influence Christian thinking and theology until these pagan ideals wedged themselves into Christian doctrine and practice. The Church, once poor and in desperate need of its Savior’s provision became rich, powerful, and in need of nothing.

Today, Christianity is most easily identified as a western religion. Indeed, much of its practices reflect western ideology, separating the modern Church from its eastern roots. The impact on its priorities and pursuits may be too vast to measure. But our modern difficulty of reconnecting with our brothers and sisters of the first century began in Constantine’s moment and the long-term impact his actions have had on the Church, no matter how well-intended those actions might have been.

Stay tuned to this series as next time we’ll see a our third key moment in Church history–a second moment influenced by this leader, the first of the Christian emperors.

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