“ one Lord, one faith, one baptism” Ephesians 4:5
“And thus by this wholesome counsel and most upright provision we thought to arrange that no one whatsoever should be denied the opportunity to give his heart to the observance of the Christian religion, of that religion which he should think best for himself, so that the Supreme Deity, to whose worship we freely yield our hearts may show in all things His usual favor and benevolence.”. ---Edict of Milan
|Constantine the Great|
The Roman emperor Constantine the Great is a perplexing character on the stage of church history. He is known to have arranged for the death of his second wife and one of his sons and to have coins minted with his picture on one side and a tribute to the sun-god on the other. Yet at the same time he ended all persecutions of Christians and sought to promote Christianity as the main religion of the Roman Empire. What should we make of such contradictions in the life of the first Roman Emperor to be a professing Christian? And to what extent did Constantine shape the practice and understanding of the Christian faith?
Probably the best way to understand Constantine is remembering his context. While it is true he did some brutal and unchristian things along the way, he was a Roman emperor not an altar boy. In his day to hold that job was to live with constant conspiracy and enemies willing to attack if the opportunity permitted. That to say, Constantine had to rule with an iron hand in his world and that on occasion required brutality. It doesn’t mean that what he did was right, but it does mean that it was not extraordinary for someone in his position. All of us who strive to live godly lives have our failures; Constantine had his failures too; his unfortunately, often included bloodshed.
Constantine did end persecution and did make Christianity the favored religion of the Empire, but that also didn’t mean the end of paganism. Most of his citizens were pagans in practice and while Constantine was a Christian, his role required him to sometimes acknowledge the traditional beliefs of his people. But this didn’t mean he didn’t attempt to bring changes to society that might point them in the direction of Christ. One of the ways Constantine shaped the practice of Christianity was by making Sunday a day-off for all of western civilization. Christians had always worshipped on Sundays, but every day was a work day and nothing officially stopped. Constantine decreed for everyone, Christian and pagan alike, that Sunday was a day for worship and rest. That concept, what we call the “weekend”, is with us after 1700 years and still going strong.
Lastly, Constantine strengthened the idea of “one church, one faith, one baptism” by initiating what became known as the Ecumenical councils of the Church. These were important gatherings of church leaders who would discuss theology and how the church should operate. Constantine did not vote or deliberate as he was a layman, but he is credited with setting forth a pattern whereby the church could maintain its purity of doctrine and exclude erroneous teaching in the future. Today, most believers consider the Nicene Creed, a product of the first council called by Constantine, the lodestar of the Christian faith. For this, religious freedom and Sundays off, the emperor Constantine is considered one of the shapers of the Christian faith.