By the early fourth century, Christianity was straddling the Roman Empire, boasting of churches from Britain to Carthage and Persia. The gospel had spread mouth-to-mouth, person-to-person, until, despite relentless persecution, it had taken root. “Every time a drop of blood was shed,” said Spurgeon, “that drop became a man.”
The final storm occurred when Emperor Diocletian suddenly unleashed the Great Persecution, fiercest of all purges. But Romans eventually sickened of the blood, and the Christian holocaust created far-reaching sympathy for believers. When Diocletian abdicated, a power struggle erupted between two titans: Constantine and Maxentius. Their armies met at the Milvian Bridge outside Rome; and Constantine, as he later told the historian Eusebius, turned to the Christian God for help. In a dream on October 28, 312 he saw a cross in the sky with the Greek words In This Sign Conquer. Thus encouraged, he advanced and prevailed. After the battle he openly espoused Christianity, and the outcast church suddenly found itself on top of the world.
Constantine extended great liberties to bishops. He abolished crucifixions and ended gladiatorial contests as punishments. He issued the Edict of Milan which said in part: “Every one who has a common wish to follow the religion of the Christians may from this moment freely proceed without any annoyance or disquiet.” He made Sunday a holiday, built church buildings, financed Christian projects, and gathered bishops to discuss theology.
But whether Constantine was genuinely born again is doubted. He treated church leaders as political aides. He banished churchmen he didn’t like and retained paganism he did like. Under his rule the church, while enjoying freedom, deteriorated from an army of noble martyrs to a mixed multitude of semi converted pagans. An alignment between church and state developed that set the stage for the Middle Ages and that continues to this day in the state churches of Europe.
The “conversion” of Constantine was at once both the best thing that could have happened to the church, and the worst.
Let the name of the Lord be praised now and forever. From dawn until sunset the name of the Lord deserves to be praised. (Psalm 113:2-3)
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Oct.28.
Header by Livioandronico2013 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37033257