Christianity Under Imperial Favour and its Impacts
Pr. Binoy Eapen Philip
By the beginning of the 4th century fortunes changed for the persecuted sect. For nearly three hundred years the church was supressed by the cruel Roman emperors through persecution, but the church withstood persecution and the heroes of faith died like bold soldiers for their faith. The fortune or table changed to such an extent that Christianity became a procured religion and finally the only legal religion inside the Roman Empire.
The Edict of Milan passed in AD 313 marked one of the most distinct turning points in the history of Christianity. This period was one of the most important in the history of Christianity. Out of the seven ecumenical councils four of them were held during this time, Christian creeds were formulated during this period. Christianity became free to develop her theology, organisation and worship.
Christianity has much to talk about Constantine during this period.
Christianity and Constantine
Christianity had never tasted any Roman emperor who had supported her to such an extent as Constantine did. It was in AD 313 the edict of Milan (Edict of Milan because this Edict was passed in a place called Milan in Rome) or the Toleration Act was passed by Constantine, since than Christianity was no longer in conflict with the Roman Empire. This put Christianity on equal terms with other religions.
Constantine’s motive behind recognising Christianity is still a matter of debate. It has become a debate because a man who supported Christianity to such an extent in a period where Christianity was highly supressed never took baptism till his death nor his conduct never showed a Christian character. Thereby historians put three interpretations for his motive.
First, Constantine understood that Christianity could not be destroyed by persecution so he was sure that the God which the Christians worship was stronger than any other gods including the Roman Emperors. Secondly, to what extent Christianity was persecuted to that extent was the growth of Christianity. He thus saw in Christianity a strong unifying force for the empire. if encouraged and strengthened thus his support could have helped political reasons. Thirdly, perhaps he had some real sympathy for this persecuted sect. It is also said that before his victory at the Melvian Bridge battle, he saw a vision of Cross in the sky and along with the vision he also heard a voice saying “Conquer with this sign”. So immediately he replaced the official eagle sign of Rome with the sign of Cross.
So these can be some of the possible motives behind him supporting and encouraging Christianity, whatever it may be the fact remains that it was he or during his period the position of Christianity highly revolutionised, from the lowest ebb to the limelight.
Theodosius and Christianity
Theodosius I in 380 decreed that all subjects of the empire (east) must accept the Christian faith as stated in the creed of the council of Nicaea. This was done mainly to check the spread of Arian Christianity (A heritical teaching).
In 392 Theodosius became the sole emperor and continued the same religious policy. Thus Christianity became part of the law of the empire. All its inhabitants had to profess themselves Christian on pain of being outlawed. Many temples and idols were destroyed and by
AD 400, paganism was completely wiped out and the table now was fully turned.
Positive and negative impacts of imperial favour on Christianity
When Constantine revolutionized Christianity it enjoyed lot of benefits.
1. Christianity became an accepted religion through the act of Toleration.
2. Sunday and December 25 was made public holidays.
3. Making grants from his treasury for church buildings and the support for clergy.
4. Exempting the clergy from Taxation.
5. Sign of cross became the sign of standard in Roman Empire.
6. Emperor Constantine made himself available to settle the problems in the church
On the other side because of the favour of the state or the Emperors, Christianity also had to undergo negative effects with Christianity the favoured Religion in the Roman Empire, Imperial favour became one of the main cause of the spread of Christianity. Many people embraced Christianity to please the emperors and some other embraced Christianity out of force, while others received Christian faith because it was a matter of prestige. Thus people joined Christian faith without a real conversion experience, because to be a Christian was now no longer dangerous, but a privilege.
The support of state or imperial favour was always a blessing or a prayer answered to the persecuted Christian community. There was an age when they were turned into pieces, the period of Nero and Domition. But by the time of Constantine and Theodosius Christianity became the highly honoured religion of the empire. “from Rags to the Throne”. Even though Christianity enjoyed lot of benefits but on the other side lost people, because people now converted to Christianity not for Christ's sake but for Imperial favour.
Conversion without real experience lacks genuineness and this in turn creates disaster. This happens today too. during the time of our fore fathers people accepted Christ with genuine repentance, tears rolling down their eyes. But now the youth of our church receive Christ for the “sake of receiving”. people with no genuine conversion will always be a burden for the Religion and the Church.