Saviour or Spoiler?

Almost from the moment he became the "[f]irst Christian Emperor of Rome"1 there has been controversy over the influence Constantine's unprecedented positive attention has had on Christianity.2 For every Eusebius who hailed him as God's chosen ruler,3 or every confused Christian who offered sacrifices to his statue,4 there were just as many monastics and Donatists 5 who saw him as an "unutterable villain."6

Today, the questions surrounding Constantine's commitment to Christianity7 and the problems his rule presented to the visible Church are "again curiously relevant."8 It is even said that the Church is still dealing with "crises connected with the end of [its] Constantinian Era."9 The discussion below will examine four major changes in the Church that Constantine influenced in an attempt to answer the question as to whether he saved the Church or ruined it.

The Great Persecution

Those who credit Constantine with saving the Church point to his ending the Great Persecution10 instituted by Emperor Diocletian "[e]arly in the 4th Century."11

Prior to Constantine, Diocletian, "a born disciplinarian with a genius for administration,"12 divided the empire between four emperors; with the East and West each having an Augustus and a Caesar.13 One of these, Diocletian's subordinate Caesar Galerius, became suspicious of the attitude of Christians towards the Roman army.14 This resulted in a number of them being condemned to death in AD 295.15 Eventually Diocletian was convinced by Galerius to expel any Christians serving in the legions 16 and, believing later that Christians were plotting against him,17 he launched "the last and worst persecution."18 After Diocletian's abdication in 303, Galerius and his Caesar, Maximin Daia, pursued the persecution with "unrestrained fanaticism."19

Although Constantine's Edict of Milan (written in 313 with Licinius, Galerius' chief lieutenant and eventual successor20) is credited with ending the Great Persecution,21 it was Galerius himself who withdrew the legal support for it with his "much more important"22 sickbed edict of toleration two years earlier.23 Actual persecutions did not end until Constantine became sole emperor in 322.24

There is no doubt that with the ascension of Constantine to the throne the Church could breathe a wonderful sigh of relief25 and that his rule was "a major stimulus to the further expansion of the Gospel."26 But Christians were already "a firmly established minority"27 before Galerius' reign of terror; which, for all its ferocity, "did not effectively alter this situation."28 Also, it is one of the central ironies of church history that all of Rome's attempts to eliminate Christianity "had the opposite effect."29 As Tertullian noted a century before, "We Christians...increase in number as often as we are cut down by [our persecutors]."30 There is therefore little to suggest that in the absence of Constantine's protection and privileges the Church would not have continued to grow. In fact, as per the first Monastics, there's every reason to believe the Church would've grown better spiritually without them.31

The Donatists

Ironically, Constantine himself was not beyond persecuting Christians.32 At some point before defeating Licinius, he intervened on behalf of the Church33 (of which he considered himself to be "bishop of bishops")34 in its dispute with the Donatist schismatics in Roman North Africa.35 Among other things, the Donatists were upset at their "exclusion from [Constantine's] benefactions."36

Although Constantine initially left the Church leaders to deal with the Donatists, in 316 his frustration at their lack of success drove him to bring his personal authority to bear on the matter.37 Yet even with Christ as "his new divine patron,"38 Constantine was so committed to his "imperial ideology of 'one God, one Church, one empire'"39 that he ended up commanding the confiscation of all the Donatist churches.40

However, all his attempts to impose unity on the Church in Africa by imperial authority proved futile. Despite his reversing his anti-Donatist policy and giving instructions to "recall all Donatist exiles,"41 in a few years the Donatists "dominated the African church."42 So, not only did Constantine's "new order"43 of church and state provide the catalyst for the Donatist schism in the first place,44 his personal involvement helped ensure its success.

The Council of Nicea

In AD 325, while "trying to establish Christianity as the official religion"45 of the empire, Constantine was made aware of the Arian controversy in the East.46 Once again "pursuing harmony without theological insight,"47 Constantine moved to resolve the matter personally. Naïvely expecting to "clarify doctrine for the sake of the Church"48 and "end religious strife for the sake of the empire,"49 Constantine convened the Council of Nicea.

Eusebius of Caesarea, the "metropolitan bishop of Palestine during most of Constantine's reign,"50 first met the emperor at the Council of Nicea.51 His "'propagandist' Life of Constantine,"52 the main theme of which was "the Christian emperor's providential role in world history,"53 describes how, on the first day of the Council, the humble Constantine eschewed his throne for a common stool and stressed the paramount need for agreement.54 However, these egalitarian overtures did not blind any of the attendees as to which side was in charge. As with the Donatist dispute, Constantine's involvement in the Arian controversy signalled to the two factions that "[w]hoever had the ear of the emperor could control the theological direction of the Church."55 In the Imperial Church,56 theological questions were to be answered by "invoking the authority of the state,"57 rather than appeals to "solid argument and holiness of life."58 At Nicea, the punishment for not endorsing the Creed was exile.59

Historian Mark Noll reminds us that "the Nicene Creed has remained for nearly seventeen centuries a secure foundation for the Church's theology, worship, and prayer."60 But regardless of the correctness and importance of the Nicene Creed to Christianity, the damage that Constantine did by politicising the Church that produced it is almost beyond measure. Because of Constantine, for the next thousand years in the western church,61 "theological debate [would be] eclipsed by political intrigue."62

Christian Worship

The effect Constantine had on the way that Christians worshipped was equally as profound as his effect on ecclesiastical administration.

Firstly, there was a greater distinction drawn between the leaders and the led. Clergy were granted exemptions from military conscription, "days of labor that others were forced to devote to public works"63 and taxes.64 They were also granted positions as magistrates and other government posts; which led to bribery, corruption, arrogance, even simony.65

Although Christians were now free to worship openly, the way they worshipped began to change tremendously due to the "influence of civil ceremonies and pomp."66 What were once simple gatherings of equals in members' homes became official services in government built basilicas.67 Things more appropriate to the imperial court began appearing in churches. Things like incense, "which was used as a sign of respect for the emperor,"68 processions, kneeling to pray rather than standing, and other "gestures indicating respect."69 Ministers now wore more expensive clothes and took on the pagan title of "priest."70 Communion tables were turned into alters, choirs were instituted and, eventually, the veneration of the relics of saints was introduced.71 The more these influences of "imperial protocol" were felt in the assemblies, the less active the congregation's role in worship became.72

Even the traditional handling of new converts' baptisms was adversely affected.73 The end of imperial disfavour meant that conversion to Christianity presented no threat to one's life or property.74 Imperial favour meant that the Church was "flooded with the half-converted,"75 many "moved by self-interest and ambition."76 Overwhelmed by the numbers of people seeking baptism, the Church was forced to shorten the traditionally lengthy process for preparing converts for baptism.77 Training, supervision and guidance in the Christian life all suffered.78 Consequently, "many went to the baptismal font with very little idea of its significance."79

Looking at the transformation of the local church gives one an appreciation for the disillusion felt by those Christians in the 4th Century who "bemoaned...the low level to which Christian life had descended."80 Looking at the transformation of the whole church gives one an appreciation for those "[i]n the second millennium"81 who see Constantine "not as the Church's deliverer, but as its bête noir."82

In Conclusion

In the time of the Church's greatest peril, Constantine ascended to the throne and changed the Roman Empire from being the Church's greatest enemy to her greatest ally. In his zeal to repay the debt he felt he owed83 to "the God of the Christians,"84 and his later sense "as a Christian whose imperial duty it was to keep [her] united,"85 he showered the Church with gifts of wealth, power and his benevolent oversight. In so doing, he changed the Church from humble minority sect to haughty majority religion. As a result, the Church "became rather like the Empire that had once persecuted it."86

As to the question of whether Constantine saved the Church or ruined it, the evidence suggests to me that he neither saved it nor ruined it.

As we saw in examining the Great Persecution above, although his was the reign which finally ended it, by the time he came to power there was very little to save the Church from. And the very fact that we 21st Century Christians are able to discuss and be rightly appalled, by both the Donatist Schism and the changes to the forms of worship Constantine's reign ushered into the Church, is proof that he did not ruin it. After all, if the Church had been permanently ruined, self-reflection would simply not be possible.

Finally, while Constantine’s influence undoubtedly altered the course of Church history,87 and the impact of the Imperial Church changed the outward forms of the visible Church to this day, it is still the Lord’s Church. He is her Saviour, so her ruination is impossible.


1. D. F. Wright, "Constantine The Great," in New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. James D. Douglas, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974), 255.

2. Ian Hazlett, ed., Early Christianity: Origins and Evolution to AD 600 (London: SPCK, 1991), 250.

3. Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. I: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York, Harper Collins, 2010), 152.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., 173.

6. Hazlett, Early Christianity, 250.

7. Wright, "Constantine The Great," 255.

8. Stuart Lange, "Between the Bible and Now: The Constantinian Revolution: Should the Church be powerful or pure?" Reality (April/May 2000): 23.

9. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 131.

10. W.H.C Frend, The Early Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 109.

11. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 119.

12. Hazlett, Early Christianity, 25.

13. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 119.

14. Ibid., 120.

15. "Some for refusing to join...others for trying to leave." Ibid., 120.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., 121.

18. Ibid., 119.

19. Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), 122.

20. Timothy D. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 31, 39-40.

21. Frend, The Early Church, 124.

22. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 126.

23. Chadwick, The Early Church, 122.

24. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 126.

25. Lange, "The Constantinian Revolution," 23.

26. Ibid.

27. Hazlett, Early Christianity, 72.

28. Ibid.

29. Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak: Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries, Vol. 2, (Abilene: ACU Press, 2002), 209.

30. Ibid., 200.

31. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 157.

32. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 60.

33. Ibid., 57-61.

34. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 138.

35. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 57-61.

36. D. F. Wright, "Constantine The Great," 255.

37. Ibid.

38. Lange, "The Constantinian Revolution," 23.

39. Hazlett, Early Christianity, 128.

40 Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 60.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid.

43. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 179.

44. Ibid.

45. Charles M. Odahl, Constantine and the Christian Empire, (New York: Rutledge, 2004), 189.

46. Ibid., 189-190.

47. D. F. Wright, "Constantine The Great," 255.

48. Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2000), 51.

49. Ibid.

50. Odahl, Constantine, 2.

51. Ibid.

52. Hazlett, Early Christianity, 129.

53. Ibid.

54. Ibid.

55. Stuart Lange, "Between the Bible and Now: Is Jesus God: The Arian Crisis," Reality (June/July 2000): 40.

56. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 129.

57. Ibid., 181.

58 Ibid., 129.

59. Hazlett, Early Christianity, 129.

60. Noll, Turning Points, 59.

61. Lange, "The Constantinian Revolution," 24.

62. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 182.

63. Ibid., 142.

64. Ibid.

65. Ibid., 143.

66. Ibid.

67. Ibid., 145.

68. Ibid., 143.

69. Ibid., 143-144.

70. Ibid.

71. Ibid.

72. Ibid., 144.

73. Ibid.

74. Lange, "The Constantinian Revolution," 24.

75. Ibid.

76. Ibid.

77. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 144.

78. Ibid.

79. Ibid., 145.

80. Ibid., 157.

81. Lange, "The Constantinian Revolution," 23.

82. Ibid.

83. Ibid.

84. Chadwick, The Early Church, 125.

85. Ibid., 127.

86. Lange, "The Constantinian Revolution," 24.

87. Hazlett, Early Christianity, 250.

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