As we have observed, for the first three hundred years of the Christian
movement, this faith was seen by the official forces within Rome as being
a banned religion (religio illicita). Christians were perceived as enemies
of the State and were actively persecuted. But by the middle of the third
century opinion was beginning to change. A large number of Christians settled
in the Eastern provinces and, despite persecution and anti-Christian propaganda,
began to exert considerable political and economic influence.
Caesaropapism finally formalized the edict of tolerance which had
been proclaimed by emperor Galerius in 311 AD. It was to be a decision with
vast consequences: the Edict of Milan proclaimed the freedom of worship
for all Christians. In January 313, Constantine legalized Christianity with
an edict that read:
let this be so in order that the divine grace which we have experienced
in such manifold ways, may always remain loyal to us and continue to bless
us in all we undertake, for the welfare of the empire.
Christianity was to be tolerated and even supported by the State where
conflict was not apparent. However, it was only one of many acceptable religions
- Constantine, so superstitious that he feared offending any god, worshipped
the sun as a deity, and was only accepted into the Christian Church on his
Yet, within the space of seventy years, the Christian faith was to
be declared the official religion of the Roman empire under an edict proclaimed
by emperor Theodosius I on February 28, 380 AD. Within a century, Christianity
usurped every political and social office which had been in the hands of
the pagan priestly and State administration.
It was not long before this mutual support of State and Church began
to find expression in the Church's accommodation to the needs of the State.
As Christianity gained not only respectability but finally official status
as an official religion, we see that the Church's image became more and
more linked to the political stability of the State. If Rome fell, then
the Church would also fall - such was the rationale with which the pragmatists
of the period contended.
If you look back over the history and theological development in the
Church since the death of Jesus to the reign of Constantine, you will note
significant changes in the Church's self-understanding. As the Church began
this new phase of political interaction with the temporal powers of the
State, new pressures began to be imposed that were to change the Church
structurally, in its administration, and in its theological emphasis.
As far back as the Council of Arles in 314, the Church saw that "to
deny the State the right to go to war was to condemn it to extinction."
Faced by this dilemma, the Church turned its back on the teachings of the
scriptures an the example of three centuries of pacifist practice. Rather,
an emphasis on the principles of natural law justified changes in theological
reflection and attitude. Right had to be defended and wrong had to be rectified.
It became easy to identify right and justice with the causes of Rome and
the Church, and wrong, with that which stood against them.
The emperor was the protector of the Church. This political concern
necessitated a concern for Church unity in faith and action. It was under
Constantine's direction that the Council of Nicaea was to be convened in
325 AD - the Church was responsible and answerable to the emperor. This
coalition of Church and State, of pope and emperor, of religion and politics
was to bring about an uneasy marriage of convenience. This history of the
Church would reflect in coming centuries the bitter struggle for power and
temporal supremacy. It was to bring discredit to the spiritual leaders of
the time transforming the spiritual harmony of the gospel message into a
Church that reflected unbending legalism in interpretation and administration.