Constantine forever changed the course of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Under his reign, the church saw the end of state-sponsored persecution. The church grew, eventually gaining dominance among the population. In 379 AD a new emperor came to power—Theodosius I. One year after being crowned emperor, Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, declaring Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. At the beginning of the century, Christians lost their homes, jobs, possessions, and lives at the hands of government soldiers. By the end of the century, Christianity, as defined by the Nicene Creed, was the only legal religion in the entire empire.
new opportunities and challenges
This dramatic shift brought both great opportunities and challenges to the church. Without the threat of persecution, the church could openly preach the gospel and focus on ongoing theological debates. However, the outlawing of other religions also brought enormous challenges. Bishops struggled to determine who actually understood and believed the faith before being baptized. Up until this point, the church had placed new believers through a thorough training to ensure they understood the faith and would live in accordance with their beliefs. Often this process took years to complete. A person could only be baptized after completing this course. With so many people requesting to join the church under the new edict, church leaders struggled with how to teach them the basics of the faith before baptism.
The Rise of Monasticism
Some devout believers mourned this turn of events. For the first three hundred years of the church, Christians had honored the stories of the martyrs, the heroes of the church. They prepared for similar fates because so many Christians died for their faith. Without martyrdom, some devout Christians turned to the deserts of Egypt and Syria to live the life of monks. They sought an opportunity to live lives of simplicity and solitude as a way to demonstrating their devotion to the Lord. This was the beginning of the monastic movement, which came directly out of the church’s rise to the dominant religion in the Roman Empire.
Political Struggle between Church and State
In addition to these shifts, the church now found herself in a new relationship with the state. Both sides asked: Does the church have authority over the state or does the state have authority over the church? Both sides used theology to argue for their position, which we will look at in more detail tomorrow.
As history shows, the question of the church and the state’s relationship wouldn’t be settled with that generation. Over the next thousand years, this debate would resurface time and time again.
While Christianity had gained popularity among the people, the Edict of Thessalonica marked a dramatic change, bringing new opportunities and challenges to the church.
When Christianity became the official state religion, what were the biggest changes for the church?
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