After Constantine’s victory over Maxentius, Constantine met with Licinius, who ruled in the eastern part of the empire. In the year 313, Constantine and Licinius issued a decree known as the Edict of Milan. With this decree, Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire.
a decree is made
impact on the church
What was the impact on the church? With the decree from Constantine and Licinius that legalized Christianity, the church was suddenly in a very different position. The new prestige that came with a Christian emperor became even more important in the coming years of Constantine’s reign. The church found itself in unchartered territory, moving from a persecuted minority to a position of power. As scholar Dr. Bruce Shelley notes, “Christianity had been outlawed and persecuted. Suddenly it was favored and pampered. Constantine thrust it into public life. As a result, the church re-envisioned its image and mission.” Imagine that sort of shift from persecution to power. No longer on the margins of society, but the center, how did the church understand itself and its role in society and the empire? For example, as we will see next week when we study the Council of Nicaea, Constantine took a vested interest in the affairs of the church. How should the emperor and church leaders interact with each other?
how did christian's respond?
When it comes to new, complicated questions about living as the church during the time of Constantine, we see many different responses from Christians.
Some, like historian Eusebius of Caesarea, saw Constantine coming to power as a beautiful, pivotal moment in the history of Christianity and a means to spread the gospel. In this way, Constantine was revered as a leader. As scholar Justo González writes, “Overwhelmed by the favor that the emperor was pouring on them, many Christians sought to show that Constantine was chosen by God to bring the history of the church and empire to its culmination, where both were joined.”
Others responded with a countercultural movement called monasticism. Some, who looked upon the new developments within the church with disdain, moved to the desert to pursue Christ. Rejecting what they perceived to be a new era of dangerous ease and comfort ushered in by Constantine, they sought out more rigorous, demanding ways of following Jesus. For some, withdrawing from society and pursuing a life of denying pleasure and comfort was the best way to faithfully follow Christ.
As González points out, other Christians took a more nuanced approach and posture. For many, there were “unexpected opportunities but also great dangers” posed by the new status of the church in the Roman Empire.
What do you see as the potential pitfalls or dangers for the church now finding itself in positions of power?
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