UNPARALLELED GROWTH

IN THE AGE OF CONSTANTINE 

Constantine's accession assured Christianity's growth and influence. When the fourth century began the Empire's Christian population stood at 10% of the total. At century's end 90% of the Empire professed Christianity.

Why did Christianity grow so rapidly at this time? I'm going to answer that question.. First, I'll discuss events leading to Constantine's sole leadership in the Empire. Second, I'll show Constantine's initial reaction to the church. Third, I will list ten reasons why the church grew so rapidly.

I. Constantine becomes the Empire's sole ruler.

Once Constantine defeated Maxentius he held the Empire's entire western half. Constantine's successes in the eastern half are every bit as dramatic.

When Diocletian retired, Galerius insisted that Maximin become Caesar and he assumed control of the Prefecture of the East. Maximin remained untouched by all the western drama until Licinius began moving. You'll remember that Galerius had appointed Licinius the Augustus in the west. When Galerius died, Licinius saw an opportunity and sought to carve out territory in Illyria whereupon he declared himself Augustus. Hoping to solidify his position, he worked out an alliance with Constantine. All of a sudden Maximin found himself in a shaky situation.

Licinius and Constantine enjoyed an unstable relationship at best. Licinius followed the sungod, "Sol Invictus," while Constantine professed Christ. Constantine invited Licinius to a conference hoping to work out some of their differences. As a result of the meeting, Licinius married Constantia, Constantine's sister, and the two rulers issued the "Edict of Milan," a statement of toleration for all religions. The edict, however, particularly mentioned Christianity as a tolerated religion. Licinius accepted the edict because it's language was sufficiently vague.

Having accomplished all that, Licinius rapidly moved against Maximin defeating him. He then summarily executed Maximin and his entire family. Licinius then ruled all of the Empire's eastern half.

Within a year differences again rose between Constantine and Licinius. Toleration for Christians was the real bone of contention, but jurisdictional rights along their mutual border served as the visible problem. By 321 neither man trusted the other. Christianity's greatest strength rested in the Empire's Eastern half and in a showdown Licinius knew he stood little chance of victory.

Thinking Constantine had allies among Christians, Licinius began a harassment policy. He ordered poorly ventilated church buildings closed, forcing services outdoors. He prohibited mixed assemblies to "safeguard public morals." He prohibited prisoner visitation because such visits interfered with proper justice. He forbade priests to instruct female catechumens. In most areas persecution remained trivial, but there were always the overzealous bureaucrats. Licinius ordered no executions but they occurred. Licinius knew of them but took no action.

In 323, a band of Goths crossed the Danube to raid communities in northern Illyricum. Concerned that these raiders might move west, Constantine moved troops into Illyricum to chase them north. Constantine said he intended to assist his brother-in-law who was involved elsewhere militarily. Licinius saw this as an invasion of his territory and headed west to take on Constantine.

Constantine took care of the Goths, then planned to meet Licinius. The two armies met at Adrianople with Constantine winning convincingly. Constantia pleaded for Licinius' life and Constantine spared him for her sake. Licinius continued to plot Constantine's overthrow and Constantine discovered his plots in 324. Constantine, angered by the betrayal, summarily executed Licinius and stood as the sole Emperor.

II. Constantine's actions toward the church.

Following the Battle of the Milvian Bridge Constantine entered Rome to a victory celebration. In the past Roman generals offered sacrifices to the historic Roman gods. Constantine avoided these ceremonies. Formerly a worshiper of Mithra, Constantine's refusal to offer sacrifices to Mithra and the "Unconquerable Sun" served as a witness to his conversion.

Almost immediately Constantine bestowed favors on the church giving the Lateran Palace, now part of Vatican City, to the Roman bishop. Much later a legend grew out of this gift and was embellished into the Donation of Constantine. Supposedly the "Donation" gave political control in the Empire's entire western half to the bishop. Constantine also granted the clergy exemptions from some duties expected of Rome's citizenry.

During the next few months Constantine centralized his authority. Realizing he needed officials he coould trust, Constantine sent letters to North Africa instructing bureaucrats to restored church properties and appointed the Bishop of Carthage to distributed welfare.

As long as Maximin remained in control in the east, Constantine sent copies of all these decisions to him. At the time, Maximin was busily persecuting Christians but rescinded the orders when he realized he was bucking the tide.

Constantine clearly gave Christians preferential treatment. You can see this in a number of ways.

1. He exempted the clergy from all military and municipal service.

2. He removed all church properties from the tax rolls.

3. He abolished all pagan customs and practices offensive to Christianity.

4. He promoted the freeing of slaves and simplified the necessary actions.

5. He set aside the first day of the week as a legal holiday of rest. Northern pagan cultures know the day as Sunday. In Latin cultures refer to the day as "the Lord's Day."

6. Constantine contributed heavily to church construction.

7. In 325 he offered 20 pieces of gold and a white robe to anyone professing Christianity. It is said 12,000 responded in Rome in just one year.

8. He abolished death by crucifixion. He did nothing about gladiatorial combats until he made Constantinople the imperial capital.

9. He outlawed Jewish stoning of Jews professing Christ as Savior and Messiah.

10. He promoted the copying and distribution of the Scriptures.

Jacob Burckhardt and a host of his disciples deny Constantine's conversion. They suggest he "converted" only to further his own interests citing his last minute baptism as evidence. It is true that Constantine delayed his baptism until just before his death in 337. He became ill in the spring of that year and requested baptism. Following his baptism he died May 22, 337. Delaying one's baptism, however, was a common practice. Known as clinical baptism, some of the best known church fathers waited until near death for baptism. Most likely the concept that baptism washes away all sin contributed to the desire for delay. After all, why not wait and wash them all away. Furthermore, there were some doubts about salvation if one sinned after baptism. Many believers simply thought it was safer to wait until near death for baptism.

Constantine stood to gain little by becoming Christian. The Empire was still nominally pagan and, although its citizens grew tired of Christian persecution, traditional religious alignments stood strong. Roman law, seeking to encourage families, levied a fine on bachelors but Constantine exempts Christian clergy. As early as 314 Christian symbols began appearing on Roman coins. For about nine years both Christian symbols and pagan symbols appear on coins. By 321 the sign of Sol Invictus began disappearing and by 323 only Christian symbols appear on coins. Constantine goes on to recognize church legal cases tried before bishops as binding and he makes it legal for churches to inherit property. One more important fact, Constantine provides a Christian education for his children.

III. Ten factors contributing to rapid church growth during the period.

1. Constantine's endorsement. Many became nominal Christians. Bureaucrats currying favor often adopted their Emperor's religion to gain approval.

2. The Disintegration of society. The church offered something far more solid than what the people had. As society crumbled the church offered more support and assistance for needy families.

3. Church organization. Better organization provided better shepherding, supervision and discipline.

4. The church's inclusiveness. No racial, social or economic status existed in the church. Everyone found acceptance because they were created in God's image.

5. The church's intransigence and flexibility. These two terms are almost contradictory, but both remained true. The church refused to budge when faced with persecution and heresy but on items of opinion or areas where salvation was not threatened the church adapted.

6. Christianity's superior religious and philosophical base. Christianity offered salvation, not just peace and contentment.

7. Its Jewish origin. Romans recognized Jews as moral people. In addition, Jews were people of the book. The Bible provided an ancient background as Gentiles became familiar with it.

8. Miracles.

9. Moral qualities. In spite of earlier suspicions Romans soon recognized Christians as supremely moral people, qualities missing in most pagan religions.

10. Jesus' uniqueness. No heathen religion could claim anything like him.

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