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A Tribute to Constantine – Purple Letter Christians – Purple Letter Christians

A Tribute to Constantine – Purple Letter Christians – Purple Letter Christians

The Emperor Constantine was born on February 27 within the yr 272 AD. There are elements of the Church that honor him as a saint… so this seems like time to share a bit excerpt about Constantine from my e book RETHINKING LIFE. [Spoiler alert: I definitely do NOT consider Constantine a saint.]

From Rethinking Life….

The Christian motion began on the margins with a small group of renegade Jews who have been a peculiar little sect inside the huge terrain of the Roman Empire. By AD 100, there have been roughly 7,500 Christians, which is smaller than a lot of our megachurches at the moment. A era later, in AD 150, there have been 40,000. However that was nonetheless solely .07 p.c of the inhabitants—not even a tenth of 1 p.c of the empire. 100 years after Christ was right here within the flesh, there was roughly one Christian for each 1,430 individuals within the Roman world.

Then this little revolution started to unfold past the periphery and to all sectors of society. Examine this out. Historians estimate that between AD 100 and 300, the Christian motion grew from roughly 7,500 individuals to a whooping 6.3 million. By AD 300, Christians have been 10 p.c of the empire’s inhabitants—one particular person in each ten was now a Christian. However with the expansion got here complexity, and it’s at this level that Emperor Constantine entered the image.

Constantine’s reign is seen as a turning level for Christianity as a result of it’s when Christianity the Roman Empire. Given the persecution Christians had lengthy endured, this may appear to have been a miraculous deliverance, and it some ways it was. Nevertheless, the so-called “Constantinian shift” was additionally when the primary cracks began appearing within the early Christians’ ethic of life. As soon as they have been in energy, Christians went from being the persecuted to being the persecutors. They stopped loving their enemies and began killing them. They exchanged the cross for a sword.

Many students rightfully level out that Constantine was an emblem of one thing larger occurring within the tradition, that he was the impact reasonably than the trigger. Simply as many people level out that Donald Trump revealed America greater than he modified America, maybe the identical might be stated of Constantine. Nevertheless, Constantine did crystalize some issues that ceaselessly modified what it meant to be a Christian. However earlier than we get to that, it’s essential to grasp extra of the context that led as much as Constantine’s reign and the way it formed the early church.

Constantine’s Backstory

Constantine got here to energy within the wake of horrific persecution of the church. To make certain, killing Christians had been a Roman pastime going all the best way again to AD 33, however issues had solely gotten worse since. Historians level out that emperors corresponding to Nero, who reigned within the era after Jesus (AD 54–68), turned sadistic execution right into a type of leisure. There are stories of Christians being wearing animal furs to be killed by canine. They have been crucified, even crucified the wrong way up. Their our bodies have been usually disfigured and contorted for the sake of the darkish appetites. In accordance with the Roman historian Tacitus (ca. AD 56–120), Nero turned his personal backyard right into a killing discipline, setting our bodies on fireplace and utilizing them as human torches.

Then there was the persecution below Domitian, who reigned from AD 81–96. Domitian is the emperor who exiled John, the creator of Revelation, to the island of Patmos. Persecution continued below Decius, who dominated from AD 249–251. Lastly, there have been the brutal, barbaric reigns of Diocletian from AD 284–305, and Galerius from AD 305–311, proper earlier than Constantine.

Most historians contemplate this period previous to Constantine to be the worst persecution Christianity had ever seen. Church buildings and property have been destroyed. There have been raids on church buildings through which sacred texts and relics have been burned. Some Christians have been demoted from locations of honor if they’d not surrender their religion. Some had their authorized rights taken away, and others have been pressured into slavery in the event that they refused to burn incense to Caesar (a loyalty check) or to recant their dedication to Christ. Below Diocletian, many have been murdered throughout what historians name the “wholesale slaughter” of Christians. So, that is when Constantine entered the scene—following the horrible reigns of terror below Diocletian and his son-in-law Galerius.

Constantine was the son of Constantius Chlorus, a lower-ranking emperor who dominated within the West (Britain, Gaul, and Spain) through the bloody reign of Diocletian. Though his father Constantius was not a Christian, he was fairly tolerant of Christians and didn’t perform vicious orders and persecutions. When Constantine turned emperor after Constantius’s loss of life in 306, he took his dad’s tolerance of Christians to a brand new stage. And his devotion to the religion, although some query its sincerity, turned private.

It’s essential to notice that Constantine’s ascension to the throne wasn’t so simple as his father passing him a baton. The area traditionally had 4 regional emperors reasonably than one. When Diocletian stepped down in 305, there was a battle to achieve management of the empire as rival regional leaders fought for the throne. It wasn’t till 312 that Constantine gained the decisive Battle of Milvian Bridge that ended the civil struggle and secured his place on the throne. However that is what’s so vital about that legendary battle in opposition to one other aspiring emperor named Maxentius, particularly with regard to our dialog in regards to the sacredness of life. Previous to the battle, Constantine is claimed to have had a imaginative and prescient of the cross coming down from the sky in heavenly glory to bless him within the battle. Right here’s an account of the imaginative and prescient, written by an historian named Eusebius:

Concerning the time of the noon solar, when day was simply turning, he stated he noticed along with his personal eyes, up within the sky and resting over the solar, a cross-shaped trophy shaped from gentle, and a textual content connected to it which stated, “By this conquer.”

“By this conquer.” In different phrases, kill within the identify of Jesus.

Some query the credibility of the imaginative and prescient because it wasn’t till ten years later and two years after Constantine died that we now have any account of it. It’s additionally essential to notice that the account we do have was written not by Constantine however by Eusebius, whom Constantine, as he died, had appointed a bishop. Eusebius had beforehand written his basic Ecclesiastical Historical past, revealed ten years into Constantine’s reign, and he makes no point out of Constantine’s imaginative and prescient in that work, which looks like a big oversight.

Might Constantine’s imaginative and prescient of the cross be imperial revisionist historical past? Completely potential, nevertheless it virtually doesn’t even matter—it turned Roman legend, and finally church legend. Within the centuries that adopted, this identical theology is invoked and the cross continued for use as an emblem for battle and license for all types of atrocities. The cross, which had been such a robust image of affection and charm and redemption, would finally be used within the Crusades and by colonizers doing probably the most unChristlike issues conceivable.

Constantine was not a Christian when he turned emperor in AD 306. The truth is, he wasn’t even baptized till simply earlier than he died. However one among his first acts after profitable the Battle of Milvian Bridge and killing Maxentius was signing the Edict of Milan, which proclaimed non secular tolerance all through the Roman Empire. Little question, the comparatively peaceable reign of Constantine that adopted, whereas offering quickly reduction from persecution, was a large shift for Christians.

Because the church entered this new season of peace, it confronted an entire new set of challenges and tensions, a lot of which have been penalties of centuries of persecution. A type of tensions was that some Christians had begun to make compromises with the empire. To keep away from turning into literal fodder for the empire’s fires, they primarily denied their religion with their fingers crossed behind their backs. They burned a bit incense to Caesar to keep away from being burned alive. As one historic proverb aptly put it, they’d bow earlier than the emperor—and fart. They paid solely sufficient homage to keep away from getting killed.

It’s comprehensible, proper? To be a Christian on the time of Constantine meant you and everybody you knew had, for generations, misplaced family and friends members to the brutal persecution of the Roman Empire—the identical empire that had killed your Messiah. It’s onerous sufficient to collect the religion and braveness to die for Jesus, however more durable nonetheless to maintain that fervor decade after decade and century after century whereas the empire is killing you, your youngsters, your mother and father, and the poor and weak all over the place. So, in the event you had the choice to make a small compromise in trade in your life, it most likely appeared like a worthwhile commerce. And the temptation to amass or align your self with energy and sources to cease the oppression can be onerous to withstand. It was one of many temptations Devil posed to Jesus within the desert. And it’s a temptation we face in America at the moment. So, that ought to give us some grace for the early Christians who, only a few hundred years in, made some regrettable, even when comprehensible, compromises.

Even so, not all of them compromised. Some felt extra convicted than ever, believing {that a} willingness to die for Christ was the final word check of true discipleship. Persecution had solely stiffened their spines and solidified their resolve. And herein lies probably the most vital crossroads of the early church. Those that refused to compromise excommunicated a lot of those that did, together with leaders, for making concessions and assimilating inside the empire. The early Christians knew they may not serve two masters. There was a option to be made—would they serve Jesus or Caesar ? Excommunication has a foul vibe for many people at the moment, however the early Christians noticed it as preserving the unconventional name of Christ and never compromising the price of discipleship. There was no room for “low-cost grace,” as Deitrich Bonhoeffer would name it centuries later, earlier than he himself was martyred.

There’s an outdated saying we regularly hear in social actions at the moment, “Now we have nothing to lose however our chains.” And whereas that was true of most of the early followers of Jesus who have been poor or in any other case disenfranchised, it had turn into much less unilaterally true a couple of centuries later. By this time, many new converts had an entire lot to lose. They needed to carry onto their possessions and even keep in careers that earlier generations had deemed incompatible with Christian discipleship. Might you be a politician, a lot much less the chief of the Roman Empire, and nonetheless be a follower of Christ? I feel you see the supply of the strain, which is one we nonetheless face at the moment.

Constantine’s Influence

There’s a lot let’s imagine about Constantine and the evident contradictions in his religion and his management, however there isn’t any denying that he radically parted methods with earlier emperors and initiated welcome reforms. The reforms he instituted all through society and the church have been vital, and nonetheless depart a mark to at the present time—for higher and for worse. Along with proclaiming non secular tolerance, he banned the gladiatorial video games. He made it more durable to kill infants by banning the Roman observe referred to as “publicity.” He additionally banned the branding of criminals, which was carried out on the face.

Constantine explicitly acknowledged that human beings are made within the picture of God. He funded the mission of the church, rebuilt church buildings, and reproduced copies of the Bible. He established the Sunday as a Sabbath day and ordered that the holy days of the Christian calendar be acknowledged. He even offered tax exemption for clergy and church property. I suppose he may very well be credited with establishing the primary 501(c)(3) tax exemptions for the church, for higher or worse.

He additionally ended the observe of crucifixion. Sadly, he didn’t finish capital punishment, simply execution by crucifixion. The truth is, he ended up killing his personal spouse and son, so let there be no mistake—I’m not making an attempt to defend him. I simply need to be sincere in regards to the complexities and contradictions of a person many Christians at the moment acknowledge as a saint, particularly relating to the sanctity of life. Definitely, there are inquiries to be raised about his motives for all of those reforms, whether or not they got here from an genuine respect for the Christian religion, political pragmatism, or some messy combo of each.

Whereas students could debate how a lot Constantine himself really modified the church, one factor is obvious—the church was altering and the reign of Constantine definitely was a manifestation of that change. And Constantine took an lively position not solely in initiating social reforms, but additionally in shaping and solidifying the theology of the church.

By the point Constantine got here to energy, there have been critical divisions within the church, a lot of which stemmed from the fast development of Christianity and its proximity to the ability and wealth of Rome. Christians below Constantine started asking questions we nonetheless ask at the moment. Does God need Christians to make use of worldly energy to rework the world? Ought to Christians impose their values on others? Can Christians be political with out dropping their souls? Different contentious points have been extra theological, corresponding to disagreement in regards to the full divinity and humanity of Christ and the character of the Trinity.

In an effort to create unity and restore peace, Constantine tried to carry church leaders collectively. He hosted a summit of bishops in 314 at Arles in southern Gaul. And in 325, he convened probably the most vital ecumenical councils within the historical past of Christianity, the Council of Nicea. There, he introduced collectively bishops and church leaders in an try to resolve variations and set up some norms and procedures inside the church.

The quickly rising church wanted readability in regards to the buildings of management in addition to what church self-discipline regarded like with heretics and lapsed Christians. What have been the dignity requirements for clergy? What did actual repentance appear to be, and will somebody be reinstated after they fell from grace? There have been additionally questions on organizational construction and liturgical observe. One of the crucial urgent of points earlier than the Nicean council was tips on how to perceive the connection between God and Jesus. The council produced the Nicene Creed, a defining assertion of perception, which continues to be recited at the moment, 1,700 years later, by Christians everywhere in the world.

Whereas the councils addressed numerous heresies and outlined orthodox perception within the Nicene Creed, the message of Christianity itself didn’t change a lot. What did change, nonetheless, was how Christians lived out the message of Jesus on the planet. The early church was referred to as “The Means” and was recognized for its countercultural way of life. Nevertheless, over the centuries and in response to persecution, Christianity regularly turned primarily a approach of believing reasonably than a way of life. Through the period of Constantine and within the years that adopted, far more power was spent on defining how Christians are to suppose reasonably than how Christians are to reside. The theological conversations progressively transfer from the center to the top, focusing extra on doctrines and fewer on actions.

From Christianity’s earliest days, pals and foes alike had described how radically totally different Christians have been. Jesus had stated that the world would know we’re Christians by our love, and that’s precisely what occurred in these first few centuries. The onlooking world marveled that Christians fed the pagan poor in addition to their very own. They turned enemies into pals and liked even those that hated them. They’d reasonably die than kill. Sadly, nonetheless, it was not these methods of dwelling that have been codified through the councils Constantine convened. What was debated and crystallized have been doctrinal beliefs. To be clear, some essential clarifications have been wanted. And but, you’ll be able to’t assist however marvel what may occurred if it hadn’t been simply doctrine that was set into stone, but additionally an ethic of life, way of life commitments, and a robust stance in opposition to violence.

What if the creed tens of millions of Christians nonetheless recite each Sunday in worship additionally said a dedication to life and affirmed the dignity of each particular person—the imago dei? Perhaps it’s time to put in writing a couple of new creeds at the moment.

Traditionally, Christianity has at all times affirmed “orthodoxy,” which means “proper perception,” from which we get doctrine. However it has additionally held orthodoxy along with “orthopraxis,” which means “proper observe” or proper dwelling. Like the 2 blades of scissors or the 2 paddles of a rowboat, orthodoxy and orthopraxis go collectively.

Religion with out works is useless (James 2:14–26). They’ll know we’re Christians by our love (John 13:35). We are able to’t say that we love God and ignore our neighbor in want (1 John 3:16-17). At the same time as we have a look at Jesus, we don’t see him educating doctrines and theology alone, but additionally educating us and displaying us tips on how to reside.

Jesus put flesh on doctrine by actually turning into the Phrase made flesh (John 1:14). Jesus was not simply inviting individuals to signal a doctrinal assertion, he was inviting individuals to affix a revolution—and nonetheless is. However that’s what started to offer approach throughout Constantine—the revolutionary, counter-cultural lifestyle of early Christianity.

Some level out, and rightly so, the irony that Constantine wasn’t even a baptized Christian as he oversaw these historic gatherings. Many contend that his major pursuits have been political greater than they have been non secular—a divided church meant a divided empire and a weaker base. Maybe he did have a deathbed conversion and bought baptized earlier than he died, as many imagine. However in all these years earlier than his loss of life, he was fairly a paradox, and finally did a lot harm to our understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

A tree is thought by its fruit, as Jesus stated. In the long run, if Christianity was greater than only a political endorsement for Constantine, it’s onerous to see how that actually translated into his personal life. The truth is, the yr after he hosted the Council of Nicaea, he killed his personal son Crispus. And a month or so later, he killed his spouse Fausta by having her mainly boiled to loss of life in scorching water. Not very befitting of any man of God, if I may be so pretentious to say. And but, to at the present time, Constantine is acknowledged by many Christians as a saint. The Orthodox Church calls him “isapostolos”—equal to the apostles. And that itself, is a part of the issue.

What had basically modified was the church’s proximity to energy, and now the church confronted choices about tips on how to use its energy. Particularly, ought to it use the ability of the state to implement the doctrines of the church? And by “implement,” it’s essential to know that the church now had the authority not simply to excommunicate heretics, however to really kill them.

It was additionally throughout Constantine’s reign that we start to see the seeds of Christian colonization, which we’ll dig into in chapter 8. The phrases of Constantine’s imaginative and prescient, “By this conquer,” will echo all through the ages to conquistadors and colonizers, offering holy cowl for unholy missions.

The reign of Constantine is the place we acknowledge the primary cracks within the steadfast dedication to life that characterised the early Jesus motion. It’s additionally after we start to see what compromised Christian religion can appear to be, extra typically talking. I suppose some would name it the evolution of Christianity. I’d name it the dissolution. Some would name it progress. I’d name it digress, particularly relating to how we worth life.

The Put up-Constantine Period

By AD 350, simply over a decade after the loss of life of Constantine, there have been 33 million Christians within the Roman Empire. They have been now greater than half the Roman inhabitants—56 p.c. The variety of Christians outnumbered the variety of non-Christians for the primary time. Let that sink in. In a mere seventy years, Christianity went from being a persecuted revolutionary motion to an accepted minority faith, after which to the established faith of all the Roman Empire.

Whereas Constantine had made Christianity the bulk faith within the empire, it might be the following emperor, Theodosius (AD 379–395), who would make it the official faith of the Roman Empire. Theodosius was the emperor who started to aggressively “Christianize” the empire. He used his energy to ban each unorthodox Christians and pagans. He destroyed pagan temples and incited mob violence alongside the violence wielded by the state. At one level, undoubtedly provoked and emboldened by the emperor, the archbishop of Alexandria rounded up a bunch of monks to destroy the serapeum, one of many shrines to the Egyptian god Serapis. And Theodosius congratulated the Christians who tore it down. This was his decree:

It’s our will that every one the peoples who’re dominated by . . . our Clemency shall observe that faith which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans. . . We command that these individuals who observe this rule shall embrace the identify of Catholic Christians. . . . The remainder, nonetheless, whom we adjudge demented and insane, shall maintain the infamy of heretical dogmas, . . . and so they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of our personal initiative, which we will assume in accordance with divine judgement.

Clearly, that didn’t go over effectively with many individuals, particularly the previously pagan majority that was now rapidly turn into a minority each in numbers and in entry to energy. At one level, there have been riots and Theodosius was completely brutal, slaughtering 1000’s of males, girls, and kids. On one other event, he killed 7,000 individuals in three hours. Theodosius was so relentlessly violent that he was quickly excommunicated by one of many bishops of the church, Bishop Ambrose of Milan. He was not permitted to take the Eucharist as a result of he had betrayed Christ by spilling blood. It’s possible you’ll recall the assertion of the third-century bishop Cyprian, that the hand that takes the Eucharist shouldn’t be “sullied by the blood-stained sword!”

Shortly after the rule of Theodosius, fifteen years later to be exact, the Roman Empire collapsed, sacked by Visigoths in 410 AD. For the primary time in 800 years, Rome was unable to defend itself from outdoors invasion. The Roman Empire fell, however the church lived on.

Different emperors would come and go. Some, corresponding to Justinian in AD 527, thought-about themselves to be what historian Susan Smart Bauer describes as “the consultant of Christ on earth.” As a Byzantine emperor and professing Christian, he started the formidable mission often known as “renovation imperii,” or “the restoration of the empire.” In service of his trigger, Justinian slaughtered 30,000 individuals in a single week to place down what got here to be referred to as the Nika Riots in Constantinople. It’s unclear if he noticed himself representing God or the state—or each—as he killed these males, girls, and kids. It was onerous to know the place the emperor’s reign ended and God’s kingdom started. The wedding of church and state had begun.

Christians started to kill different Christians whom they thought-about heretics. And Christians started to kill individuals of different faiths, together with native peoples and pagans. Those that had been tortured and jailed turned those who tortured and jailed others. Those who had seen their books burned and their buildings torched turned those who burned the books and destroyed the buildings of others. The persecuted turned the persecutors. Those that had been the victims of state energy now wielded that energy. Those that had suffered from the navy occupation now served within the navy. The executed now turned the executioners. After 300 years of steadfast dedication to life and standing up in opposition to loss of life and violence in all its manifestations, Christians turned the empire and exchanged the cross for a sword.

The good Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard insisted that the place all the things is Christian nothing is Christian. In different phrases, we lose our essence, the distinctive, counter-cultural witness of the upside-down kingdom.

We are able to say that we’re a Christian empire, however the query is, how a lot will we remind the world of Jesus? As historical past reveals, Christian empires, if there’s such a factor, normally lose their souls.

A sensible man as soon as stated, “What good is it to achieve the entire world however lose your soul?”

Excerpt from Shane Claiborne’s Rethinking Life, Zondervan Books, Revealed 2023, Utilized by permission.

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