In A.D. 311, about 10% of the Roman Empire was Christian. By A.D. 321, about 90% of the Roman Empire was Christian. What happened? The Emperor Constantine happened.
The story of his disputed conversion centers around the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, when he reported seeing a vision of Christ and a sign with the words, “In Hoc Signo Vinces, By this sign, you will conquer.” Constantine ordered the sign placed on the shields of his army, won the battle, and made Christianity legal Empire-wide in 313. Later in 321 he made Christianity mandatory.
There was a stampede of candidates to be Christian priests, but not for good reasons. They were pursuing political power in the new prestige and imperial favor of Christianity. The church and the state were merging. And it got easier to become a Christian, so easy that actual conversion seldom really happened anymore. There was no requirement for change.
Was Constantine’s action a triumph or a failure for Christianity? It depends on your perspective. For Martin Luther, Constantine was a model emperor. Constantine gave freedom and financing to the Church and its leadership. For Baptists, it was horrible. The union of church and state caused the church to drop the very things that meant becoming a Christian – a genuine conversion marked by repentance and change of life.
One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church
One of the most important meetings during this time was the Council of Nicea out of which came the Nicene Creed. The church of this era was described by what are called the four classical marks of the church: “I believe . . . in One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” These marks held sway for a thousand years.
1. Unity of the Church – With the availability of military force from the government, minority opinions and dissent were rarely given an opportunity. Even up through the Reformation (1500s), union of church and state meant that any heresy or dissent were not just theological error, but political treason. Therefore when Anabaptists and later, Baptists insisted on liberty of conscience before God, they were persecuted by the state. Theologically, the unity of the church was connected with communion with the bishop, and later, especially with the bishop at Rome. Originally the bishop at Rome was just one of the bishops of the church, but the claim of Peter and Paul as founders of the church at Rome along with the historical connection of Rome being the capital of the Empire and the misinterpretation of Matthew 16:18 led to the increasing power of the bishop at Rome. Therefore bishop control guaranteed unity. If he did not approve of you, you were not in unity with the church which brought the government to bear on dissenters in persecution.
2. Holiness – After the Donatist controversy, the church’s idea of holiness had degenerated to the corpus permixtum, the erroneous idea that the church was a mix of believers and unbelievers. This condition led to the rise of monasticism. Those who chose monasticism saw themselves as loyal to the church, but they felt also compelled to a deeper life, a holy life which they concluded was not possible in the church of their day. True piety, education, discipleship, and holiness of life from Constantine to the Reformation were largely found in the monastic orders that developed.
3. Catholic – The word catholic has long been associated with the Roman Catholic Church, but they appropriated that term for themselves. The word actually means universal, that is, pertaining to all the churches. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 112) was the first to use the term catholic when he said, “where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.” By the A.D. 200s, catholic came to mean orthodox as opposed to heretical or schismatic. Later the word gained an additional meaning of geographically universal, that is, the whole world. Cyril of Jerusalem in c. A.D. 350 said the church may be called catholic “because it extends all over the whole world,” is composed of all classes of people, and teaches orthodox doctrine. When the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman Catholic) Churches split in A.D. 1054, the Western church somewhat arrogantly continued to call itself catholic though it has not been since.
4. Apostolic – Of the four classical marks, this one was the most far-reaching. The church father Irenaeus promoted his idea of apostolic succession. He said that an accurate understanding of Scripture was found only in churches whose bishops were successors of the apostles. As an example, Irenaeus listed the succession of bishops at the church in Rome all the way back, as he saw it, to the Apostle Peter. Later the idea became popular that Matthew 16:18 meant that the church at Rome inherited Peter’s role as the rock upon which church was built. With the idea that a true and valid church must be in communion with the bishops, things got tangled up. The problem was that the church replaced the Scripture as the authority. What the apostles left for us, the Bible, was replaced by what they did not leave (human successors). The Reformers rightly returned to the understanding that a church is apostolic when it submits to the Scriptures written by the Apostles and centered on the gospel message.
Lessons from the Post-Constantine Church:1. The church’s unity extends to all who believe the gospel.
2. The church’s holiness is the gift we receive in the gospel.
3. The church’s catholicity is rooted in the fact that the gospel is destined to be preached in all the world and then the end will come.
4. The church’s apostolicity is found in submission to the Scriptures given to us by the Apostles which contains the gospel.
5. The Gospel is the binding characteristic of the four classical marks of the church.
6. The union of church and state is not good, neither for the health of the Body of Christ nor the liberty of conscience before God.