Few events had as great an impact on the development of the church as the conversion of Emperor Constantine in ancient Rome. To fully appreciate his impact, however, it’s important to understand the context in which he ascended to the throne.
Constantine rose to power less than a decade after Diocletian brought about the Age of Martyrs, the worst period of prolonged persecution that the early church faced.
Prior to Diocletian, death, torture, and the other hallmarks of Rome’s opposition to the Christian faith could be intense and exact a high cost on those who professed to follow Jesus. But such persecution was generally limited to specific areas and for a relatively brief period of time.
By contrast, when Diocletian set his sights on putting an end to Christianity in February of 303, the attack lasted for several years and spanned across the Empire.
Churches were destroyed, every copy of Scripture they could find was burned, and any Christian who refused to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods was to be killed. Even after Diocletian divided the empire into two halves and retired in 305, his successor in the East—Galerius—continued to pursue and persecute Christians.
The ruler in the West, however, took a slightly different approach.
When Constantius Chlorus became Augustus of the West, he choose not to enforce the worst of Diocletian’s laws concerning the faith. Unfortunately, he died after being in power for only a year. And though his son, Constantine, was not technically supposed to follow his father to the throne, the army he commanded preferred him to the heir apparent.
The ensuing civil war lasted for several years as both Constantine and the Western Empire’s proclaimed ruler, Maxentius, slowly consolidated power in the buildup to their fateful battle outside Rome’s gates where, on October 27, 312, tradition holds that Constantine received a vision from God of a cross of light along with the inscription “Conquer by this.”
Trusting God over the gods
Now, it was common practice to seek the gods’ guidance before a battle. Leading up to this confrontation, Maxentius beseeched the Roman gods, and one would expect that Constantine had done the same.
Yet, whether driven to it by desperation and anxiety or a genuine belief that it would help, Constantine chose to invoke the Christian God as well.
While Constantine’s father was a pagan—and had raised his son to be the same—Constantine’s mother was a Christian, and she made sure that her son grew up with an awareness of the faith, even though he did not claim it himself. So while it must have been startling when God spoke to the would-be-emperor, Constantine was not wholly unfamiliar with the Lord.
Constantine responded by painting the Chi-Rho—the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ—on the shields of his warriors before marching into battle.
Though outnumbered, Constantine’s forces won the day. At the Milvian Bridge, Maxentius attempted to retreat back into the safety of Rome’s walls. He was knocked into the Tiber River and drowned. Constantine then entered the city as the battle’s victor and Rome’s new emperor.
The following year, he would partner with the Eastern Emperor, Licinius, in passing the Edict of Milan, which officially recognized Christianity as a legal religion and put a stop to the vast majority of persecution faced by followers of Jesus.
And though Constantine did not declare Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire—that would come from Theodosius nearly seventy years later—he raised his sons with a Christian education and showed favoritism toward those who shared his beliefs. As a result, Christianity grew in numbers, power, and influence across much of the Roman world.
While we can debate whether that growth was more positive or negative for the health of the church, the impact of Constantine’s decision to trust God over the gods was unquestionably profound.
As mentioned earlier, however, the credit for that decision does not belong to him alone.
We can’t change the culture by acting like the culture
In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul makes the point that, while each of us can work to prepare the ground for people to trust in the Lord and plant seeds of faith, ultimately it must be God who causes those seeds to grow into salvation (1 Corinthians 3:6).
Constantine thought to pray to the Christian God and was able to recognize his dramatic response, in large part, because his mother had acquainted him with the faith, even though he had chosen to reject it. Just because he had not immediately followed her example upon coming to understand something of her beliefs does not mean that she failed. On the contrary, as Paul points out, being faithful to plant the seeds of faith is often all we can do.
Someone once said that our job as Christians is not to make people believe in Jesus. Rather, our job is to live and speak in such a way that believing in him remains a viable option for whenever God breaks down the options they’ve placed above him.
As our culture increasingly moves in a direction that seems to be bumping Christianity down the list of priorities, know that your job is not to reverse that trend so much as ensure that you do what you can to keep people from removing it from their list altogether.
And the best way to accomplish that is by being people who exude the kind of peace, joy, love, and other fruit of the spirit that makes clear that there is something different about us, that God truly does make a difference in our lives (Galatians 5:22–23).
We can’t change the culture by acting like the culture. That’s why Scripture calls us to act like Jesus instead (Ephesians 5:1–2).
How can you be more like Jesus today?