Constantine, is, without doubt, one of the most controversial figures in Christianity today. Best known in Church History as the Roman Emperor who unified paganism and Christianity and opened the floodgates of spiritual compromise. So who was Constantine? And what did he do that made him so controversial?
Before we delve into the personal history of the man himself it’s important to understand the historical context Constantine operated in.
Our story begins with a snapshot of a church under siege. A movement maligned for its faith and relegated to the dreary underbelly of a seething metropolis. The stories of these individuals are stories of unflinching fidelity to truth in the face of the harshest blows that a bloodthirsty Roman Empire can inflict. To be a Christian in the times of Caligula, Nero, Aurelius, and Diocletian took entire consecration to Jesus, there was room for nothing less. Yet this is a narrative that changed dramatically in the face of a single, almost negligible historical detail; the conversion of Constantine to Christianity.
Constantine was the son of Constantius, one of the three tetrarchs who ruled the Empire in conjunction with Diocletian, the Emperor. Constantius ruled the western part of the Empire under the overarching leadership of Diocletian.
Constantine served the Emperor as a military tribune and later joined his father to campaign in the west, settling for a time in Britannia (Britain). It was while he was in Britain, at York, that Constantius passed away and Constantine assumed his throne in 306 A.D.
Ambitious for absolute power over the Empire, over time, Constantine began to wrest power from the other tetrarchs. The two most formidable opponents that stood between him and his goal were Maxentius and Licinius and it was during one of his campaigns against Licinius that Constantine had a dream. In his dream, he was shown the symbol of a cross and was told: “in this sign conquer”. This marked the conversion of Constantine to Christianity and the divergence of a movement that had, up to this point, been unified.
In an effort to unify Christianity and Paganism, Constantine began to mingle the rites of the two religions. The Roman pantheon of gods was slowly assimilated into Christianity. Peter became a substitute for Jupiter, the King of the gods and the Roman counterpart of the Grecian Zeus. The worship of saints became a substitute for pagan polytheism with each saint becoming a working model of one of the Greco-roman pantheon of gods. Pagan holidays were mingled with Christian beliefs, for example, the celebration of Easter and Christmas, both originally set apart for the worship of pagan deities were assimilated and rebranded to reflect Christian themes. Constantine’s aggressive move to mingle the two religions became one of the best marketing and PR campaigns in history. For the church, it was a day of reckoning. She had been battered by brutal and persistent persecution for almost three centuries and the most recent barrage, under Diocletian, had left her tired and worn down. To many Constantine’s compromises were a welcome reprieve from what had been a relentless campaign of bloodshed and large numbers fell exhaustedly into the arms of this new movement. But in every generation, there are a few that form a resistance to error regardless of the cost and it was at this point that the movement split apart.
To this group of revolutionaries, the cost of peace was too high to pay, for, to accept Constantine’s proposition would be to divest themselves of the truth that had, up to this point, propelled the movement of Christianity forward. Scattered throughout the Empire, the Celtic church in England, the Waldenses in northern Italy, the Albigenses and Huguenots in France, formed the frontline of a powerful resistance against compromise. Their stories of faithfulness are both harrowing and inspiring. Their sacrifice, a mandate to every successive generation to carry the torch of truth unflinchingly.
Today we live in the midst of a generation that longs to change the world. If you were to try and encapsulate the millennial vision in a single word it would be ‘revolution’. One of the greatest revolutions ever witnessed was the revolution set in motion by the Protestant Reformation. Its ripples are felt today, 500 years later. What made the Reformation so potent was the fact that the men and women who were part of it refused to compromise even in the face of the fiercest storm of opposition. They followed in the footsteps of that first group of revolutionaries that remained unbowed in the face of Constantine’s offer of a peaceful compromise. The spirit of the revolution is still alive today. Where do you stand?