For the first 300 years the Church that was birthed at Pentecost (Acts, chapter 2) spread very rapidly. The believers met in homes and the life of God was so real to them (inside them) that they shared it with everyone they knew. People were being born again, new houses were opened for believers to assemble, and the Church spread throughout the Roman Empire. It was amazing. This was an apostolic age as the apostles led God’s people to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:18-20).
The death of the Early Church began with an event that, at first, seemed like a great blessing. It was the “conversion” of the Roman emperor Constantine. The year was 312 A.D. and there was great turmoil in the Empire. Two rivals, Constantine and Maxentius, were struggling to seize the imperial throne. As he prepared for battle, Constantine was nervous. He had heard that Maxentius was a master of the occult arts, so Constantine decided to pray for supernatural help. He prayed to his favourite god, the Persian sun god Mithras.
As Constantine prayed to Mithras, he reportedly saw a vision of a flaming cross in the sky next to the sun and heard the words, “Conquer by this.” In response to this vision, Constantine took the cross as his symbol, won the battle, and came to the throne with the announcement that he was now a follower of Christ.
The Christians could hardly believe it. The Church has been through a number of different persecutions over the 300 years since its founding. Now the new emperor claimed to be a follower of Jesus! It seemed like an answer to prayer.
Persecution ended immediately. Christianity changed from being just another religion to a favoured religion. Constantine offered extravagant gifts to prominent citizens who would convert to his new religion, so thousands of the Roman elite rushed to join the emperor’s new church. Constantine made Sunday an official Roman holiday. He built magnificent church buildings all over the empire.
But Constantine not only legalized Christianity, he tried to improve it. In return for his favour, Constantine demanded control. He didn’t like the way Christians organized things. It seemed too loose for his administrative Roman mind, so he brought the Church into a governmental shift.
In the year 325, Constantine called and presided over the first general council of the Church, the Council of Nicea. Its purpose was to recognize the Church and give it a new image. At the Council of Nicea, Constantine literally reinvented Christianity. Christianity after Nicea was a different religion than what the original apostles had known.
Next time we will look at some of the things that the emperor changed….