It is commonplace for many modern Christians, even Orthodox Christians, to consider St. Constantine a problematic figure. Even the fact that he is considered a saint within the Orthodox Church is seen as difficult. Obviously, the end of Christian persecution by the Roman Empire was a great benefit to the Church and to the Christians of the day. But it is not the end of persecution that is seen to be a problem.
Rather, the problems begin with the way in which St. Constantine began to meld the Christian Church with the Roman state, a process concluded under his eventual heir, St. Theodosius the Great. This included his presence as convoker of the Council of Nicea. From this fact have grown a thousand conspiracy theories, attempting to pin a thousand undesirable aspects of Christianity, or perceived changes in Christianity from its Pre-Nicene form, on the person of the Emperor Constantine. He is accused of burning heretical texts. (He didn’t.) He is accused of mass-murdering pagans, heretics, and Jewish believers. (He didn’t.) He is said to have decided what books would be in the Bible, or just the New Testament. (He didn’t.)
The most important false accusation against St. Constantine, however, is that he somehow transformed, or even created, what we now call Christianity. There is a modern concept of the “early Church” or the “New Testament Church” which has been fabricated through a combination of imagination and the projection of modern conceptions of church and theology back into the first century. While these representations of “original Christianity” cannot coexist comfortably with any sources outside of the New Testament for the first, second, or third centuries, it is typically St. Constantine and his conversion to Christianity which are seen as the great transitional moment.
It is with the Emperor Constantine’s actions that some new form of Christianity comes into being, which is then labelled as whatever villain a person’s own Christian group is at war against. And so Constantine is sometimes the founder of Roman Catholicism, or the founder of the state church, or the one who brings the great apostasy.
Even those who are reasonably well disposed toward St. Constantine argue that the church that resulted from his conversion was somehow a compromise between earlier Christianity, seen as somehow more real or pure, and Roman philosophy and power.
There are a number of presuppositions behind this characterization of history. One key presupposition is the idea that St. Constantine’s conversion, when that conversion is not itself called into question, is seen as an unexpected event. The Roman Emperor functions in the Revelation of St. John as the prototypical antichrist. What does one do when the antichrist becomes a Christian?
Certainly, this could not have been something that earlier Christians, especially of the apostolic era, could ever have expected to happen. The first Christians were, after all, a group of Palestinian Jewish peasants.
A related presupposition is that contemporary understandings of individualism, that religion is a personal matter about an individual’s direct relationship with God and their afterlife, were represented among the first Christians. It is merely assumed, contrary to even the Biblical evidence, that Christianity was not “a religion” and therefore did not encompass communities and their attendant social structures.
In the person of St. Paul, however, we see a very different vision of Christianity and its future. The Acts of the Apostles not only describes St. Paul’s missionary journeys, but in the final chapters describes St. Paul’s ultimate purpose, what he sees as the endgame of his calling as the apostle to the Gentiles.
As St. Paul begins his return to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, he states that his intention after that journey is to travel to Rome to proclaim the Gospel (Acts 19:21). Though warned repeatedly of his arrest upon his return to Jerusalem, St. Paul sails for Jerusalem resolutely to face trial. After his arrest, Christ appears to him again, after the road to Damascus, and tells him that he will indeed preach at Rome (Acts 23:11).
He then proceeds to use these trials as his opportunity to get to Rome and to one audience in particular. In Acts 25:10-12, St. Paul appeals to Caesar, which is his right as a Roman citizen. From the way St. Paul conducts himself in his trials (cf. Acts 24:24-25; 26:28), it is clear that he is using these defenses not as opportunities to defend himself, but as opportunities to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ before princes and rulers.
This is what was prophesied at the time of St. Paul’s calling regarding his destiny (Acts 9:15). St. Paul’s goal in receiving an audience with Caesar, then, is very clearly that he would proclaim to Caesar the gospel. And on his voyage to Rome, an angel appears to St. Paul and tells him that he will get his opportunity (Acts 27:24). While awaiting his final trial and imprisoned, St. Paul made inroads in bringing members of Caesar’s own household to Christianity (Phil 4:22).
If St. Paul saw the endgame of his mission to the Gentiles as the conversion of the emperor, what would he reasonably have expected would take place upon that event? There are several possibilities which can be ruled out immediately. St. Paul would not have reasonably expected that the concept of the separation of church and state would have been spontaneously invented and applied.
There was not, for St. Paul, a secular space. People, places, and things had either been baptized and brought into the kingdom and were under the rulership of Christ or they remained under the domination of demonic powers. To embrace Christ for St. Paul is to be set free from the domination of these hostile powers (Gal 4:3, 9). St. Paul could therefore characterize his entire mission as a form of spiritual warfare to defeat these powers by removing the world and its people from their domination (Eph 6:12).
This spiritual conception had immediate practical application within the Roman Empire. The Greek word from which we get the term “liturgy,” leitourgia, means essentially “public works.” The sacrificial rituals of Greco-Roman culture were functions of the social structures of family and polis. Ritual bound together families with each other and with the gods who served as their patrons. Ritual bound together the city and its gods. Ritual bound together the empire as a whole with the emperor and the empire’s gods. The gods were seen as members of these communities with whom relations needed to be maintained and whose happiness the social unit desired.
Sacrifices were often for the maintenance of each of these social constructs, but they were also offered for particular events, as before the legions went into battle to guarantee the gods’ pleasure. When misfortune befell social units, it was believed to be because someone had not honored their cultural duties. It was this conception which led to the widespread persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, as their refusal to participate in the public sacrifices was taken to be the source of the gods’ displeasure and thereby of misfortune.
For St. Paul, the Roman gods were not fictional characters, but rather very real demonic powers (1 Cor 10:20). Roman idolatry and sacrifice was therefore the means of perpetuation of the Gentiles’ enslavement to these hostile powers. In 1 Cor 10, St. Paul makes a direct comparison and contrast between pagan sacrifices and the Eucharist. The Apostle sees the Eucharist as performing the same function in binding together the Church as community with her Lord Jesus Christ as the sacrifices of the old covenant did for the Jewish people before the coming of Christ (v. 18) and which the pagan sacrifices do with the demonic powers (v. 20). One cannot be a participant with both (v. 21); there must be a choice of allegiance. St. Paul would have, minimally, expected that the conversion of the emperor would have brought about the abolition of the public worship of demons. He himself sets forth the Eucharist as the replacement for it.
This action of replacing pagan leitourgia with Christian liturgy is precisely what St. Constantine did upon his conversion. His legions no longer offered pagan sacrifices before going into battle, but he brought in Christian priests to serve the Eucharist. Pagan public festivals were cancelled. The lives of Roman communities no longer centered upon pagan rites, but upon the Eucharistic life of the Church.
While families which chose to remain pagan could conduct themselves as pagan yet in their family life, the radical transformation of public, civic life should not be underestimated. This was also a move of profound confidence in the supremacy of Christ over the formerly worshipped pagan powers. If the latter had any real influence over the fortunes of the empire, surely the abandonment of their rituals would have brought about their displeasure. Yet St. Constantine showed no real fear thereof.
Early Christianity is often portrayed in modern conceptions as a radical opting out of the prevailing society. Certainly, believers sold their belongings and lived in common. They structured their life around the liturgical life of the Church. Many occupations were no longer open to them. But this was a function not of Christian theology purely, but of Christian theology’s understanding of the prevailing culture as described above.
When most or all of the meat in the markets has been offered to idols, when undertaking a particular vocation or engaging in many forms of commerce requires participating in public pagan sacrifices, when marriages are arranged by families led by non-Christians to non-Christian partners, then Christians must opt out of that society and those social units and form their own. This was a necessity for the first three Christian centuries because of the dominant pagan culture in the Roman Empire.
But St. Paul never called for the deconstruction of any of these social units or structures — quite the opposite. Throughout his epistles, St. Paul confirms the importance of marriage (1 Cor 7; Eph 5) and of civil authority (Rom 13:1-7). This extends even to social structures of which we in our modern age are morally dubious, such as indentured servitude (Eph 6; Col 4).
For St. Paul, these social structures allow Christians to lead quiet and peaceful lives in all godliness and sanctity (1 Tim 2:1-2). On the other hand, St. Paul does not simply blanket endorse the pagan Roman system, but sees the structures as able to be transformed in Christ. Marriage, freed from pagan and sexual rites, can be seen to be the mystery of Christ and the Church. Civil authorities can become ministers of God’s justice on the earth, avenging the orphan and the widow and defending the poor. When St. Paul tells St. Philemon that he must treat St. Onesimus as his brother (Philemon 16), he posits a vision where even a form of slavery, if freed from all abuse and violence, can serve a useful social function of apprenticeship and familial connection.
Once again, it can be seen that the program begun by St. Constantine and carried to fruition by St. Theodosius the Great is one of Christianizing the social structures of the Roman Empire. The Empire must be defended to allow Christians their quiet and peaceful life, and this requires a military. It must, however, be a Christian military made up of men willing to lay down their lives to protect their brothers. Marriages must be celebrated but not as festivals of fertility or as legal agreements for determining inheritance, but as a sacrament of shared martyrdom directed toward Jesus Christ. Civil rulers must govern with justice and mercy in administering God’s justice.
Not only were all of these post-Nicene changes not unforeseen by the apostles, they are precisely what St. Paul envisioned occurring with the success of his mission to bring the world to Christ.
In late antiquity, an apocryphal story about the baptism of Constantine circulated widely. In this story, Ss. Paul and Peter appeared to St. Constantine in a dream and told him to seek out Bishop Sylvester to receive Christian baptism. The emperor did so, thinking that Ss. Peter and Paul were gods who had appeared to him. Upon seeing icons of the saints, however, St. Constantine properly identified them and received baptism.
While this story is not historically true, the connection between the missions to Rome of St. Paul, and St. Peter for that matter, and the baptism of St. Constantine is very real. The baptism of the first Christian emperor and the reformation of the empire as Christian which he began was the completion, in God’s time, of St. Paul’s Gentile mission. It represented the reaching of his goal and therefore is a true representation of Christianity in its apostolic form.