313 AD - The beginning of Constantine's cooption of Christianity

when Christian teachings and practices began to change drastically

edited by Robert Nguyen Cramer (version



Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up: A New Look at Today's Evangelical Church in the Light of Early Christianity, by David W. Bercot (Scroll Pub, 1989, excerpts from pages 129-132, 135, 93-94, 97-98) [book review]

Christianity had grown rapidly in the first three centuries, but after the conversion of Constantine the church mushroomed. At the time of the Edict of Milan (A.D. 313), probably about a tenth of the Roman Empire had converted to Christianity. But that had taken nearly three hundred years. In less than a hundred years after the Edict of Milan, nearly all of the other 90 percent had been "converted." The church believed that this rapid growth was a sure sign of God's approval. Having accepted this premise, the church quickly adopted virtually any practice that resulted in growth, including the use of images in worship -- a practice utterly loathsome to the early Christians. (p. 129)

Constantine soon became worried that this division in the church [over the issue of the Divine nature of the Son] would cause God to withdraw His blessings from the Roman Empire. When the old methods of the church failed to quiet this controversy, Constantine suggested a new approach: a church-wide council [Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.] attended by representatives of every congregation in the empire. Although there had been meetings of church leaders in the past, such councils had always been on a smaller, localized scale. The various church representatives traveled at state expense to Nicaea, the site set for the meeting... The state also housed, fed, and entertained the representatives once they arrived in Nicaea. Constantine himself chaired the two-month long conference and actively participated in the discussions... Constantine persuaded the group to draw up a church-wide creed that specifically addressed the Divine nature of the Son. This was something quite new, for in the past each congregation used its own individual creed. (pp. 131-132)

Constantine himself proposed the wording of the new church-wide creed. To exclude the viewpoints of Arius, Constantine argued that the Greek term homoousios should be used to describe the relationship of Jesus and His Father. This term is usually translated into English by the phrase, "being of the same substance." ... In fact, several pre-Nicene Christian writers had used that term to describe the Deity of the Son. However, the term doesn't appear anywhere in Scripture, and it had never been included in any of the early congregational creeds. (p. 132)

Nevertheless, as a result of Constantine's persuasive skills, all but five of the church representatives at Nicaea eventually signed the newly-established creed. Constantine then banished into exile the five who wouldn't sign, one of whom was Arius. Constantine also decreed: "... If anyone shall be detected in concealing a book written by Arius, and does not instantly bring it forward and burn it, the penalty for this offense shall be death."... (p. 132)

Nicaea didn't bring about the church unity Constantine had hoped for. Actually, there was more division and fighting after Nicaea than there was before... Christians took up the sword and began viciously slaughtering one another over doctrinal differences. As the fabric of Christianity began to fade and tear, the emphasis continued to shift from the Christian life to Christian doctrine. (p. 135)

Before I began studying the early Christian writings, I had read in church history books that the early Christians generally refused military service. Those books said the early Christians weren't opposed to bloodshed; rather, they rejected military service in order to avoid participating in idolatrous practices. But that's not true. In their writings, the early Christians clearly stated they opposed war because they literally followed Jesus' commandments to "love your enemies" and "turn the other cheek." They viewed war as morally wrong... (p. 93)

At a time when military valor was considered to be the greatest of virtues, the early Christians stood alone in declaring that war was simply murder on a grand scale... (p. 94)

Consistent with its position of not legislating righteousness in other areas of life, the early church made no law that Christians could not serve in the army. The Scriptures only commanded a Christian to love his enemies and not to return evil for evil. Neither Jesus nor the apostles ever strictly forbade Christians to serve in the military. Since the Roman Empire was at peace during this early period of Christianity, it was quite possible for a Christian to spend his entire life in the army and never be required to shed blood. In fact, during this period, soldiers primarily served in a capacity similar to American police officers. Generally speaking, the church did not permit a Christian to join the army after his conversion. However, if a man was already a soldier when he became a Christian, the church did not require him to resign. He was only required to agree to never use the sword against anyone. One reason for this flexibility was that the Romans did not normally allow a soldier to leave the army until his time of service was completed. (pp. 97-98)


How Christians Made Peace with War: Early Christian Understandings of War, by John Driver (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1988, page 9-10,14-15,71,77)

In the period from about A.D. 90 until 313, early Christians opposed warfare because of the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus taught love for enemies, with a goal of bringing them to faith and friendship in God's family, the church. This led early Christians to extend love and forgiveness to persecutors and to call evildoers to a new way of life. However, through the years, Christians slowly became involved in military life until they lost their peaceful approach to solving conflict. [From the "Forward" by J. Allen Brubaker] ...

It is noteworthy that between 100 and 313 no Christian writers, to our knowledge, approved of Christian participation in warfare. In fact, all those who wrote on the subject disapproved of the practice.

However, the position of the church in this regard was not absolute. For example, some Christians who served in the Roman army were not for that reason excluded from the church's fellowship. From the close of the New Testament period until about A.D. 170, however, no firm evidence has surfaced that shows Christians serving in the army. From about 173 onward we find a gradually increasing number of Christians in the Roman army. At first, no doubt, they were mainly soldiers who had become Christians and simply remained in the army. Later, this group increasingly included Christians who had become soldiers...

The objections of early Christians to warfare and military service were based on the teachings and example of Jesus. This led them to resist stubbornly the evils and the injustices of their time. But in doing this, they resolutely refused to respond to evildoers with violence. They were even willing to suffer persecution and death rather than to shed the blood of their persecutors. Respecting the lives of their enemies, they refused to contribute to the vicious spiral of violence...

Constantine ([reigned] 306-337) gained power in the Roman empire During the second decade of the fourth century. His military skill and political wisdom permitted him to triumph over his opponent in the struggle for power...

Up to the year 300, the [Latin term paganus] meant civilian opposed to soldier. Eventually, however, it came to mean non-Christian as opposed to believer. In similar fashion, Christians had made a complete change from not fighting as soldiers to all soldiers being Christians.

Because of the wide implications of this reversal, some have referrerd to this process as the "fall of the church." That a major shift had occurred is undeniable...

However, this change did not come unchallenged by Christians of the period. Basil, who succeeded Eusebius as bishop of Caesarea, complained about the violence of warfare.

Many gain glory from the valor they show in battle. They go so far as to boast of the murder of their brothers. Indeed, military courage and the triumphal arches erected by a general or the community exist only through the magnitude of murder.

He recognized that church leaders had been pressured to make a concession. Afterward, they no longer called acts of war and capital punishment murder. Even so, Basil required that the soldier with unclean hands abstain from communion for three years.

The Synod of Arles, called by Constantine in 314, contains an official statement of the church concerning military service. Article 3 states, "Concerning those who throw away their arms in time of peace, it is fitting that they should not be admitted to communion."


The Anatomy of a Hybrid: A Study in Church-State Relationships, by Leonard Verduin (Sarasota. FL: The Christian Hymnary Publishers, 1976, excerpts from pages 94-100, 103)

The early church was extremely mission-minded... But these were also days of persecution... Sacral societies like the ones all around the early church are not bound together by doctrine but by cult, by sacramental act or gesture... The persecutions resulted from the fact that the Christian faith was undermining the homogeneity of the sacral society, was eroding the unanimity at the level of men's highest loyalty...

The persecutions were inspired by the sacralist fear that the sacrament-bound society would come apart... The pagan emperor Decius, who, alarmed at the erosion of the ancestral faith at the spread of Christianity, ordered all householders to perform the pagan sacramental acts... House-to-house checks spotted all who constituted a threat to Roman sacralism, and those who were found guilty of non-compliance were subject to dire punishment.

As early as A.D. 175 a churchman named Meliton of Sardis was whispering into the ear of the rulers that "only when Christianity is protected and promoted ... does the empire continue in size and splendor." .. We must note the significance of this idea of political advantage, for it frequently comes to the surface when things begin to drift toward "Christian sacralism."

The movement toward "Christian sacralism" began in A.D. 313 with the promulgation of the Edict of Toleration (also known as the Edict of Milan because it was first published in that city). This edict declared the Christian religion to be religio licita (a permitted cult), a status it had not had before. The immediate effect was the cessation of persecution, for the edict made the old charge of sacrilege-treason no longer possible...

As a result of either this intransigence on the part of Christians or their unexpected numerical strength, soon after the Edict of Toleration a second edict was enacted that made Christianity the one and only legitimate faith. Christianity became the "right" religion, and all the rest were by implication "wrong." This sudden change of fortune for the Christian cause was largely the work of the emperor Constantine...

There is no evidence that Constantine had the faintest conception of progressive grace or the remotest understanding of authentic Christianity's unique structuring of human society. All that happened was that the roles were reversed: the Christian faith now occupied the place from which the ancestral faith had been expelled. Whereas Christianity had been persecuted hitherto, it now found itself in position to do some persecuting of its own -- which it began at once to do. And the reasons were the same; they are reasons inherent in sacralism.

Constantine considered himself the supreme authority in matters pertaining to the new faith, exactly as he had previously with reference to the old faith. He made it his business "to demonstrate with unequivocal verdict ... just how the divine being should be worshipped and what kind of cult is pleasing to him."...

Constantine was just as intolerant after his "conversion" as he had been before: now gatherings in the signature of the old religion were forbidden, often in the very words of the earlier proscriptions against Christian gatherings... Unbaptized persons were now required by imperial law to attend indoctrination classes, with a view to baptism. Those who refused to go to the font [to be baptized] after such indoctrination were subject to severe penalty. Any person who after such forced baptism relapsed into the old ways was subject to exterminatio [extermination, liquidation, death]

Constantine began at once to bestow all kinds of favors on the new religion. Elegant church structures ... were built at public expense... Sunday, the first day of the week, which had been known to the early church as the "Lord's Day," was now proclaimed a legal holiday with the pagan name "day of the sun." This return to the pre-Christian name for the Christian day of rest was no doubt due to the emperor's continued reverence for the sun as a deity...

Constantine began at once to subsidize the Christian church with lavish money payments, and functionaries of the church were paid out of the public treasury. This led to an unholy scramble for appointment, often by persons who had neither theoretical nor experiential knowledge of the new faith. This scramble was accelerated by decree that freed all clerics of public burdens, such as the paying of taxes...

It is quite clear that Constantine promoted the new faith mainly for its "immeasurable benefit to the commonwealth." He has left no evidence that he placed any high value on Christianity's doctrine of sin and grace, divine forgiveness, pardon and renewal, or love and mercy...

One of the most far-reaching enactments intended to suport the new sacralism was the legal identification of heresy with sedition, or crime against the state...

The sword that Jesus had told Peter to put away was again drawn from its sheath -- by men who wanted to be known as vicars of this Peter. And these self-styled vicars began at one to instruct the regnum to hack and to hew with it in the very domain from which Jesus had banished it. The kingdom of Christ now pitted army against army, sword power against sword power, and from this point on warfare was under the water of baptism, a very "Christian" enterprise. By the year 416 the army was declared closed to all but Christians...

Not only did the church now pronounce its blessing on wars fought for political agrandizement, as a tool for "causing the empire to wax greater and greater," but it also began to give its support to acts of violence perpetrated in the name of religion.

Since the churchmen had used political bait in seeking to gain the emperor to their side, it is not surpising that the man's conversion was politically tinted and tainted. It must also be borne in mind that the subject of this "conversion" was an emperor at war: Christianity appealed to him because he had become convinced that it would help him in the business of winning wars... The military man's interest predominate in the whole affair.


Early Christians Speak: Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries, Revised Edition - by Everett Ferguson (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 1987, "Christians and Military Service: Love your enemies" pages 221,226-227)

Early second-century literature gives no direct evidence in regard to Christian participation in military service. The general statements which do occur imply a negative attitude. They reflect the Christian abhorrence of bloodshed and a general Christian affirmation about peace...

These distinctions bring us to the core of the early Christian rejection of military service. The question is closely bound up with the early Christian separation from the world and what was meant by it. How much of that separation was cultural and how much was theological? Various explanations have been offered for the anti-militarism of the ancient church: the idolatry inherent in the army of the Empire held together by the worship of Rome and the empereor; the cultural isolation of the early church; the incompatibility of warfare with Christian ethics.

The problem of idolatry was real and is recognized by the authors cited. However, that does not seem to be the real reason for their objections, and that could at least in some cases be avoided.

The cultural isolation again is true for the formative periods of the church. Christianity began with Judaism, and one of the priviliges of the Jews was exemption from military duty. As the church reached out into the non-Jewish world, it drew its recruits from the underprivileged and those segments of society which ordinarily were not called on for military service. Thus a pattern of non-involvement was established before there was ever a question of its ethical propriety raised on a large scale. With the growth of the church and its increasing cultural accommodation, converts were won from the military, and some Christians went into the army as a matter of course. This situation raised the ethical and theological issue... The sayings of Jesus and the whole of his teaching were felt to be contrary to active participation in warfare... The evidence is that initially the numbers of Christians in the army were few. This can be sustained in spite of the fact that most of what we hear is from those who opposed participation. But the numbers grew steadily in the third century, and when Constantine recognized the church in the fourth century the situation altered radically. Finally Theodosius II in 416 decreed that only Christians could be in the army, for he wanted divine favor to rest with the armies of the Empire against the barbarian threat.


Victory over Violence: Jesus and the Revolutionists, by Martin Hengel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973, "Violence Overcome: The Message of Jesus" pages 45-59; "The Way of the First Christians" pages 60-67)

Read excerpts at:'s response to questions, referring to Constantine's role




Early Christians' view
Teachings change: 313 A.D.
Topical index



1. Modern exploration of what historically constituted earliest Christian teachings and practices

2. History of efforts to reinstate earliest Christianity, including those efforts labeled and persecuted as heresies by opponents


Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer