Constantine and the Church 2 – Church Under Persecution

Posted: August 12th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Constantine | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

We typically refer to the Church from the time of Nero to the time of Constantine as the Church under persecution. While that is true, it’s also true that the level and intensity of persecution waxed and waned a number of times during that period. The penultimate persecution was under the Emperor Valerian which ended with his son Gallenius in the year 260. In fact, Gallenius instituted a period of peace with Christians that not only ended persecution, but restored some of their property and afforded them a quasi-legal status. Christians were even allowed to serve in government positions. The peace with Christians which Gallenius instituted lasted forty-three years through the reigns of eight succeeding emperors and well into the reign of Diocletian.

There were a number of incidents which fueled Diocletian’s dislike of Christians. Finally, in the year 302, he and Galerius argued over the best approach to deal with Christians. Diocletian initially favored simply barring them from government and military service. Galerius favored extermination. The two men sought the advice of the oracle of Apollo, but were told that the “just on earth” prevented Apollo from giving advice. Taking the “just on earth” to mean the Christians, Diocletian acceded to Galerius’ plan and proceeded to attempt to destroy Christianity and eliminate all Christians.

Diocletian was an extremely efficient administrator and his persecution of the Christians has since come to be called the “Great Persecution”. It was by far the most comprehensive and thorough. Some estimates hold that as many as 20,000 Christians were killed during this persecution and countless more were imprisoned and tortured. The persecution continued past Diocletian’s abdication until 311 when Galerius issued an order of toleration or indulgence.

In 312, following a vision of the cross and having his army march under the Chi-Ro, Constantine won the undisputed title of Emperor of the Western empire. Constantine credited his victory to the Cross of Christ. In 313, he forced the then Emperor of the Eastern empire, Licinius, to issue a joint declaration known as the Edict of Milan, which made Christianity a legal religion in the empire and restored the property that Christians had lost.

The relationship between the two emperors degenerated however and in 320 Licinius instituted another persecution of Christians in the East that in part triggered a great civil war for control of the empire. Licinius cast himself as the defender of the ancient pagan religions and won the support of the Goth mercenaries. Constantine’s armies marched under the Chi-Ro. In 324, Constantine defeated Licinius and established himself as sole ruler of the entire empire.

Although Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the empire, he did cease state support of pagan religions and expected them to pay the tax. At the same time, he made Christianity legal across the empire, sponsored a number of churches, and officially brought Christians into government service. He viewed the Church as a stabilizing influence on the empire.

These dates of persecution will become important as we look at subsequent actions by Constantine with the Church.