At the beginning of my on-line church history class, I ended up writing a little bit about Constantine. I remember learning about him while I was growing up--maybe in 6th grade history class or something--and getting the impression that he was this great guy because he made it okay to be a Christian. (I'm not sure I got that he made it well-nigh mandatory, but even if I had, I probably thought that was a good idea at the time, too.) Now I have some different views, although I suspect they are not entirely free of culturally-influenced thought. One of the "tutor"-type people for the class said that it was okay for me to copy my classwork responses to my blog, so for the sake of future discussion, I am duly posting my on-line discussion:
This question is simple. Has the role of Constantine been for the better or the worse throughout history?
Recently a non-Christian friend of mine accused me of having "something of an affliction fetish." I'm not sure that's exactly how I would term it (but I might as well get off to a shocking start with my interactivity assignments). However, I do think, as a follower of Jesus, that "trials" or "persecutions" or "afflictions" or whatever else we may want to call them, are probably meant to be par for the course. I suspect I have a tendency, from my comfy North American living room, to idealize and romanticize "the persecuted church." I don't feel quite right about saying, "Constantine should never have been part of church history because we as Christians should always be getting beat up for our faith." As cthayer [another student] states, "While it is clear throughout history that the church stunningly thrives under persecution, it makes it no less of an atrocity that men and women of faith throughout the centuries have had to undergo it."
On the other hand, I do think that in many if not most cases, our brothers and sisters in more "religiously dangerous" countries across the globe have a lot sturdier faiths than I or many of my compatriots have. I guess I'm grateful for my freedoms because I haven't experienced much of anything else, but it speaks volumes to me that many times people within what is termed the Persecuted Church ask for our prayers--not that the sufferings will end, but that they will bear up under them and not deny their Lord.
It seems to me that via Constantine (and by his successors in power-mongering), the lack of persecution did make the spread of Christianity easier and quicker, but it may also have declawed it in some senses and places. If we are not bearing a cross in the name of Christ, it's a lot harder for the Cross to be much more than a symbol [in the name of nationalism, like it was for Constantine]. It is, of course, possible, but it seems like, whatever his personal allegiances really were, Constantine did his best to imbue the Cross with power instead of with the humility and sacrifice that it actually portrays. I guess I have a mild, semi-conscious resentment of Constantine for kicking off the fat-cat Christianity that seems to have beleaguered Christ's Bride and her witness for the rest of history. I might also mention that when I'm trying to talk about Jesus to non-Christian friends like the aforementioned one, Constantine almost always comes up, in a negative light, and it's very difficult to witness around him.
Nevertheless, though on a personal level I feel that his influence was primarily negative, it seems to me too simplistic to term it that way. I tend to agree with kbacklund's reminder that God works all things together for good to those who love Him, and with awestmoreland's highlighting of God's hand is in history. The Church was able to work through certain doctrinal issues during Constantine's time that would not have been possible had it still been struggling with the persecution (though perhaps the Gospel would have remained a little more unadorned if the time for these things had not been available), and surely, whether God exactly ordained Constantine's rule or simply allowed it, He was not surprised by it and He is able to make good any situation. It seems that in some ways, He is still doing that up to this very day with all the church's past mistakes, and not just Constantine's.