taking the words of Jesus seriously

The Emperor Constantine was born on February 27 in the year 272 AD. There are parts of the Church that honor him as a saint… so this feels like a good time to share a little excerpt about Constantine from my book RETHINKING LIFE. [Spoiler alert: I definitely do NOT consider Constantine a saint.]

From Rethinking Life….

The Christian movement started on the margins with a small group of renegade Jews who were a peculiar little sect within the vast terrain of the Roman Empire. By AD 100, there were roughly 7,500 Christians, which is smaller than many of our megachurches today. A generation later, in AD 150, there were 40,000. But that was still only .07 percent of the population—not even a tenth of one percent of the empire. One hundred years after Christ was here in the flesh, there was roughly one Christian for every 1,430 people in the Roman world.

Then this little revolution began to spread beyond the periphery and to all sectors of society. Check this out. Historians estimate that between AD 100 and 300, the Christian movement grew from roughly 7,500 people to a whooping 6.3 million. By AD 300, Christians were 10 percent of the empire’s population—one person in every ten was now a Christian. But with the growth came complexity, and it is at this point that Emperor Constantine entered the picture.

Constantine’s reign is seen as a turning point for Christianity because it’s when Christianity the Roman Empire. Given the persecution Christians had long endured, this might seem to have been a miraculous deliverance, and it many ways it was. However, the so-called “Constantinian shift” was also when the first cracks began to appear in the early Christians’ ethic of life. Once they were in power, Christians went from being the persecuted to being the persecutors. They stopped loving their enemies and started killing them. They exchanged the cross for a sword.

Many scholars rightfully point out that Constantine was a symbol of something bigger happening in the culture, that he was the effect rather than the cause. Just as many of us point out that Donald Trump revealed America more than he changed America, perhaps the same can be said of Constantine. However, Constantine did crystalize some things that forever changed what it meant to be a Christian. But before we get to that, it’s important to understand more of the context that led up to Constantine’s reign and how it shaped the early church.

Constantine’s Backstory

Constantine came to power in the wake of horrific persecution of the church. To be sure, killing Christians had been a Roman pastime going all the way back to AD 33, but things had only gotten worse since. Historians point out that emperors such as Nero, who reigned in the generation after Jesus (AD 54–68), turned sadistic execution into a form of entertainment. There are reports of Christians being dressed in animal furs to be killed by dogs. They were crucified, even crucified upside down. Their bodies were often disfigured and contorted for the sake of the dark appetites. According to the Roman historian Tacitus (ca. AD 56–120), Nero turned his own garden into a killing field, setting bodies on fire and using them as human torches.

Then there was the persecution under Domitian, who reigned from AD 81–96. Domitian is the emperor who exiled John, the author of Revelation, to the island of Patmos. Persecution continued under Decius, who ruled from AD 249–251. Finally, there were the brutal, barbaric reigns of Diocletian from AD 284–305, and Galerius from AD 305–311, right before Constantine.

Most historians consider this era prior to Constantine to be the worst persecution Christianity had ever seen. Church buildings and property were destroyed. There were raids on churches in which sacred texts and relics were burned. Some Christians were demoted from places of honor if they would not renounce their faith. Some had their legal rights taken away, and others were forced into slavery if they refused to burn incense to Caesar (a loyalty test) or to recant their commitment to Christ. Under Diocletian, many were murdered during what historians call the “wholesale slaughter” of Christians. So, this is when Constantine entered the scene—following the terrible reigns of terror under Diocletian and his son-in-law Galerius.

Constantine was the son of Constantius Chlorus, a lower-ranking emperor who ruled in the West (Britain, Gaul, and Spain) during the bloody reign of Diocletian. Although his father Constantius was not a Christian, he was quite tolerant of Christians and did not carry out vicious orders and persecutions. When Constantine became emperor after Constantius’s death in 306, he took his dad’s tolerance of Christians to a new level. And his devotion to the faith, even though some question its sincerity, became personal.

It’s important to note that Constantine’s ascension to the throne wasn’t as simple as his father passing him a baton. The region historically had four regional emperors rather than one. When Diocletian stepped down in 305, there was a struggle to gain control of the empire as rival regional leaders fought for the throne. It wasn’t until 312 that Constantine won the decisive Battle of Milvian Bridge that ended the civil war and secured his place on the throne. But this is what’s so significant about that legendary battle against another aspiring emperor named Maxentius, especially with regard to our conversation about the sacredness of life. Prior to the battle, Constantine is said to have had a vision of the cross coming down from the sky in heavenly glory to bless him in the battle. Here’s an account of the vision, written by an historian named Eusebius:

About the time of the midday sun, when day was just turning, he said he saw with his own eyes, up in the sky and resting over the sun, a cross-shaped trophy formed from light, and a text attached to it which said, “By this conquer.”

“By this conquer.” In other words, kill in the name of Jesus.

Some question the credibility of the vision since it wasn’t until ten years later and two years after Constantine died that we have any account of it. It’s also important to note that the account we do have was written not by Constantine but by Eusebius, whom Constantine, as he died, had appointed a bishop. Eusebius had previously written his classic Ecclesiastical History, published ten years into Constantine’s reign, and he makes no mention of Constantine’s vision in that work, which seems like a significant oversight.

Could Constantine’s vision of the cross be imperial revisionist history? Totally possible, but it almost doesn’t even matter—it became Roman legend, and eventually church legend. In the centuries that followed, this same theology is invoked and the cross continued to be used as a symbol for battle and license for all sorts of atrocities. The cross, which had been such a powerful symbol of love and grace and redemption, would eventually be used in the Crusades and by colonizers doing the most unChristlike things imaginable.

Constantine was not a Christian when he became emperor in AD 306. In fact, he wasn’t even baptized until just before he died. But one of his first acts after winning the Battle of Milvian Bridge and killing Maxentius was signing the Edict of Milan, which proclaimed religious tolerance throughout the Roman Empire. No doubt, the relatively peaceful reign of Constantine that followed, while providing temporarily relief from persecution, was a massive shift for Christians.

As the church entered this new season of peace, it faced a whole new set of challenges and tensions, many of which were consequences of centuries of persecution. One of those tensions was that some Christians had begun to make compromises with the empire. To avoid becoming literal fodder for the empire’s fires, they essentially denied their faith with their fingers crossed behind their backs. They burned a little incense to Caesar to avoid being burned alive. As one ancient proverb aptly put it, they would bow before the emperor—and fart. They paid only enough homage to avoid getting killed.

It’s understandable, right? To be a Christian at the time of Constantine meant you and everyone you knew had, for generations, lost friends and family members to the brutal persecution of the Roman Empire—the same empire that had killed your Messiah. It’s hard enough to gather the faith and courage to die for Jesus, but harder still to sustain that fervor decade after decade and century after century while the empire is killing you, your kids, your parents, and the poor and vulnerable everywhere. So, if you had the option to make a small compromise in exchange for your life, it probably seemed like a worthwhile trade. And the temptation to acquire or align yourself with power and resources to stop the oppression would be hard to resist. It was one of the temptations Satan posed to Jesus in the desert. And it is a temptation we face in America today. So, that should give us some grace for the early Christians who, just a few hundred years in, made some regrettable, even if understandable, compromises.

Even so, not all of them compromised. Some felt more convicted than ever, believing that a willingness to die for Christ was the ultimate test of true discipleship. Persecution had only stiffened their spines and solidified their resolve. And herein lies one of the most significant crossroads of the early church. Those who refused to compromise excommunicated many of those who did, including leaders, for making concessions and assimilating within the empire. The early Christians knew they could not serve two masters. There was a choice to be made—would they serve Jesus or Caesar ? Excommunication has a bad vibe for many of us today, but the early Christians saw it as preserving the radical call of Christ and not compromising the cost of discipleship. There was no room for “cheap grace,” as Deitrich Bonhoeffer would call it centuries later, before he himself was martyred.

There’s an old saying we often hear in social movements today, “We have nothing to lose but our chains.” And while that was true of many of the early followers of Jesus who were poor or otherwise disenfranchised, it had become less unilaterally true a few centuries later. By this time, many new converts had a whole lot to lose. They wanted to hold onto their possessions and even stay in careers that earlier generations had deemed incompatible with Christian discipleship. Could you be a politician, much less the leader of the Roman Empire, and still be a follower of Christ? I think you see the source of the tension, which is one we still face today.

Constantine’s Impact

There is a lot we could say about Constantine and the evident contradictions in his faith and his leadership, but there is no denying that he radically parted ways with previous emperors and initiated welcome reforms. The reforms he instituted throughout society and the church were significant, and still leave a mark to this day—for better and for worse. In addition to proclaiming religious tolerance, he banned the gladiatorial games. He made it harder to kill babies by banning the Roman practice called “exposure.” He also banned the branding of criminals, which was done on the face.

Constantine explicitly acknowledged that human beings are made in the image of God. He funded the mission of the church, rebuilt church buildings, and reproduced copies of the Bible. He established the Sunday as a Sabbath day and ordered that the holy days of the Christian calendar be recognized. He even provided tax exemption for clergy and church property. I suppose he could be credited with setting up the first 501(c)(3) tax exemptions for the church, for better or worse.

He also ended the practice of crucifixion. Unfortunately, he didn’t end capital punishment, just execution by crucifixion. In fact, he ended up killing his own wife and son, so let there be no mistake—I’m not trying to defend him. I just want to be honest about the complexities and contradictions of a man many Christians today recognize as a saint, especially regarding the sanctity of life. Certainly, there are questions to be raised about his motives for all of these reforms, whether they came from an authentic respect for the Christian faith, political pragmatism, or some messy combo of both.

While scholars may debate how much Constantine himself actually changed the church, one thing is clear—the church was changing and the reign of Constantine certainly was a manifestation of that change. And Constantine took an active role not only in initiating social reforms, but also in shaping and solidifying the theology of the church.

By the time Constantine came to power, there were serious divisions in the church, many of which stemmed from the rapid growth of Christianity and its proximity to the power and wealth of Rome. Christians under Constantine began asking questions we still ask today. Does God want Christians to use worldly power to transform the world? Should Christians impose their values on others? Can Christians be political without losing their souls? Other contentious issues were more theological, such as disagreement about the full divinity and humanity of Christ and the nature of the Trinity.

In an effort to create unity and restore peace, Constantine tried to bring church leaders together. He hosted a summit of bishops in 314 at Arles in southern Gaul. And in 325, he convened one of the most significant ecumenical councils in the history of Christianity, the Council of Nicea. There, he brought together bishops and church leaders in an attempt to resolve differences and establish some norms and procedures within the church.

The rapidly growing church needed clarity about the structures of leadership as well as what church discipline looked like with heretics and lapsed Christians. What were the dignity standards for clergy? What did real repentance look like, and could someone be reinstated after they fell from grace? There were also questions about organizational structure and liturgical practice. One of the most pressing of issues before the Nicean council was how to understand the relationship between God and Jesus. The council produced the Nicene Creed, a defining statement of belief, which is still recited today, 1,700 years later, by Christians all over the world.

While the councils addressed various heresies and defined orthodox belief in the Nicene Creed, the message of Christianity itself did not change much. What did change, however, was how Christians lived out the message of Jesus in the world. The early church was called “The Way” and was known for its countercultural way of living. However, over the centuries and in response to persecution, Christianity gradually became primarily a way of believing rather than a way of living. During the era of Constantine and in the years that followed, much more energy was spent on defining how Christians are to think rather than how Christians are to live. The theological conversations progressively move from the heart to the head, focusing more on doctrines and less on actions.

From Christianity’s earliest days, friends and foes alike had described how radically different Christians were. Jesus had said that the world would know we are Christians by our love, and that is exactly what happened in those first few centuries. The onlooking world marveled that Christians fed the pagan poor as well as their own. They turned enemies into friends and loved even those who hated them. They would rather die than kill. Sadly, however, it was not these ways of living that were codified during the councils Constantine convened. What was debated and crystallized were doctrinal beliefs. To be clear, some very important clarifications were needed. And yet, you can’t help but wonder what might happened if it hadn’t been just doctrine that was set into stone, but also an ethic of life, lifestyle commitments, and a strong stance against violence.

What if the creed millions of Christians still recite every Sunday in worship also stated a commitment to life and affirmed the dignity of every person—the imago dei? Maybe it’s time to write a few new creeds today.

Historically, Christianity has always affirmed “orthodoxy,” meaning “right belief,” from which we get doctrine. But it has also held orthodoxy together with “orthopraxis,” meaning “right practice” or right living. Like the two blades of scissors or the two paddles of a rowboat, orthodoxy and orthopraxis go together.

Faith without works is dead (James 2:14–26). They will know we are Christians by our love (John 13:35). We can’t say that we love God and ignore our neighbor in need (1 John 3:16-17). Even as we look at Jesus, we do not see him teaching doctrines and theology alone, but also teaching us and showing us how to live.

Jesus put flesh on doctrine by literally becoming the Word made flesh (John 1:14). Jesus was not just inviting people to sign a doctrinal statement, he was inviting people to join a revolution—and still is. But that’s what began to give way during Constantine—the revolutionary, counter-cultural way of life of early Christianity.

Some point out, and rightly so, the irony that Constantine wasn’t even a baptized Christian as he oversaw these historic gatherings. Many contend that his primary interests were political more than they were religious—a divided church meant a divided empire and a weaker base. Perhaps he did have a deathbed conversion and got baptized before he died, as many believe. But in all those years before his death, he was quite a paradox, and ultimately did much damage to our understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

A tree is known by its fruit, as Jesus said. In the end, if Christianity was more than just a political endorsement for Constantine, it is hard to see how that really translated into his own life. In fact, the year after he hosted the Council of Nicaea, he killed his own son Crispus. And a month or so later, he killed his wife Fausta by having her basically boiled to death in hot water. Not very befitting of any man of God, if I might be so pretentious to say. And yet, to this day, Constantine is recognized by many Christians as a saint. The Orthodox Church calls him “isapostolos”—equal to the apostles. And that itself, is part of the problem.

What had fundamentally changed was the church’s proximity to power, and now the church faced decisions about how to use its power. Specifically, should it use the power of the state to enforce the doctrines of the church? And by “enforce,” it’s important to know that the church now had the authority not just to excommunicate heretics, but to actually kill them.

It was also during Constantine’s reign that we begin to see the seeds of Christian colonization, which we’ll dig into in chapter 8. The words of Constantine’s vision, “By this conquer,” will echo throughout the ages to conquistadors and colonizers, providing holy cover for unholy missions.

The reign of Constantine is where we recognize the first cracks in the steadfast commitment to life that characterized the early Jesus movement. It’s also when we begin to see what compromised Christian faith can look like, more generally speaking. I guess some would call it the evolution of Christianity. I would call it the dissolution. Some would call it progress. I would call it digress, especially when it comes to how we value life.

The Post-Constantine Era

By AD 350, just over a decade after the death of Constantine, there were 33 million Christians in the Roman Empire. They were now more than half the Roman population—56 percent. The number of Christians outnumbered the number of non-Christians for the first time. Let that sink in. In a mere seventy years, Christianity went from being a persecuted revolutionary movement to an accepted minority religion, and then to the established religion of the entire Roman Empire.

While Constantine had made Christianity the majority religion in the empire, it would be the next emperor, Theodosius (AD 379–395), who would make it the official religion of the Roman Empire. Theodosius was the emperor who began to aggressively “Christianize” the empire. He used his power to ban both unorthodox Christians and pagans. He destroyed pagan temples and incited mob violence alongside the violence wielded by the state. At one point, undoubtedly provoked and emboldened by the emperor, the archbishop of Alexandria rounded up a group of monks to destroy the serapeum, one of the shrines to the Egyptian god Serapis. And Theodosius congratulated the Christians who tore it down. This was his decree:

It is our will that all the peoples who are ruled by . . . our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans. . . We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. . . . The rest, however, whom we adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, . . . and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of our own initiative, which we shall assume in accordance with divine judgement.

Obviously, that didn’t go over well with many people, namely the formerly pagan majority that was now quickly become a minority both in numbers and in access to power. At one point, there were riots and Theodosius was absolutely brutal, slaughtering thousands of men, women, and children. On another occasion, he killed 7,000 people in three hours. Theodosius was so relentlessly violent that he was temporarily excommunicated by one of the bishops of the church, Bishop Ambrose of Milan. He was not permitted to take the Eucharist because he had betrayed Christ by spilling blood. You may recall the statement of the third-century bishop Cyprian, that the hand that takes the Eucharist should not be “sullied by the blood-stained sword!”

Shortly after the rule of Theodosius, fifteen years later to be precise, the Roman Empire collapsed, sacked by Visigoths in 410 AD. For the first time in 800 years, Rome was unable to defend itself from outside invasion. The Roman Empire fell, but the church lived on.

Other emperors would come and go. Some, such as Justinian in AD 527, considered themselves to be what historian Susan Wise Bauer describes as “the representative of Christ on earth.” As a Byzantine emperor and professing Christian, he began the ambitious mission known as “renovation imperii,” or “the restoration of the empire.” In service of his cause, Justinian slaughtered 30,000 people in one week to put down what came to be called the Nika Riots in Constantinople. It is unclear if he saw himself representing God or the state—or both—as he killed these men, women, and children. It was hard to know where the emperor’s reign ended and God’s kingdom began. The marriage of church and state had begun.

Christians began to kill other Christians whom they considered heretics. And Christians began to kill people of other faiths, along with native peoples and pagans. Those who had been tortured and jailed became the ones who tortured and jailed others. The ones who had seen their books burned and their buildings torched became the ones who burned the books and destroyed the buildings of others. The persecuted became the persecutors. Those who had been the victims of state power now wielded that power. Those who had suffered from the military occupation now served in the military. The executed now became the executioners. After 300 years of steadfast commitment to life and standing up against death and violence in all its manifestations, Christians became the empire and exchanged the cross for a sword.

The brilliant Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard insisted that where everything is Christian nothing is Christian. In other words, we lose our essence, the distinctive, counter-cultural witness of the upside-down kingdom.

We can say that we are a Christian empire, but the question is, how much do we remind the world of Jesus? As history shows, Christian empires, if there is such a thing, usually lose their souls.

A wise man once said, “What good is it to gain the whole world but lose your soul?”

Excerpt from Shane Claiborne’s Rethinking Life, Zondervan Books, Published 2023, Used by permission.

About The Author


Shane Claiborne is a best-selling author, renowned activist,
 sought-after speaker, and self-proclaimed “recovering sinner.” Shane writes and speaks around the world about peacemaking, social justice, and Jesus, and is the author of several books, 
including "The Irresistible Revolution," "Jesus for President," "Executing Grace," "Beating Guns," and his newest book, "Rethinking Life (released in Feb 2023)." He is the visionary leader of The Simple Way in Philadelphia and co-director of Red Letter Christians. His work has been featured in Fox News, Esquire, SPIN, TIME, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and CNN.

Related Posts

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.


Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
    Check which Newsletter(s) you'd like to receive:    

You have Successfully Subscribed!