What effect did Constantine's conversion have on Christianity?
Summary: In the beginning, Christians actively met in homes, later in cemeteries and then in basic structures. When Constantine converted to Christianity, the imperial influences became pervasive in Christianity. The pomp and circumstance usually reserved for the imperial court became common. As a result, congregations themselves had less active roles in worship.
One of the things that we need to say is that Constantine’s conversion also had a powerful impact on Christian worship. Until Constantine’s time, Christian worship had been relatively simple. At first, Christians began to gather in private homes. Then, they began to gather in cemeteries, such as the Roman catacombs. By the 3rd century, there were structures set aside for worship. The oldest church that archeologists have discovered is that of Dura-Europos which dates from about A.D. 250. This is a fairly small room decorated with very simple murals.
After Constantine’s conversion, Christian worship began to be influenced by the imperial protocol. Incense which was used as a sign of respect for the emperor began to appear in Christian churches. Officiating ministers who until then had worn everyday clothes began wearing more luxurious garments. Likewise, a number of gestures indicating respect which were normally made before the emperor now became part of Christian worship. The custom was also introduced to begin services with a processional. Choirs were developed, partly in order to give body to that procession and eventually, the congregation came to have a less active role in worship.
Already in the 2nd century, it had been customary to commemorate the anniversary of a martyr’s death by celebrating communion where the martyr had been buried. Now, churches were built in many of those places. Eventually, some came to think that worship was particularly valid if it was celebrated in one of those holy places where the relics of a martyr were present. In consequence, some began to unearth the buried bodies of martyrs in order to place them or part of them under the altar of one of the many churches that were being built.
Others began claiming revelations of martyrs who had not been known or who had been almost forgotten. Some even said they had received visions telling them where a particular martyr was buried, as in the case of Ambrose and the supposed remains of Saints Gervasius and Protasius. Eventually, the relics of saints of New Testament times were said to have miraculous powers. Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine, gave special impetus to this entire development.
When in pilgrimage to the holy land, she thought she had discovered the very cross of Christ! Soon, this cross was said to have miraculous powers and pieces of wood claiming to have come from it were found all over the empire. This veneration of relics increased until the time of the reformation so much so that at the time of Luther he commented that there were enough crosses of Christ, held in various churches, to produce 12 or 15 different crosses. That much wood was held in churches. Many of these pieces, of course, were of dubious origin. And many of these developments with respect to worship practices continued on.
There was also the development of church structures. Some of the churches had an altar in the center (the floor plan was polygonal or almost round), but most of them followed the basic rectangular plan of the basilica. This was an ancient word which referred to the great public (or sometimes) private buildings whose main part was a great room divided into naves or by two or more rows of columns. Since these structures provided the model for church building during the first centuries after Constantine’s conversion, such churches came to be known as basilicas.
In a number of ways, Constantine’s conversion to Christianity had powerful effects on Christian belief patterns, worship patterns and position within the empire. And so it is that his conversion was really a turning point. The reaction against the official theology and what we might call the apostasy of the early days of Constantine found their form in individuals like Anthony who left the city and the distractions of worldly living in order to devote themselves to the monastic lifestyle. And it’s interesting too that Justo L. Gonzales in his presentation of church history, the early Christians before the time of Constantine held up martyrdom as the highest ideal for a Christian to follow after, once martyrdom was no longer very likely, because Constantine had said the church is alright as a part of the empire. Then, the official alternative or the possible alternative for a Christian who really wanted to live out their lives in a very ultra-rigorous way was to pursue the monastic life, where they vowed celibacy, they left the city and went into the desert in order to live a life by themselves. Monks who leave their cells or seek the company of others lose their peace like the fish out of water loses its life; so says Anthony who was one of those early monastic Christians.
Monasticism also holds up celibacy as an ideal and quite often would be rather harsh in its treatment of the body. Following the words of Paul, one wants to be a very disciplined athlete, pummeling the body, so that you might be the best warrior. This had its downside because when taken to an extreme it would be something of a deprecation or something of a devalue of creation and the goodness of the human body and of the good gifts that God gives; interpreting them rather as being temptations. So the monastic reaction was one in which there were a number of people who went out in the desert. Now, this did produce and had a positive effect. It produced great discipline in terms of praying and it also produced some wonderful intellectuals. Jerome was one whose life is somewhat legendary in the fact that he devoted himself totally to the work of the church. And so the spread of the monastic ideal was incredibly important during his time.