Corrupt Them With Money

It was a surprise to me to learn that Emperor Constantine's first act to favor Christianity wasn't to proclaim it the official religion of the Roman Empire, nor was it to ban paganism -- that came later. It was something less noble and more sinister. He put Christianity on the government dole.

Rodney Stark in his recent book, One True God -- The Historical Consequence of Monotheism (Princeton University Press, 2001), offers this historical footnote:

Constantine's "favor" was his decision to divert to the Christians the massive state funding on which the pagan temples had always depended. Overnight, Christianity became "the most-favored recipient of the near-limitless resources of imperial favor" (Fletcher, 1997:19). A faith that had been meeting in humble structures was suddenly housed in magnificent public buildings -- the new church of St. Peter built by Constantine in Rome was modeled on the basilican form used for imperial throne halls. A clergy recruited from the people and modestly sustained by member contributions suddenly gained immense power, status, and wealth as part of the imperial civil service.

The special privileges, exemptions and support granted to Christian clergy brought a stampede into the priesthood. The sons of the aristocracy were first in line for the plum priestly positions. Historical accounts tell of "an extensive traffic in bishoprics, including payment of huge bribes." Candidates were fast-tracked into ordination in a matter of weeks bypassing the lower clerical ranks to begin as a bishop. "St. Ambrose went from baptism, through ordination and the clerical ranks, and then was consecrated a bishop, all in eight days!"

Constantine's lavish support of Christianity (that surviving remnant which had already been compromised with a multitude of Hellenistic heresies) produced, in Stark's words, "a very worldly, political and luxury-loving church hierarchy." Well, we can say seventeen centuries later, not much has changed.

The church of the Apostles was assailed by the Evil One on many fronts -- persecution, scattering, subverting with heresy, and finally by blessing what remained with state favor, money and power. The very empire that sponsored Christian persecution may well have dealt its most effective blow by making it the state religion. Meanwhile, the little flock of humble and true God-fearers grew in grace and knowledge despite all that Rome and its new state church would do against it. We remember Yeshua's promise that his true church would survive come Rome, hell or high water.

-- The New Millennium, June 2004.