Some Evangelicals have been told by their well-meaning pastors that Constantine "invented" the Catholic Church in 325 A.D.
Ignatius, the disciple of John, describes the Church as "Catholic" in 110 A.D.
Ignatius, a disciple of the apostle John, was martyred in Rome under Emperor Trajan's rule. It was during the journey to Rome in 110 A.D. that he wrote his famous letters that contain invaluable information about the early Church. This was 20 years after John wrote his Gospel. Catholic, referring to the Whole Church was a term in common use at the time and Ignatius' writing is the oldest still existing text which contains a specific form of the phrase we still use today as a proper name. That of "ekklesia katholicos," which means "Universal Church". The terms "holen ten ekklesian" which means "The Whole Church" and "ekklesia kathholes" which means "The Church throughout the whole of" were also in use by the Apostles and others in the early Christian community.
What did Constantine do?
We must remember that Constantine did not actually become a Christian until he was an old man on his death bed. That was when he was baptised and professed that Jesus is Lord. During his life he did not surrender to Christ. He simply changed the law so that it was no longer illegal to be Christian. This was quite prudent of him given that Christianity was steadily growing and might have turned into an ugly rebellion against him.
To help us understand Constantine's relationship to the Church, let us look at modern day China. In China, there is great oppression against the Church. We've all heard about the atrocities; about people being dragged off by the authorities never to be seen again; about authorities breaking up public gatherings of Christians and throwing them in prison; outlawing the Bible etc. This is a terrible situation and many Christians have become martyrs to change it.
Assume a leader came into power in China who recognized Christianity and made it legal. Imagine what a great day that would be, a celebration! Christians could go out freely and preach the Good News from the housetops as Jesus commanded. They would be able to freely gather and convert people to the life giving faith in Christ. The leader who accomplished that tremendous feat would be one of the greatest men in all of China's history, regardless of his own personal defects of character. He would be instrumental in the salvation of millions and perhaps billions. (Let's pray that happens).
The situation of the early Church in Rome was not unlike modern day China. Christians were being thrown to the lions, torn limb from limb. They were under great persecution. This was inhibiting Jesus' command to proclaim the Good News from the housetops.
Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops. I tell you my friends, do not fear those who kill the body and after that can do nothing more. (Lk 12:3-4)
This Scripture passage was not only a command, it was a prophesy of things to come, and it did not come to pass until Constantine made Christianity "legal." It's pretty hard to proclaim the Good News from a housetop if someone comes along and arrests you and kills you when you preach! It is clear that the persecution of Christians in the Roman empire was not what Jesus wanted and that it had to change. Constantine was the fulfillment of prophecy (Lk 12:3-4).
Constantine's wife convinced him to preserve many historical sites that have, over the ages, enriched the lives of millions of Christians including Evangelicals who have journeyed to the Holy Land. Despite any personal defects we might attribute to Constantine, he performed one of the greatest feats of any man in history. He brought the Church out from under the yoke of oppression and allowed people to preach the gospel from the housetops which is what Christ commanded and prophesied. This action by Constantine saved millions of lives and more importantly, it saved millions of souls. If you are "saved" today you may want to be thankful for what Constantine did. If you were able to trace back through the generations of Christians leading up to the one who brought the Good News to you, you would probably find a critical link to Constantine's decision. Many Christians, including Evangelicals, would not be Christian today if it was not this providential twist in history.
After the crucifixion, the apostles passed to the Early Church Fathers, the Faith. Later Emperors and Monarchs accepted the Creed; their subjects followed. That's how it started.
...By around 120 [AD], key features of Christianity had taken shape-an organized priesthood... (pg 349, The Romans From Village to Empire, Oxford University Press)
Constantine did not invent Catholicism, he simply recognized it and let people legally be Christian. Christians were having "Catholic" Masses long before this "legalization" of Christianity. Three hundred years before Constantine, Christians believed in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, honoured Mary, had elaborate ceremonies, prayed for the dead, respected the Church hierarchy, baptized babies, recognized Peter as the Rock, built the Church upon him with successors and followed a rich tradition of Christianity. That was the Christianity of the early days of Christianity and that is the Catholic Church of today. Catholic means "universal." A timeline of the Catholic Church from 1-500 A.D. is here
Sometimes Evangelicals look at beautiful Catholic Churches that Constantine built and ask, "Why didn't the Church continue to worship in peoples' homes?" These Evangelicals point out that in the first years of Christianity the places of assembly were people's homes. This is true. They were also sometimes in Catacombs. But Catholics don't think this was God's plan for "Church." It was a result of persecution. If homes were the ideal spot for assembly then they wouldn't have had services in Catacombs.
The martyrs died so that Christians could get out of their homes and have their worship services in public
The martyrs longed for the day when Christians could hold their services in public where they could be a better witness and provide a public venue that was welcoming to strangers. So it confuses me as to why people in today's society would like to go back to the days when Christians were oppressed, and forced to gather in homes. Constantine's legalization of Christianity ended the public and state oppression of Christianity that forced people to gather in homes.
People who grew up in communist Russia during the cold war know what it is like to have the Church forced out of the public square and into their homes. And they celebrated when they could go back to public churches after communism fell. Let us not get nostalgic and romantic about Christian oppression.
In my testimony I talk about the day I got off a bus in Montreal and wandered off the street into a big beautiful Church. I surrendered my life to Jesus that day. It is doubtful that I would have walked into someone's home and done the same thing.
When Jesus saw money changers in the temple. He didn't say, "Hey guys, it's only a building, we can worship anywhere, let's go down the street to the community centre." No, He chased them out. (Lk 19:45) He had a passion for the Temple. He called it "my Father's House." (Lk 2:49, 16:27, Jn 2:16)
Church buildings began in the latter half of the second century during lulls in persecution, long before Constantine. They became widespread after the Enactment of Milan in 313 AD when it finally became possible for the Church to emerge completely from the underground.
Today there are huge Evangelical Churches springing up all over the world. When I was in Guatemala there was a beautiful 7,000 seat Evangelical Church being built. The "Dream Center" in Los Angeles is another example. Evangelicals are building big beautiful Churches as fast as they can get the money to build them. Catholics just have a 1700 year head start :-)
Constantine did not invent the Church any more than a modern day leader who would legalize Christian practices in China would invent Christianity. Let us all pray for China.
"Oh Lord, pour your Holy Spirit upon that great nation of China. Save your people in China, move the hearts of the leadership, rise up a courageous soul who will rewrite the laws of that land. Oh Lord let your Word be proclaimed from the housetops in China, that all men and women of that country may see the light and receive salvation, Amen."
Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.