The Empire converts

From Emperor Constantine onwards, the church has had a fraught relationship to power.



Oppressive or liberating?


From Emperor Constantine onwards, the church has had a fraught relationship to power.


JOHN DICKSON: Some would say this is where the church’s fixation with power began.

Here at the Milvian Bridge in the year 312, the emerging emperor Constantine won a stunning victory against his rival Maxentius. And he gave the credit to Jesus Christ.

The sources offer different accounts. Some say Constantine simply had a dream ordering him to fight under the banner of a Christian cross. Others say he saw a vision of the cross in the sky complete with the words “in hoc signo vinces” – “in this sign, conquer”.

It is a bizarre turning point. The Christian symbol of humble self-sacrifice was now part of the Roman war machine.

Within a few years, churches were not just freed from persecution, they were granted the personal patronage of the unchallenged ruler of the world. The churches gained land and money, they enjoyed direct access to the halls of power, and for a brief period, bishops even became magistrates. They had resources, power, and the law – it’s quite a mix.

DAVID BENTLEY HART: I think it’s fair to say that the greatest historical triumph of Christianity as a cultural force – its conversion of the empire – was in many ways also its greatest defeat. Its deepest moral teachings were corrupted at a fairly early period in the long view.

TERESA MORGAN: Undoubtedly Christianity changed. It became more Establishment. It became more interested in money. It became more interested in protecting itself and its own prestige because of being allied with imperial power. On the other hand, it acquired opportunities to do what it saw as good. So I think it’s always a very two-edged thing, acquiring power, for any religious tradition probably, including early Christianity.

JUSTINE TOH: Fast-forward a thousand years, and you see what a church that’s become obsessed with power can look like.

The popes of medieval Europe claimed their descent from the apostle Peter, a humble fisherman, but frequently acted more like princes and politicians.

They took vows of celibacy, but openly fathered children. They peddled positions to those who could pay for them, rather than those who’d be good at them. They sold forgiveness of sins to fund their building projects and keep their courts. They commanded armies; manipulated kings. Some are even rumoured to have poisoned people who stood in their way.

The so-called “Renaissance popes” are the most notorious, and possibly the most hated of the bunch was Julius II, who began his ten-year reign at the start of the 1500s. Julius was an able administrator, and a master politician. But he lacked certain qualities you might expect from a leader of Jesus’ church. He prided himself on being a warrior-pope. And if a town resisted his authority, he loved to dress up in silver armour and lead his troops through its broken-down walls.

There were many Christians who wanted something better from their church and their pope – a return to the way of Jesus.

And even amidst all the warlords and profiteers, there were reforming popes, humanist popes, even monk popes. But Julius gives you a taste of just how bad things got – how far the popes of the time had strayed from the one they claimed to follow.

JOHN G. STACKHOUSE JR: The Renaissance popes are only the most obvious example of a kind of complete collusion with power and wealth in the later Middle Ages. And yet we see it lots of other places too, where Christian clergy are very happy to use the power of the state to stamp out their religious enemies, as well as their political enemies; to seize lands, and houses, and people from their enemies and appropriate them for themselves. So, Christian history is littered with instances of Christians behaving badly when they have a chance to pull the levers of power.