After Jesus and Paul, Constantine is perhaps the most important person for the development of the early Christian Church. It is he who ultimately gave them political and social legitimacy.
What is most important to remember about Constantine is that he ascended the throne of an empire which was fragmented and in disarray, thus his chief goal was always creating and maintaining unity, be it political, economic or, eventually, religious. For Constantine, one of the greatest threats to Roman domination and peace was disunity.
Christianity filled Constantine's need for a basis of religious unity quite well. Christians may have been a minority through the empire, but they were a well-organized minority. In addition, no one had already tried to claim their political allegiance, leaving Constantine no competitors and giving him a group of people who would be supremely grateful and loyal for finally finding a political patron.
According to the stories, Constantine was preparing to launch an attack on his rival, Maxentius, in 312 when he had a vision or a dream which informed him that he would be victorious if he fought under the Christian symbol. The first important thing he did after this was issue the Edict of Milan in 313, which instituted religious toleration as the law of the land and ended the persecution of Christians. In 324, Christianity became an officially recognized religion and equal to the others.
But because of Constantine's desire for unity, he ruthlessly enforced his particular brand of orthodoxy among the various Christian groups - there was just no way he would allow them to be weakened as a political force through internal strife or disagreement. Constantine appropriated this authority for himself by declaring that he was a "bishop, ordained by God."
First, Constantine moved to eliminate the external challenges posed by paganism, destroying their temples and books. After that, he ordered that those Christian groups which had been deemed "unorthodox" also be eliminated, thus removing internal challenges. Very quickly, theological disagreements which had been a part of the Christian experience became "unchristian." For Constantine, religious differences were impediments to the power that had replaced Maxentius and Licinius. In this way, choice ("heresy") to be religiously different became defined as treason, a political crime.
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