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Christianity and Law |
The birth of Christendom

Christianity and Law is drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 178, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

By making Christian morality the basis of the law, Constantine launches a tradition that will endure until the late 20th century

Christianity and Law - The birth of Christendom

Christianity and Law - The birth of Christendom
A marble relief reflects the worldview of Christians in the early fourth century, before the ascendancy of Constantine altered it radically. Two lambs symbolize the faithful. They gaze up longingly at an empty throne (upon which a crown is laid) awaiting the return of their Lord.

The notion of Christendom–a political world in which Christianity enjoyed a privileged position–was slow to take shape, even after Constantine’s Edict of Milan, issued in 313. Although the proclamation required complete religious toleration for Christians in the Roman Empire, it did not mandate any special preferences for them. And Constantine did not make Christianity the exclusive religion of the empire. It was not until after 380, under the emperors Theodosius I in the East and Gratian in the West, that pagan temples were closed, and all subjects of Rome were required to become orthodox Christians.

Nonetheless, from 313 onwards, Constantine gradually added the values of Christianity to the legal structure of the empire. He built Christian churches in Rome and elsewhere, made Sunday an official day of rest in 321, and enacted laws forbidding the use of magic and divination. Furthermore, as emperor, Constantine held the title Pontifex Maximus, or highest priest, with the duty of overseeing the Roman religion. After 313, he in effect promoted Christianity as the official faith of the empire. He assumed the authority, though he was unbaptized, to settle church disputes.

So it can be truly said that under Constantine, although the Christian hierarchy and the secular government remained separate entities, what has come to be known as “Christendom” began to emerge. And many of the reforms instituted by Constantine lasted for centuries, their effects so widespread that they linger within the memories of many people in the twenty-first century. There was until very recently an understanding among most people that Christian values underlie public institutions. Until late in the twentieth century, for example, many predominantly Christian countries and states enforced Sunday “blue laws” that forbade transacting business on the Lord’s Day–precisely the same in principle that Constantine had promulgated in 321.

In Christendom, human laws were believed to derive from God’s Law, as revealed in the Ten Commandments.

In the ancient Roman world, abortion was widely practiced. Although Roman law punished abortion on the ground that it deprived a father of his children, only Jews and Christians considered the taking of an innocent unborn human life to be morally wrong in itself. It was only in the Christian Roman Empire, during the reign of the emperor Justinian in the sixth century, that the law began to prosecute abortionists severely.

With Christendom came the growth, as the centuries passed, of a Christian culture. Not only did Christian values receive legal support, but Christian belief permeated great art, literature and music, and engendered such customs of daily life as praying before meals or at bedtime. At the center of every Christian community was a Christian house of worship, whether a soaring cathedral or a simple wood-framed chapel. All this was possible because there was a sense of belonging to a society whose members knew that their rulers not only shared, but would protect Christian beliefs, and that the church was a school for citizenship.

From Constantine’s day forward, however, a distinction was gradually made between the secular political world and the church. After all, Jesus himself had said, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). Christian judges might preside in the law courts, but these officials were not to try to rule the church itself. Even Constantine’s imperial title of Pontifex Maximus was eventually taken by the popes. Only rarely did the church attempt to become a secular authority. Instead, church and state existed side by side in a sometimes amicable, sometimes uneasy, and occasionally violent relationship.

In the twentieth century, the pendulum swung to the side of the state, and the Catholic intellectual Richard John Neuhaus was one of hundreds of Christian voices, Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox, complaining about moral impoverishment in the “naked public square,” from which religion largely has been banned by court fiat. Many public schools and governmental agencies nowadays hesitate to call the winter holiday Christmas, and schoolchildren who in earlier times might have been told to memorize the Ten Commandments have been reprimanded if they quote the Bible approvingly in their homework.

On the other hand, Christendom often discriminated against other religions, Jews especially, but even minority groups of Christians. At its worst, that discrimination could entail ghettoization, the loss of civil liberties, banishment, and even execution. When daily Bible-reading was common in U.S. public schools, the Bible selected was typically the King James Version used by Protestants, making Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Jews, and others uneasy. For these reasons, many Baptists and other conservative Christian groups that historically suffered persecution from other Christians have vigorously supported a hard-line separation of church and state.

As the third Christian millennium dawned, policy makers in both the church and the government continued to wrestle with their relationship to each other. For while there was much negative to be said about the Christendom that Constantine created, there was much good that would, after seventeen centuries, be lost.

This is the end of the Christianity and Law category article drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 178, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Christianity and Law from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at