On this date in 380 AD Roman Emperor Theodosius made Christianity into the official state religion. It was one of the most catastrophic events in Church history.
Up until the time Constantine legalized the church in 313 AD, the great strength of the Church was the fact that the Kingdom of God resided within the believers. Under Constantine the Church became respectable and began to attract the ambitious and worldly who would make a show of outward piety without an inward transformation. After 380 AD, the Church was swamped with unconverted pagans and the outward rituals replaced the inner power for most Church members. And the Church adopted pagan holidays and rituals to make the pagans feel more at home.
The first to clothe themselves in the new mantle of the State religion were the emperors themselves. The major church Bishops at Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem also caught the power bug. Within less than a century the Jewish Bishop of Jerusalem was gone, the Antioch church was forced out to become the Nestorian Church, and the Egyptian Christians were forced out to become the Coptic Church. The Bishop of Rome was forced to trade Church recognition for military protection in Western Europe in order to remain independent of the eastern Roman emperor and the Bishops of Constantinople. In 1054 AD the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox finally split and went their separate ways.
The marriage between Church and State meant that religious questions would be solved with the sword instead of the Spirit. Early victims of the sword included the Arian Christian Visigoths and the Coptic Christians. Instead of sending missionaries, the State Church sent armies to forcibly convert the heathen and the heretics. When the European Church split between Protestants and Catholics the rulers forced their own views to be followed in their realms and millions of Christians were martyred. Sadly, only in recent history has the concept of religious freedom been accepted in Christian nation.
As we escape the long dark night of State religion it is good to remember Paul’s advice in the 14th chapter of Romans to tolerate the faith of our Christian brothers and Peter’s advice from his first letter to treat non-Christians with gentleness and respect. Finally, our Popes, Archbishops, Bishops, Pastors, and Elders have cast aside their swords and are (mostly) trying to follow Christ’s command to love their brothers. The Spirit has triumphed over the sword.
So as we look forward to, for example, the upcoming Papal election, all Christians, whether Catholic or not, can celebrate a new page turning for the whole Church. Not because the Pope carries the sword, but because he carries the Spirit instead.