Christianity started out as a faith … NOT a religion. Jesus and all of His early disciples were Jews. The Jews of 1st century Palestine were hyper-religionists. The Law of Moses had been so refined over the preceding centuries that it was now a violation of religious law to move a chair on the Sabbath because you might create a furrow on the dirt floor of your home and that might be considered plowing, which was a violation of Sabbath laws.
Christianity changed all that. Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. People need rest for physical, mental and spiritual reasons, and God provided that through the institution of the Sabbath. That didn’t mean that it was such a holy day that you couldn’t move a chair across the room or heal a blind man.
Later, but within a year or two of Jesus’ death, Peter would receive a vision from heaven that set aside all the Jewish dietary laws, thus allowing him and his fellow believers to interact with Gentiles. Peter was inconsistent in following this new liberty, but Paul and his missionary network made much use of it, to the point where the Jerusalem Council recognized that Gentiles could become Christians without submitting to Judaism first (Acts 15, AD 49).
Christianity spread through the Mediterranean world rather rapidly. The day of Pentecost in Jerusalem saw many Jews from around the Med accept Jesus as Savior through the preaching of Peter and the ministry of the disciples. Those new believers took their new-found faith with them as they journeyed home. Paul’s ministry out of the church in Antioch further spread the gospel.
Christianity faced intense persecution during much of its early history because it utterly rejected any form of polytheism. Christians, like the Jews before them, utterly refused to bow knee to Caesar as a god. The Romans were fine with other religions, but demanded respect of Caesar and so Christians were immediately in conflict with the Empire. Despite the persecution, Christianity continued to spread. It was an attractive philosophy for the poor because it promised equality in the afterlife, though not in this. It taught that there was no difference before God between Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, slave and free, male and female. Within the churches, a slave was equal to his master, but also taught to be obedient as a slave and not to seek his freedom through violent means. Conversely, it taught slave masters that the slave was his brother in Christ and deserving of respect and maybe even freedom. (Philemon) It allowed a place for women to have a voice as well and taught that husbands were to love their wives as Christ loved the church … to the point of death. At the same time, it taught forgiveness for past sins, which made it an extremely attractive philosophy for soldiers. Paul reported that there were even members of Caesar’s own household who were Christians.
By the time Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, legalizing Christianity in the Roman Empire, Christians may have accounted for 20% of the population and its influence was showing. Christians abhorred the practice of leaving infants exposed to the elements and frequently rescued the children and raised them as Christians. They staffed clinics and hospitals to care for those inflicted by plague. The slavery system that Roman society was founded on was faltering because so many Christians had freed their slaves that the slaves of other Romans were growing restless. The Roman Empire itself was struggling, beset by barbarian attacks and struggling to feed the many Romans who didn’t think they needed to be productive.
Constantine claimed he had a vision of the Christian god granting him victory in a battle. Maybe. Or maybe he just looked around and saw a large percentage of the population who were productive members of society not on the verge of revolt and were characterized by cooperation within their communities, which were everywhere in Roman society by this time. Recognizing that persecution wasn’t working to eliminate the threat of Christianity, Constantine opted for a different tactic … legalization.
So how did going from a persecuted and illegal minority to being allowed to worship openly screw up Christianity?
The love of money is the root of all evil ….