By Ryan Patrick Hoselton
The year 2013 marks the 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan. This decree has had a significant impact on the history of the Christian church, serving as a blueprint for religious freedom throughout the centuries. Emperors Constantine and Licinius published the document together, and although Licinius would later revoke the principles of the Edict, Constantine conquered him and enforced it throughout the Empire. Believers today should certainly celebrate this event because it took a major step towards alleviating the violent persecution directed toward Christians.
Here are some of the major points that the Edict stressed:
1) Freedom in worship is “of profit to all mankind.” Man’s relationship with God is his “first and chiefest care,” and in order for everyone to flourish in this pursuit, the State shouldn’t interfere.
2) Freedom of religion is beneficial to the State. The authors stated that the purpose of the Edict was for “establishing public tranquility.” Religious oppression facilitates violence and strife among citizens of the same society.
3) Civil equality belongs to all people regardless of one’s religion. In many areas of the empire, Christians were not allowed to own land and many churches were dispossessed of their properties. This Edict restored land to Christians and condemned any such civil discrimination based on religion.
4) The Emperors believed that this Edict would win divine favor, resulting in success and happiness in their realm.
History has proven time and again that State coercion in religious matters has not fared well for those societies—even “Christian” ones. Christians should actively promote religious freedom throughout the world. Even more, we should treat humans of all faiths with dignity and fairness. The Apostles never resorted to force but always employed respectful and passionate persuasion to draw others to Christianity (Acts 17.4, 18.4, 19.26, 26.28, 2 Cor. 5.11). Christians living in societies that guard religious freedom are indebted to the Edict of Milan.
Constantine and Licinius, “The ‘Edict of Milan’,” in Documents of the Christian Church, translated and edited by Henry Bettenson (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), 22.
Ryan Patrick Hoselton is pursuing a ThM at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He lives in Louisville, KY with his wife Jaclyn, and they are expecting their first child in August.