In his book, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren*, Leonard Verduin points out that the New Testament church was a complete break with all of preceding human history: “the world was being treated to a new and very revolutionary concept of society, namely, that men can get along peacefully in the market place even though they do not worship at the same shrine.”
“It must not escape the reader that this was a novel insight, so novel as to be revolutionary. The world had never seen the like of it before. For all pre-Christian society is sacral. By the word ‘sacral,’ which we shall be using frequently and which we request the reader to impress on his mind, we mean ‘bound together by a common religious loyalty.’ By sacral society we mean society held together by a religion to which all the members of society are committed.”
The New Testament depicts the Christian church as being a voluntary assembly of believers who worshipped God and stood completely apart from the ceremonies consecrated to the deities of the cities and nations in which they lived. Nevertheless, they acknowledged the authority of the rulers of those lands as being authorized by God to rule in all areas of civil society.
The Constantinian change swept aside the worship of the old pagan deities and made the Roman Catholic church the only permitted form of worship in the whole empire. The Roman Empire once again became a sacral state and any deviation from the state religion was regarded as subversive of civil order.
It took Augustine to formulate a doctrine for such a return to pre-Christian customs. He introduced the concept of the invisible church – true believers are known only to God. Grace was not a matter of a personal relationship with God, but was transmitted through the sacraments of the church. Therefore it was best if all people in the empire were forced to be members of the state church, through infant baptism, and to attend the worship of this church. The faith, or lack thereof, of the priests had no bearing on the validity of the sacraments. Neither did their moral, or immoral, conduct.
Some Christians may have been relieved at the end of persecution. However, there were many who clearly saw that the Constantinian transformation of the church was a betrayal of all that was taught in the New Testament. And for them the persecution never ended.
*The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, by Leonard Verduin. © 1964 by Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Company