What comes to mind when you read the word “history?”
I grew up going to Canada School, so I remember struggling through every class. It was the class I loathed almost as much as Gym.1 Now, I love history. It’s fascinating. And Canada’s is actually really, really interesting (read this book and tell me I’m wrong). But it’s hard to care about subjects where it’s pretty obvious your teachers don’t.
As a Christian, especially as I think about our current time, I am drawn to history. Specifically, to church history. The story of the church in the world throughout the centuries—the history of Christianity lived out—is fascinating. It’s not always pretty, but it’s always interesting. The many shining examples of those who persevered against societal pressures to deny Christ. The times when the church has been at her best. When we see Christians demonstrating the love of Christ in practical action while declaring the gospel’s good news. But also the times when the church has capitulated. When power has corrupted us, and the church has forsaken her love for Jesus in exchange for a love for herself. Times of being persecuted—and also persecuting.
Church history really is amazing. And we can learn so much from studying it. In fact, here are three reasons
1. Studying church history is an act of obedience
Over and over again, the Bible commands God’s people to “remember.” Specifically, we’re to look back on what God has done, and remember his wondrous works (Exodus. 13:3; Deuteronomy 5:15; 7:18; 8:1; 8:18; 1 Chronicles 16:12; Psalm 105:5). So in a very real sense, studying church history is an act of obedience to the Lord. If we remember what God did, we can look forward in confidence that he is faithful to keep his promises and fulfill his purposes in this world.
But studying history isn’t just an act of obedience. It helps us to live right now.
2. Knowing our history helps us live faithfully
The acts of God’s people in the past should inspire us. They are models to help us live faithfully in all circumstances—especially in times of trouble. We need to know how this, because, frankly, we kind of stink at it. Western Christians, especially Americans, haven’t really experienced persecution. If anything, we’re overly familiar with worldly power and comfort. So we can learn how to handle both from those who came before us. The positive examples show us how we might persevere if our lives are in danger because of our faith. The negative examples also help us to see what pitfalls we should avoid (ideally before we fall into said pits).
3. Church history helps us guard against false teaching
There have always been challenges to the essential truths of the faith. Heretics and heresies have always found attempted to distort the truth and exchange it for a lie. But church history helps us to see how these heresies have actually helped us better understand and explain the truth.
“Heretics, in fact, served the church in an unintended way,” wrote Bruce Shelley in Church History in Plain Language. “Their pioneering attempts to state the truth forced the church to shape ‘good theology’—a rounded, systematic statement of biblical revelation.”
Were it not for heretics, we might not have the New Testament canon. Or a clarified doctrine of the Trinity (insomuch as we can clarify that) as found in the Athanasian Creed. And we likely wouldn’t have the understanding of Jesus as being simultaneously both fully human and fully divine, or his being of the same substance as the Father, or…
Knowing how these debates played out helps us to understand the challenges we face today. Heretics and heresy still try to creep in unnoticed (Jude 4). Some attempt to distort the full equality of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Others reject the sinfulness of humanity. Others still subtly (and overtly) teach a rejection of the goodness of the physical world and our physical bodies.
There are more teachings of this sort, of course. And you can find many of them on Twitter.2 But knowing church history helps us to recognize false teaching for what it is and defend against it.
Where to start?
The best thing to do is start simple. One of my favorite books is the aforementioned Church History in Plain Language by Bruce Shelley. It is easily understood, clear, and helpful. If podcasts are your jam, you might want to try Five Minutes in Church History. From there, keep going. A couple to help you start digging deeper include;
- Church History, Vol. 1 by Everett Ferguson
- 2000 Years of Christ’s Power by Nick Needham
- The Story of Christianity by Justo L. Gonzalez
And that’s just the popular level material! There is no limit to how deep you can go, and there is no limit to the rewards you’ll find in your study.
- That’s PE for all you American-types.
- And often proclaimed by those proudly professing to be conservatives of some sort.