I enjoy reading biographies and stories from church history. It’s hard not to become more passionate for missions when you encounter the life of Lottie Moon, or to have a fire in your bones to preach after reading about the zeal of Charles Spurgeon. Studying church history is a valuable practice for all Christians, but it is not without its potential dangers. As I’ve studied the history of God’s people, I have felt three main temptations threatening my heart.
Perceived Perfection in the Past
It’s easy to idolize our heroes in the faith. I can read the biographies of great theologians and missionaries who unceasingly labored to take the gospel to the nations and begin to imagine them as a sort of demigod. They become Achilles, this heroic and seemingly invincible man with only a small point of weakness. These Christian brothers and sisters loom large in our minds, and we can become so blown away by the things the Lord accomplished through them that we don’t see their flaws.
These brothers and sisters, while being used mightily by God, were sinners just like you and me. William Carey, the great missionary to India, was not perfect. Some have argued—and not without warrant—that he was unwise and even sinful in balancing his missionary efforts and his responsibilities as a husband and father. William Carey was not an awful person. He was a redeemed sinner, whom God graciously used. The same can be said about any Christian who has gone before us. The same can be said of us. We all struggle with sin and fall prey to its deceitful enticements. It’ll be that way until Christ returns to finally and fully conquer sin and death. As Christians, it shouldn’t bother us to find faults in our spiritual heroes. After all, this is the picture painted of Jesus’ closest followers, His disciples. They were imperfect men, imperfect men that shook the world to its core.
This is not limited to the study of church history, though. We all have men and women in our lives whose faith we admire, whether they happen to be a pastor, mentor, or faithful church member. Sometimes we forget the fact that they are sinful people with their own struggles, in need of the same grace that provides our spiritual breath day after day. Forgetting the true identity of these men and women can cause us to find hope in their faith, to be more awed by their faith in Christ than by Christ Himself, the One who ultimately enabled and cultivated that faith.
Missing the True Hero of the Story
The second danger is closely intertwined with the first: we can focus so much on the actions of spiritual giants that we lose sight of God’s extravagant grace in it all. These men and women were dead in their sin, just like every other person born after the Fall. Church history is not fundamentally a story of brothers and sisters who set out to shape the world with the gospel. It’s a story of God’s grace and power, His reaching down to use chipped and leaky vessels to bring living water to the nations. As we read great biographies and stories of yesteryear’s saints, we would do well to meditate on the overwhelming and life-transforming grace of God in Christ.
We need look no further than the pages of Scripture to see this. God used the small, young David to slay the giant Goliath. He uses the weak to shame the strong and the foolish to shame the wise (1 Cor. 1:27). As we read the grand story of the Bible, the hero on every page is God. Yes, men and women do great things in the Bible, but it is clear that their acts for God are due wholly to the gracious act of God in and through them.
Ignoring Our Own Limitations
A third danger in studying church history is feeling a pressure to accomplish all that they did. Last Spring, I took a class on John Calvin, and I was amazed at the amount he was able to write and accomplish. Volumes have been filled with his letters, sermons, and commentaries, not to mention that incredible theological work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. That’s not even taking into account the vast amount of teaching and counseling he did that was not recorded. Calvin’s output was, by any standards, almost superhuman.
As I read his works and studied his life, I became convicted that I should do more in my life, press the gas pedal and push myself to produce more for the Kingdom. I write this having just finished the busiest semester of my life, a semester where I learned an important life lesson: I am not John Calvin.
After taking a large course load, working two jobs for most of the semester, seeking to be a faithful church member, and trying to love my family well, my body felt the toll. The semester culminated with me catching a stomach virus and the flu in the last few weeks of school. (Interestingly, writing a paper on Calvin’s view of the church while running a 102 fever is neither ideal nor fun.) I just couldn’t sustain the energy level or the sleep schedule that it took for me to accomplish everything during the semester, and my body eventually paid the price.
The beautiful thing about Christianity, though, is that we don’t have to live up to the gifts and skills of others. We are simply called to wisely and obediently use the talents given to us (Matt. 25:14–30). If your gifts are seemingly small, your faithfulness is just as pleasing to the Lord as the person who uses their immense talents. Be faithful according to God’s gracious gift in your life, not according to the acts of other brothers and sisters. You have been formed in Christ for a specific task and purpose. Strive for that, not the task and purpose of another.
We shouldn’t miss the fact that many brothers and sisters who accomplished great things for God also experienced a great deal of hardship and pain. There seems to be a general correlation between immense productivity and immense suffering. Let’s go back to John Calvin. His prolific writing came at a loss of sleep, and his life was filled with many sicknesses and health conditions. There was a price he paid, and this is not unique to Calvin. The limits of your finitude can be tested, but they will never be broken.
Church history is a wonderful testimony of God’s gracious use of men and women from all times, cultures, and abilities. Study church history. Learn from the pitfalls and successes of the saints who have previously journeyed through this life. But above all, remember that it is the history of the church, the collection of broken people who found life and power in Christ.