Studying history has not always been at the top of my priority list. It has only been over the last few years that I have come to love and value learning about history, particularly church history. Many Christians view history as a task best left for the classroom or a nice hobby for history enthusiasts.
For some, studying history is sort of like bird watching. You believe the in-depth study of birds may be useful in academic settings, and it’s even acceptable, though a bit odd, that your neighbor has fifteen birdfeeders in his backyard because he likes watching and identifying the birds that live in your region. He loves learning the nuances of bird calls and behavior, but you don’t feel like having a greater knowledge of birds is necessary for your daily life. In the same way, you see that learning Christian history is helpful in some cases and for some people, but it is not a vital aspect of your daily life.
Even though not all pastors should go pursue a Ph.D. in History, the study of church history is a neglected aspect of Christian discipleship. Even in my work with Reaching and Teaching, we spend a whole module teaching an overview of Christian history. With all of the important aspects of pastoral training that we could focus on, why do we take significant time to cover church history? And with all of the important components of discipleship that you could address in your life or in your church, why should your church spend time to teach Christian history?
To see the faithfulness of God
Church history is a tapestry of God’s faithfulness. The story of the Bible is that our gracious Lord saves and uses sinful men and women for his redemptive purposes. In the Bible, the phrase “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” carries a lot of weight. This descriptor wasn’t chosen just because it sounds nice. No, this short phrase packs a historical punch. It is a shorthand reminder of all God has done to establish his people, and it is a reminder of God’s covenantal promises to Abraham.
Likewise, as we read accounts throughout the history of the church, we see the same story on repeat across the centuries. Seeing God’s faithfulness repeated time and time again in Christian history massages the truth of his faithfulness deep into our soul. We can see in the early church, when it looked like the Church may head off the rails, God preserved his Bride. We see how God used a fiery German monk to reclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ during the Reformation. Church history serves as a testimony that strengthens our faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
To gain wisdom from brothers and sisters who have gone before us
Proverbs 11:14 tells us, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” Becoming a student of church history allows us to sit at the feet of godly teachers and leaders who lived before us. We learn from their profound works of theology and their personal walk with the Lord, as well as the patterns of sin with which they struggled.
Reading through church history gives us the benefit of hearing how Augustine meditates on the grace of God in his own life. It allows us to hear how Athanasius carefully thinks through the question of who the Son of God is. It provides the opportunity to hear how Lottie Moon’s view of God propels her to the nations. These are the master craftsmen of Christianity, and studying church history allows us to be their apprentices.
To better understand current issues
Though there seem to be endless controversies that pop up, most arguments within the Church—whether they deal with the doctrine itself or the application of doctrine—are not new. As the maxim goes, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” Some form of a current debate has probably already taken place at least once in the history of Christianity. Having knowledge of the past aids us in handling present divisions and disagreements.
In the same vein, familiarity with church history helps us have a deeper understanding of our own ecclesial identity. I am a Baptist. More specifically, I am a Southern Baptist. By studying the Baptist tradition, as well as the history of the SBC, I have a greater rootedness in my own theology while also appreciating the contribution of other faithful denominations.
To broaden our focus beyond ourselves
Humanity has a remarkable proclivity for hubris as we so often lose sight that our lives are just a vapor. We play one small part in the story of God’s redemptive plan. Diving into Christian history forces us to see that Christ’s Church has flourished for a long time before we were around, and it will keep on thriving after we are dead.
Likewise, church history is a great tool for pulling our gaze from our American-centered tendencies to seeing the impact of the nations in church history. In reading the early church, you can see the importance of African Christians in safeguarding against heresy. We see that Christianity is not an American product, but it is a product of God’s work across the centuries and the nations.
Advice for Pastors and Leaders
If you’re a church leader and are wondering where to start with introducing your congregation to church history, here are few suggestions:
- Do a book study on a biography of a prominent figure in church history, like Martin Luther or Charles Spurgeon.
- Incorporate illustrations and anecdotes from church history into your sermons.
- Use a Sunday or Wednesday night to do a talk on a historical figure. If you’re looking for a good example, check out some of the talks John Piper did in the past. I have greatly benefited from many of these biographical sermons.
- Take your Sunday School class through a study of church history. Capitol Hill Baptist Church has a full course that teachers can use for their preparation, and it even comes with already-made handouts.
If you’re looking for a good one-volume overview of church history, check out Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language. A more comprehensive two-volume overview is Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity. If you’re a fan of biographies, I would check out Arnold Dallimore’s biography of Charles Spurgeon.
The study of church history is a helpful tool for any Christian or church. It doesn’t have to be a boring chore. Rather, the proper response of seeing God’s work throughout church history should be one of praise, personal reflection, and encouragement to press on in the faith. Pick up a book and see the Lord’s covenant faithfulness that he has demonstrated across the centuries and across the continents.