I’ve known quite a few people who might sum up 2,000 years of church history with a sentence like this: “First came the New Testament, then Martin Luther, maybe throw in the Pilgrims next, fast-forward to Billy Graham, and then skip to this Sunday at my local church.”
The subject of history may conjure bad memories of last-minute cramming for a high school World Civilization quiz. After leaving school, the lion’s share of us are happy to leave the history books on the shelves, gathering dust.
But the story of Christianity has been intertwined in the West with broader political, economic, and social events for the last two millennia. If we know and trust the Author of history, we can have a prayerful, reflective relationship with the past. Think of it as a way to gain inspiration from the faith and failures of those who have sought to serve God since Christ’s first coming. Church history reminds us that there are believers from every era who are among the great cloud of witnesses surrounding us today, urging us onward to holiness (Heb. 12:1).
But many people have a phobia when it comes to history. I once read that the study of history doesn’t really make sense until we’re adults, because only physically mature brains have the ability to form connections between events, synthesize information, and assess meaning. Author Michael Crichton is reported to have said, “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” His blunt words remind me that ignoring history starves us of the nourishment its wisdom and perspective provide us.
Church history has helped me discern truth, better understand my identity in Jesus, fellowship more fully with my siblings in the faith, and strengthen what I believe. Church history is my family story.
And if you’re a follower of Jesus, it’s your story, too.
Discovering old errors in new packaging
Philosopher George Santayana is credited with the saying “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Nowhere is this more obvious in Christian history than in the way the same basic theological error reasserts itself again and again … and again. For example, the “prosperity gospel”—the notion that properly exercised faith will result in God’s blessings of health and wealth—has a long history in the church. Pastor Tim Challies explains:
“Simon Magus [the Sorcerer, NIV] was motivated by the a love of money when he tried to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:9-24). Since him, the Charlatan has appeared in many forms, always seeking prominence in the church so that he can live in extravagance. When Pope Leo X famously commissioned Tetzel to sell indulgences, the profits not only funded the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica, but also his luxurious lifestyle.”
He goes on to note this behavior is no different today than the “health and wealth” preachers who proclaim the prosperity gospel to enrich themselves from the sacrificial financial giving of their followers. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under the sun. But it is only by becoming students of history that we will have both the knowledge and wisdom to recognize old errors wrapped in shiny, modern packaging.
Identifying spiritual DNA
Learning church history isn’t just a vaccination against falling into error. Knowing something about our spiritual DNA can also solidify our identity as believers.
This was made evident to me not long ago when I decided to take one of those DNA tests I saw advertised on TV. I figured I’d pass the results to my grandkids someday since I was pretty sure about my family’s origins. If you’ve ever watched the movie Fiddler on the Roof, you’ve seen a scrubbed Hollywood musical version of my eastern European Jewish family’s recent history. The DNA test results confirmed most of what I knew about myself, while also revealing a few mysteries: I am 92.1 percent Jewish, but was surprised to learn I was also 6.7 percent Scandinavian and 1.2 percent Nigerian.
As there had always been a strong biblical prohibition in the religious Jewish community against marrying non-Jews, I am intrigued by the Scandinavian and Nigerian parts of my DNA. It is likely I’ll never know about how, where, or when those relationships between my genetic forebears came to be, but the data has caused me to recognize there is more to my story than I learned from my parents and grandparents.
Likewise, if we default to the stories about how our local church was founded or even how our denomination came into being, it is almost certain that we are missing a much bigger picture of what led to today’s current events and relationships. What challenges were the founders of our congregation responding to? What was happening in the universal church at the time? What teachers or leaders did your direct spiritual forebears embrace? Whom did they reject? And why? It’s also important to recognize that the events surrounding the founding of your congregation or denomination were in response to things happening many generations earlier. Gaining a long view of the story can provide valuable context to what’s taking place right now.
This kind of spiritual DNA detective work can help you understand who your closest spiritual relatives are, plus where they came from—and where they thought they were going.
Finding common ground, celebrating distinctives
Studying church history can open the door to all kinds of unexpected new relationships. And those relationships will almost certainly challenge your current spiritual status quo.
For example, I have known quite a few born-again believers who grew up in Catholic, Orthodox, or mainline Protestant congregations but now attend non-denominational churches. Some of these friends see the church of their childhood as representing a time when their faith was lifeless. As a result, they’ve been quick to dismiss the part these denominations have played in preserving and proclaiming the faith over time.
Until AD 1054, when the Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church divided, there was only a single universal church. It would be an additional 500 years before yet another division occurred in western Europe—the Reformation. This took on a variety of different forms: Martin Luther’s revelation about what it is to be saved by faith, which resulted in his eventual break with the Catholic church; John Calvin’s systematic application of the doctrine of the sovereignty of God in every aspect of human affairs; and the Anabaptist movement’s focus on adult baptism and a simple, living expression of faith. All of this has led to the tens of thousands of denominations we have today.
Studying church history will at some point cause each one of us some theological discomfort. It is likely we’ll find that much of our Christian family story comes from faith streams different than our own. It tends to be our default setting to distrust anything that doesn’t come from the stream in which we’re now worshipping.
I emphasize here that educating yourself about church history is not the same thing as affirming every belief taught in the past. Approaching a study of church history with equal measures of curiosity and discernment can deepen your faith roots while allowing God to prune misconceptions and unhealthy ideas. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you in your study, helping you to sift truth from error and wisdom from folly (John 14:15-27).
I once had a Christian professor tell me that seminary would give me some new intellectual conversation partners, because I’d be required to read and respond to challenging, unfamiliar texts. I believe the same is true for any student of church history. You don’t need to attend a seminary to meet a world of faith-filled conversation partners, who will often provide meaningful discussions and enrich your life. In speaking with them, you may find new ways to relate to a relative who worships in a different faith tradition or a coworker who’s asking questions about why there are so many different churches and denominations. You’ll also bring a fresh perspective to the questions that may arise as your small group or Sunday school class studies the Bible together.
Gaining valuable perspective
Over the last four decades, my husband and I have been through a church split and several wrenching experiences with morally compromised leaders. The unholy behavior of those we once trusted left deep wounds in my soul. As I sought solace and healing from God, I found comfort in His Word and great encouragement in the biographies of other Christians who modeled faith and perseverance.
A few of my favorites include David McCasland’s Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God; Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place; The Confessions of St. Augustine; and Elisabeth Elliot’s A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael. I’ve also gleaned much from the writings of Brother Lawrence, the 17th-century monk who penned the ever-popular The Practice of the Presence of God, and St. John of the Cross’s 16th-century classic, Dark Night of the Soul. Recently, I’ve dipped into the writings of some of the early church fathers and mothers and have been inspired by their single-minded pursuit of God during a time of great cultural change.
Getting Started in Your Study of Church History
Here are a few reader-friendly resources you can use to begin your study of church history:
Church History in Plain Language by Bruce L. Shelley
Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity by Mark A. Noll
The Story of Christianity, Volumes 1 and 2 by Justo L. González
Christianhistoryinstitute.org also has 37 years of back issues of Christian History magazine, which are available online to browse or search.
While their insights are timeless, my study of church history reminds me that all these people were a product of their time and place. It has been helpful for me as a reader to possess a basic historical framework so I could better understand some of the theological and social challenges each of them faced. Their stories—their flaws, failures, courage, and faithfulness—put flesh on the bones of history for me.
The end of the story
When the church is simultaneously struggling, experiencing persecution, or navigating explosive growth, history reminds us the body of Christ has survived to date and, as Scripture underscores, will persevere to the end:
Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night. And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death (Revelation 12:10-11).
An essential part of this final victory is the living, active testimony of believers that resulted in courage and self-sacrifice. This reality can cure even the most entrenched case of history-o-phobia. Every chapter of church history—including the one being written today with your own life—is meant to be a story that reflects the glory of the One who calls each of us, in every generation, to live as an overcomer.
Collage by Israel G. Vargas