If you’ve been in my corner of the internet for any span of time, you know I use church history to discuss theology, culture, and discernment in this present day. Church history (and history in general!) tells us why we are where are; it offers an explanation for ideas and cultural shifts. It gives context, background, and meaning. Basically – it’s important!
Because so many of us were taught history in a dry and boring way, the impulse when we hear about it is nothing short of a yawn. And if I’d been taught history as a series of dates to memorize, I’m sure I would hate it too! I had the advantage of an education where history was woven into the fabric of cultural ideas. Historical events were attached to famous literature and people. Even today I can rarely tell you an exact date something occurred, but I can tell you what ideas and industries it impacted – and why it matters to you today.
That’s why I wanted to write this short post about church history for those who might still be skeptical. The truth? We have never needed church history more than now (and I know that’s a bold statement!). Have you ever asked one of these questions?
- How did we end up with so many denominations? Is that a bad thing?
- Why is there such conflict over racism in the church today?
- How was the Bible translated to English?
- When did we stop celebrating Jewish feasts?
- When did we stop celebrating saints days?
- Where did progressive theology come from?
That’s just a sampling of the questions answered by studying church history. There are so many more issues – theological and otherwise – answered by looking at the past and learning from our forefathers successes (and failures). Here are three things I want students of church history to know.
Church History is Cyclic
There are a few ways to look at church history. A lot of this has to do with one’s eschatology, or theology of the end times. But even among these differing views most can agree that church history goes in cycles. There are periods of intense persecution, often followed by revival, followed by a peace which sometimes leads to passivity. Occasionally revival would spring out of these passive seasons as pastors and missionaries challenged communities to return to God. When we look at the big picture of church history from AD 33 to present, we see sweeping cycles of repentance, revival, and rejection – all while the gospel is advanced!
The cyclic nature of church history is an enormous encouragement. Many of the things we deal with today have been faced by Christians before us, just in a different context:
- Political unrest (all of history, American and around the world)
- Pandemics (the Black Death, Spanish Flu)
- Persecution (Nero, Diocletian, etc.)
There are so many other issues I could mention, but I’ll stick to those three “p’s”! The more you read about church history, the more you’ll recognize the patterns of humanity and God’s gracious presence through them all.
Church History Reveals Patterns
Did I mention patterns? Church history shows us a template for how Christians before us lived through trials, suffering, and confusing cultural times. We can read about the church across the ages to discover what Christians did when their faith was made illegal. We can learn how they engaged politically (or if they did at all). We can learn what roles they took in their cities, how they shaped their families, and what literature they produced.
These patterns give us a window into practical, everyday faith in a context very different from ours. By looking through these windows, we can pull out theological principles that still apply today. For instance, many church fathers did their work in hiding so they could produce more and impact more people for the gospel. Today, some people might call that cowardice. But hiding away allowed these fathers to have greater influence than if they exposed themselves too soon. Some still lost their lives for the gospel – but they accomplished much before they did.
Other Christians used their wealth and influence to build monasteries, convents and seminaries. Even though they did not personally join the ministry, they used their blessings to fund ministers of the gospel. And others chose to give away all their belongings to join those monasteries and convents, devoting their lives to the furtherance of Christian work, literature and art.
These patterns of humanity give us ideas for what God might be calling US to do in our own cultural context.
Church History Grants Hope
I believe church history gives the most hope of any study outside the Bible itself. It is through the lives of those who followed Christ before us that we are inspired and equipped for today! If we ignore their stories we should not be surprised when we repeat weaknesses and lack the wisdom we need to engage faith in today’s culture.
History is only boring if it’s divorced from its present-day impact. All history has a present impact; you just have to look for it. I hope you’ll be inspired to begin your own study of this enriching topic! Here are a few books to help you get started:
- Church History in Plain Language
- A Pocket History of the Church
- Medieval Christianity
- Rediscovering the Early Church Fathers