I love church history! I delight in immersing myself in the world of brothers and sisters in Christ from different eras of history and in different cultures from mine. I love to see how they acted so boldly and courageously for the glory of Christ. I thrill to read how firmly they stood against persecutors, or how they defeated feelings of spiritual depression, or how they triumphed over seemingly insurmountable obstacles with prevailing prayer. I have a strong sense of unity with them, though I cannot carry their shoes, for I know they are part of the same spiritual family into which I was adopted when I believed in Christ. At that moment, he gave me “the right to become a child of God,” (Jn. 1:12) and I was adopted by the Father. He put in me the Spirit of adoption by which I cry “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15)! At that time, I was nineteen years old, in my Junior year at M.I.T. I knew almost nothing about church history. But I would begin to find out in time. I would find out the royal lineage of this incredible family of God, this spiritual kinship that makes us one. I would find out that their glory is really my glory, for Paul says “When one part of the Body of Christ is honored, the whole Body is honored with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).
Now, I am well aware that not everyone shares my excitement for church history. Some of my brothers and sisters are into other things that I am not that excited about too… maybe they like certain arts and crafts that don’t really move the needle for me. Maybe they enjoy Christian romance novels that are written in certain historical settings. Maybe they enjoy certain types of exotic cuisine and are very adventurous in sampling strange smelling foods. That’s truly not my thing. Some people like edgy forms of jazz or hip hop that I don’t enjoy. I get it! Church history may seem like one of those acquired tastes, one of those optional things. But it really isn’t. In this brief article, I want to make a case for why every Christian should spend some of their time learning more about the past… learning about how amazing the family of God really is, by his amazing grace.
Reasons Why Christians Should Study Church History
Church history has the power to inspire, to correct and rebuke us, to motivate us, to make us want to live up to the glittering legacy our predecessors in the faith have bequeathed to us. It makes us want to do mighty things for the glory of God in our brief time in this arena of suffering. Let me give you just a few good reasons to invest time in the past.
Studying church history has the power to humble us, because we sometimes act like we are the first people that have ever experienced this suffering or that trial or the other obstacle. When we read the levels of dedication and suffering reached by our brothers and sisters in previous centuries, we are instantly humbled and realize we can’t carry their shoes. That should cause us to be quiet, to be patient, to want to excel in our time. It also humbles us by reminding us that we have come very late to the party; the gospel did not originate with us, nor are we the only ones it has reached (1 Cor. 14:36). This keeps us from being arrogant; we are part of something immeasurably immense, the dimensions of which it will take eternity to comprehend.
Studying church history has the power to educate us, because we realize how they fought for orthodox doctrine… were willing to die for a right understanding of the incarnation of Christ or of the mystery of the Trinity, or of the precise nature of justification… as we read, we sharpen our own doctrine and are readier to refute false teaching in our day. Studying what our brothers and sisters have done in the past can educate us about approaches to prayer, to evangelism, to ministry to the poor and needy, to missions, to healthy church leadership, to preaching, to approaches to money, etc. We sit at the feet of these masters and learn from them.
Studying church history has the power to convict us, because we all have blind spots… when we read of the level of holiness and purity of the lives of some of these great men and women, the level to which they were willing to go to put sin to death in their lives… then we compare it with the worldliness in our lives and our churches, we are deeply convicted. When we see the hours they spent in the prayer closets every day, and how scanty are our prayer times, we are convicted. When we see the zeal they had for lost souls in their generation, and how little we sacrifice to win the lost in our generation, we are convicted. When we see how generously they gave of their money, and how selfish and stingy and materialistic we can be, we are convicted.
Studying church history has the power to encourage us, because we realize that the heroes of the past were deeply flawed sinners just like us… they struggled with the same temptations of the flesh as we did, and often failed and faltered and stumbled… yet God, in his grace, used them mightily for his glory, we are encouraged!
Most of all, studying church history has the power to inspire us to make sacrifices in our own time for the glory of God. It makes us want to rise up boldly, put sin to death boldly, establish new habits of prayer and Bible intake boldly, witness boldly to the lost that surround us every day, venture out boldly in new patterns of creative ministry to the suffering in our generation… we are inspired out of the lethargy that Satan wants to infuse us with… like a spider, he wants to sting us and stun us into paralysis, and spin a sticky web of sin and laziness and hopelessness and guilt around us so we do NOTHING to threaten his regime in this world. Studying God’s Word is sufficient to inspire us to all of this… don’t get me wrong! We don’t HAVE TO STUDY church history (except what is recorded for us in the Bible) in order to live a godly fruitful life… the Bible and the atoning work of Christ, and the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit are infinitely sufficient to equip us for a fully fruitful life in this world. BUT God has woven his Word in and through the lives of the saints who preceded us in previous generations and has given us ADDITIONAL HELP thereby… we would be fools not to take full advantage.
Church history also gives us role models to imitate. As the author of Hebrews said, after relating a whole chapter of men and women of faith who did great things for the glory of God, calling them “a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1), he urges us all to run with endurance the race of faith marked out before us. In the next chapter, he calls on us to remember the leaders who went before us so that we can “imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).
"...the heroes of the past were deeply flawed sinners just like us… yet God, in his grace, used them mightily for his glory..."
More than anything, though, church history puts the infinite greatness of the Lord Jesus Christ on display because he has been seen through so many different lights by different individuals in radically different settings… and he was truly all things to all people. Bruce Shelley finished his excellent survey, Church History in Plain Language, with these stirring words about our Savior:
No other person in recorded history has influenced more people in as many conditions over so long a time as Jesus Christ. The shades and tones of his image seem to shift with the needs of people: the Jewish Messiah of the believing remnant, the Wisdom of the Greek apologist, the Cosmic King of the Imperial Church, the Heavenly Logos of the orthodox councils, the World Ruler of the papal courts, the monastic Model of apostolic poverty, the personal Savior of evangelical revivalists. Truly he is a man for all time. In a day when many regard him as irrelevant, a relic of a quickly discarded past, church history provides a quiet testimony that Jesus Christ will not disappear from the scene. His title may change, but his truth endures for all generations [Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 495].
**Editor’s Note: I hope you enjoyed this article! I am excited to share with you that we will start a new podcast on October 19, 2020 on the subject of church history called Journeys from the Past. Andy Davis will spend the first several episodes taking a 10,000 ft. flyover survey of all of church history. In the later episodes, Andy will zoom-in and highlight specific figures and how they can inspire us in 2020 to achieve great things for Christ. You can listen to the show on the Two Journeys website, app and podcast. You can watch the promo video here.