Many Christians today suffer from historical amnesia. The time between the apostles and their own day is one giant blank. That is hardly what God had in mind.
So says Bruce Shelley, author of Church History in Plain Language. C.S. Lewis called his generation out on their chronological snobbery, that condition in which they/we are so nearsighted, that we almost refuse to look backward to the past. Consider the rare feat among so many to be able to name the names of even their own great-grandparents. They were vital to your history, and you may have even known them. But who were they and what were they about? What about their parents?
I love that my pastor, even though he cares deeply about his ministry, it’s vitality and the state of the flock, does not see our church as the center of anything or as an end of all woes. He sees it as the current, vital cog in the the mandate of God–a part in which we get to play. And just as important, he looks to the past as an important way of living for today and for the future Kingdom we will inhabit.
In our SS class, he is walking us through the history of the church from Christ through the Reformation, and I asked him to answer the question here for us, “Why Do We Need Church History?”
I hope that you will hear.
I’m a pastor and I believe the people I shepherd need to have a rich and colorful understanding of church history. The story of the church needs to be told because it’s our story. It’s where we came from. Church buildings don’t just pop out of nowhere—every part of a worship service from the doctrinal statement to the hymnbook is the result of ideas and traditions being passed down for centuries in the minds and hearts of believers. When we know that history, the entire experience of worship and church life becomes richer and more meaningful—and much more likely of being preserved.
Our connection with other believers (past and present) should be stronger than even familial and national loyalties. I love my country and I am proud to claim John Adams and George Washington as part of my national heritage, but in comparison, I am much more a son of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and my communion with Paul, Augustine, and John Bunyan is eternal, not temporal. When we stand together on Sundays and recite the Apostles’ Creed, we are linking arms with something much bigger than ourselves. Our American history is full of providence and mighty acts of God, no doubt, but it is still merely a truncated version of the whole story. A lot of us grew up with more pride in our American heritage than our religious heritage, and we need to change that.
For the church to rally, we have to pass on a heritage that evokes a visceral response, emotionally charged with love and loyalty. The hearts of believers have to be trained to love and hate the right things. If the church is to be preserved, the next generation has to give it more than a head nod—it has to love it fiercely and defend it against its enemies. Our story is full of heroes and tales of bravery, integrity and self-sacrifice. If we want our kids to love the church, then we have to tell them the whole story.
The church is changing a lot right now and the history of the church gives us stability. It gives us a point of reference that grounds us, stabilizes us and gives us certainty as we look out into a quickly changing world. There is nothing new under the sun and every heresy is just an old heresy repackaged for our time. I really believe that the church’s best inoculation from false teaching is simply an awareness of the church’s past. Most of our questions have already been asked and answered, but our ignorance keeps us searching around in circles for answers. We can only stand on the shoulders of giants if we study the past.
The last, but immensely important, reason that we must know our history is simply gratitude. Abigail Adams wrote: “Posterity, who are to reap the blessings, will scarcely be able to conceive the hardships and suffering of their ancestors.” Our generation’s lackadaisical attitude about church shows that this is sadly true. We owe our ancestors a debt of gratitude and the least we can do is not forget what they did for the church. As the anniversary of the Reformation approaches, it is with great love and pride and gratitude that I remember Martin Luther and the hundreds of other reformers who sacrificed all this world’s pleasures for the sake of the church. Their legacy inspires me to work hard and persevere. It keeps me from getting too tied to this world and this time and this place. It reminds me of our future home where all the church will be united and God’s plan throughout history will be made clearer than we see it now. And it is there that I want to be found faithful in working hard to preserve the only lasting institution of this world: the Church.
— Samuel Gage is the pastor of Charity Baptist Church in Joelton, TN.