Today is Reformation Day and I’m loving it. I’m also aware that most people think I’m a total dork for knowing what Reformation Day is even about. Because most Christians today don’t care about Church History.
Why should normal Christians who love Jesus care about Church History? Well, I’m glad you asked…
1. You aren’t the first Christian
I know this sounds ridiculous. And it is. But how often do we live like that? We think things like, “But that was so long ago, I can’t learn anything from them!” or “I hate history. I’m more interested in what’s happening today.” But when we look down on history and believe that newer is always better, then we’re acting like we’re the first Christians who matter.
The truth is, we share a common faith and a common mission. Sure, the world is more technologically advanced, but there have always been controversies, wars, divisions, and other cultural issues that Christians have wrestled against. Keep in mind that since our medicine is better, many families knew greater suffering and loss of family members than we experience today. We can all learn from brothers and sisters of faith who desired to live for the glory of Christ, even if they lived a long time ago.
2. Life hasn’t changed as much as you might think
The biggest differences between the people of history and today have to do with medicine, education, and technology. The human heart is the same. We continue to sin against God, against others, and against ourselves. The ways in which we sin have changed somewhat, but as you read history you’ll quickly discover many similarities to your own life today.
When we read biographies of those who have come before us, we’ll realize they are normal Christians. They may have been gifted with great intelligence or compassion or in some other way, but in most ways, they were truly normal people who were simply devoted to God. I am convinced that I’ve learned as much from people who died hundreds of years before my birth than the actual professors and teachers I have interacted with.
3. We gain courage to stand in the midst of persecution & opposition
The Church has always been an underdog. Jesus chose twelve unimpressive men to be apostles. The Early Church endured great persecution. Christianity was blamed for the fall of the Roman Empire. Christians in every generation have struggled against opposition and persecution. How they have endured such challenges is truly inspiring. There’s a reason the Bible is so filled with the history of Israel (Exodus, Chronicles, Samuel, Kings, etc.) and the history of the Early Church (the Gospels & Acts).
As Tertullian (Bishop of Carthage, 155-240AD) famously wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Today’s challenges are not new. As we read about religious freedom in the newspaper, we can learn from the underground church in China, Germany, Turkey, Russia and from many other times and places. Remember, Church History also happened ten years ago… it’s not always hundreds of years past. However far back you look, we can see a legacy of faithfulness in the midst of persecution.
4. We get a warning about what happens when you forsake the gospel and sound doctrine
Compromise is always knocking on the Church’s door. The greatest theologians of Christian history were all pastors who stood against the flow and refused to swerve from sound teaching. They looked around their culture, and spoke the Word of God to the needs of the day. Biblical teaching is always counter-cultural, and many of these highly regarded teachers died without honor. Many heroes of the faith were actually put to death by the Church.
Christians have always been people who stood against their culture because they stood on the Word of God. There are plenty of examples of times when Christians begin to shave off sharp edges of biblical teaching in order to be “culturally sensitive,” only to see the Church lose her distinctive witness. In some cases, the Church has actually become the oppressor because she lost sight of her first commitment and bound herself to the political powers of culture in their day. These periods in history should serve as a strong warning to avoid the temptations which has already led the Church down wrong roads before.
5. We see how God uses imperfect people to accomplish extraordinary things
Learning about the courageous faith of people like Athanasius, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and George Whitfield (just to name my heroes) reminds me that God does extraordinary things through normal and imperfect people. We have a tendency to glorify our heroes, but when we study Church History we discover these heroes we flawed. Athanasius was proud. Martin Luther had mental health issues and wrote some terribly Anti-Semitic things later in his life. John Calvin didn’t even want to be a pastor towards the beginning of his ministry. George Whitefield operated plantations that employed slaves.
Even despite their failures, we see how God was able to use them in remarkable ways. If God can change the course of history through a man like Martin Luther, then God can use any of us.
Suggestions: Where to Start?
- Two blogs focused on Church History worth following are, Historical Theology for Everyone, by Ryan Reeves and Evangelical History, by Thomas Kidd & Justin Taylor.
- George Whitefield, by Arnold Dallimore. This is regarded as one of the best biographies written on a truly fascinating character. Many say Whitefield was the first American celebrity.
- Turning Points, by Mark Noll. This book explores fourteen moments in Church History that proved to be ‘turning points’ for the Church. Many schools use this book to give new students a good overview of the most important moments of Christianity.
- Church History in Plain Language (4th Edition), by Bruce Shelley. Written to be accessible to someone who has never read about these topics before, Shelley’s book is an excellent starting point for someone who hasn’t read about Church History before. Keep in mind, it is a bigger book since it covers about two thousand years of history. That said, I highly recommend it.