Who Cares About Church History?

History. For some, the word invokes something like image of dimly lit corridors full of undisturbed books. Add the obligatory shaft of light from a seldom-opened door and one would only witness the drowsy twirl of countless dust motes. To disturb the scene further would gain only a heaping pile of forgotten names and dates. This is hardly an image that can compete with the immediacy and entertainment of cable news, this week’s big game, or the latest show featuring some kind of competing performers, quirky and/or irascible judges, and America’s votes (standard text rates apply).

To add the modifier “church” is only to make matters worse in this view. It conjures notions of monks in homespun robes and impenetrable phrases in dead languages. If anything, it’s more boring than the general course of events.

So who in the world should care about church history? That’s the question we began our discussion with in the latest Seminary 101 class, which is using one of Covenant Seminary’s free online courses, “Ancient and Medieval Church History.” The answer? You should, for a handful of interrelated reasons:

1. Church history provides us with good examples to emulate. As it turns out, we have a biblical warrant for this idea. Hebrews 13:7 says this: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” This command is relevant not only for the present, but also the past. By the grace of God, we have countless examples men and women who have faithfully followed Christ, even unto death. We ignore the insight and encouragement we can glean from their experiences to our great detriment.

2. Of course, it’s equally true that we find plenty of negative examples in church history. You know the maxim: “those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.” While I don’t think things are quite that fatalistic, there’s certainly a great deal of truth there. History allows us to access the hard-won wisdom of many more lives than our own.

3. A thorough look at anyone from church history, no matter how revered, reveals that the previous two points are always combined in the same individual. This underscores the biblical evaluation of our nature and encourages both humility and hope. If our heroes weren’t perfect in following Christ, we shouldn’t expect to either. Likewise, God still used our flawed forbearers, and he’ll use us as well.

4. Perspective. Perspective. Perspective. It goes without saying that there are serious challenges to being a Christian in 21st century America. Still, you and I don’t need to worry at present about being killed for professing our faith, as so many in the church have at previous generations. Likewise, when tempted to despair in the face of numerous cultural challenges to Christianity, it can be helpful to realize that the church has faced similar situations before, only to survive and even thrive.

5. This could fit under the previous point, but it deserves a particular mention: church history is, on the whole, tremendously encouraging. That God can take such flawed material (people like you and me) and steadily build his church through so many times and situations, through so many seemingly bleak moments, through so many spectacular failures, through so many immense challenges…well, it’s almost as if something supernatural is going on. It turns out that God has been incredibly faithful to his promise of building the church.

6. Also related to the some of the previous points is the fact that a familiarity with church history allows us to better understand, evaluate, and respond to the present state of the church and the larger culture. We didn’t arrive in a vacuum. How and why did the present come about? What are the praiseworthy aspects of our situation? What isn’t and why? What are the assumptions that under-gird how people think and act? What has the church done in the face of similar situations? What were the results? Taking a backward look is an invaluable aid in answering all these questions. C. S. Lewis, speaking to a slightly different context, nevertheless provides us with some wise words about the past:

Most of all, perhaps we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many place is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune form the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age (“Learning in Wartime,” in The Weight of Glory).

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