I’m glad to hear that you are at least looking for some “friends” from your readings in Church history. I think that is one good reason to study Church history, whether you are in seminary or not — but it isn’t by any means the only reason.
One key thing you gain from a study of history is a better knowledge of yourself as a Christian, and ourselves as the Church. Knowing the Church’s story can help you make wise decisions individually or in leadership.
Maybe that seems like too bold a claim. Here’s why I make it: One of the biblical understandings for the people of God is that we are a family. Studying Church history is like going to a family therapist.
If you ever decide to see a therapist, you’ll probably start out by telling stories. You’ll tell your own personal stories. But your therapist will tug on the loose ends and you’ll end up telling stories about the family you grew up with. Eventually one thing will lead to another and you’ll be telling the family lore, the influential people whom you never actually met.
Some of those family stories are role models and mentors: the sainted grandmother you always wanted to be like.
Some of those stories will be cautionary tales: the alcoholic parent who treated you so badly.
Some of the stories will just be a little uncomfortable: like that certain branch of the family tree that nobody wants to talk about.
But all of the stories matter, because all of those people have shaped you.
- Keep the stories hidden and they rule you in the most awkward and surprising ways.
- Get the stories out there and you can think about what you want to do with them.
That’s the path to greater health.
Knowing the Church’s Story
That is true in the Church as well.
The history of the Church is not all good. That would be nostalgia.
There have been some horrible things done by Christians. Honesty requires acknowledging them — repenting where necessary, and choosing a better path.
The history of the Church is not all bad either. That would be denial.
At the very least, everyone who follows Christ today can thank a chain of witnesses, known or unknown, back through the generations. Somebody helped you hear the gospel. That’s a piece of history.
There are also those remarkable servants of the poor, those brilliant interpreters of Scripture, those effective spiritual guides, and so many other categories — all those friends from the past I wrote to you about. We get to learn from them. That’s a piece of history too.
And there are those family fights — those great controversies and theological struggles you are learning about in class. Issues that seem distant and abstract today (say the Trinity or the Natures of Christ) were wrestled and died over. The fights, and the issues at stake, are part of the way history shapes us.
Honor Your Father and Mother
And, as the late great Church historian David Steinmetz liked to point out, this is part of obeying the command to honor your father and mother (Exodus 20:12 — it’s one of the Big Ten).
You do not have to like everything about your parents or ancestors. You just have to treat them with respect and learn what you can from them.
And as my long-ago pastor Bruce Larson would point out, sometimes you best honor them by growing up and living differently.
So as you study for that exam, remember that you are in Christian family therapy. Learn the stories — they are your family, and they make you who you are.
I pray it equips you to be a wise disciple and a wise leader.
Wish you had a better working knowledge of the history of Christianity? What would you say to taking a mini-course, either individually or with a small group? Click the button below to sign up for the waiting list.