By Ben Reichert, Crosswalk.com
While the Bible is the one truth and authority in Christians’ lives, church history can still be valuable to learn about and understand. It helps us know if we’re deviating from the truth and can provide guardrails in whether people interpret Scripture correctly.
Why Should Church Leaders Study Church History?
Everyone needs to study church history because it is the best way to remember the depth of tradition the church possesses. Knowing the origins of historic Christian doctrines and what makes them distinct helps us understand why the church is so divided today.
Church history is particularly important for leaders because it can show them if they are going down a questionable path of interpretation. Some of the biggest lessons can be gleaned from the heretics of old, such as Marcion, whose ideas have become prevalent again. He taught that the actions of the God of the Old Testament were incompatible with the God of the New Testament. This idea has been regaining popularity in the modern church. However, if leaders could understand the implications of this belief, they could squash it before it causes people to be led astray by false doctrine.
Why Should Churches Know Their Denomination’s History?
Churches need to recognize their history to recognize where they come from. For example, most Pentecostals don’t realize their denomination was originally an offshoot of Methodism. In the same way, most Methodists don’t know they were originally an offshoot of Anglicanism.
The way denominations have split and splintered is important to understand because it shows what issues are most relevant to the church when their denomination was formed. It also helps explain why so many churches have wildly different views on the Bible and theology fit under the same denominational name. In the United States, for example, there are three major denominations within Presbyterianism, each with different theology and views. Understanding where each of the three denominations split is helpful because it shows what issues were worth dividing over.
Each denomination has distinctive characteristics to differentiate them from other churches. This can help believers looking to join a new church when they move to a new city. They can look for churches that match their beliefs. This can make finding community easier when in a new environment.
Why Should Individual Christians Study Church History?
As George Santayana put in Life of Reason, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Heresies will arise repeatedly because the enemy loves to corrupt the truth. Some bad ideas keep coming back.
Individual Christians should also understand church history because it will enable them to understand if what they’re being taught aligns with Scripture. For example, suppose someone uneducated on church history hears a pastor preach oneness theology (the belief that each member of the Trinity is a different facet of God). Lacking historical context, they may not recognize it as an error.
Many churches have lost their history. The loss has affected the people in their churches, often causing them to deconstruct their faith. Many don’t feel connected to the past in their churches and go elsewhere to find it. That is one reason churches that practice liturgy are becoming very popular among young Christians.
People in this generation want to feel connected to the past; studying church history is a great way to get that. This prevents them from a knowledge of the church dating all the way back to Billy Graham, and no further. There is a lot of depth within the writings of the church fathers and mothers. As C.S. Lewis said, “It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” Thousands of years of history can be mined from the thoughts of the ancient church.
How Does Studying Church History Help Us Understand the Present?
Remembering church history doesn’t just help us see how many false teachings that have regained popularity are rooted in the early church. It also shows us what was nonnegotiable in the minds of believers in the past.
Studying church history allows life to be put in its proper context. Context helps us understand where we came from and what steps led our forebears to that point. Understanding how people before us have responded to theological crises can aid our responses to similar situations in the modern church.
When people don’t study history, it can be quickly lost. If even recent things are being forgotten, then ancient things may be even more prone to being forgotten. A lack of proper historical context can lead people to wild conclusions if they make up their own radical interpretations deviating from what was previously held.
This happened in the early church with Origen. Origen’s view of the Old Testament became the predominant view for centuries in the Roman Catholic Church. He viewed the Old Testament, as primarily stories, as opposed to being literally true. His allegorical view has value in some areas—for example, it can help readers see foreshadowings and forewarnings of Jesus in the Old Testament. Today, however, modern believers have recovered the value of thinking about what the text would have meant to its original audience.
Does Studying Church History Draw Us Together?
Studying church history allows believers to see how God has been working through the ages. It shows that we, as believers, agree on the fundamentals of the faith. The disagreements that result in splits are typically over secondary issues. A few exceptions, such as the nature of Jesus, did occur earlier in church history, leading some denominations, like the Oriental Orthodox Church, to split from the rest of the church. Even granting those exceptions, you will be surprised to find the church has agreed on the primary issues (who God is, how Jesus relates to God, who Jesus was) more than they have disagreed.
It’s one in relatively recent history, since Christianity became a dominant Western religion, that divisions have been able to develop. When the church is persecuted, believers are more unified out of necessity. Studying church history promotes unity because it shows that believers have been united much longer than we were divided.
Where Should I Start In Reading Classic Works in Church History?
One great place to start that is quite accessible is Augustine’s Confessions. This book takes the reader into the mind of an early church father. Those who choose to read this can begin to understand one of the most influential minds in the history of the Western Church.
Another great book that is all about church history is Fox’s Book of Martyrs. This work details the life and death of believers throughout the History of the Church, with a particular focus on Reformation-era England. These are great because they are short and can easily be added to a daily devotional.
Great Resources for Learning Church History
Christianity.com’s church history timeline goes in-depth on many important topics for believers today to understand.
Another valuable resource is BibleStudyTools’ online set of classics throughout the church’s history. These are a great way to incorporate more works of people who have gone before.
BibleStudyTools.com also provides a great textbook for free to read online, Sketches of Church History. While this is an older church history book and can be a bit dense, its insights are excellent.
A great book to look into if further reading is particularly interesting is Church History in Plain Language by Bruce Shelley.
For more articles on church history, read:
Photo Credit: Unsplash/Robin Spielmann
Ben Reichert works with college students in New Zealand. He graduated from Iowa State in 2019 with degrees in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, and agronomy. He is passionate about church history, theology, and having people walk with Jesus. When not working or writing you can find him running or hiking in the beautiful New Zealand Bush.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
These verses serve as a source of renewal for the mind and restoration for the heart by reinforcing the notion that, while human weakness is inevitable, God's strength is always available to uplift, guide, and empower us.
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