by Dayton Hartman
Why should we care about “church history?”
For me, the answer came early in my ministry. As I entered my second year in ministry, I was inundated with inquiries that required me to look to the past. Members of my church were asking questions like, “Did Constantine invent the Trinity and the deity of Christ?” and “What really happened at the Council of Nicaea?” At the time, I didn’t really care about the answers to these questions. I was suffering from a horrible case of what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” a tendency to elevate contemporary ideas over ones from the musty, dusty past.
Nevertheless, I had questions to answer. And finding the answers launched me into multi-year journey through church history that eventually changed my view of the creeds, preaching, discipleship, pastoral care, and cultural engagement. I am a different and, I believe, better pastor because of my study of church history. Now, more than a decade since my first foray into the subject, I am a church planter. I also teach church history and historical theology to seminary students.
I’ve learned that there are dangers inherent in ignoring the past, as well as many benefits to knowing what has come before us. These benefits have convinced me that pastoral ministry is most effective when carried out in light of lessons from our history. Here are just a few beneficial reasons why pastors should seriously engage with the history.
1. Church history equips us to address current issues.
Take, for instance, issues of racial reconciliation. History enables us to view ourselves as part of a large, ethnically diverse family. As our nation continues to wrestle with the scars left by our history of racism and slavery, the church can lead in casting a vision for an ethnically diverse and harmonious future.
We have a rock solid basis for genuine racial diversity: the gospel. Through Christ, we are reconciled to God and with each other. We are unified, but not uniform. Church history tells us a sprawling story of a many-colored family. We encounter people in various cultures in various places at various times: 4th- and 5th-century North African bishops, 12th-century French preachers, 16th-century German monks, 18th-century Anglo-American theologians, 20-century African-American, and Latino social activists. This is strong medicine against chronological and cultural snobbery.
2. Church history supplies the tools for discipleship.
Christians, and specifically pastors, have always been concerned with making disciples. However, many evangelical churches in America fail to disciple children as well as new believers. Following the patterns of those who have come before us, we and our congregations can regain a biblical vision for making disciples. For example, we must reclaim the practice of Catechizing children. Recognizing that this practice was standard in the early church, John Calvin exhorted all churches to reclaim this ancient practice. “How I wish that we might have kept the custom which … existed among the ancient Christians!” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.19.13) Calvin saw catechesis as an opportunity for congregations to inculcate the one true faith, to help clarify and correct any misunderstandings among their youth.
Additionally, I’ve personally learned a lot about discipling from church history, particularly from Augustine. He emphasized that discipleship requires an intense one-on-one relationship within the context of the community at large; focusing especially on teachable believers who would in turn disciple others (Ed Smither explores this at length in his excellent work Augustine as Mentor).
3. Church history shows us how to proclaim the gospel in a hostile culture.
Our generation is not the first to wrestle with the complexities of linguistic relevancy and cultural engagement. We would do well to draw from the deep 2,000-year-old well of wisdom. Our forebears were master expositors, cultural exegetes, and gifted orators. Augustine of Hippo wrote one of the first textbooks for young preachers. This influential theologian communicated skillfully; he masterfully employed analogies and illustrations. Augustine encouraged his students to study famous pagan orators to learn effective communication styles and language patterns (On Christian Doctrine, 4.2) Augustine did not intend for his students to minimize Scripture or to dismiss its claims—that is, he didn’t mean that pastors should merely be sanctified Jim Gaffigans or Jon Stewarts—but that they should communicate in a manner that was understandable to their audience.
During the Reformation, Luther became the standard-bearer for the power and clarity of Protestant preaching. Luther was known for his bluntness, accessibility, and linguistic relevance in the pulpit. Luther directly interacted with his culture: He used familiar language and illustrations while remaining faithful to the content of Scripture. The wisdom they have handed down is of great value.
4. Church history enables us to critique—and create—culture.
Throughout history, Christianity has been seen as subversive and threatening to emperors and empires. We profess citizenship in a heavenly kingdom, we see our churches as outposts of a that kingdom, and we declare allegiance to a heavenly King. The Christian claim that “Jesus is Lord” struck at the heart of Roman identity. Romans believed that the health of their society—politically and economically— depended heavily on reverencing and appeasing the Roman pantheon.
Nevertheless, the first believers continued to consider themselves an outpost of this otherworldly kingdom that would one day replace every kingdom of the world. Why, then, do we perpetuate Christian subcultures that repackage sanitized versions of what the prevailing culture of our day produces? Why do we not produce cultural products that reflect a kingdom culture? Is this what Christians have always done? Have we always preached a gospel that can redeem the world, but failed to produce redemptive culture that is good and worthwhile? There is a better way forward, and we see that way forward by looking to our past.
5. Church history gives us perspective and humility.
Pastor, one of the greatest gifts you can receive from the study of church history is humility. We are not writing our own story; we are part of the great story of redemption in which Christ is building his Church. Pastor, Christ has called you to humbly and faithfully serve his Bride as he writes her story. You and I get to be part of that story, but it’s not our story. Shepherd in humility by looking to the faithfulness of those who have come before you.
Shepherding the church for which Jesus bled and died is a high and holy calling. Our task is immense, but we have Scripture as our authority and 2,000 years of wisdom from those who have faithfully served, suffered, and persevered before us. Those who have come and gone over the past two millennia have changed the way I do pastoral ministry today. In a sense, the dead discipled me and made me a better pastor. I pray you let them do the same for you.