Some days, April 2018 almost seems like ancient (church) history. As I write this in December 2021, however, I can still clearly hear that part of Andy Stanley’s infamous sermon in which he proclaimed that Christians need to “unhitch” their faith from the Old Testament.
The negative reactions to his statement were immediate and impassioned. Others have more than adequately engaged the dangers with Stanley’s statement. There are far too many to link here, but I’ll highlight this one in particular since it deals with Stanley’s later attempt at clarification.
I don’t bring up the remark here to pile on Andy Stanley. What stood out to me at the time, and the reason I revisit the incident now, is that the error into which Stanley bumbled is nothing new.
Someone with a working knowledge of church history would have heard Stanley and thought something like “Careful, Andy, because that sounds dangerously like the Marcionite heresy.” Perhaps many who heard Stanley’s sermon might have sensed that at least that one part of it seemed a bit off. But how many would have pegged it as an issue that the church had already dealt with as far back as the second century? Far fewer, I would venture to guess. And the reason is simple: we do not put much importance on the study of church history. In this article, I will give some reasons why Christians should decide that church history matters.
Learning church history helps preserve the truths of Christianity and defend against false teachings
Pastor Arie den Hartog once wrote that “the history of the Church can never be separated from the history of doctrine.” To the extent that Christians concern themselves with the doctrinal purity of the church (and they should), they must also concern themselves with the history of the church.
The Andy Stanley situation is just one example of how old errors or heresies are prone to keep coming back. For another example, consider the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which are nothing more than the heretical 4th-century doctrines of Arius repackaged. Thus, the Christian who knows about the history of Arianism is less prone to be deceived by Jehovah’s Witnesses (or Mormons or others) who sound convincing when they say things like “we believe in Jesus too.”
Learning church history helps Christians see the sovereignty of God
We know that Jesus has promised to build His church and that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” That’s a relatively easy promise to understand, but if we are honest with ourselves it often proves a lot harder to fully accept. Knowing church history is a help in this area as well.
We can now look back on the darkest days of persecution in the early church and not only be encouraged by the faith of those who have gone before us, but we can marvel at the awesome power of God who not only held His church together, but grew and strengthened her. Centuries later in the story we can see God’s hand in bringing together the invention of modern printing, a renewed interest in studying the Scriptures in the original languages, and unique political conditions, all of which combined to make the Protestant Reformation a reality. A lifetime of reading would not be enough to learn of all the ways that God’s sovereignty has been displayed throughout the history of the bride of Christ.
Learning church history practically helps Christians live in the world
History was always my favorite subject in school; it was my major in college, in fact. But let’s face it: I am the exception (which, being translated, is “nerd”) that proves the rule. Most people look at history as a class to just get through. After graduation, many of us eagerly toss away all those names and dates and battles and whatnot as needless academic baggage. How does knowing about the Stamp Act of 17-whatever help anyone in the day-to-day of modern life anyway?
To treat the history of the church the same way, however, robs Christians of a source of very practical help. How are we to live in this world? When we gather for worship, what should that look like?
A question posed by Pastor William Boekestein highlights how learning church history helps us answer those and other practical questions:
Ever wonder why, in some churches, when a minister gives a call to repent and believe the room becomes filed with sentimental music? Those stirred by religious sentiment are encouraged to come forward to make a decision. Why?
Likely, these are a few remnants of Charles Finney’s 19th century revival techniques, which at the time were considered “new measures” of evangelism. There was, of course, a theological reason for the introduction of these new measures. Finney believed that God could not regenerate a person without that person’s help. From this context it makes sense to encourage people to “give God permission” to save them.
So when a Christian pauses to ask “Why do we do things this way?” it may be that knowledge of church history will help provide answers. We might find that the old adage that “We’ve always done it this way” doesn’t have quite the historical pedigree that we often assume.
Learning church history keeps us humble
Paraphrasing Charles Spurgeon, Stephen Nichols writes: “I find it odd that the church of the 21st century thinks so highly of what the Holy Spirit has taught it today that it thinks so little of what the Holy Spirit taught the church in the first century, the second, the third, the fourth, and so on, and so on.” This is very similar to what C.S. Lewis’ called “chronological snobbery.” The notion that we obviously know better than our forbears because, well, it is the current year, is just as insidious as it is pervasive.
The truths of God’s Word are eternal and life-giving. Let us not be so arrogant as to think that we have nothing to learn from those who have gone before us in the walk of faith.
Servants and Heralds wants to do its part to help in your new assignment to learn church history. Check out Church History Matters over on the podcasts tab and be sure not to miss our interview with Dr. Tom Nettles on “The Mission Board that Saved the Southern Baptist Convention.”