Ten Reasons to Read About Church History

10 Reasons to Read About Church History

Funnily enough, I think Church History is really important. In this blog that I wrote for IVP Books UK, which I reproduce below, I spell out ten reasons why Christians should engage with the history of our faith.

Whether Church History is what gets you out of bed in the morning, or you’ve always thought it was just dusty old books and grumpy old men, there’s much we can learn from the long history of the Christian faith.

Whilst not always pretty, as history exposes sin and human weakness, the fact of the matter is that we trust and hope in a historical faith. We can study Church History because there is a history of the Church. Yet we live in a time where, particularly in an evangelical context, we are perhaps more ignorant of Church History than at any other point since the Reformation. To our detriment, we simply engage too little with the history of the Church.

Here are ten reasons why it’s worth studying.

1)    Church History is surprisingly accessible, full of men and women like you and me.

Many fear approaching Church History because it feels like the record of an alien time, and of ancient people. Yet the story of the Church is the story of God’s people, men and women like us from throughout history. Christ came to offer salvation to all of humanity, and history reveals that billions, from all faiths, backgrounds and nations, have taken up that call. As we explore Church History, we find people just like us. We find the downtrodden and oppressed, the rulers and the powerful, and everyone in between! Human nature doesn’t change. All have sinned, and fallen short of God’s standard. But all who accept Christ’s offer of salvation are redeemed. The historic Church is made up of brothers and sisters from across the globe. This is our family history!

2)    God promised to keep His Church, and history shows that He is faithful.

Though the Church is made up of men and women, it is kept by the sovereign God of history. Christianity is a historical faith, and our Scriptures are historical texts. In the New Testament, God promises to keep His Church. He promises that the Church will endure, until Christ returns.

As we explore Church History, we see not only that this promise was kept, but just how wonderfully God kept it. In times of trial, error and loss, God has been faithful to His people. When we look at the long story of the Church, we see that glorious truth again and again.

3)   Church History displays God’s sovereignty over all of creation past and present.

God’s sovereignty is total. Scripture tells us this and history, again, shows this to be wonderfully true. What a blessing to know a God who keeps His people, and who holds all of creation in His hands! When we dig into the history of the Church, we see again and again how God worked to raise up men and women for the moments required. We see a history not of heroes, but of weak and feeble people being used by a powerful and mighty God. Church History is incredible because it allows us, time and again, to see the evidence of God at work.

4)    Church History encouragess us to give God glory for what He has done.

As we unpack Church History, we are struck time and again by God’s incredible power, grace and faithfulness. Humanity is never the hero of the story of the Christian faith and history confirms that. It is God alone who time and time again pours out His blessings on His Church, and it is right that we glorify Him for this. In Revelation 7, John is shown a vision of the throneroom of God. Around the throne he sees a host of angels, and they cry out (vs12):

Praise and glory,

and wisdom and thanks and honour

and power and strength

be to our God for ever and ever.

Amen!

These angels are praising the glorious God of all the nations, of all history and of all creation. When we turn our eyes to Church History, we are shown a glimpse of God’s glory in His wonderful dealings with His people. Our response ought to mirror the angels of Revelation 7 – praise and glory to this wonderful God!

5)    Church History, like Scripture, encourages us to look, and learn from those who have gone before us.

In 2 Timothy 3:14 Paul urges Timothy to continue in what he has learnt because he knows those from whom he learned it. He is encouraged to look back to the model of his mother, grandmother and Paul himself. In 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul urges the Corinthian church to imitate him, just as he imitates Christ. A pattern emerges in Scripture of learning from those who have gone before us, of looking to wiser older brothers and sisters as models for living a life worthy of our calling.

Exploring Church History allows us to learn from those who have gone before us. A hero of mine is Eric Liddell, the 1924 Paris Olympic gold medallist. Though he was not perfect, through reading biographies of this athlete, I have been encouraged to (amongst other things) prioritise my daily time in God’s Word, and use my gifts for His Glory and not my own. Throughout Church History God has raised up men and women who model godly characteristics to us. These saints are not perfect, but there is so much we can learn from diving into their stories.

Lessons from Church History

6)    Church History challenges our Chronological Snobbery.

C S Lewis famously coined the term ‘chronological snobbery’ – and what he described is rampant today. We think that simply because we come after those before us, we are superior. We are better developed, better equipped, better understanding. It’s foolish to think we have all the answers simply by virtue of living when we do, but it’s an easy mindset to adopt.With our modern ministries, global parachurch organisations and slick social media, it’s all too easy to think we’ve got the Christian life sorted. We can happily think we’ve got all the answers.

A look back through Church History encourages us to consider these things afresh. We see issues and challenges that we too face, and often we can learn how to respond to them. We see faithful Christians living in this fallen, hostile world, and there is much to learn. Many wise Christians have gone before us, it would be an error to ignore them.

7)    Church History helps us to learn from our mistakes.

Though there is much wisdom to gleam from our long Christian history, undeniably, the Church has been involved in great sin throughout the years. Every church is made up of sinful men and women, and this sin can so often multiply. The horrors of the crusades or the persecution of minorities in communities across the Christian world, are just some of the many obvious transgressions. Though at times the Church was a great force for good with regards to the despicable practice of slavery, at times it supported and endorsed this endeavour. More locally, stories of abuse of power and manipulation can rock church families for decades.

A better understanding of Church History, the good and the bad, will equip us to resist repeating the errors of our forebears.

8)    Church History reminds us that the Great Commission was for all of God’s people.

In The Story of The Church (4th ed.), Harman and Renwick write (xiii) “The history of the church is simply an account of its success and failure in carrying out Christ’s great commission ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded’ (Matt. 28:19–20).” This was a commission for all Christ’s Church. It was a command to go out with the Gospel to all the world.

This Great Commission was as true for the first hearers as it was for the earliest Christian communities, the faithful churches of the Middle Ages, and the revivalist preachers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And it is true for us. This great missional activity of the Church ties all believers together, throughout history, and so as we go out into our own contexts we can take courage, and learn, from those who have done just the same long before us. Church History encourages us in this task, challenges us to avoid error and sin that would hinder us, and helps us look back to the God who is truly in control.

9)    Church History is diverse – so explore!

From biographies of Christian athletes like Eric Liddell, to stories of faithful congregations resisting the errors of Medieval Rome, to the first generation of the post-Apostolic Church; there is so much to explore, so many lives to unpack, so many challenges to heed. Great sermons have been written, theological stands have been made.

 There is so much to Church History, that whatever your background or interest, there is something for you. My encouragement is to explore, and then to dig into areas or periods that truly grip you. God teaches us through His Word, and Church History helps us to see these truths applied across the life of those who make up God’s Church.

10) Church History is fascinating.

From radical communities in the Roman Empire, to humble preachers in the courts of kings and emperors, Church History is diverse, surprising, and fascinating. Humanity is often best (and worst) seen in the context of church, and two thousand years of Church History mean that there are countless lives and events to explore. The story of the Church is a fascinating one, and one that is worth unpacking, exploring, and diving headfirst into!

There is so much to explore in the long history of the Christian Church. This post is an encouragement to spend time exploring it for yourself. When we engage with Church History, we are struck by one of the famous truths expounded by John Calvin in the sixteenth century. Soli Deo Gloria. As we look back at the long history of the Church, there is one simple conclusion: to God alone be the glory.

If you want to explore Church History, I thoroughly recommend The Story of the Church as a great introductory book on the subject. You can find my review of this book here. It’s available from IVP UK here.

James and the ‘Crown of Life’: the crown in the Ancient World.

Image result for ancient victor's crown

James wrote his New Testament epistle to scattered and persecuted Christians struggling to stand firm in the ancient world. He wrote to encourage and challenge them, offering practical wisdom on the outworking of their faith in their lives, the need to endure, and the reality that God changes the believer.

His short letter opens with a section dedicated to facing trials and temptations in God’s strength. He exhorts his readers to cling to spiritual provision (vs16-18) during times of great spiritual challenge and danger (vs13-15). In verse 12, James encourages his readers by looking forward together.

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

James 1:12 (NIV)

Blessed are those, writes James, who stand firm under pressure, who keep on in the trials and temptations of life, because at the end of all that is the crown of life. The prize, the goal, the crown of life. James’ words echo Paul in 2 Timothy 4:8, where the Apostle speaks of what lies in store for him, and those who are faithful to Christ.

there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing

2 Timothy 4:8

Both writers use the same Greek word to describe this crown – στέφανος – meaning crown, or wreath. And it was a word with majestic implications. Not as the crown of a king or queen as we might imagine today, but far more accessible, though just as noble.

The στέφανος in the Ancient World

The use of στέφανος in the ancient world is widespread, and by the time the New Testament was written, in the first century AD, the word had been used in the context of this crown/wreath for nearly a millennium. Homer (Il. 18.597) spoke of the crowns worn by girls in group dances and in the sixth century BC the Athenian playwright Euripides spoke of men garlanding their heads with wreaths of roses (Hipp. 73f). In the more immediate Roman context, Pliny (Hist. Nat. 18.2.6) records how certain priests, known as the Arvals, wear crowns at festivals, a tradition he suggests was instituted by Romulus himself.

The word then was well established. Indeed, it had far reaching popular connotations. I’ve long been taught that New Testament uses of this word were connected to the crowns given to victors in ancient sporting contests. Such an idea is often suggested alongside citation of 2 Cor 9:25 or 2 Tim 2:5. There is certainly truth in this, and this was a common use of the στέφανος, but the connotations of this word reach far further than just that. James uses the word because it is one with real weight and meaning behind it.

As suggested by some of the citations above, the ancient world attributed such crowns to religious settings. Wreaths or crowns often played roles in cultic celebrations, they were holy dress, worn by priests and linked in many cases directly to the gods.* Crowns extended beyond the priesthood in many cults of the ancient world through processions and feast celebrations. Again the ancient record is littered with references to specific people wearing wreaths and crowns on certain feast days or at certain festivals, in recognition of the god or goddess they worshipped. Such crowns seemed to carry connotations of salvation and protection in the ancient world as well. the Athenian playwright Aristophanes, in one comedy, describes a slave saved from a beating because he was wearing a crown (Pl. 21f), whilst the emperor Tiberius was known to wear laurel wreaths during thunderstorms because of their association with averting lightning (Plin., Hist. Nat. 15.134f).

Wreaths and crowns then, appeared in a myriad of contexts in the ancient world. But of course we must note their link to sporting contests. Victors were crowned with wreaths of olive, at the Olympic Games in Greece, such wreaths were cut from sacred olive trees with a golden sickle. The victor was crowned, and Xenophon (Mem. III.7.1) tells how after the Delphic Games, the victor was lauded in a procession which ended at his house, which was then also crowned in a wreath as an extra show of honour and victory! These crowns were immense honours, a sign of supreme earthly fortune, and often accompanied by rich prizes of gold or olive oil to represent that. To win such a crown was the greatest prize, a sign of quasi-immortality before all mankind.

There is more we could say on the στέφανος. These crowns played roles in the marriage ceremonies of the ancient Roman world, in the honouring of the dead, and in the oracles and Mystic Cults that abounded. But what is clear to see in all of these settings, the στέφανος was a very special prize. It was reserved for special individuals, on certain days or occasions, and carried with it connotations of salvation, glory, victory and completion.

The Στέφανος for James’ Audience

So what then, would this word have meant to the original readers of this letter? What would James’ readers, scattered former Jewish Christians facing intense persecution for their new faith, have made of this particular sentence?

James was telling battered and bruised believers, that no matter what they faced now, when they crossed that finish line, when they ran or stumbled or crawled over the line into the arms of their Saviour, that this crown awaited them.

The στέφανος was holy. It was set apart for specific people and specific contexts. And it was glorious. It embodied hope, victory, status, salvation. James didn’t use the word lightly when describing the prize his readers had in store for them. He knew their earthly experience was tough. Like the athlete sweating it out in the ancient games, or the worker toiling in the sun, longing for the day of rest that came with the next festival. Their στέφανος was a wonderful prize, one that signalled an end to their present suffering, and the awarding of all the good gifts that come with such a prize. But whilst an earthly crown of laurel or olive may fade away, James spoke of the στέφανος of life. Here was a crown that would never perish, spoil or fade. Here was a victory, a celebration, a religious moment that would never end. Here was the ultimate prize. James meant it when he said the one who carries on to that prize is truly blessed!

To a readership struggling under widespread persecution, social ostracism and the everyday sufferings of the ancient world, this crown of life must have leapt off of the page. An unimaginable prize described in an accessible, engaging and thoroughly exhilarating way.

What about Us?

James wrote to encourage suffering believers to keep on, to lean on their Father, to live out their faith practically and well in the ancient world. He wrote to encourage them to press on in the trials of life towards a treasure that will never perish, spoil or fade. He wrote to encourage them towards their reward: the crown of life. His message rings true for us today. In a world where life can bear down on us, sufferings closing in from all around, and persecution for our faith can take many forms, James holds out the crown of life.

This στέφανος was a picture of the ultimate prize. A picture of rest from toil and struggle. A picture of a great and glorious reward after a bitter and long contest. A picture of victory. The wonderful news of the Gospel is that that same crown is held out to us today. The Gospel promises eternal life, eternal rest, eternal victory. Christ makes us heirs and coheirs of eternity. In Him, the Christian who endures is given a great and glorious rest, with Him for all eternity. And wonderfully, the Gospel promises (Romans 8:39) that God will keep his saints keeping on. The ultimate prize is there for the believer who perseveres. So lean on your Father, hide yourself in Him, and keep on until we claim the prize: an eternity with the God we love.

*Take for example Dionysus. Ivy was a sign of this god, and Euripides describes how the followers of Dionysus wear crowns of woven ivy in worship of him, signifying a fellowship of life and death (Bacc. 177)