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.

The Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

In Revelation 1:5, the writer, John, gives Jesus Christ three unusual titles. It is the last of these I want to pick up on: the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

A grand sounding title, and on the face of it an elevated position, but the resonance of this mighty name to the early readers of this final book of the New Testament shouldn’t be overlooked.

John wrote his Revelation to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea are cities in what is modern day Turkey. In the first century, however, they were cities on the prosperous Ionian coast, a region that had belonged to the mighty Roman Empire for several hundred years.

These cities thrived on major trade routes, enjoyed prosperous regional government, and faced up to powerful local demagogues, all under the rule of an increasingly powerful Imperial throne. John likely wrote Revelation during the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD). Traditionally seen as a reign characterised by religious persecution (Eusebius, the 4th century historian, strongly advanced this view) it seems more likely that such persecution was more localised, but regardless of its spread, there were clearly tough times for the faithful church.

John’s Revelation is written to seven struggling churches. Facing persecution, struggles, false teachers and assaults both internal and external, John writes to challenge and encourage. So when he writes ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’, what would that have meant to these young, struggling churches?

Local Assurance

In 112 AD, the then governor of Bithynia and Pontus, a man named Pliny the Younger, wrote to the Emperor Trajan. Though several decades after the time of Revelation, and in a province to the North of modern day Turkey, rather than the West, the letters of Pliny provide a small window into the contemporary situation faced by the seven churches John addresses. Pliny writes to his Emperor, detailing how he rounded up Christians and tried them. The charges seem to have been nothing more than simply being a Christian.

“I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed.”

Pliny the Younger, Ep.96.

Judging by the replies Pliny records, Trajan was not particularly interested in this matter of provincial justice, but it highlights just how powerful local rulers could be. Pliny executed Christians for confessing their faith, and refusing to recant. No other ‘crime’ is recorded. The seven churches of Revelation faced similarly powerful local govenment. Imperial officials carried behind them the weight of Rome, and their decisions could very quickly become life and death. For John to label Jesus Christ the Ruler of such figures would have been a mighty comfort. Even in the backwaters of Asia Minor, Christ was sovereign over the kings, emperors, governors and officials. No government can stand up to Christ, so take heart, wrote John, because the faithful are in Christ.

The True Emperor

The greatest source of power in the ancient world was of course the Emperor himself. A supreme ruler with a quasi-divine statues, the Roman Emperor was sovereign over almost all of the known Western World. Domitian, the Emperor at the likely time of writing for Revelation, was particularly powerful. Previous struggles for the imperial throne were forgotten, the Flavian Dynasty had now ruled for around fifteen years, and strengthened the power of the throne. Domitian was an authoritarian figure, regularly overruling the Senate, and reinstituting the idea of the Imperial cult – that the Emperor and his household were divine.

With such a powerful Emperor, one who even declared himself to be a god, how could such a small group of churches in Asia Minor stand any chance? Because on their side was the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

The Emperor looked all powerful. Christ was.

The Emperor claimed to be divine. Christ was.

The Emperor claimed to be sovereign over the Earth. Christ is.

John could give Jesus such a powerful name because it was true. He was the exalted Lord of all creation. All powers and authorities stem from Him. The seven suffering churches of Asia Minor could cling on to this King because He was the True King. They knew that. They may have to suffer for it, but they knew it.

As Paul wrote only a few decades before John’s letter:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:9-11.

God’s True King truly reigns, and one day even the most powerful Emperor will come to see that to be true.

What About Us?

We still live in a world of kings and powers. They might no longer be Emperors, but through politicians, celebrities, business billionaires and tech giants, our lives can very often feel ruled over. Christians across the world face very real persecution to this day. For some this means life and death, for others it means losing their job, their families or their homes.

We make kingdoms of our own too. We try to push ourselves ahead of others, we try to rule those we consider beneath us. Whether in business, family or some other sphere, we humans love to envisage ourselves as our own rulers. Kings and Queens of tiny nations carved out of our own successes.

Against the thrones and powers of this world what hope does the small and suffering church of Christ cling to?

They cling to the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

There is no higher throne than that of Christ. His kingdom will not endure for a while, but for an eternity. So don’t forget our heavenly nation. As we begin a New Year, as we face the challenges and struggles of living for Christ in a difficult world, let’s seek His kingdom. As we labour for our nations, as we try even to build our own mini kingdoms, let’s remember that we do so as citizens of Heaven. Let’s live for our True King, the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth, Jesus Christ.