With so much going on today, coupled with preparing for tomorrow, it is hard to take the time to look backwards. But in some cases, it helps to look in the rearview mirror as we prepare for the future. One area that we can prepare for the future by learning about the past is the history of the Christian Church.
Most Christians know more about NFL history, or what is contained in all the episodes in last year’s favorite TV show than they know about church history. And that is unfortunate, because once you start looking at the early church, you begin to realize how valuable and relevant that history is to the church today. But that being said, I have to admit I’m not as knowledgable as I would like to be. History is not my forte. I have to work at remembering key dates in my life, like my anniversary and my kids birthdays to name a few. I’d prefer to work on the vision of Northstar, meet with members, prepare to teach each Sunday and spend quality time with Angela and Andrew and Ashleigh. Bottom line is, history is not something on my radar screen, but it would be good for all of us who are Christ followers to learn as much as possible on the early church and the lives of early Christians.
The very early church provided us quite a legacy. The faith as we know it today was not simply handed to us, but was painstakingly developed over hundreds and thousands of years. And today we have unprecedented access to that history and to the Scripture and resources dealing with the Bible. Studying that past helps us understand the present. We can learn from the long, storied history of the church, because I’m not sure what we are dealing with as a church or as individuals is all that different from the Christ followers of the past.
Here is a case in point. Since we founded Northstar Church, I have discussed with the church leadership and trustees a whole range of subjects and issues. Those have included how we govern the church, church finances, communion, the qualifications of pastors and trustees, outreach, and the character of the worship service. We discussed even something as simple and yet complex as answering the question, what is a church? The list is much longer than those few examples.
Most, if not all of those issues, have already been debated at length in church history. Our Christian forefathers struggled with those issues as well. We can learn from the context of those issues and evaluate the effectiveness of the solutions through the prism of time.
I attended seminary because I viewed it as great preparation for whatever ministry I would serve in the future. It required sacrifice, but I believed it was well worth the effort. I believed it would ground me in theology and Bible exegesis, and also prepare me for real people and the real world challenges of today and tomorrow. I’m sure I was not the only seminary student who wondered to themselves why we had to study the writings and teachings of theologians from centuries ago. I remember thinking to myself that learning about theologians like Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin and Martin Luther was a waste of my time, because what mattered wasn’t views from antiquity, but what the Bible said. And besides, I was more interested in what Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Andy Stanley and others said about building a church that wins the lost for Jesus today.
While what the Bible says is paramount, I now realize the real value of learning from church history is a key to understanding how to deal with the present. God has poured out His Spirit, not only on this generation, but all previous generations, leading them to a deeper understanding of the Word of God and how to address these issues. In other words, we mustn’t think that new is always better or closer to the truth.
Here is the bottom line: The Bible doesn’t always explain itself, and while we can figure out a lot on our own with God’s grace, part of God’s grace has been other thoughtful, gifted people who have written about how the Bible can make the most sense. To ignore theologians and refuse to learn church history is to ignore those gracious gifts God gave to us.