Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Importance of Church History

To hear some say it, you would think that the history of the church began at whatever point their particular denomination came into existence. If you’re a Baptist, then it began sometime in the 17th century. If you’re a Lutheran sometime before that. And if you’re a church of Christ member, then it began in the 19th century with Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone. Every denomination has its own particular reference point when their history began and beyond which the rank and file member seldom goes. But the fact of the matter is that, if the church began in Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago, then church history is that old. Since the church did not begin with the reformation, its history did not begin there either. And it behooves those of us who call ourselves Christians to understand that history because, like it or not (or admit it or not, for that matter), that history does have a certain influence on who we are as a church in the 21st century.

There are many today who like to say that they follow the Bible and nothing else when it comes to their doctrinal stance. And that certainly should be our mindset. But we cannot be so blind as to believe that our doctrinal beliefs have not been influenced by those who were on the scene of human history before us. The reality is that, in any human endeavor, the people who are involved in any one of those particular endeavors will influence each other to a greater or lesser extent. This is true in the church as much as in any other human affair. Perhaps where Christianity differs from many other organizations or undertakings, is in the fact that Christianity has a very definite guide by which its adherents guide themselves: the Bible. That protects Christians, to a great degree, from influences that would seek to destroy its message since we don’t have to depend on what others say; we have the manual directly from God and it can direct our steps in following after the Master.

It is also true that, aside from the written word, we are the beneficiaries of having the guidance that the Spirit of God provides. Unlike science or history or any other field of human study, the Spirit provides us with direction that unbelievers do not have as they go about their daily lives. But it is essential for us to understand that we are not the first ones to have received such a gift. Something that I often observe when it comes to scientists, and especially those who seek to provide a naturalistic explanation for everything, is that they are guilty of what I call the primacy of the modern. This is the idea that because we in the modern era have come to certain conclusions, that fact by its very nature gives greater credence to whatever other conclusions are drawn. But we in the church also engage in a very similar habit. We discount the opinions and ideas of those Christians who have gone before us if they happen to contradict our own, and we do so because we somehow have come to the conclusion that we have it all together. In that view, the ancients just weren’t as smart as we are or didn’t study the Scriptures like we do.

Imagine this scenario for a minute. Nearly two thousand years go by and, for one reason or another, the Spirit of God does not give anyone, or at best a very select few, the knowledge and light to be able to see the Scriptures for what they are. Then, all of a sudden, beginning in the late 18th and into the 19th century, God decides that now he can provide the light necessary for man to understand his word. Does sound rather farfetched, but that is just what some would have you believe. Some go about it in a very open fashion, such as the claims of Joseph Smith who taught that he received a revelation of the Father and Son and that they told him that the denominations in existence at the time (the early 19th century) were all wrong. According to Smith, then, he was to begin a totally new group which had the “truth.” Or what about Charles Taze Russell? He just happened to receive a revelation that Jesus was not God and assorted other doctrines that have little to do with the Scriptures.

To be sure, these are extreme examples. But when we discard off hand the conclusions of many throughout church history, we are guilty of similar arrogance. It has been said that if we today can see as far as we do, it is because we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Others have gone before us and have blazed the trail so that we can see more clearly than even they did. Hopefully we are doing the same thing for the generations that will come after us so that, together with the ancients, we can add to the body of knowledge that will help others become more what God wants them to be. This is especially important when it comes to examining the dictums of scripture. Our attitude should be that we are going to examine the Scriptures in order to ascertain what they tell us about God, rather than trying to prove our particular doctrines by them. After all, if we do not leave for our progeny something that will help them become more godly, then we have neglected a very important task while on earth.



  1. I whole-heartedly agree Mike, we must not be too arrogant in assuming that we know more than those who came before us in understanding scripture. It seems that any arrogance at all in any form or fashion would inherently impede us from accurately understanding those things taught to us by scripture.

    Good job!

    1. Casey, thanks for you comments. Human nature being what it is, we're always trying to convince ourselves that we have the right doctrine or belief and that others may not. Unfortunately, when we come to Christ, our flesh comes along for the ride and that flesh very often gets in the way of what God is trying to teach us. Thanks again!