By: A.T. Walker
I think every Christian should study Church history.
I know. Just mentioning the word “study” produces an involuntary groan that originates from the deepest, darkest parts of our memories of high-school and college. Some of us probably feel like we don’t even have enough time to read the bible, let alone put in time to seriously study anything else. We have busy schedules and we seem to have every moment of our day planned out with work, family, activities, errands, and driving to and from said work, family, activities, and errands that, at the end of the day, our minds are so exhausted that the thought of reading about what some guy in Germany did in the 16th century literally makes you want to curl up in the fetal position and cry. I get it. I spent a large portion of my adult life in this place, and before I go any further, let me just say this…Church history is not a substitute for the bible. The change in my heart came when I first devoted time seriously reading and studying the bible. I started seeing the gospel, not just in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but all throughout the bible. Later, I started reading about Godly men and women throughout Church history, and seeing their faith brought me encouragement and hope, but it was the gospel that showed me the beauty of Christ, brought me awareness of my sin, and the joy of salvation. So, if you are not currently reading your bible, then please start there. But if you are actively spending time in the bible, then here are a few reasons why I think you should study Church history as well.
Realizing You Are Part of A Bigger Story…
Since the moment that Jesus told His followers to “go and make disciples of all nations”, a chain of events started that eventually led to you hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ and believing. You could literally follow the events, like a link in a chain, that led to you being saved, from the person who shared the gospel with you to the person who shared the gospel with them, all the way back to this group of men standing in front of Jesus. Here, Matt Chandler takes us through a brief timeline of the last 2,000 years and shows how what started just outside of Jerusalem made it to the other side of the world two thousand years later:
“In Jerusalem, AD 30, Jesus died on the cross, resurrected on the third day, and then ascended into heaven. Fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection, the Holy Spirit fell on the apostles, giving them power, purpose, and a plan. Out of joy, the church was born. Empowered by the Spirit, Peter gave his first sermon, and 3,000 hearts were transformed. Hearing, receiving, and repenting, the young church walked in unity and garnered praise.
Peter and John then continued to spread the gospel through preaching and miracles, and the church grew by 5,000. In AD 31, Stephen gave a powerful sermon, and the enraged crowd stoned him, making him the first Christian martyr. Around AD 34, on the road to Damascus, the Lord transformed the heart of Saul, a man who persecuted countless Christians, and Saul became Paul.
In AD 44, King Herod Agrippa the First executed the apostle James and had Peter arrested, but an angel rescued Peter, leading him out of the prison. As the believers were scattered because of persecution, the center of operations for Christianity turned from Jerusalem to Antioch, where Paul and Barnabas were sent out on their first missionary journey.
On his final missionary journey, Paul traveled through Galatia, Phrygia, and Ephesus, encouraging the disciples in the cities. He then spent three months in Greece before traveling to Jerusalem where he was arrested. Paul is then sent to Rome for trial, but the ship wrecked on the island of Malta. When he finally arrived in Rome, he lived there for two years before Nero ordered his beheading. After 28 chapters, the story of Acts came to an end, yet the story of the gospel didn’t stop there.
Out of joy, the church multiplied. In AD 80, Christianity spread further to the countries of France and Tunisia. Twenty years later, the first Christians were reported in Algeria and Sri Lanka. By AD 150, the gospel reached Portugal and Morocco. Christianity found its way to Austria in AD 174, followed by Switzerland and Belgium. In AD 328, the gospel reached Ethiopia.
Almost 200 years later, Pope Gregory the First sent Augustine of Canterbury and a team of missionaries to present-day England, and within the first year, they baptized 10,000 people. In AD 635, the first Christian missionaries arrived in China. In AD 740, Irish monks brought the gospel to Iceland, but it wasn’t until AD 900 that missionaries reached the country of Norway.
By 1200, the Bible was available in 22 languages. In 1491, missionaries arrived in the African Congo with the first church located in Angola. A few years later, Kenya reported its first known Christians. Meanwhile in Spain, Pope Alexander the Sixth wanted to send Catholic missions to the New World. As a result, Christopher Columbus took priests with him on his second journey to the Americas.
In 1531, Franciscan Juan de Padilla started his mission work in Mexico City. By 1550, John Calvin sent French Protestants to reach the people of Brazil. In 1640, Jesuit missionaries finally reached the Caribbean, landing on the island of Martinique. Out of joy, the church multiplied. The early 1700’s saw the rise of the Great Awakening in America where both George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards stirred revival throughout the colonies. Out of joy, the church multiplied.”
And this continued spreading to your state, your city, and eventually your home. Did one of the people in our “gospel chain” hear Peter preach at Pentecost? Or sit in a house church in Corinth, listening to Paul’s letter being read? Did they hear Clement of Rome, John Chrysostom, or Augustine? Did they hear John Calvin preach or see Martin Luther nail the Ninety-five Theses to the doors of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany? Did they sit in the crowd as Jonathan Edwards preached “Sinners in The Hands of an Angry God”? Did they happen to be walking by and hear Charles Spurgeon preaching? We can go on and on with names like Billy Sunday, B.B. Warfield, C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham, J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, John Piper, etc. And when we look beyond all the well known names throughout history, we see that there have been countless saints that have served and labored for the Lord in obscurity. Missionaries, whose names history has forgotten, that were sent out throughout the world to spread the gospel. These faithful members are the embodiment of Nicolaus Zinzendorf’s famous line “Preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.”
Ever hear of Edward Kimball? Wilbur Chapman? Mordecai Ham?
Each of these men were instrumental in the lives of a few names you may have heard of…
Dwight L. Moody
The Lord is writing an epic story on millions of hearts that spans thousands of years. You are not alone. You are apart of this story. And God is using your life to write the next chapter.
Avoiding The Mistakes of The Past…
It was Edmund Burke who once said “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” This leads us to another important reason for studying Church history. Galatians 1:6-7 says “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” There will be those who will distort the gospel (another reason to be studying your bible so you can recognize a false gospel when you hear it). Church history gives us the amazing benefit of seeing these distortions play out over the course of time, seeing its effects and how it was able to sneak into the Church. Jon Payne further explains:
“Familiarity with the history and theology of the early ecumenical councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451), for example, helps to protect individuals and churches from unwittingly believing ancient Trinitarian and christological heresies. Furthermore, careful reflection upon revivalistic movements such as the Second Great Awakening warns us not to abandon biblical ministry for manipulative methods and quick numerical growth. The study of church history, therefore, preserves both orthodoxy (right doctrine) and orthopraxy (right practice).”
Why were Arianism and Pelagianism bad? Do you know why the Protestant Reformation was important? Do you know what it rescued the Church from? Is the “Prosperity Gospel” a true gospel? Can you see it throughout history or is this a recent gospel distortion in our modern age? When we hear people questioning the deity of Christ or substitutionary atonement, we can look at the bible and the teachings throughout the history of the Church to see if these beliefs line up with Christian orthodoxy. We can look at the creeds and confessions that have been passed down like the Apostle’s Creed, the Belgic and Westminster Confessions of Faith, and the Heidelberg Catechism. Those who don’t study their bible and don’t know Christian history will be doomed to repeat it.
Seeing God’s Faithfulness to Preserve His Church…
From the get go, the Church has been under fire from the world. Persecution of the early Church began before the ink was dry on the New Testament. We see Steven and James killed in the book of Acts. Before Paul’s conversion, he was on his way to Damascus with papers in hand to wage war against Christianity. The apostles suffered beatings, imprisonment, and ultimately death for their faith. Tertullian, an early church father, in his most famous work, “Apologeticus”, stated that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”. The early Church faced persecution from a long line of Roman emperors. From Nero, to Domitian, to Maximinus Thrax, to Decius, to Callus, to Valerian, and so on. In the year 303, the Great Persecution began. This was the last, and most severe, persecution of the Church in the Roman empire. Edicts called for church buildings to be destroyed, sacred writings burned, Christians to lose civil rights, clergy to be imprisoned and forced to sacrifice to pagan Roman gods on pain of death. This continued until Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which has traditionally marked the end of the persecution. How did this affect the Church?
250 AD – Christians accounted for just under 2% of the population in the Roman empire.
300 AD – The Christian population had grown to just over 10%.
350 AD – Christians accounted for over 50% of the Roman population.
380 AD – Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman empire.
Throughout history the Church has been persecuted around the world to varying degrees. Even today there are still areas where Christians are imprisoned or killed because of their faith. But despite all this, the underground Church continues to multiply. China, even with its strict laws against the practice of Christianity, is on pace to pass the United States in number of Christians. God will preserve His Church. By studying Church history, we get to see His hand move through the centuries as we witness His hand moving today.
Seeing our past can give us wisdom and encouragement. Men and women throughout history have had thoughts and questions like ours. They struggled, doubted, cried, and repented like we do. They rejoiced, praised, and served Christ like we do. You are not alone. You are part of a global body of believers that has spent the last two thousand years preaching and growing and spreading around the world, all for the glory of Christ. Brothers and sisters in Christ, proclaim the gospel while it is our time. Read about our faithful brothers and sisters throughout the ages and be encouraged. Be the hands and feet of Christ to this world. And when our days are over, we can rest well together with the One who rescued us all.