Why Church History
How can a basic understanding of Church history, both its glory and its blemishes, enhance the individual's Church experience? What can we learn from those who have come before us and what lessons can we learn as we move into the future?
(Response by Dr. John Hanna)
It was Henry Ford, the famous automobile manufacturer, who declared in a Chicago courtroom that in his opinion history was a waste of time. He was neither the first nor last to have this perspective. I wonder if his high school history teacher was the football coach, who also taught hygiene, to justify his full time salary in the ďoff seasonĒ. If that was your experience I can see how you might come to share Henryís view. In hygiene class I learned that soap was good and dirt was bad; in history I learned that it was endless dates and facts with little sense of meaning. It was sheer boredom.
Despite the Fordís and teachers of this world who did not grasp the importance of knowing a little about what happened before we came tumbling upon the earthís crust, I think they led me astray. In fact, they were dead wrong. Knowledge of the past has street value. Let me frame the question this way, does an awareness of the past have value in selecting a church? Let me suggest to you that historical awareness is of immense practical importance. In fact, let me give you five reasons why you should know a little church history.
'...knowledge of history will help you realize that the way we do church may not be the best'
First, it will help you to understand why the church you may visit or join does the things the way they do and why it uses the language it does. While every church claims to find directions for its procedures, beliefs, and explanations in the Bible, each emerged and was shaped within a particular time and circumstance. For example, why are some churches liturgical (the lighting of candles, burning of incense, etc.) and others think that structure is a hindrance to worship? Why do some churches insist that ministers be celibate and others that it is an obstacle to ministry? Why do some churches have a more open policy to membership while others demand greater degrees of conformity to the group? Churches that begin as a result of a church split often carry the old problems into new circumstances. It will pay you to know the history of the church that interests you. If a church has had a series of short-termed pastors, it may tell you that the leadership makes poor decisions or that the church is picky or domineering and runs off good pastors. (Go to Beliefs and Practices of Christians)
Second, knowledge of history will help you realize that the way we do church may not be the best. Such awareness relativizes our own times. These may not be the best of times or the ways we do things the greatest. It preserves the churches from fads and novelty that offer great hope of success but easily sidetrack. A desire to be contemporary and attractive (user friendly) may be a recipe for instability, the trivial, and triteness. We have the tendency to perceive new programs and methods with messianic promises of success. History teaches that there are few great events or life changing moments. Real change takes place over time; it is gradual, slow in coming, stable in development, and calculated. It is the little things that make for permanent and beneficial change. The outward veneer of the smile and warm handshake, new plans explained with great enthusiasm, and multifaceted programs for all age groups may not be what is best in the long run. Look for a Christ-centered church where the Bible is taken seriously, mutual care is apparent, and the worship of God (not the exaltation of self-health and good personal feelings) is a priority.
Third, an awareness of the past reminds us that we are part of the body of Christ that is far more extensive than oneís private beliefs or denominational heritages. It should deliver us from provincialism, pride, and arrogance borne of the idea that any one church or ecclesiastical tradition stands as the most pure, blessed, and Orthodox. The importance of any particular church is not the size of the building or its own self-claims; it is Christ. The churches belong to Christ and He alone is central. If any church gives the impression that there is something of more important than itís founder, I wonder if it really is a church in the biblical sense. The church is neither a club nor a click; it is a gathering of people to listen to and then live out the teachings of the Bible.
Fourth, knowledge of the history of the church will preserve us from repeating the errors of the past that have hurt it. History provides both polemical and apologetical weapons against deception. The accumulated wisdom of the church can provide an arsenal of arguments as we struggle to preserve the church today from her adversaries. What might appear to be attractive, informative teaching may be error in new clothing. History tests the truthfulness of what preacherís say against the anvil of time-tested, universally embraced, growth-stimulating truth. Be cautious of a church that eschews the past; it is hard to preserve yourself from exposure to error without perspective.
Fifth, acquaintance with the past can give us a sense of calm in turbulent times that the Lordís church will ultimately triumph. It is a safe and wonderful (if not necessary) place to be for you and your family. The devil has employed every strategy to destroy the church. Armies have marched against it, faithless scholarship has relentlessly assaulted it, internal bickering has rent it, and martyrdom has depleted its ranks from time to time. Yet the church marches forward in triumphal anticipation that one day the kingdoms of this world will be put under Christís feet and the bride, without spot or wrinkle, will be given to the king. The church is the greatest institution in the world. The greatest person in all of history, Jesus Christ, came from heaven to purchase it with his own blood and it belongs to Him.
Be careful in selecting a church, but do not fail to do it. Before you join one, learn about its past.
About Dr. John Hannah:
Faculty, Dallas Theological Seminary (1971-present) and Department Chairman (1980-present); Professor and Chairman, Department of Historical Theology, Dallas Theological Seminary (1980-97); Senior Professor and Chairman (1997-2000); Distinguished Professor and Chairman (2000-2003); Distinguished Professor and Research Professor, Westminster Theological Seminary (1994-present); Director of Adult Education (1974-76), interim pastor (1997), Trinity Bible Church, Richardson, Texas (1974-79); Navigator's Staff Conference teacher; Campus Crusade for Christ Institute for Biblical Studies; Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship conference speaker; summer staff, Summit Ministries, Colorado Springs, Colorado (1985-90); frequent conference and church speaker, home and abroad.
Scripture Film, Inc, Forth Worth, TX (1992); The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (1995-); The New England Theological Seminary, Williston, VT (2000-); Rafiki, San Antonio, TX (2001-). Contributing editor, Reformation and Revival, Carol Stream, IL (2001-). Editorial Advisor, Bibliotheca Sacra (2002-).
Dr. Hannah and his wife, Carolyn Ruth live in Dallas, Texas and have two married children, one granddaughter; one grandson.
For Further Study:
The Kregel Pictorial Guide to Church History (Kregel, 2000) by John Hannah
Charts of Reformation and Enlightenment Church History (Zondervan) by John Hannah
Church History on Plain Language (Word) by Bruce Shelley
The Story of Christianity. 2 vols. (Abingdon Press) by Justo Gonzalez
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