Returning Church History to Church

The pastor has many responsibilities in his ministerial life, it is difficult to try to suggest adding one more thing to a busy plate. In church ministry, it is often hard enough as a pastor to get people to read and study their Bibles let alone engage and enjoy church history. While I understand these difficulties, let me offer several encouragements to the benefits of bringing a little bit of church history back into your regular teaching ministry in the life of the church.

In my own personal experience, I have taken several opportunities to teach a series or two in church history for my church’s regular adult Sunday school routine. This was followed by an elder taking the mantle to conduct several series in church history, particularly biographies of various historical figures in the life of the church, including both men and women in his series.

While I cannot say that this caused a revival to brake out in our church, I do believe it benefited the life of the church overall. Of course, church history is not a substitute for the Word of God but it can bring context and wisdom to our understanding of the Word and remind us that believers today are surrounded by two thousand years of a ‘cloud of witnesses’ who have lived and died for the faith.

First, regularly teaching church history reminds the saints they are not alone in their struggles. Several years ago during a particularly draining season of my ministry I took with me on my vacation Daniel Bond’s mini-biography on John Knox entitled The Mighty Weakness of John Knox. It was incredibly encouraging to me during that season of life to read about this historic minister and just a snippet of his trials as well as his confidence in God’s Word. Teaching church history to your people can bring that kind of freshness to the lives of people.

In our age of novelty and newness our temptation is to look at the past and like a young child says to his parents, “you just don’t understand, it’s not like it was when you were young.” The reality is quite different. When you introduce your people to church history you immediately engage a past filled with real people who had real sins and weaknesses. In fact, our lives are relatively easy compared to what your forefathers faced and such reminders can encourage us to persevere in our struggles. In many ways those who went before us paved a path that is easier for us to walk on as we follow their footprints.

Second, regularly teaching church history helps us clarify doctrines and highlight the importance of passing on the faith given to the saints once for all. Most of us have probably never had to put our lives on the line over a doctrinal dispute and yet in church history great men and women of the faith have often done just that. For example, when the Fathers gathered at the Council of Nicea many of them had been through the great persecutions of the Roman Empire in the years prior to Constantine’s conversion. These men had put their lives on the line for the doctrines  later articulated at Nicea. Even more, in the years following, men like Athanasius repeatedly put his life of the line for the full deity of Christ. Church history can force us to ask: what am I willing to die for? What is absolutely non-negotiable to pass on to the next generation of Christians should the Lord tarry? Sadly, we live in an age where the average evangelical is able lay out a complicated end times chart of a pretribulational rapture but can barely articulate a Nicene or Chalcedonian Christology.

Third, church history can give us the language to better articulate our doctrine. Whether it is the “five points of Calvinism,” the ‘Solas of the Reformation,’ or the Christological language of the early creeds all of them are trying to articulate what Scripture says and means. Particularly with the early doctrines of the Trinity or the two natures of Christ, we often take for granted just how church history arrived at such descriptions.

Of course, our doctrine comes from the Word of God but we often forget that heretics read their Bibles too. Therefore creeds and doctrinal articulation is necessary so that we can clearly say “This is what the Bible means when it says Jesus is the Son of God.” It may sound silly today to debate whether Jesus is homoousia or homoiousia with the Father yet it makes a profound difference. The difference is not just because a bunch of old men decided an i should be dropped but rather one truly reflects what Scripture means when it speaks of Jesus’ oneness with His Father and addresses Jesus as Lord.  

Let me encourage you if you are in ministry, sprinkle in church history to your regular teaching ministry. It may begin with something as simple as adding into your sermon an illustration from church history. Or it might be more like teaching a class in church history, or reading a classic Christian work with a group of congregants from church. If you are lay person, lovingly encourage your pastor and your church to engage church history. Perhaps you might teach such a class, read a children’s biography to (or with) children and young people or help ensure that the church library is stocked with some solid historical works (in some churches a solid library is an overlooked ministry opportunity). However you sprinkle church history into the life of your church, you will not regret spending time with our forbearers who share in the one body of Christ with us.

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as Interim Pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.

Tim Bertolet