Image: The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer – Jean-Léon Gérôme.
History splits opinion!
Some people find history fascinating, others boring. Church history is no different. What about you? What do you think?
If you fall into the first group you won’t need any encouragement to take an interest. If you’re in the second group, maybe you are already groaning inside and thinking of clicking elsewhere. If this is the case, give me the benefit of the doubt, a few minutes of your time, and read on. Hopefully
Here are four reasons why you should care.
1 – It’s your history!
Jesus tells us that he is the vine and his people are the branches (John 15:1-17). Paul tells us that Christ is the head of the church and each member forms part of the body, in one way or another playing a part in the whole (1 Corinthians 12:12, 27; Colossians 1:18) . This doesn’t just include the Christians around today, but also those that have lived and died in the past. We all form part of a whole – the one church. We’ve all been adopted into God’s family. Family history is popular, we like to know our background, where we have come from, what our ancestors did and were like – church history is the Christian’s family history. It’s your history!
2 – It has loads to teach us!
Understanding church history is key to understanding the church today – why we hold certain beliefs, how the church has got to where it is and why it is organised how it is.
Solomon tells us, there is nothing new under the sun. Controversies around today have been around before. Key doctrines challenged today have been challenged before. Answers given in the past can help us today…
- In the 4th century the Arian heresy rejected the doctrine of the trinity and the church formulated the Nicene Creed to counter this.
- In 451AD, the Council of Chalcedon defined the two distinct natures (human and divine) of the Lord Jesus in response to those who denied this.
- In 16th century, the reformers advocated a return to the Bibe as our only authority, as opposed to the teachings of fallible people.
These are all issues
3 – It’s inspirational!
How much do you know about Polycarp, Justin Martyr or Augustine? Giants of the early church who lived remarkable lives and in some cases died remarkable deaths. You’ve no doubt heard of the reformers Martin Luther, John Calvin and William Tyndale, but do you know about the adventures they had – ship wreaks, kidnappings, thunderbolts – and the lasting impact of their lives in the world even today? What about Huldrych Zwingli, John Knox, Thomas Cranmer, Lady Jane Grey, Nicolas Ridley, Thomas Bilney, Hugh Latimer, George Whitfield, Howell Harris, Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, Robert Muray McCheyne, William Wilberforce, John Newton, William Gadsby, Lord Shaftsbury, Elisabeth Fry, William Carey, James Hudson Taylor, Charles Spurgeon, the list could go on..! Some were martyrs, some were superb theologians, some were social campaigners, some were great preachers, some were all of the above. With God’s help they led fascinating, faithful lives and achieved incredible things. Their example is inspirational for us all!
4 – It’s encouraging!
We think we live in difficult times and in many ways we do. How easily we get discouraged and despondent about the state of the world and the state of the church. Throughout history there have been many similar times, yet, through thick and thin, God has looked after his people. He has ensured that there is always a church to carry the torch of the gospel however dark the world has become. As our own society becomes more and more hostile to Christians, seeing how God has built and preserved his church through history, sometimes in the most unexpected ways and in the most impossible of situations, is both humbling and encouraging. It shows us God’s omnipotent power and providential care in so many different ways.
Past, Present & Future
However, Christian’s should also look forward to the future, that time when we will arrive safely home in glory. We are already citizens of that heavenly kingdom and we should live as such, seeking to be conformed to the Lord Jesus, our glorious saviour we hope one day to see face to face
Where’s a good place to start?
Knowing where to start with church history can be a challenge. There is such a huge array of books, articles, and lectures available. Below are a few suggestions. Most people will not become church history experts, but I pray that you will find both interest and encouragement as you begin to explore 2000 years of your history and 2000 years of God’s goodness.
Introductory Books & Audio:
- Sketches from Church History – S.M.Houghton – published by Banner of Truth. This is a fast paced, well illustrated book that provides a great introduction to Church History from the death of Christ up until the end of the 19th century. Its easy to read and can be dipped into if there is a particular time, person or event you are interested in. This book has been reviewed here.
- Church History 101 – Sinclair Ferguson, Joel Beeke, Michael Haykin – published by Reformation Heritage Books. This short book covers 20 centuries in just 112 pages! As such it only covers the absolute highlights and does so very briefly. However, if you are completely new to church history, it’s a simple way to get an overview.
- God’s Timeline, The Big Book of Church History – Linda Finlayson – published by Christian Focus Publications. I hesitate to include this book in this list as its really aimed at children. However, it is actually a brilliant introduction to the full sweep of church history, and will be useful for anyone staring out. It’s attractively laid out around a number of timelines and has lots of more in depth sections about key events, concepts and people.
- Don Stephens has produced a series of 75 short lectures on a host of historical Christians. These are freely available on the Know Your Bible Recordings website.
More in depth:
- If you are after a more in depth overview of church history, Nick Needham has written a (currently) 4 volume set entitled 2000 Years of Christ’s Power (published by Christian Focus Publications). Whilst more academic, these books also aim to be accessible. Tim Challies has produced a useful review of this set here.