Two weeks ago, we began a series articulating ten reasons every Christian should learn more about church history. So far, we have considered the first four on our list of ten. Today we will consider three more reasons why church history is important … and why it should matter to you.
5. Because sound doctrine has been guarded and passed down by faithful generations throughout history.
In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul told his son in the faith: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” To study church history is to meet the generations of Christians who loved biblical truth and faithfully passed it on to those who came after. Moreover, it is encouraging to know that the truths we hold dear have been cherished by believers all the way back to the time of the apostles.
The study of church history reminds us that we are standing on the shoulders of those who have come before us. The halls of history are filled with accounts of those who loved the truth and fought valiantly to preserve it. Thus, while we recognize that church history is not authoritative (only Scripture is), we are wise to glean from the wisdom of past church leaders, theologians, and pastors. Their creeds, commentaries, and sermons represent lifetimes of meditating on the text and walking with God. We would be unwise to ignore their voices and their insights — as we similarly seek to rightly divide the Word.
Furthermore, when we study church history we are reminded that some truths are worth fighting for (and dying for). We remember that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. And like those who have come before us, we too have a responsibility to faithfully guard the treasure of biblical truth and sound doctrine that has been entrusted to us, being careful to pass it on to the those who will follow us.
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6. Because, just as we are encouraged by the history of truth, we are also warned by the history of error. This enables us to be equipped as apologists.
The New Testament is full of warnings about false teaching, both refuting it in the first century and warning that it would come in the centuries that followed (Acts 20:28–30; 1 Tim. 4:1). When we study church history, we not only learn the history of the truth but also the history of error. We see where the cults originated; and we have the benefit of seeing orthodoxy defended and the truth being preserved.
The New Testament calls all Christians to be able to defend the faith. In the words of 1 Peter 3:15: “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.” Titus 1:8–10 similarly requires that an elder must be one who holds ”fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” That is a quality all believers should desire to emulate.
Any defense of the Christian faith must be founded on the Scriptures. But church history also serves as a valuable (albeit secondary) apologetic tool.
For example, knowing a little church history quickly silences silly allegations against Christianity (like those made by The Da Vinci Code). Knowing a little church history is especially helpful in witnessing to Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of other pseudo-Christian cults. Understanding church history is even helpful in defending key areas of doctrine — showing that a contemporary evangelical understanding of Scripture has not deviated from the teachings of the apostolic church.
As believers, we are commanded to be ready to give a defense for our hope. The study of church history is an ally in that cause.
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7. Because we have much to learn from those who walked with God (cf. Hebrews 11)
In Hebrews 12:1, we read of “a great cloud of witnesses” — believers in generations past whose lives give testimony to the faithfulness of God. While the author of Hebrews was specifically referring to Old Testament saints (cf. Hebrews 11), the testimonies of all who have come before us provide a powerful encouragement to remain faithful ourselves.
Faithfulness to the Lord, to His Word, and to His people is what defines a hero of the faith. And church history offers us many such faithful men and women to choose from. Their lives should inspire, motivate, and encourage us as we run the race with endurance. Their heaven-focused perspective reminds us to keep our eyes on Christ, the Author and Perfecter of the faith. As C. S. Lewis famously said, “If you read history you will find out that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next.” Gleaning those kinds of devotional gems begins with reading church history.
Seasoned pastors often talk about identifying “mentors” from church history, faithful Christians from the past whose lives they have studied and desire to emulate. That is a practice all believers should seriously consider. In the opinion of this writer, Christian biography ought to be a staple part of any believer’s regular reading diet. I highly recommend reading at least one church history biography every year. You will be greatly encouraged and inspired to continued faithfulness by that simple practice alone.