Why Should We Study Church History?
A study of history always has the potential to provide the student with some incredible insights. It often seems that people who are not students of history, really do not have a clear understanding of what is going on in the present. It is only as you study your history and the history of others that you are able to gain the needed tools to understand what is going on in the present.
Church history is a fascinating segment of history that should be studied by all who would say that they are Christ followers. A study of church history is important for several reasons. First of all, it provides a chain of custody back to the earliest days of Christianity. When looking at early church history, one is able to see the connections between Jesus’ apostles and other followers to the Church Fathers of the second century and onward.
The Apostolic Church Fathers, for example, were the men who had been students of Jesus’ apostles. Clement and Polycarp are two examples. Clement had close ties to the Apostles Peter and Paul and ended up as the third bishop of the Roman Church. Polycarp had been a disciple of the Apostle John and was the leader of the church in Smyrna.
These Church Fathers, and the many others, passed along what they had been taught from Jesus’ disciples. It was the Church Fathers who were also the first to acknowledge the New Testament writings as Scripture. Two hundred years before the New Testament canon was formalized, several of the Church Fathers had already listed the writings that they felt had the authority of Scripture. Almost every list that has been preserved contains most of the twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament today.
As one looks back at the earliest days of church history, up to the present point, it is easy to see that the basics of Christianity have not really changed. There are some minor doctrinal differences that are seen in different Christian groups today. In reality, there have always been minor differences among what different segments of the church believe. At the same time, however, there are the fundamentals of the faith that every Christian group holds to.
A second reason why a study of church history is important is that it strengthens one’s faith. As Christians today look back over their rich heritage, it allows them to see God’s hand at work. From the brutal persecution of the first two centuries, through the Dark Ages, into the Reformation, the Great Awakening, the rise of theological liberalism, and the Revivals of the 19th and 20th centuries, God has sustained his people by His grace. Through good times and bad, the church has continued to grow and thrive all over the world.
Another important benefit of examining the church’s history is that it prepares the church for the future. As history demonstrates, the church is only effective when it is able to adapt and change its methods with the times. The message of the gospel never changes and, as mentioned above, really has not changed in 2000 years. The methods that the church uses to convey that message, however, change regularly.
One example of changing methods would be the use of technology to spread the gospel message. After the invention of the printing press, the printed word was a primary means of spreading Christianity throughout the world. A few hundred years later, the printed word is still very important. Television, radio, and the internet, however, have become at least as important as the printed word in communicating the Gospel. Successful and growing churches understand the power of having a presence on the internet. A good, informative website is something that every church should have today.
Another example of changing methods is that of music. Fanny Crosby was a 19th century hymn writer with several thousand songs to her credit. Crosby was known to use popular secular music of the day to go with the words that she had written to create many of her hymns. Music is always going to be one of the powerful tools that the church uses to worship, teach, and evangelize. Most contemporary churches today make ample use of contemporary worship music accompanied by electric guitars, drums, keyboards, and expensive sound systems. While many traditional churches still make use of hymns written hundreds of years ago, many are also incorporating more contemporary music as well.
A last benefit to studying church history is that it keeps one balanced. One of the things that church history shows is a tendency to over-react and over-correct. The pendulum seems to constantly want to swing too far into being like the world or too far into separating oneself from the world. The church must always maintian the tension of living in the world but not becoming like it. A look at church history can help to keep the pendulum from swinging too far to either side.
There are many other benefits to studying church history; the few outlined here serve to provide the student with a good starting point. There is a great value is looking at the lives of those who have gone before you and learning from their example.
Can you think of any other benefits to studying Church History?
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