As Westerners in the year 2022, we perhaps live in a golden age of studying church history. It seems every few weeks one publisher or another releases a new translation, reprint, or edition of a classic work. It is hard to imagine a time in the past when Christians had more access to the godly, life-giving books from those that came before them. We should learn from them—those so astoundingly devoted to taking every thought captive to the Word of God. Yet, we have to think about church history biblically.
The History of the Church Is Invaluable
Understanding church history brings about many benefits, four of which I will note. Firstly, church history reminds us that Christ’s church has prevailed since His life, death, and resurrection; and she will prevail until His return (Matthew 16:18). Second, learning from church history is an immense source of wisdom, clarity, and encouragement. We can turn again to the great books that have shaped the course of the church for centuries. We can still find comfort for our souls in the gospel insights of writers who remain mostly unmatched. Third, understanding church history provides an incredible ballast against the waves of fads and fashions in the life of the church. Fourth, church history can inculcate humility in us.
The late David McCullough, one of the most influential historians of the past century, said in his book The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For: “We’ve got to teach history and nurture history and encourage history because it’s an antidote to the hubris of the present—the idea that everything we have and everything we do and everything we think is the ultimate, the best.” This applies to the studying of church history as well. Few questions today have not already been addressed in some way by the church over the last two millennia.
There have been periods throughout the history of the church that stand as faithful correctives to our own day. Consider the Puritans’ diligent, intentional, and patient focus on the ordinary means of grace in corporate worship. They focused on the Bible as the typical means by which God draws sinners to himself and conform us into the image of His Son. Contrast that with the revivalism reemerging in much of the church today. The Reformers themselves, to call the wayward church back to purity of doctrine and practice, looked at both the Bible and past theologians who faithfully taught the Bible.
Church history is truly an invaluable source of encouragement. In the writings of those who have long been in the grave, we can find pastoral mentors. How did John Calvin think through and address a pastoral issue? How did Herman Bavinck understand the role of the people of God in the political realm? We can find great motivation to remain faithful and trust in God’s promises by reading George Mueller’s autobiography. We can learn from the godly pattern of rejoicing in the tender-care of Christ through the Letters of Samuel Rutherford.
The History of the Church Is Imperfect
Nevertheless, in our right and godly quest to humbly understand and learn from church history, there is a simple pit-fall we must always avoid: We ought not think that there was some past "golden age of the church." The most Christ-like pastors, the most faithful evangelists, the purest churches—all these still bore the marks of indwelling sin. Godly pastors, even on their best days, are still imperfect shadows of the Great Shepherd to whom they point. The healthiest church is a faint glimmer of the purified Bride. It is imperative that we hold these truths together: the greatest figures and the most sanctified churches in history were flawed, and we can learn from them despite their insufficiencies and even their moral failings.
God’s Word itself recounts history in a way that reminds God’s people of past generations' faithlessness, to encourage faithfulness in the next generation. Moses, in Deuteronomy, reiterates the covenant and provides covenant motivations for ongoing faithfulness. He encouraged covenant faithfulness by reminding the Israelites of their forefathers’ faithlessness and failure (Deuteronomy 1:26–30). His pointing back to sinful distrust from the past stirred up greater present trust in God’s promise to give His people the land.
No, the golden age of the church is not behind us, nor do we live in it now. Jesus implied as much in Matthew 18:15–20, when He instituted the practice of church discipline (binding and loosing). Jesus himself assumed that the local church would include those whose lives at times denied their gospel confession. Additionally, reflect on how many letters in the New Testament were written to address theological and pastoral issues. The apostles themselves did not live in an idealized era of the church.
Pastor, if Jesus assumes an imperfect church and the apostle Paul ministered to churches who approved of a wicked sexual relationship (1 Cor. 5), seasons of frustration and hardship in your church should not surprise you.
Augustine grumbled about distracted or noisy audience members who interrupted his sermons. Luther wrote the Smaller Catechism because of “the deplorable, miserable condition” of Lutheran churches he had visited. Many of the Puritans bemoaned the occasional faithlessness and hard-heartedness of their people. Examples like these abound throughout church history, and they remind us that the church has never been perfect.
Don’t allow your heart to yearn for a fictionalized version of the church’s past. Instead, protect your expectations for what the church is and should be. You have been called to be a steward of your flock—not a flock in 1550s Geneva, 1600s Oxfordshire, or 1880s London.
Yes, learn from the past. Grow as a shepherd. Learn from the scores of faithful shepherds who watched over Christ’s church before you—those men who “held firm to the trustworthy word as taught” (Titus 1:9). And yet, remind yourself that perfection has never been the mark of a faithful pastor or a healthy church. Walking in repentance and faith, seeking to grow in greater godliness and joy in Christ, and making clear who Christ is by our words and deeds—this is what we are called to.
The Golden Age to Come
Take heart, though: the golden age of the church is coming soon. The Lord’s return will usher in an eternal age wherein, as the classic hymn “Jerusalem, My Happy Home” observes:
…congregations never break up and sabbaths have no end.
For now, our Sunday gatherings are messy. Our victories, flawed foretastes of eternal joy. Imperfect shepherds will someday give way to reality. Then, Christ’s church will be presented to Him perfect and blameless—no longer merely declared righteous, but made righteous to enjoy Him forevermore.
Forrest Strickland (PhD, University of St. Andrews) is an Adjunct Professor of Church History at Boyce College and a member of Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.