Why Church History Is Important for American Christians

For some reason, I haven’t been gifted with a very good memory. It really is a shame, considering how much I enjoy history. I just wish I could actually remember all the dates and events I was quizzed on throughout my long career as a student. It was as if all the information I spent hours studying simply vanished as soon as I turned in my exam. Even still, I still have a fascination and love for the stories that make up our world, especially within the Church.

I recently heard it said that most Christians understand the timeline of church history as being the resurrection of Jesus, Peter and Paul, maybe the Reformation, and now. But there are a whole lot of key events and hundreds of years missing on tat timeline. 

There are many reasons we’re less likely to learn or be taught about the history of our faith. Our lack of knowledge about Church history may actually be one of the rippling effects of the Reformation. As evangelical Christians, we’re often hesitant about honoring Church traditions and practices outside our own. We are fearful of elevating history or tradition to an inappropriate place or giving it too much authority. As a result, we tend to learn nothing about it at all.

I actually learned more about Church history in my local community college than I had ever learned attending church. Later, I attended a private Christian university and received a heavy dose of history about the school’s denomination, which didn’t begin until the 1600s. But still, there was a whole lot more to learn about that happened prior to the establishment of this particular denomination. 

So some of my favorite courses in graduate school were about Church history. I was learning about people, organizations, churches, and leaders who paved the way for how many of us understand our faith today. As with all history, there is much we can learn through the stories, challenges, and success of those who’ve walked before us.

I’ve been told there are some people out there who find history boring, so just in case that really is true, I’d still like to encourage you to stick with me. 

Not all Church history is beautiful and radiant. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Crusades. Some of our history is truly diabolical. But packed in between the shameful and horrendous stories carried out in the name of Jesus are people who embodied the teachings of Jesus in undeniable ways. 

Learning about the history of our faith can serve as a tool for wisdom, direction, edification, and even warning.

Here are some things you should know about the history of the Christian Church.

The Church Has Not Always Been Influential

In American culture today, the evangelical Christian voice bears a degree of influence. Now, the way we have used that influence is an entirely different conversation.

There was certainly a time in our culture when Christian ethics and values were widely held among citizens. And while Christians are currently dissatisfied with losing control of the influence they once had, it’s important to note we still have influence.

This is clearly seen as we look back on the history of the Church and see the prevalence of persecution of Christians. The American Church could arguably be losing influence, but that doesn’t compare to the persecution of those who’ve gone before us and those in other parts of the world face. 

The first 300 years of the Christian Church were marked by persecution. What started as sporadic and local persecution eventually turned into violent and general attacks on those who claimed to be Christians. Under the ruling of multiple emperors in Rome, the most violent, inhumane, and heinous acts of persecution were carried out against Christians. 

It wasn’t until 311, when Galerius issued a decree from his deathbed that persecution of Christians ended in Rome. But as history would show, this didn’t mean acceptance and peace for those who bear the name of Christ.

As Christianity expanded outside of Rome throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, new waves of persecution were ignited throughout the world. Just look at our brothers and sisters in India, Nigeria, Colombia, and countless other countries to see that persecution is still a marker of the Christian faith.

Looking back to the early Church and the centuries of persecution they faced, we can look to them as a guide in the way we understand the various measures of intolerance Christians face today. Christians in the early Church were obedient to the state as long as they were not asked to violate their spiritual or moral faithfulness to God.

Most importantly, we must keep all types of persecution in perspective. The weight of violent and inhuman persecution Christians are still facing is not lost on me. Paul, who suffered far more than any American Christian will ever experience, said these words about his persecution.

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)

This is a wonderful reminder to hold onto whenever we feel as if we are in a state of persecution for our faith. The way we respond matters, and the hope we hold onto must be grounded in Christ rather than merely changing the systems.

The way we respond to persecution matters, and the hope we hold onto must be grounded in Christ rather than merely changing systems. Click To Tweet

The Crusades Began With Good Intentions

As much as we’d love to gloss over the twelfth and thirteen centuries in Church history, we can’t. In order to never allow these horrendous acts to be in our history again, we must look at them, understand, and be aware of the warning signs.

The Crusades are likely the ugliest times in our history. I know this blog isn’t able to provide the depth of study and detail needed to fully understand the Crusades, so I encourage you to spend more time reading about this time in the Church.

Once we get past the shock factor as modern readers, there is a long list of what we can never let happen again. There are economic, political, and social reasons that led so many to join the Crusades. Many historians consider downright domestic boredom as the reason some took part in the Crusades, which is absolutely shameful. But what I want to look at is how the Crusades began and how very quickly it went wrong.

Emperor Alexius Commeneous contacted Pope Urban II for help against the Turkish invaders, who had captured the holy city of Jerusalem. The Byzantine Empire would be overtaken if Alexious didn’t ask for help. Byzantium had been a center of Christian freedom and learning, and Alexious knew that would change under the Turkish invaders who recently converted to Islam. In AD 1095, Alexious sent a letter to the Pope asking for aid. In reading his letter to the Pope, it’s clear the Pope’s response is not what he had in mind.

What began as a desire to defend Christian freedoms and the honor of Jesus in the eastern Empire turned into an even greater dishonoring of all those who bear the name of Jesus. The Crusades became blood thirsty acts of war that in no way mirror the teaching of Jesus.

I fear we can slip into the ‘Just War’ mindset all over again. As the individual Christians who make up the Church, we must guard our hearts and minds from letting our good intentions to defend the faith lead us down a path we were never meant to walk.

As individual Christians who make up the Church, we must guard our hearts and minds from letting out good intentions to defend the lead lead us down a path we were never meant to walk. Click To Tweet

The Church Created Systems to Care for People

The biblical mandate to love God and love others has caused the church to make lasting contributions to the modern world in a great number of ways. It is because of this mission advances in society, culture, art, medicine, and literature have been made. In AD 369, a 300 bed hospital was built by the Church. It was the largest hospital of its era. Caring for the widows, orphans, and the poor was a high priority for Christians during the Middle Ages and earlier. 

During the industrial revolution, social needs among the poor grew. Seeing this need a nation wide movement of Christians missions was established. Johannes Gutenberg invented the first commercial use printing machine in western civilization, so that the Bible could be widely distributed.

Over the course of history, the Church has taken the lead in education, healthcare, racial inequality, care for the poor and marginalized, and more. The advancement in these areas was rooted in the desire to truly love God and others in the best way possible. The Church has a rich history of seeing the needs in society and responding.

The ways we can live out the biblical mandate to care for others is endless. If only we would look back at the rich legacy the Church has left for us, we could find new ways to step into bringing the hope of Jesus to the needs of our world today.

There is so much we can learn, good and bad, from the history of the Church. Jesus has chosen to use the Church to advance his kingdom and we would benefit greatly to know the history of our own faith. 

There is so much we can learn, good and bad, from the history of the Church. Click To Tweet

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