I was fortunate to grow up in the church. My family and the many Christian leaders I have encountered in my life have ensured that I am well grounded in basic theological concepts. The more advanced concepts I have picked up in my years in college and now in seminary.
However, in retrospect, there was one thing that was sorely lacking from the spiritual upbringing of my early years: a working knowledge of church history. I do not fault my family for this because they were products of the same basic church teaching system that generations (my own included) have grown up under. Many churches seem to be stuck in a rut of teaching. They teach basic Christian principles but very little else (the failure of churches digging into the deeper theological truths of the Bible is something for another post). The thing that seems to be the most neglected, the red-headed step-child, is the history of Christianity.
The failure to teach church history was made astonishingly clear when the movie “The Davinci Code” was released in the summer of 2006. The time leading up the release of the movie produced an onslaught of books, movies, and seminars by Christian leaders hoping to preempt any damage the movie might do to the church history starved congregations of the world.
The church went into panic mode as it tried to give lay people crash courses in two thousand years of Christian history. Most pastors gave a few thirty minute sermons and showed some video clips of decorated scholars offering counter-arguments to Dan Brown’s work of literary fiction and Ron Howard’s work of cinematic fiction. The movie’s release came and went, the church did not implode, and church history was again relegated to a dusty corner bookshelf until the next time it is needed to save the church from a major embarrassment.
Therein lies the problem. The church views its history as a defensive weapon that it only pulls out when needed. In fact, this is a weapon the church is not even trained to wield properly. It is the equivalent of sending a civilian into battle with an M4 Carbine. The result would be the civilian flipping the M4 to ‘auto’ and engaging in the “spray and pray” technique of doing battle. The end result is not pretty and might even result in more friendly casualties than enemy casualties.
A knowledge of church history should be a weapon available to every Christian. When “The Davinci Code” came out, the church would have done well to have given each member a copy of a solid book over viewing the key people and events in Christian history and following up by offering a long-term, recurring class that worked through Christian history chronologically.
Church history is vital in understanding where certain beliefs come from, why certain ordinances exist, church polity, developing evangelistic zeal, and countering heresies that arise and attempt to undermine the foundations of the church and Christianity. A people that does not study and know its own history is a people that is vulnerable to the same mistakes they made in the past. A people that does not know where they came from, cannot know where they hope to be going. The same holds true for the church.