Five Reasons Pastors Should Know Church History

By: Dayton Hartman

Why should we care about “church history?”

For me, the answer came early in my ministry. As I entered my second year in ministry, I was inundated with inquiries that required me to look to the past. Members of my church were asking questions like, “Did Constantine invent the Trinity and the deity of Christ?” and “What really happened at the Council of Nicaea?” At the time, I didn’t really care about the answers to these questions. I was suffering from a horrible case of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” a tendency to elevate contemporary ideas over ones from the musty, dusty past.

Nevertheless, I had questions to answer. And finding the answers launched me into multi-year journey through church history that eventually changed my view of the creeds, preaching, discipleship, pastoral care, and cultural engagement. I am a different and, I believe, better pastor because of my study of church history. Now, more than a decade since my first foray into the subject, I am a church planter. I also teach church history and historical theology to seminary students.

I’ve learned that there are dangers inherent in ignoring the past, as well as many benefits to knowing what has come before us. These benefits have convinced me that pastoral ministry is most effective when carried out in light of lessons from our history. Here are just a few beneficial reasons why pastors should seriously engage with the history. Drumroll please …

Church history equips us to address current issues.

Take, for instance, issues of racial reconciliation. History enables us to view ourselves as part of a large, ethnically diverse family. As our nation continues to wrestle with the scars left by our history of racism and slavery, the church can lead in casting a vision for an ethnically diverse and harmonious future.

We have a rock solid basis for genuine racial diversity: the gospel. Through Christ, we are reconciled to God and with each other. We are unified, but not uniform. Church history tells us a sprawling story of a many-colored family.  We encounter people in various cultures in various places at various times: 4th- and 5th-century North African bishops, 12th-century French preachers, 16th-century German monks, 18th-century Anglo-American theologians, 20-century African-American, and Latino social activists. This is strong medicine against chronological and cultural snobbery.

Church history supplies the tools for discipleship.

Christians, and specifically pastors, have always been concerned with making disciples. However, many evangelical churches in America fail to disciple children as well as new believers. Following the patterns of those who have come before us, we and our congregations can regain a biblical vision for making disciples. For example, we must reclaim the practice of Catechizing children. Recognizing that this practice was standard in the early church, John Calvin exhorted all churches to reclaim this ancient practice. “How I wish that we might have kept the custom which … existed among the ancient Christians!” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.19.13) Calvin saw catechesis as an opportunity for congregations to inculcate the one true faith, to help clarify and correct any misunderstandings among their youth. Additionally, I’ve personally learned a lot about discipling from church history, particularly from Augustine. He emphasized that discipleship requires an intense one-on-one relationship within the context of the community at large; focusing especially on teachable believers who would in turn disciple others (Ed Smither explores this at length in his excellent work Augustine as Mentor).

Church history shows us how to proclaim the gospel in a hostile culture.

Our generation is not the first to wrestle with the complexities of linguistic relevancy and cultural engagement. We would do well to draw from the deep 2,000-year-old well of wisdom. Our forebearers were master expositors, cultural exegetes, and gifted orators. Augustine of Hippo wrote one of the first textbooks for young preachers. This influential theologian communicated skillfully; he masterfully employed analogies and illustrations. Augustine encouraged his students to study famous pagan orators to learn effective communication styles and language patterns (On Christian Doctrine, 4.2) Augustine did not intend for his students to minimize Scripture or to dismiss its claims—that is, he didn’t mean that pastors should merely be sanctified Jim Gaffigans or Jon Stewarts—but that they should communicate in a manner that was understandable to their audience. During the Reformation, Luther became the standard-bearer for the power and clarity of Protestant preaching. Luther was known for his bluntness, accessibility, and linguistic relevance in the pulpit. Luther directly interacted with his culture: He used familiar language and illustrations while remaining faithful to the content of Scripture. The wisdom they have handed down is of great value.

Church history enables us to critique—and create—culture.

Throughout history, Christianity has been seen as subversive and threatening to emperors and empires. We profess citizenship in a heavenly kingdom, we see our churches as outposts of a that kingdom, and we declare allegiance to a heavenly King. The Christian claim that “Jesus is Lord” struck at the heart of Roman identity. Romans believed that the health of their society—politically and economically— depended heavily on reverencing and appeasing the Roman pantheon. Nevertheless, the first believers continued to consider themselves an outpost of this otherworldly kingdom that would one day replace every kingdom of the world. Why, then, do we perpetuate Christian subcultures that repackage sanitized versions of what the prevailing culture of our day produces? Why do we not produce cultural products that reflect a kingdom culture? Is this what Christians have always done? Have we always preached a gospel that can redeem the world, but failed to produce redemptive culture that is good and worthwhile? There is a better way forward, and we see that way forward by looking to our past.

Church history gives us perspective and humility.

Pastor, one of the greatest gifts you can receive from the study of church history is humility. We are not writing our own story; we are part of the great story of redemption in which Christ is building his Church. Pastor, Christ has called you to humbly and faithfully serve his Bride as he writes her story. You and I get to be part of that story, but it’s not our story. Shepherd in humility by looking to the faithfulness of those who have come before you.

Conclusion

Shepherding the church for which Jesus bled and died is a high and holy calling. Our task is immense, but we have Scripture as our authority and 2,000 years of wisdom from those who have faithfully served, suffered, and persevered before us. Those who have come and gone over the past two millennia have changed the way I do pastoral ministry today. In a sense, the dead discipled me and made me a better pastor. I pray you let them do the same for you.

Dr. Dayton Hartman holds a M.A. in Global Apologetics from Liberty University and a Ph.D. in Church and Dogma History from North-West University.  He serves as the lead pastor at Redeemer Church in Rocky Mount, NC and as an Adjunct Professor of Church History at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

A Nation of Heretics

Ross Douthat published Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics three years ago (2012), but I’m just getting around to reading it. Now I find I can’t put it down.BadReligion

He describes the time of post-WWII America as a quasi-golden era for the Church. Four religious figures exemplified, respectively, the four foremost religious movements of the 1940s and 50s: theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and his intellectually stimulating neo-orthodoxy, evangelist Billy Graham and his new brand of evangelicalism, Bishop Fulton Sheen and his warm-hearted Roman Catholicism, and Martin Luther King and his prophetic call for civil rights.

The growth of Christianity in America during this time was truly phenomenal. In 1930, less than half (47%) of all Americans were members of a church. By 1960–in just 30 years–the number had jumped to 69% (22).

But between the 1960s and the current day, explains Douthat, something went seriously wrong:

The Protestant Mainline’s membership stopped growing abruptly in the mid-1960s and then just as swiftly plunged. Of the 11 Protestant churches that claimed more than 1 million members in the early 1970s, eight had fewer members in 1973 than in 1965. There were 10.6 million United Methodists in 1960, more than 11 million at mid-decade, and 10.6 million again my 1970 – and it was down, down, down thereafter. The Lutherans peaked in 1968, Episcopalians in 1966, and the United Church of Christ in 1965; by the middle of the following decade, they were all in steep decline. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Lost about 1.5 million members between the mid-1960s and the late 1980s. By the 1990s, 60% of Methodist parishioners were over 50, and there were more Muslims in America than Episcopalians. (59)

One would think that the decline might have been merely the result of the country becoming more secular. However, the evidence indicates that during the last half of the 20th century the nation became more religious. “Belief in God, an afterlife, and intercessory prayer remained constant or even rose during these years (Americans were slightly more likely to believe in life after death in the 1990s than in the 1960s)” (62).

No, America is didn’t stop believing; rather, its beliefs became skewed. Orthodoxy was replaced with worship of “the god within”, the prosperity gospel and American nationalism. The message of the Cross was abandoned in favor of moralistic therapy. Douthat describes the present spiritual state of the nation thusly:

United States remains a deeply religious country, and most Americans are still drawing some water from the Christian well. But a growing number are inventing their own versions of what Christianity means, abandoning the nuances of traditional theology in favor of religions that stroke their egos and indulge or even celebrate their worst impulses. These faiths speak for many pulpits –conservative and liberal, political and pop-cultural, traditionally religious and fashionably “spiritual”–and many of their preachers call themselves Christian or claim a Christian warrant. But they are increasingly offering distortions of traditional Christianity, not the real thing.
… This is the real story of religion in America. For all its piety and fervor, today’s United States needs to be recognized for what it really is: not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics. (4-6)

America has always had its share of groups at the margins–Quakers, Shakers, Mormons, and Millerites. Douthat argues that the difference this time is the weakest of the orthodox center. Mainline Christianity wasn’t prepared to handle the pressures of late 20th century: political polarization, the sexual revolution, globalization, increasing wealth, and the rise of a new cultural elite that considered the Christian faith déclassé.

Douthat is Roman Catholic, and there are places where I would have said things differently. Still, I highly recommend the book.

On the 10th Anniversary of Katrina

Ten years ago this week my world was upended by Hurricane Katrina. Over 1,800 people lost their lives and more than $100 billion worth of property was lost. Katrina was a disaster for the record books, and one for the Keathley family as well. I was just entering my sixth year serving on faculty at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in August 2005 when Katrina blew in and changed our lives.

I remember the moment we learned that Katrina posed a danger. Penny and I were recent empty-nesters and we were out for a quiet evening. We were leaving a restaurant on our way to see a movie when we saw some other NOBTS people eating there. They were headed home, with plans to spend the evening boarding up windows. Katrina, they informed us, had changed course. She was now headed for New Orleans.

We left the city the next day. Katrina hit the Gulf Coast like perdition with a 26-foot surge, and the levees surrounding the city gave way. Like most of the homes on the seminary campus, our house was flooded. Four feet of water remained in it for over a month.

Our home the day we returned. The water-soaked Bible on the floor belong to Penny's grandmother.

Our home the day we returned. The water-soaked Bible on the floor belong to Penny’s grandmother.

Everyone was shell-shocked. NOBTS opened temporary quarters in Atlanta and we joined the school there. The seminary returned to the New Orleans campus the next spring, and at that time I received and accepted a call to teach at Southeastern.

When a catastrophe of this magnitude hits, it consumes one’s life for a while. What will we do? Where we will go? How will we recover? What’s next? These are some of the questions that filled our thoughts day and night for weeks and months. We were counseled to expect to experience the five stages of grief (we did); to share our story with others and to write about our experiences as a way of coping (we did). A forever bond formed between those of us who went through that crisis together. We cried with each other, encouraged and supported each other, and prayed for each other through one of the most difficult times in our lives. Though we would never have wanted or asked for this experience…God used it for good. Now – we thank him for it.

This week seems like a good time to share a few lessons we learned through that crisis.

1. Travel light – we can get by with much less “stuff”. We left New Orleans with just a change of clothes. It is weird to wake up one morning and realize you have basically no material possessions but what is on your back – it was sobering.

Note the mold on the walls.

Note the mold on the walls.

But in a way, it was also freeing. God’s word tells us to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Losing our material possessions reminded us how little we actually need and to put our “things” in proper perspective.

2. The hope and comfort of the Gospel shines even more brightly when the outlook is dark. So many people lost everything. Not just homes, but businesses and careers were washed away. But the citizens of New Orleans were amazed when thousands of Southern Baptists arrived with food, chain saws, and work gloves. The teams from Baptist churches and associations didn’t just come to help during the immediate days and weeks after Katrina. They continued to work and serve for months and even years afterwards.

So many helped us during the recovery

So many helped us during the recovery

New Orleans, a city that was at that time 93% non-Baptist, took notice. The opportunities for Gospel witness during those days were phenomenal.

3. God’s grace is sufficient and also humbling. God met our needs and He did so primarily through His people. Penny and I will always be grateful to the many Christians who responded with love, financial support, and a lot of hard work. He even used strangers to bless and encourage us. It was a humbling experience to accept charity from others. But God used that humbling experience to grow our character and teach us to depend on Him more fully.

Hurricane Katrina serves as a marker in our lives; a reminder of God’s sustaining grace and mercy through calamity. Whatever the future holds, we know our Sovereign God holds the future in His good and trustworthy hands. “I will be with you when you pass through the waters, and when you pass through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you.” Is 43:2

Cross-posted at www.theologyforthechurch.com