One could assume the priority of studying church history for the Christian today is low on the list of importance for many. I agree with the great preacher, Martin Lloyd Jones who said, “My contention is that the Christian should learn from history, that because he is a Christian it is his duty to do so, and he must rouse himself to do so.” Church history should be high on the list alongside theology because it all points to God. To some, history is history, so what’s the point? I would disagree and argue that the Christian can gain so much by understanding the past. Here are four reasons for studying church history.
It Reveals a Larger Story
When one spends some time reading and studying the past of Christians, we see that there is something bigger happening even before us. In fact, it is quite humbling to know that we are just a small speck on the timeline of Christian history.
“We know for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:28–30 esv). We see that God has had His hand and control over history, and that it really is His story that is being played out.
When we look at church history, we see the redemption story of how Jesus saved sinners throughout history, but we also see our own story. We can see the grand story that lays behind us and see what it looks like today which gives us confidence for the future. As a Christian, we are part of something bigger than the here and now. Church history ironically points to the future, Jesus Christ coming back making all wrong things right.
It’s Part of Our Story
My wife Alyssa and I traveled to visit some relatives from her side of the family in Kentucky. I was amazed that they could share facts and pictures of their house that has been in their family since the pre-Civil War era. They knew their family history.
As Christians, we are part of a story that is bigger than us, but we are also connected to the story. God’s story is part of our story. Pastor Joel Beeke said, “When we read about believers and churches from times past, we are reading our family history.” Because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection we can be united as brothers and sisters, which transcends time and place.
When we study church history we can answer the question of how did we get here? We can see our roots, and even see how our individual church is connected to the global church.
We Can Learn from the Failures of Others and the Pitfalls to Avoid
One should not merely read church history for dates and information. If you do, it becomes monotonous and pointless. There is something greater that we can learn from reading church history than about events and people that lived and now are dead.
It’s been said, “A wise man learns from his mistakes; a wiser man from the mistakes of others; a fool learns from neither of them.” As a Christian, we can see through church history some of the dangers that the church faced. We can learn from them on how they handled those problems (good or bad) and we can be mindful of the future.
History may not repeat itself but we can learn from similar shortcomings. As C. S. Lewis said, “People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.” When we read church history we can see some mistakes and heed the warnings not to get in the same pitfalls.
It Fans the Flame of Our Faith
There are Christians throughout history that have endured in their faith, and that encourages me that I can endure as well. I can even compare their trials and realize that mine are small in comparison. What they faced was harder and yet they finished strong, so can I!
When you read about Christian individuals and what they did, it fans the flame of faith (2 Timothy 1:6). As Christians, we read church history not only to gain wisdom from others but to be encouraged in our own walks.
I can recount times in my life that I picked up a biography of a Christian who went before me in some season of life, and when I was finished with the book I was encouraged and grateful for who the Lord is and what He is doing.
Be encouraged to spend some time reading about the history of Christians because as a Christian, that is your family history.
• Church History 101: The Highlights of the Twenty Centuries by Sinclair Ferguson, Joel Beeke, and Michael A. G. Haykin.
• Church History in Plain Language by Dr. Bruce L Shelley.
• Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context by John D. Woodridge and Frank A. James III.
There are many great biographies on Christian individuals. Check out the different world changer blog posts that I have written with suggested Biographies at the end of each to read.
• Martin Luther
• Dietrich Bonhoeffer
• George Muller
• Andrew Murrey
• Oswald Chambers
• John Knox
• A. W. Tozer
• D. L. Moody
• C. S. Lewis
• David Brainerd
• Amy Carmichael
• Corrie Ten Boom
• Hudson Taylor
• John Bunyan
• J. C. Ryle
• John G. Paton