As an avid student of church history and a passionate believer in world missions, many will curiously ask, What’s the connection? Why should a missionary care about church history?
Why Missionaries Should Care About Church History
Believing that a careful study of church history greatly benefits mission movements, let me offer a few reasons.
1. Church history gives us examples to imitate.
Hebrews 13:7 commands us, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God.
We can apply this same principle to Christian leaders of the past, as we look to them for encouraging models of faith and obedience. Reading their biographies can become a means of sanctification.
Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Plainly speaking, looking at individuals throughout church history as encouraging models of faith and obedience is a direct application of a biblical command. It may be hard to believe, but reading Christian biographies is a duty we have as believers!
Studying church history will undoubtedly give extraordinary exemplary models that can inspire the holiness of life. These models can spur us on toward Christ-likeness. Their lives stand as a witness to press on to the ends of the earth. In other words, studying church history should move believers spiritually and geographically.
Jim Elliot and his fellow missionaries’ courage when they gave their lives for Christ has encouraged countless missionaries. Similarly, William Carey is to be lauded for his quiet perseverance as he was unable to see many of the fruits of his labors.
Jonathan Edwards is to be held as an example of what it means to hold fast to convictions in the face of losing one’s pastorate. We should look at Charles Spurgeon as a model of what it means to speak the gospel truth in the face of crippling depression. Examples could go on endlessly. Today, we have wealth of godly examples that we can look to for encouragement.
2. Church history guides us in the truth and guards us against error.
Church history provides an excellent guide to constructing systematic and biblical theology. Believers over the course of two millennia have done much of the heavy lifting for us.
The doctrines of God, Christ, man, salvation, sin, Scripture, the church, and the end times have all been thought about deeply. While never fully exhausted, the foundations of these doctrines have been laid via the humble reasoning of godly believers.
Additionally, studying church history guards against false teaching. On one occasion, I left a discipleship meeting with a handful of new believers. Later, I found out that they had recently encountered a cult group leader. This cultist had deceived them into thinking Jesus was less than fully God.
They had also been introduced to another book that contradicted the core claims of the Bible. After slowly explaining to them the folly of that cult, they felt confused and frustrated that they had been manipulated into this false way of thinking.
I could not help but wonder what I did wrong. I had explained clearly that Jesus was the Son of God and that the Bible was the inspired, inerrant, authoritative Word of God. However, this all fits into the cult’s affirmations.
False teachers have subtly twisted the core truths of Scripture to easily prey on young communities of believers. Cults typically give a high place to Jesus, but they do not count him as fully God. They also tend to honor the Scriptures, but they find them insufficient.
A careful study of church history could have helped guard against such cult groups, such that the full divinity of Christ and the sufficiency of Scripture–in addition to its inspiration, inerrancy, and authority–might not have been taken for granted.
Looking to the Past
Looking at how previous generations of faithful believers have preserved orthodoxy can guard our minds against every wind of false doctrine. Our aim should be to grow to full maturity, standing strong in the face of such cunning attacks.
Pioneering missions movements would be wise to study church history as a faithful guide in the way of right thinking. While not an infallible guide, church history provides a solid framework in which to do theology.
To willfully ignore the collective wisdom of ages is to ignore the way in which the Holy Spirit has moved in the life of the church. The Holy Spirit has been the controlling and guiding influence in the life of the church. The church has taught and shepherded believers for thousands of years. We would be prudent to listen and observe.
3. Church history unites us with other believers past and present.
Lastly, studying church history connects us to a wider community of believers. When on the cross-cultural mission field, it can be easy for pioneering missionaries and local believers to feel far removed from a wider network.
As his images, God hard-wired us for community. God, who exists eternally as Father, Son, and Spirit, has made us in his image, so it is no surprise that he hard-wired us for community. Studying church history fosters a sense of solidarity with this larger community.
Today’s worldwide community of believers has inherited a great legacy. We are able to stand on the shoulders of giants who have gone before us, a reality that ought to fuel our faith and obedience. When we read their works and learn about their lives, we build bridges that strengthen the ties to our spiritual family.
This is especially helpful for pioneer church planting. When there are only a few believers in your community, it is easy to feel isolated and cut off from life-giving Christian community.
In some cases, a single believer may not know any other local believers. Having a sense of identity within a larger group of believers, many of whom have similarly endured solitude, will certainly prove to inspire a sense of unity.
In short, studying church history strengthens our resolve as we gain a practical awareness of the connecting power of the gospel.
These are but a few reasons that should encourage us to study church history. Far from merely downloading information, such as names, dates, and figures, studying church history enlightens our mind’s eye and enriches our walk. We would do well to pay attention to our rich past as it benefits our present and future.