“Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
George Santayana (1863-1952)
Church history reveals some lessons that Christians today would be wise to consider and reflect upon. The Christian Church has existed for 2,000 years, but it has changed and evolved significantly over that time. It is therefore important to look back and learn the lessons from the history of the Church that can help us chart a way forward today.
A few years ago I read a wonderful book on the history of the Church written by Dr. Bruce Shelley entitled, “Church History in Plain Language” (Thomas Nelson, 2008). He does a great job of documenting and summarizing the key events in the history of the Church. Based on his book, I would like to present 6 lessons that we as Christians should learn from Church history that will enable us to more effectively go forward in building God’s kingdom on earth.
Lesson #1: The Church is, and always will be, Holy Spirit driven.
As the Bible documents in the four gospels, the early Christian Church began in Jerusalem after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The disciples were witnesses to these facts. But Jesus told them to wait for the Holy Spirit. Luke writes in the book of Acts of how the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost. As a result, they disciples were led by the Holy Spirit and the Church grew rapidly as they spread the good news and lived lives very different from the prevailing Roman and Jewish cultures. Throughout history the Church has grown significantly when there was either persecution or a spiritual revival, as in England in the early 1800’s and the USA in the early 1900’s. Man can never build the Church on earth on his own apart from the Holy Spirit. The Church began under the power of the Holy Spirit, grew under the power of the Holy Spirit, and continues today only under the power of the Holy Spirit! (“Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord.” – Zechariah 4:6)
Lesson #2: The Christian faith must be defended against false teaching.
In the first few centuries of the Christian faith the biggest challenge was defending this new belief against false gospels from gnostics and others who tried to add human logic to what God had done through Jesus. They early Church needed to solidify the basic doctrine of Christianity centered on the work of Jesus and His teachings for this new faith. The doctrine of the Trinity, and who Jesus really was, was affirmed through the council at Nicaea in 325. The basic theology of Christianity has been challenged continually over the years as man tries to add human reason to God’s Word and His saving work through Jesus. False teaching must be challenged in order to preserve the true faith. (“But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them – bringing swift destruction on themselves.” – 2 Peter 2:1)
Lesson #3: The joining of Church & State is a bad idea.
When Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 AD, overnight Christians went from persecuted rebels to favored status in the Roman Empire. In 380 AD, his successor, Emperor Theodius, made Christianity a requirement for all Roman citizens. Thus the Christian Church was joined to the power of the state and assumed a moral responsibility for the whole society. In 768, Charles the Great, also known as Charlemagne, ascended to the throne and successfully fought off the Muslim invaders and was the first Roman emperor to be ‘coronated’ by the pope. This ensured protection of the Church against Islamic incursions. The crusades were the Empire’s response to the Islamic invasion and capture of Jerusalem and they had the approval of the pope. In the end the crusades were a dismal failure as they did not dislodge Islam from Jerusalem and led to further division with the Christian Church. During the Middle Ages conflicts continually arose over the power being wielded by both the Church and the State. Jesus never required faith in Him to be forced on anyone. He came to save us from our sin and today still invites people to let Him change their hearts one by one. (“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16)
Lesson #4: The Church must be built on a Biblical foundation.
Because of this conflict between and within the Church and State in the Middle Ages, many voices began to speak out against the power and corruption of the Church. Chief among them was a German monk named Martin Luther. He published his 95 theses (or statements for debate) on the door of the Catholic Church at Wittenberg, Germany in 1517 that challenged papal authority. He was ex-communicated from the Catholic Church for his refusal to recant his statements. This led to the Reformation and the formation of several new church bodies that separated from the Catholic Church in protest. They were the Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist and Anglican Churches, and hence known as “Protestant”. At issue was whether or not authority came from the Bible or from the Pope. As Martin Luther stated at his trial at the Diet of Worms, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.” The Christian faith must always be based upon the Bible and its teachings. (“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” – 2 Timothy 3:16-17)
Lesson #5: Christianity and Science are NOT mutually exclusive.
The world entered a new era after the Middle Ages that challenged the people’s view of the world and how it worked. New discoveries in science and math could now explain the world as never before and this ushered in the age of reason, also called the age of “enlightenment.” Since man could now know and better explain how the world worked, intellectualism replaced faith in God and His Word. But are Christianity and science mutually exclusive? Science has never been able to repudiate one fact of the Bible. On the contrary, science continues to affirm the facts of the Bible, especially in the field of archeology. Darwin’s theory of evolution as to the origin and evolution of species has never been proven and is still a theory, despite its widespread acceptance. To me, science is simply discovering what God already created. Science has not refuted the Bible, it has confirmed it! (“For by Him all things were created; things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by Him and for Him.” – Colossians 1:16)
Lesson #6: Man will always try to replace God with himself.
As the world progressed in its knowledge of science and technology, liberalism invaded universities (which were Bible based at the time) and the Church. Many Christians began to try and reconcile modern thought with Biblical teaching and refused to accept the authority of God’s Word alone on many issues. They believed that truth must pass the test of human reason. Consequently, universities abandoned the Bible and liberal theology in the Christian Church began to grow. Today it manifests itself in prosperity theology, acceptance of homosexuality, and other false teachings that go beyond or outside of Scripture. These are all an attempt to make God subject to our intellect rather than adhere to His teaching as found in His Holy Word. (“Submit yourselves then to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” – James 4:7)
As we look back on the history of the Christian Church, we see that many of the issues the Church faces today are not new, but have existed for ages (church vs. state, reason versus faith, man versus God, etc.). The above lessons remind us that the Christian faith, unlike every other religion, is not based upon a set of rules requiring strict adherence. But rather it is based on the fact that God appeared as a man in Jesus Christ, who suffered and died on a cross to redeem mankind and pay the price for all sin, and who made a way for the human race to live with their Creator forever. It’s about faith in the work of one person, Jesus Christ, God’s Son, and belief in the Bible as God’s true Word.
When man tries to supplant God’s Word and God’s work with human reason and man-made practices, we end up with denominationalism, conflict, tyranny and disunity. It’s the eternal battle of man versus God for control of our lives. And until Christians learn to submit to God in obedience and rely solely on God’s Word as ultimate truth, we will continue to see man attempt to make God what he wants Him to be, and the Church will suffer as a consequence.