How Church History Helps — Part 2

Chris King

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At the conclusion of his epistle, the author of Hebrews exhorts us, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the Word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb 13:7). The author calls Christians to remember what they heard in the past from faithful leaders. Leaders with proven faithfulness give us examples worthy of emulation. Many of us can look back to the examples of faithful pastors and Christians who have discipled us and shaped our theology.

This corresponds with Hebrews 13:7: “Obey your leaders and submit to them.” The command here calls for obedience to present leaders. So, based on these passages, leaders from our past should continue to direct us as well as those presently leading us in the church. We remember and imitate past leaders and obey present leaders.

Learning from the past benefits our Christian life. In the reading and study of church history, we remember the teachings and deeds of faithful Christians and leaders. Church history helps us in a myriad of ways to follow Jesus our Lord. In a previous post I shared some ways church history helps us live a life of godliness. This post offers more ways church history aids us in having clarity, consistency, credibility, and courage.

Church History Helps Us Have Clarity

Church history presents a rogue gallery of false teachers and heretics who have threatened the church. From Arius to Joseph Smith to the modern prosperity preachers, many wolves have stalked Christ’s sheep. Faithful Christians have responded to their heresies with clear articulations of Biblical teaching.

The creeds of the ancient church clarify such important doctrines as the trinity and the humanity of Jesus Christ. The confessions which emerged after the Reformation provide churches and Christians with articulate summaries of Biblical doctrine. These creeds and confessions contain very careful wording to help us understand and explain the teachings of the Bible. Numerous Christian leaders labored together in the study and discussion of God’s Word to produce these helpful documents. Use the creeds from church history as tools to know the truth and contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

Referring to the Second London Confession of 1689, Spurgeon wrote, “This little volume is not issued as an authoritative rule, or code of faith, whereby you are to be fettered, but as an assistance to you in controversy, a confirmation in faith, and a means of edification in righteousness. Here the younger members of our church will have a body of divinity in small compass, and by means of Scriptural proofs, will be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them.”

Church History Helps Us Have Consistency

We need to be cautious when others suggest new interpretations of Scripture. Especially if these seek to alter commonly accepted/held doctrines. If no one else has ever held a new interpretation, it may be right, but it’s probably wrong. Church history shows us we’re not the only people who have read, studied, and interpreted the Bible. It provides helpful guardrails to keep us from veering far afield from the original meaning/teaching of Scripture.

The Reformed interpretation of election and predestination was held by Augustine, then Luther and Calvin, then many of the Puritans. Many different Christians codified these doctrines in confessions like The Belgic Confession (1567), The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), The London Baptist Confessions of 1644 and 1689. These consistent statements on specific doctrines help us remain on a steady and faithful course in our teaching, preaching, and discipleship.

Church history provides us with a legion of Bible commentaries written throughout the centuries. Here we can read and consider the interpretations and applications of Christian leaders from the past. In a lecture to his students, Charles Spurgeon says, “In order to be able to expound the Scriptures, and as an aid to your pulpit studies, you will need to be familiar with the commentators: a glorious army, let me tell you, whose acquaintance will be your delight and profit. Of course, you are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound Scripture without assistance from the works of divines and learned men who have laboured before you in the field of exposition.” Notice he calls those who have written about God’s Word “a glorious army” that will lead to your “delight and profit.” Spurgeon also rebukes those who think themselves wise enough to handle the Scriptures without aid.

Church History Helps Us Have Credibility

Many churches diminish the importance of preaching by displacing it with other elements in the worship service. Some leaders argue, “We must be more engaging with the audience,” or, “The video age has diminished peoples’ attention spans, and they can’t handle listening to a sermon.” Some church leaders minimize preaching and consider it an outmoded or outdated form of communication. Steven Lawson aptly describes some modern views of preaching by writing,

“Sad to say, pressure to produce bottom-line results has led many ministries to sacrifice the centrality of biblical preaching on the altar of man-centered pragmatism. A new way of doing church is emerging. In this radical paradigm shift, exposition is being replaced with entertainment, preaching with performances, doctrine with drama, and theology with theatrics. The pulpit, once the focal point of the church, is now being overshadowed by a variety of church-growth techniques, everything from trendy worship styles to glitzy presentations and vaudeville-like pageantries. In seeking to capture the upper hand in church growth, a new wave of pastors is reinventing church and repackaging the gospel into a product to be sold to consumers.”1Steven J. Lawson, Famine in the Land: A Passionate Call for Expository Preaching, Chicago: Moody, 2003, 25.

In his book Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones provides timeless biblical arguments for the centrality of preaching in the church. This book is a “must read” for anyone who desires to preach the Word. The “good doctor” asserts, “The most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and most urgent need in the Church, it is obviously the greatest need of the world also.”2D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972, 9. This quote appears on the first page of the first chapter of Lloyd-Jones’ masterful book. Though originally published in 1971, he addresses issues and arguments with striking contemporary relevance. He writes, “The people, they say, are not interested; the people are interested in politics, they are interested in social conditions, they are interested in the various injustices from which people suffer in various parts of the world, and in war and peace. So, they argue, if you really want to influence people in the Christian direction you must not only talk politics and deal with social conditions in speech, you must take an active part in them. . . the primary task of the Church and of the Christian minister is the preaching of the Word of God.3Ibid., 19.

Going back a little further in history, you can read John Owen’s views on pastoral ministry. He writes, “The first and principal act of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word. . . . This is by teaching or preaching the word, and no otherwise. This feeding is of the essence of the office of a pastor; so that he who doth not, or cannot, or will not feed the flock is no pastor, whatever outward call or work he may have in the church.”4John Owen, The Works of John Owen: Volume 16 (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1968), 74–75. Owen’s argument provides a helpful counter to many contemporary expectations of pastoral ministry. Confusion abounds among Christians and in churches about the role and responsibility of a pastor. Churches expect their pastors to plan events, use social media, engage with the community, manage other staff members, produce programs, and a whole menagerie of other tasks. Owen calls for pastors to focus on teaching and preaching (similar to Paul in 1 Tim 4:13).

Church history buttresses our positions and reminds us we’re not the only person who believes or asserts our point. In fact, men of proven faithfulness and towering intellect have advocated the same perspective. Holding positions others label as “odd” or “outdated” can be discouraging. We find encouragement knowing men of Lloyd-Jones’ or Owen’s ilk share our convictions. While throngs of people follow ever changing fads and the newest pragmatic ministry fashions, we find help from the giants of church history.

Employing church history also gives credibility to our understanding, teaching, and implementation of controversial practices. Many modern Baptist pastors are leading their churches to adopt a plurality of elders as their leadership structure. Many also recognize the importance of practicing church discipline. Examining Baptist history provides warrant for these practices. Baptist authors from the past provide practical examples and advice for calling elders and practicing church discipline. Our history offers many credible witnesses to the practical wisdom of these practices.

Church History Helps Us Have Courage

Church history provides us numerous examples of courage to stand for Christ and the faith. As we face a culture increasingly hostile to truth, remembering Christians from the past helps us hold fast (Phil 3:16). Keeping bold witnesses in our mind’s eye causes courage to rise in our hearts to meet the challenges of our present day.

When the Romans threatened to burn Polycarp, he replied, “You threaten with fire that burns for a short time and is soon quenched. You don’t know about the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment that awaits the wicked.” When commanded to renounce Christ, Polycarp said, “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” He gave up his life, but also gave us an example of faithfulness to Christ to the end.

Martin Luther stood trial before the emperor. His opponents placed His books and writings on display before him. The Roman Catholic prosecutor demanded Luther recant. Luther took time to pray and consider his positions. He responded by emphasizing the authority of Scripture and renouncing the Catholic authorities. He declared, “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” He stood for the truth against the traditions of the church which had subverted the gospel. New teachings and practices continue to emerge which distort the Scripture. Luther sets us an example of being captive to the timeless Word of God rather than the shifting spirit of the age.

Writing about examples of courage in church history makes one feel like the author of Hebrews when he writes, “And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of. . .” (Heb 11:32). Too many faithful heroes, too little time. A limitation of space fails me to tell more of Latimer, Tyndale, and Flavel.

Church history will help you live the Christian life and be faithful to Christ. It will provide you with clarity in an era of confusion. It will help you be consistent while many others waver. The faithful examples and arguments of giants from the past gives you credibility when other people doubt you. The courage displayed by other soldiers of Christ exhorts us to not be ashamed of the Gospel. Employ church history to help you fight the good fight and keep the faith.

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1 Steven J. Lawson, Famine in the Land: A Passionate Call for Expository Preaching, Chicago: Moody, 2003, 25.
2 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972, 9.
3 Ibid., 19.
4 John Owen, The Works of John Owen: Volume 16 (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1968), 74–75.
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Chris King

Senior Pastor Bayou View Baptist Church

Chris King serves as the Senior Pastor of Bayou View Baptist Church in Gulfport, Mississippi. He taught preaching for Boyce College Online from 2013-2020. Dr. King is a graduate of West Virginia University and earned his Ph. D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.