As I have been visiting churches during our home assignment (furlough), I am occasionally asked why I teach church history in Thailand. “Do they really need to learn church history? Don’t they need the Bible more?” The answer to both questions is , "They do." The top priority in discipleship should be teaching the Old and New Testament, helping people to know and love their Bibles as a natural outgrowth of knowing and loving their Savior. But in a full-orbed approach to discipleship, Christians need to know some history too… even on mission fields where Christians are few and far between.
As the church grows, it needs leaders who know the past in order to chart a better future. I teach church history and missions at Bangkok Bible Seminary, a ministry training school that aims to prepare leaders for the churches in Thailand. I love teaching there. I love helping form an upcoming generation of Thai Christian leaders. I see students benefitting from the classes I teach and feel like I am making a real contribution. I love seeing the lights go on in students' minds as they get their questions answered and get a better biblical grounding under their feet to minister to the people in their churches and to do outreach. I love to read student reflections on the stories of Hudson Taylor and John Sung and the lessons they have learned from their lives. I love to see students grasp the implications of the doctrinal debates of the early church and to discuss with them the mixed fruit arising from the legalization of Christianity under Constantine. Did you know that the altar call is only about 200 years old? Most of my students don’t know that coming in to my class and discussing the history of evangelistic methods gives them ideas about what they might (or might not) want to do in their own evangelism. I love questions like...
“My friend said that if you worship on Sunday it is a compromise with paganism. Is that true? I wanted to ask you since we're studying the section on the Roman Empire now”
“Teacher, can I get a PDF of Jonathan Edwards' sermon in Thai and English that you had us read for class. I had the opportunity to read it again. Its really good. I felt like I had to repent of a lot of things."
Learning church history provides my students with a multitude of benefits for their personal walk with Christ and their ministry to others. For example,
1) Learning church history helps Christians to know other churches and Christian groups, and their history, beyond one’s own home church and home denomination (if any). Learning about Christians whose beliefs, practices, and experiences differ from your own helps promote mutual understanding and Christian love, and helps us recognize where God is working outside of our own particular group. Learning about others promotes humility and Christian unity. We may have differences with others but we can learn something from them too, and we can learn to value them as brothers and sisters and Christ (or, alternatively, understand why a particular “church” or group is actually apostate even though they claim to follow Jesus and thus see the need to help them understand the true Gospel)
2) Learning church history helps Christians to learn the weaknesses and pitfalls of our own churches and that of others so we can avoid past mistakes. Sometimes we make the same errors as our forefathers because we don’t know that they already tried inventing this wheel and it didn’t go so well. Even learning about the fights in church history can teach us through negative example. Fights serve to show what is in people’s hearts and depending on how they respond, it drives them closer or further from God and his truth. Heresy brings about conflict over doctrine, which forces Christians to go back to the Scripture and get a better understanding of who God is and what He teaches us. In some ways, heresy is the mother of orthodoxy, and learning about doctrinal conflicts helps us to know God and His Word better.
3) Learning church history helps in evangelism because we may meet non-Christians who met or experienced a particular group or heard some snippet of church history. Knowing church history gives us some idea of what others have seen or experienced and provide a helpful bridge for understanding. If someone has a negative impression of Christianity because of the Crusades, we might know enough about the Crusades to have a productive conversation, sorting out fact from popular fiction. If someone says they heard Billy Graham, then we have an idea of what they heard and can use that as a launching point for further discussion of the Gospel. Or if someone visited an Assemblies of God / Presbyterian / Baptist / Anglican church, then we have an idea of what they may have heard or experienced, and can answer or discuss questions they may have.
4) Learning church history helps form Christian identity and creates a sense of who you are, and where you stand in the grand scope of history and the world. In places where there are very few Christians, it easy for believers to feel isolated and alone. They may even question whether they have made the right choice in trusting in Christ when everyone else around them identifies with some other religion. When Christians are challenged to give up this “foreigner’s religion", church history helps them to know that they are part of something bigger, with a long and rich history that is much broader and older than the West or Europe. Church history gives believers a sense of belonging, knowing they are part of the worldwide family of God.
5) Learning church history helps Christians know and appreciate their own church's history and identity. I have many students who come from churches about which they don’t know much beyond what they see and hear in the weekly worship service. When they do research papers on the history of their church and denomination, they often come away with a deep appreciation for where they come from and the blessings they have received through those who have gone before them.
6) Learning church history gives encouragement to believers and results in praise to God as we see how God has worked in the past, and gain renewed hope that we might see Him work like that again. When life is difficult in the present, church history reminds us that God’s mighty works did not end with the pages of Scripture, but He has been faithfully building his church and delivering His people throughout the ages. In many ways, church history done well is like reading a person’s testimony of God’s faithfulness to them.
For all of these reasons, I love teaching church history on the mission field and am convinced of its Great Commission value in equipping God’s people around the world to lead their churches into the future, confident in God’s faithfulness and leading going forward because they have seen His faithfulness in the past.