Church History as a Pastoral Discipline (ETS papers)

Every evening I try to convince my youngest daughter that she should eat her vegetables while they’re still warm. And every evening, I fail. She waits until the bitter end, and then chokes them down with lots of water.

My students often do the same with church history.

Like many seminaries, we require all of our students to take a church history survey course. And whenever I teach the class, I ask the students to tell me where they are in their degree program. I do this partly get to know the students a bit better, but mostly because I’m always intrigued by the number of students who wait until the very end of their program to take church history. For many, church history is the vegetable of the curriculum. They’ll choke it down, but not before they have to.

After all, does it really matter for life and ministry today? Who cares what happened almost 2,000 years ago to people whose names we can barely pronounce and who lived in places we’ve never been?

At ETS, Sean Lucas, pastor of First Presbyterian Church (Hattiesburg, Mississippi), presented a paper that pushed back on the devaluing of church history for pastoral ministry. According to Lucas, church history is a fundamentally pastoral discipline, one that no pastor should be without.

And to support his case, he offered four characteristics of church history that every pastor needs.

1. Church history is critical. We establish our identities through the stories we tell ourselves. In America, we tell stories about the rugged individual who overcomes obstacles and achieves outcomes that far exceed expectations. So we form our identity around concepts like individualism, freedom, and hard work, among others. We embed these concepts in the holidays that structure our calendar and shape our narrative. And, if we’re not careful, we come to think that these stories are part and parcel of the Christian narrative. But church history challenges our stories by exposing us to hear the stories that God’s people have told at different times and places. By studying church history, we come to realize that the stories our culture tells are not necessarily the same as the Christian story. Church history creates the space for pastors to be self-critical and reflective, stepping outside culturally dominant stories, and allowing the Christian narrative to become the dominant force shaping Christian identity.

2. Church history is cross-cultural. To step into church history is to step into a foreign country, a place removed from us in time, space, and culture. In this way, studying church history has the same value as talking with Christians from other parts of the world: it stretches our horizons and challenges our assumptions, allowing us to think more deeply about our own culture and how it shapes our assumptions and resulting theology.

3. Church history is prophetic. It’s easy to look at the sins of the past and recognize how wrong they are. Distanced from the muddying effects of the “present,” we can look back and see slavery, racism, and others for the wrong that they are. Great. What about our own sins? What do allow to slide past us unnoticed because they are clouded in the fog of our own present? What sins will future generations judge us for? Studying church history can’t remove all the blind spots, but it can help. Prior generations can serve a prophetic role by expressing their own views of sin and injustice, views that are often rather different than our own.

4. Church history is wisdom. Ultimately, pastors need church history because church history is all about learning from the wisdom of the past. Church history is not primarily about names, dates, and places. Those are involved, for sure. But at its core, church history is about being mentored by those who have gone before so that we are better equipped to live and minister in the present.

In sum, church history is a profoundly pastoral discipline. Learning from the wisdom of those who have gone before challenges, stretches, and shapes us for more effective ministry in the present. Neglecting church history is the height of arrogance, the suggestion that we already know everything that we need and that we have nothing to learn from Christians with other perspectives.

My only critique of the paper is that I would have liked to hear more about how Lucas uses specific case studies to press this point home. It’s one thing to talk about the importance of church history for everyday ministry realities, but it’s another thing entirely to see this at work. Otherwise, I thought Lucas made his point very clearly:

Church history is for pastors.


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on November 19, 2011, in Church History. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Samtayana) From his book: Reason in Common Sense. Satayana’s famous aphorism “the one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again” is inscribed on a plaque at the Auschwitz concentration camp, and translated into Polish.

    Yes Church history is for pastors! And perhaps a Christian pastor is only as good as his history?

    And the historical method is so important in theological study, i.e. the grammatical-historical. But history itself is always central. Today the church is itself in a “crisis of the Scripture principle”, to quote Pannenberg. And here history cannot be far off!

  2. For what it’s worth, I took your church history class in the middle of my program. Yay me! Because a good friend of mine was exploring the Patristic period, I was somewhat engaging with that period even before your course. I loved the class and found it very helpful. If for no other reason than to consider the question, “Just how much heresy can you believe and still be saved?”
    However, now that I’m in pastoral ministry, I find that my congregation is mostly uninformed – even a bit hostile to – church history. A very few of them have completely bought into the “we are the authentic expression of the NT church” so that anything different is immediately suspect, probably heretical. Many hear “history” and tune out due to unpleasant associations of high school, or just substitute “Brainiac Irrelevance.” Most just want me to get on to the application part of my sermon.
    This probably reflects my inability to make church history engaging. If I’m not good at it, and not getting better; maybe it is best that I not press the point else risk that I will do more damage than good?

  3. An excellent post Marc! I concur with Lucas. The unfortunate thing about history is the bad rap it has received from teachers/professors who over emphasize names and dates while failing to show the “so what” of the person, movement, theory, doctrine, or events and how it relates to where we are. Yes, some dates and names are important . . . we need to be accurate but I think most folks reading this will know exactly what I am trying to communicate here. I teach Church History at a Bible College and one of my goals is to dispel the myth that History, Church History in particular, is boring and irrelevant. I begin my classes with asking students to tell me about their history. Where they were born, significant events, family traditions, etc. My goal is for them to see their life has a history and they are writing their history and are part of a broader history. Even when teaching through the Patristics, I pull, push and drag them, my students, to the present day to show the would be pastors and missionaries the impact of an idea or a life. Frankly, where would many missionaries be today without having read a healthy dose of missionary stories (histories)? Furthermore, a new and/or young pastor heading into the pastorate . . . especially in a rural area . . . better know the history of the area and of the church. For example, reading a church constitution can tell you a lot about the difficulties/problems a church has faced and dealt with. For those reading this and still skeptical about the value of studying history and using it in your ministry: What is the study of theology but a study in the history of the thoughts, beliefs, development and impact of what the Church has believed, debated, decided and denounced? How do you “do theology” without some understanding of history?

    • Great thoughts. I completely agree that emphasizing dates/events too much is the fastest way to kill a church history course. You can’t ignore them entirely because, at the very least, students need to be able to keep the story in order. But too much detail is deadening.

      And thanks for some very helpful examples about how to drive how the application side of church history. I’m always interested to hear how other people are doing this.

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