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.