Archives For Church History

Take a brief look at Church History and you’ll realize that the Church is kind of an icky place. Or at least, it often has been. I love my church, and you probably love yours too. But historically speaking, the church has a tendency to be really really messed up.

The Church has a lot of blood on its hands. Protestants have killed Catholics and vice versa over the practice of Communion. Reformers literally drowned Anabaptists who believed that baptism was for believing adults and not for infants (“You like to be baptized? Let me hold you under a little longer…”). Think of the Crusades. Or of corruption within the church throughout the Middle Ages. Simony (selling church leadership positions to those looking for a good political career) was a recurring problem in the church. Our modern sex scandals are nothing new in terms of Church History, except that many times in the past the promiscuous church leaders have been unrepentant, unapologetic, and unashamed.

Think of the times that the Church has advocated slavery, has fought against human rights (unbelievably, Martin Luther King, Jr. had to “fight” against Christian churches), or has stood by and done nothing while holocausts were afoot.

Think of the hypocrites sitting in the pews around you. People actively involved in affairs even as they pretend to be devout Christians. Think even of yourself: Who among us truly practices what Jesus preached?

We get pretty worked up when people accuse the Church of being hypocritical, but let’s admit: they have a point. The Church can be (and often has been) a dirty bunch. That’s the case with all human enterprises.

Imagine God hiring a PR representative: “Well, God, you’ve got a decent reputation, at least in some circles, but that Church you continue to hold on to is not doing you any favors. You have a growing constituency of people who love you but hate the Church. For centuries upon centuries a large demographic has stayed completely away from you because of the Church. It’s time to distance yourself. Be God, do the good things you want to do in the world, change lives, bring healing to impossible situations—all of that. But do it without the Church. The Church is only bringing you down.”

Simony, a practice common throughout the Middle Ages, means buying a church leadership position.

I’d fire any PR rep that said something different. The Church is a huge liability for God.

And yet God refuses to abandon the Church. He refuses to distance himself. It’s true that we cannot confine God’s activity within our church walls. God works all around us in ways we couldn’t possibly imagine. Yet he remains inextricably tied to his Church.

And he has tied himself to the Church by choice. This was his idea. God’s mission in this world has always been about redemption, about reversing what went wrong with the fall, about defeating evil and healing what has been broken. His mission moved through Abraham and Israel, through David and Isaiah, and finally reached its climax in Jesus. But then God did the unthinkable: he passed the mission on to the Church. The Church! This wandering, embarrassing, inept group has inherited God’s mission to fix the whole world. And God did this on purpose!

As David Platt says, the Church is God’s Plan A, and he has no Plan B.

Why has God stubbornly refused to distance himself from the Church? Because his plan of redemption will be brought to completion through the Church. Because God does great things through those who are weak. Because God chooses the foolish things of this world to shame the wise. Because God takes earthen pots and uses them to unleash his glory upon an unsuspecting world.

churchI am as broken as anyone in Church History, yet God uses me. My church is as full of sinners as any other church in history, yet God is bringing healing and purpose and life and hope to the world through this ragtag group of Christians I call my church body. We will continue to mess up. We will continue to be weak and cowardly. We will forget the mission and get worked up about things that don’t matter. We will continue to be a liability. But God will not abandon his Church.

And because God will not abandon His Church, we will continue to bring healing that far exceeds our abilities. We will continue to embody reconciliation and forgiveness and peace, though in ourselves we lack these resources. We will continue to show the world that Jesus is alive, that the Spirit of God has not for a single second neglected God’s mission, that the Spirit fulfills the mission through the apparent foolishness of God’s Plan A Church.

God has not dumped the Church, and he never will.

“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).

It’s easy to be grumpy about all of the denominations in the church. If we’re supposed to be united as the body of Christ, then why do we have Baptists and Presbyterians and Methodists and Lutherans and Episcopalians and Evangelical Free Churches and Assemblies of God a host of others? I recently saw a report estimating that we have over 33,000 Christian denominations in the world.[1]

I can think of a lot that is unhealthy with the reality of denominationalism. But when we look at church history, the introduction of denominations was actually very healthy, and we should all be thankful for this development.

In the wake of the Reformation (roughly 500 years ago), each church saw itself as the one true church. Catholics, Lutherans, Anabaptists, Anglicans: each of these groups (and more) held different beliefs and followed different practices, and each was convinced that their church was right—to the point that they would banish and even kill those who saw things differently. These churches, which took root in specific areas, began to war against each other. The Huguenots (followers of John Calvin) were rounded up by Mary Queen of Scots, tried before Catholic judges, and then tortured and/or burned. The Thirty Years’ War started as actual warfare between Protestants and Catholics.

Eventually, everyone got tired of the fighting. It was clear that no one church would arise and dominate the religious landscape. Christianity seemed hopelessly divided, and war seemed an increasingly useless way to try to unite the church.[2]

Into this mess came the theory of denominationalism, introduced by the Dissenting Brethren of Westminster. Rather than each branch of the church considering itself the one true church, denominationalism sees each church as simply one expression of the whole of Christianity. Each church is referred to (or “denominated”) by a specific name, but it is still part of the larger whole.

The Dissenting Brethren built their theory of denominationalism on four points:

  1. Human beings do not understand God’s truth perfectly, so differences of opinion are inevitable.
  2. These differences of opinion are important, and each church must follow its convictions on what the Bible teaches. Nonetheless, many differences of opinion do not violate the heart of the Christian faith.
  3. No church has a full grasp of God’s truth, so no one church by itself can adequately represent the true, capital C Church. We are the true Church together, not in our individual expressions.
  4. Separation does not mean schism. In other words, we can disagree about many points of doctrine and practice, but still be united in Christ.

Thus denominationalism allowed the church to move forward. We no longer had to kill or banish one another over every doctrinal disagreement. (Can you imagine elder meetings if this were still the case? That would make a great reality show.) This mentality provides the basis for a Baptist church disagreeing with a Presbyterian church on many issues, but still viewing one another as Christians.

Denominations

So while the denominational landscape can be discouraging—if we are all one in Christ, then why have we splintered off into these innumerable groups?—we should actually be thankful for denominations. The diversity in the church is a reminder that Christians still differ from one another significantly. We’re not brothers and sisters in Christ because we happen to think exactly alike. Far from it! No, we are brothers and sisters in Christ despite our very real differences in interpretation and practice. But we are brothers and sisters nonetheless. The Baptist church sitting next to the Presbyterian church are reminders that though we have differing convictions, we still choose to stand side by side as representatives of the larger Body of Christ.

But of course, everything I’ve just said is meaningless if we choose to demonize other denominations. My guess is that as you read over the Dissenting Brethren’s four points, you had mixed feelings. Yes, this is a good perspective, but no, I tend to view my own church as the only right one. We believe the way we do because we’re right. My “Christian” neighbor attends that other church because she doesn’t understand the Bible. Etc.

With the Dissenting Brethren, I affirm that our differences are important. How we interpret the sovereignty of God, the way we practice baptism, and our views on divorce and remarriage are very important, and we need to continue seeking truth in all of these areas. But the authority is the Bible, not the leaders or doctrinal statement of my specific church. And as long as the church next door is committed to God and his word (not superficially, but really and truly), then we stand together as representatives of the full (and diverse) Body of Christ. May we all be variously denominated, but essentially united.

If you want more on this topic, consider Tim Keller’s perspective.


 

[1] The estimate of 33,000 denominations is almost impossible to believe, until you consider that (1) each major denominations is made up of subsets (e.g., not just Baptist, but American Baptist, Southern Baptist, etc.), (2) each denomination can look much different from country to country, and (3) nondenominational churches are very popular, and being nondenominational does not mean that they are united in doctrine and practice—it basically means that each individual church is almost a denomination unto itself.

[2] It should sound crazy to us that warfare amongst Christians was ever considered an option, but this was the result of hundreds of years of the church being tied to the state.

While there are huge benefits to reading old books rather than new ones, we have to be careful. Here are a few reasons why. (Incidentally, the dangers of reading old books overlap somewhat with the dangers of reading biographies.)

1. An older book is not necessarily a better book. Nearly all of the older books I have read have been more difficult to read than newer books on the same topics. Sometimes this has been worth it. Sometimes it has not. Just because the book is old, doesn’t mean it’s better, wiser, or more edifying. And in some subjects, an older book is fighting with serious disadvantages. For example, recent archeological developments have shed light on some aspects of biblical culture and geography. This helps modern scholars be more insightful about certain passages. Also, some important biblical manuscripts have been discovered recently (such as the Dead Sea Scrolls). This too gives modern scholars an advantage. This does not make every older book worthless (see my previous post), but we can’t assume that the older book is the better book.

2. Reading old books can make us arrogant. In some circles, familiarity with dead theologians and their works makes you seem impressive. In discussions about sanctification, the guy who throws in the most Augustines, Luthers, and Lewises wins. But in the real world, having read Jonathan Edwards rather than John Piper doesn’t automatically make you smarter. Nor does the accumulation of data make you better than anyone. Sometimes the pride that comes through reading old books is subtle and unintentional. Other times it is blatant and calculated. So read old books, but watch your pride.

3. Old books can keep us focused on old issues. I have written about the dangers of this preoccupation with historical doctrinal squabbles before. While we do need to gain perspective on the issues we face today, and while we have much to gain from the theological debates of the past, we cannot substitute these for the issues and questions that we face today. When your college roommate tells you he wants to move in with his girlfriend, reciting the Canons of Dort won’t help the situation. As important as the Reformation was, and as significant as its impact remains, we cannot simply memorize the arguments of the Reformers and recite them in their original formulations. Instead, we need to look to the biblical truths those men explored, and ask how those truths should be applied to the questions and issues of our day. If we only read old books, we might end up fighting battles that have long been settled.

So read old books, but do it carefully. We have much to learn from dead theologians. But we must consider their unique historical setting, and we must focus on the biblical truths themselves rather than their specific formulations of those truths. And as we read old books, we should also read new books. And we should read newspapers. And blogs (you’re doing good there). We need to keep our finger on the pulse of what is happening in our God-ordained historical moment. Learn from the past, and apply what you learn to the present.

 

If you had a choice between a good book written this year and a good book on the same topic written over 100 years ago, which would you choose? Here are a few reasons why you might consider choosing the older book.

1. Old books give us perspective. Sometimes we get caught up in our modern world with our modern problems and our modern solutions. When we are isolated within our own historical moment, these issues can seem unique, unbelievable, insurmountable. But when we read old books, we gain perspective. Issues like homosexuality and abortion seem new and progressive, so we get to work developing a Christian response to these things. But Christians have been facing these issues since the days of the Apostle Paul. To neglect the wise words of those who have preceded us is foolish. And arrogant.

2. Old books give us a sense of tradition. We can learn a lot from the way that Christians throughout the ages have worshiped, prayed, evangelized, apostatized, and defended the faith. We can do ourselves great harm by rethinking our theology, worship, and church life as though church history skipped from Acts 28 to 2012. We do need to be biblical, and this will mean patterning our churches after the New Testament model. But the church has learned many lessons in 2,000 years; lessons we ignore at our own peril.

3. Old books force us to check our work. If you suddenly discover that a passage of Scripture means the opposite of what God’s people have believed it to mean for thousands of years, you might be wrong. You might be right, but if I had to put my money somewhere… I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t explore the Scriptures with every interpretive tool available, nor do I believe that the church has ever been interpretively infallible. But if you find yourself disagreeing with all the wise and godly theologians of the past, you’d better look again. And again. And again.

4. Old books keep us humble. In the counseling class I teach, I assign a couple of books by modern counselor/scholars, and a book by the Puritan John Owen. Not only did Owen say what these modern authors are saying, he said it some 350 years before they did. And he often said it better than they are saying it. Reading old books reminds us that we’re not the first ones to understand the Bible. This keeps us humble.

We should always choose our authors wisely. As you do, I encourage you to look not just to the living, but also to the dead. Dead authors are often more difficult to understand, but the extra effort is sometimes (not always) worth it.

Tomorrow: The dangers of reading dead theologians.

 

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