I’m currently teaching a Wednesday night Bible class on the history of the Restoration Movement. However, I seem to be having a difficult time justifying why it’s good to study this topic. Some people think we should just study the Bible, others seem to think I’m turning the Campbells into apostles or something. While all I’m trying to do is demonstrate that our beliefs and church practice today are influenced by the teachings of these pioneers from the early 1800’s.
In an ideal intellectual world, we would all come to the Bible with a blank mind ready to absorb its teachings. However, we don’t live abstract, isolated lives. Even as seekers we approach God seeking different things: help with a relationship, freedom from addictions or guilt, purpose in life, a place to belong and be loved… So when each of these people open the Bible they’re looking for answers to different questions. Different verses will appeal to them and they will share different benefits of being a Christian.
In addition to bringing our own circumstances to church, we also join churches that have particular contexts and different experiences. Churches of Christ have always taught 6 steps of responding to Gospel (often called Steps of Salvation). Hear, Believe, Repent, Confess, Be Baptized, Grow. However, of those we have tended to emphasize baptism. Why? I believe that we do this partly because Alexander Campbell and other early Restoration leaders emphasized it in their teaching as a point of differentiation between their understanding of Scripture and that of the Baptists and Presbyterians.
So when a new Christian joins a Church of Christ, they join a church that emphasises baptism even though the other 5 “Steps” are just as important. A church with a different history might emphasise “Grow” or “Love your neighbour”. In the 4th & 5th centuries a significant group known as Donatists made “Confess” an emphasis. They split from the majority church because they believed that anyone who had denied (recanted their Confession) Christ during persecution could not be restored to church leadership. We don’t give that much emphasis to “Confess”, but we’ve also not experienced persecution like that church did either. Our different history gives our churches a different emphasis.
So while church history differs from a verse-by-verse study of the Bible, it helps us understand why we study particular passages more than others, and why we read them a particular way. This is not to say that Church History operates without the influence of the Holy Spirit, but rather, the Holy Spirit works through history. A study of history and of those men and women of faith who’ve preceded us helps us to be more honestly introspective about our beliefs. It should also encourage us to spend more time separating human influences from the Spirit’s work. Finally, learning about the lives of our spiritual forebears can encourage us in our faith walk as we see how God worked in and through their lives. Isn’t that what Hebrews 11 is all about: learning from the lives, holy and hurt, of those traveling ahead of us. Looking backwards so that we can move forwards.
How much do you know about your church history? Do you find it helpful or irrelevant?