Is Church History Important?

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.Alexander Campbell 01

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?

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5 comments

  1. Brian Casey

    I, for one, support the idea and practice of discovering historical roots and am glad you’re teaching a class on the RM history. The more we can find out about why we have taken on certain positions over others, the better, I figure.

    Aside: curious that you’d heard of 6 steps. It was only 5 in my hearing over the years, although those 5 (origins with Walter Scott, I believe) did change. I think “hear” was most often one of the 5, and “grow” or “be faithful” or “live a Christian life” was not. But I’m not sure “hear” was part of the original five-finger exercise, was it?

    In a rural mission in Kenya, some years ago, the converts would often refer to their coming to Jesus as “repenting” than as “getting baptized,” which was more common in my early years in the U.S. “James repented last week” was the phrase of choice, rather than “James was baptized.” All those responses to God are important, and it’s enlightening to find out why a group might have been emphasized over the others, during certain periods of time.

  2. ozziepete

    Thanks for your thoughts Brian. I actually only heard 5 growing up. I was never taught “Hear”; it just seems too obvious to me because there’s really no way to reject it. (By the time you want to reject it, it’s too late you’ve already heard it!) Everything else is a choice. It just seems way more important to include “Grow” than “Hear”.

    According to “Renewing God’s People” by Holloway & Foster (p66), in the 1830’s Walter Scott introduced a 6 point response to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” His 6 points were:
    – 3 things humans do: Believe; Repent; Be Baptized.
    – 3 things God does: Forgives Sins; Gives the Holy Spirit; Grants Eternal Life.

    Apparently, he made it easier to remember by reducing it to a “five-finger exercise” of: Faith, Repentance, Baptism, Forgiveness of Sins, and the Gift of the Holy Spirit.

    Somewhere in the early 1900’s the “five-finger gospel” was replaced with the “five step plan of salvation” with which we’re familiar today. According to Holloway and Foster (p104) it started with “Hear” and didn’t include “Grow”.

  3. blcasey

    Interesting. Thanks for the documentation and follow-up. These lists make for confusing topics of discussion, don’t they? The supposed “five acts of worship” list also has variants, and it sort of depends on your perspective whether you include “hear” or “preach” or “word of God” in that list.

    My main scholarly source is the Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, in the article on Walter Scott by Mark Toulouse. He has the “steps” in three places and doesn’t enumerate quite so clearly. It seems to be four, in one place: Hear/heed, have faith, repent, and be immersed. Your enumeration of 3+3=6 is definitely here in this article, with the mention that the 5th finger came to stand for both the “Holy Spirit” and “eternal life” items together.

    Maybe if we had 6 fingers, Scott would have made it 6 when he spoke the mnemonic to schoolchildren and other hearers!

  4. Mark Wagner

    The attitude of those who may feel that a study of Restoration Movement history is tantamount to elevating the Campbells et. al. to an exalted status is interesting to me. What these people may not realize is that attitude is similar to the attitude of our forebears from that era, who very much played down the idea of a clergy / church hierarchy. The focus was on getting “back to the Bible” as our sole guide. One of the possible outcomes of that thinking is that church history (beyond what’s in the Scriptures) is merely a study of men’s deeds, and is perhaps not worthy of much attention.

  5. ozziepete

    Thanks Mark. When we don’t study or discuss our spiritual ancestors we run the dual risk of missing out on some valuable teaching, and of repeating mistakes they made.

    Churches of Christ have often given a double message that emphasises each person’s right and ability to interpret the Scripture for themselves but at the same time put a lot of energy into training preachers. However, one of my favorite passages to turn to when someone wants to campaign for “Bible only” is the Great Commission in Matt 28:19-20. Verse 20 clearly highlights the crucial place of teaching in the spread of the Gospel. Have we somewhere along the way replaced this with “print & distribute Bibles”? The Bible is a book that God intended to be taught.

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