Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil. 1 Peter 3:13-17
Welcome, Young Believer!
While 1 Peter does not directly command us to know church history, it certainly implicates that we need to be prepared for whatever questions or arguments come our way regarding the Gospel. Consider that today it is very common to hear comments from non-believers and deconstructionists that make all sorts of claims about historic Christianity. They talk about who made the decisions in the church, and whether or not Paul's writings should be included in the Bible. What it means that the Bible is the inerrant word of God... if they believe it at all. There is also the question that you may be asking even as a Christian: what is the difference between my denomination and any other denomination? Are we not all the Church, the Body, and the Bride of Christ?
If we don't understand the origins and development of the Church with its now almost innumerable branches, we don't have good answers to these questions. Worse! We cannot recognize the important theological differences that each of these branches has and whether they are truly Christian. Most of us either go to the type of church we grew up in or to the type of church that we first attended when we got saved. I don't say this as a condemnation, simply as a reality. And many people do not have the time or interest to answer all of these questions, but we've seen from the deconstruction movement that when people make time and don't understand how to seek out trustworthy answers... they come to all sorts of conclusions some God honoring and many not even close. However, when we seek God and His Kingdom, when we seek the truth about Him, I believe that search can only draw us closer to Him. As Christians, we should not fear difficult questions or their answers because we have a firm foundation in our faith in Christ. Instead, we should be relentless in our pursuit to love and know Him better!
I'm going to put several references below for your perusal into this argument for the importance of studying and knowing church history. But I'll pull out the points I appreciated most and expand on them first for you as well.
The Bible is a history book.
Consider that most of the Bible aside from the books of song and wisdom spend a great deal of time recounting the history of God's people and His mighty works on their behalf. The New Testament in the Gospels and beyond spends a great deal of time reminding the people of how those things pointed to Christ or were fulfilled by Him. In fact, the book of Acts actually begins to tell us the story of the Church in its earliest form.
Language is built over time.
Remember that we had an entire post in our first Christianity for New Believers series dedicated to defining commonly used "Church Words" sometimes referred to as Christianese. There are many words used in churches today that can instantly tip you off to the theological beliefs and heritage of that church or teacher if you know what you're looking for. We've talked about being able to discern false teaching. Well knowing these words and their place in church history can be extremely helpful to us in recognizing already debunked teachings. The church has had over 2,000 years to address people's questions, doubts, reading their own desires into scripture and so on... we don't have to start from scratch. We should understand what the Church has decided on many of these issues, who were the people making those decisions, and why did they come to the conclusions that they did. After all that, we can have a legitimate discussion on whether or not they were mistaken and perhaps a more correct understanding is available to us now as we continue to Seek God first.
Avoiding mistakes of the past.
I know we just talked about this a little bit, but really it cannot be stressed enough that Christians in each century have faced misunderstandings about God and the Gospel. These were questions that had to be answered and have been answered but so many people including influencers, teachers, and pastors who claim to be Christian continue to bring up these heresies today. If we knew our history, we would be far less vulnerable to this type of mistake.
The continued story of God working through broken people for His glory.
I can't think of a single person in the Bible aside from Jesus who didn't at some point do some pretty messed up things. There are books of the Bible dedicated to telling God how hurt and broken the writer feels over the state of the world and their own sin see Lamentations and Haggai. Job is all about one man enduring the suffering that so often comes to us in life at an exaggerated level and answering the question of why we suffer if there is a loving God who could do something about our suffering. Studying the history of the church you find more of these broken people who God calls and uses in stunning ways to advance His Kingdom. This also gives us hope, that while we are broken God can also use us to do great things for Him!
We need to know history to pass it on.
One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. Psalm 145:4
God did not stop working in the world or for His people when the final chapter of Revelation had been written. He has continued to work, spreading His church throughout the world and preparing for the Day of Judgement when Christ will return for His people to set up His eternal Kingdom. We should be telling His story from one generation to the next about how He has worked in the life of His Church despite great trials and broken human beings. These truths should not be forgotten!
Reevaluate common church practices/traditions.
Speaking of passing things from one generation to another. You may find in your study that you and/or your church have been practicing a church tradition that doesn't really align with God's Word. Think about what the church teaches regarding the life, death, and resurrection of Christ especially. Think about what the church teaches about Heaven, Hell, Satan, and other spiritual beings such as angels and demons. Have you made assumptions about what is true because of a long-held tradition that isn't expressed in Scripture? you can't know these things unless you seek them out.
Recognize how the world views history.
I just recently finished watching the movie King Arthur, the 2004 version with Clive Owen, Keira Knightley, and Mads Mikkelson. In the movie, Arthur talks about being a personal friend of and following the teachings of Pelagius. Pelagius was a British Monk from the early fifth century who was eventually denounced as a heretic and his teachings known as Pelagianism were thrown out as false. This movie depicts Pelagius as an advocate of the equality of men and Arthur's inspiration for believing in goodness and justice for both Romans and the enemies they fought. If you don't know anything about church history, you would come away from this movie thinking that fifth-century Christianity was thoroughly corrupted and persecuted great thinkers like Pelagius without cause. While Pelagius certainly did teach about the goodness of human beings, which is not necessarily bad, he also denied original sin, how sin affects the nature of human beings, and claimed that people could work to be righteous enough to deserve heaven. This teaching utterly throws out the Gospel which teaches that we are all sinners, that's why we need Jesus to take the punishment of our sin, and only through the acceptance of His sacrifice can we be saved. It is by faith and not of works that no one may boast! Definitionally, therefore, Pelagius and his teaching is antithetical to true Christianity and should be denounced not glorified.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8-9
Another thing that I often see depicted in our post-modern media is a caricature of Christians both as followers and as ministers that make them out to be foolish (as in stupid) and naive or as monstrous hypocrites who don't believe what they preach at all but use it as violence against others. In recent media regarding Viking societies that came in contact with Christianity, they are depicted as weak and willing to twist Christianity if necessary to claim (especially men in authority) as "Christian converts." Is there a just cause for non-believers to view Christians historically this way? Definitely, we could find some examples. Yet again I want to encourage you that that is not the full story and you should learn church history to find the courageous, honorable, and faithful men and women who stood for their faith even when times became difficult. Even more importantly, we should study these things so that we do not glorify false teachers who led many to their destruction through their twisting of God's Word.
Bringing accountability as we live and act as the Church today.
Studying history we learn their answers to old theological questions and are horrified by their mistakes that often led to violence. All of this helps us to bring accountability to the Church today for both past and present atrocities. When we're asked why Christians kept slavery around for so long, perpetrated and justified the Crusades and other horrors associated with colonization, or even our beliefs regarding same-sex marriage and abortion today... we will be better prepared with honest and gracious answers if we know our history.
If you have any other questions about the importance of studying church history, please feel free to leave them in the comments below. I highly encourage you to find a mentor in the faith who can help personally walk you through many of these issues as you grow into a mature believer. This is one journey you were never meant to take alone!