Church history has remained a pivotal aspect in tackling modern issues in the church. My love and passion for it grew from the time I was an undergraduate student. Grappling with church history, I saw how truly unique the church is.
More than this, I appreciated the role of the preservation of this history in the growth and the life of the church. The lessons from it have made me see God’s sovereignty, unfailing faithfulness, and unrelenting purposefulness. I have celebrated the many who went before me. Those that paid tremendously for defending doctrine and faith (Hebrews 10:32-34). Many faced death, because they knew that even death itself was temporary and that what they believed was forever (2 Corinthians 11:16-33).
The lessons from church history have made me see God’s unfailing faithfulness and sovereignty.
In this article, I endeavour to show that church history reminds us of God’s sovereign hand and presence with his people.
Jesus is Powerfully Present with His Church
The character of God is at the centre of the study and pursuit of the Christian faith. The significance of church history in this is that upon encountering it we are reminded of Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16:18, “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
The Bible is full of stories of people who experienced the faithfulness of God. The history of Israel repeatedly shows God’s compassion and holiness. He overcomes for Israel. He brings them into a land of physical inheritance. Yet throughout their history he points them forwards, to Christ, when God would come to dwell with his people. So Jesus Christ brings salvation, the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes.
The Bible is full of stories of people who experienced the faithfulness of God.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave on the third day sparked the beginning of Christianity. However, early church history is also the continuation of Israel’s story. The resurrection identified Christ as the Son of God, truly human and truly God. The disciples and the onlookers attested to his power over death. Convictions were strengthened and the Holy Spirit was manifest at Pentecost where many received power to become witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
The Early Church Knew This Power
The church was born, preserved, and expanded through the relentless faithfulness of God. We see God take the church through adverse persecutions by various Roman Emperors especially Diocletian and Nero. As Rome deteriorated politically, economically, and militarily, imperial attacks on Christians increased, as the emperors sought to instil greater loyalty among their people.
There were persecutions under Septimus Severus (202-212 AD), Decius (250-251 AD), and Valerian (258-260 AD). In his 2nd century book titled The Apology, Tertullian framed the now famous phrase: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of The Church.” Tertullian was writing to the Roman governor of his province, refuting various false charges made against Christians. While doing so he observed that persecution wasn’t going to destroy the church. Quite boldly, he noted the opposite, saying: “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow.”
The courage Christians showed under persecution was a testimony to God’s triumph.
These trials fuelled the growth of the early church. The courage Christians showed under persecution was a testimony to God’s triumph. Through their suffering they demonstrated the sure conviction that God is and will be faithful, even in death. When Rome chased Christians from their homes, instead of mourning their loss of place they went to new areas and proclaimed God’s saving grace.
Reformation: God’s Truth Trumps Human Pomp
Similarly, during the 16th century, the trials of men like Martin Luther produced extraordinary results compared to what a normal human being would expect. His relentless fight, together with many other Reformers, for the true biblical understanding of salvation, birthed the Protestant church. Though almost every Reformer suffered at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church, God worked mightily so that his gospel wasn’t hindered by manmade institutions.
As we read again and again, both in the pages of the Bible and history, God continues to be in charge. Christ is still the head of the church. God has graciously preserved his church from external threat (persecution) and internal resistance (heresies and divisions). He remains sovereignly in charge over all that he’s made.
Church History: Comfort in Our Time of Need
Church history proves Christ is supreme. Because of this, the church will be triumphant. In the meantime it continues to trust the one who is. As Jesus said, “In the world you will have many troubles, take heart for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Or hear Paul: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). Church history will help you to see God’s goodness despite suffering and persecution.
The church won’t fail. Not because of its might but owing entirely to the power, promises, and ongoing presence of God. God is unrelenting in his commitment to the church. Church history again and again teaches these lessons, pointing to our great God.
Church history will help you to see God’s goodness despite suffering and persecution.
So, continue to learn doctrine, study your Bible, affirm the creeds, sing God’s praises—and read church history. Whatever you’re suffering, you’re not the first Christian to face that (Hebrews 11:39-40). Take confidence in knowing the stories of your brothers and sisters who went before. These stories offer real confidence. When you grow weary and desperate, look at how God has carried others through their trials. Trust him to do the same in yours. He’s far greater than our circumstances.