Why I love teaching Church History at HLI

There are such numerous and important reasons to be knowledgeable concerning the history of the Christian church, from celebrating the incredible amount of justice and love that has been exercised through the church to recognizing past mistakes so that they will not be repeated in the future. And yet, this is not the primary reason why I study or teach church history. It is so beautiful to glean from the moves of God in the past and learn about heroes and heroines of the faith from Polycarp and Perpetua to Mother Theresa and Billy Graham. And yet, this is not the primary reason why I study or teach church history. It is fascinating to place the expansion of the Christian church against the politico-historical backdrop of the day. And yet, this is not the primary reason why…ok, you get the idea.

We are called to be incarnational- to translate the message, the good news of Jesus Christ into our modus operandi. In our current cultural context, our charge is to be as clear and pure personifications of our Master as we can be. And here is the reality: we are frail, yet we are being transformed. We are weak, yet we are being made strong. We are poor, yet we are making many rich (2 Corinthians 6:3-12, 1 Corinthians 9:19-21). We are the fragrance of Christ in our context (2 Corinthians 2:14-17), fully representing Christ as we live in purity and the power of God, in hardship and persecution, in sickness and in healing( 1 Corinthians 2; 2 Corinthians 5:11-21). This is why we value Church history. It is part of our current mission. We are the Church. Church history is so much like we are- full of triumphs and tragedies, encompassing mountaintop experiences and asking for forgiveness. It is exhilarating and humbling. If we are to be Christians (“little Christs” as the etymology of the word implies), we are charged as “missionaries” the moment we acknowledge our Maker. We are sent to our neighbors, friends, family, workmates, city, country and world as representatives of God, as Christ is. It is so fascinating how Jesus inaugurates the Church in Matthew 28:

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

One of the first things to notice: “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” These were the ones that spent intimate time with Jesus for something like 3 years! And there were doubts. Read Jesus response again: “All authority…therefore go and make disciples of all nations…and surely I am with you always…” We have a specific record of a doubter named Thomas in John 20. This, of course, is the same Thomas who seems to have become a missionary first to Jerusalem, then to Assyria, and possibly to India.  So, church history is us. In the study of church history, I see myself and ask God to make me more like Him. My prayer has been as I read and live: “Help me to live the simple Gospel of love, purity, healing, and justice. Help me to recognize and trace what you are doing and participate in it.”

This is why I love teaching church history at the Vineyard Heroic Leadership Institute. Because it is all about Jesus. It’s not about the politics of power, prestige, or manipulation or even theological machinations. These are very important but only form the backdrop of the most important. What was God up to during the epoch of history? As John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement, said “I don’t see any long parenthesis in which the Holy Spirit was absent from the church as I read church history.” For example, do we recognize the incredible, beautiful ministry of St. Francis and Clare during the heart wrenching time of the crusades? And how does that inform how we live as the aroma of Jesus in our present day? As St. Clare said:

We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means we are to become vessels of God’s compassionate love for others.
— St. Clare

This is what I see as I teach church history during HLI. This is my prophetic prayer. This is what fills my heart as I watch light bulbs turn on and watch the students beautifully serve and live and become and confess and learn and love and learn again. May we continue to be sent, honest and empowered, as God’s work through the Church teaches us to be.

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Recommended Reading:

Christian History Made Easy, by Timothy Paul Jones  
Easy to read, colorful, and lists many of the important people in the moves of God and does a good job keeping a somewhat global perspective. Obviously, this is designed to be an intro.

Christian Origins and the Question of God series by N.T. Wright
(The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, The Resurrection of the Son of God and most recently, Paul and the Faithfulness of God) These are dense and scholarly but, in my opinion, essential, with regard to the earliest development of Christianity (1st-2nd century).

The Apostolic Fathers, by Michael Holms
Modern translations of the letters of St. Clement, St Ignatius, St. Irenaeus, St. Polycarp, etc. 1st-2nd century.

Church History, by Eusebius
4th Century work by a Roman church historian.

Then, the writings of and about the great movers and shakers in the Kingdom of God throughout the rest of history of which there are too many to list (come to one of the HLI Classes!). I also highly recommend focused histories of the Church in regions of the world not as connected to the Roman Catholic Church (e.g. the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Coptic Church, Christianity in Ethiopia, Congo, Nigeria, China, Mongolia, India, Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Etc.)