Lessons from Church History
by Edward M. Panosian
If history is more than mere facts, then the teaching of history must certainly communicate more than just factual information. The Christian particularly feels the burden both to understand for himself and to impart to others the lessons that history offers. The history of the church of Jesus Christ in the world these two millennia, for example, has instructive value for the Christian believer. From church history, the teacher may find concrete examples to illustrate the lessons and principles that history offers.
As the teacher discusses the late Roman Empire in history or perhaps covers the early church in Bible, he can present the first of our lessons. The first three centuries of Christian history demonstrate that the church is most effective in the world when it is most opposed to the world system. Our Lord came to bring not peace but a sword. The church must be in opposition to the world, not in conformity with it. The consequence of that nonconformity will be the world's opposition to the church, and this opposition produces strength in the church rather than weakness. The history of the early church demonstrates the truth of this principle, both positively and negatively.
At no period in its history before the nineteenth-century missions movement did the Christian church grow more rapidly, numerically, than in those early centuries when she was under both fierce and subtle persecution. All the efforts of the Roman world to quench the fires of the gospel served rather to fan them. Man meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. Persecution became an instrument of propagation: men saw the constancy and the spiritual transport of martyrs and wondered. More souls were won to the gospel by the deaths of some than by the lives of many others.
The fourth century witnessed a significant change, however. The frustration of the Roman Empire at her inability to destroy the fledgling faith led her to adopt the opposite method of accomplishing the same end. Rome ended overt persecution. One could no longer be martyred by political rulers. Rome now embraced the church. Her emperor declared himself a Christian and favored his new faith. Whether the motive of Constantine was a genuine conversion, or a political awareness of the organizational strength of the growing ecclesiastical institution, or the exasperation of having observed the folly of the other methods, or a loss of confidence in Rome's gods, the church seemed to triumph.
But the church lost her cutting edge. Sharply impaired was her ability to cry 'Love not the world' when she enjoyed such prosperity of place at the hands of the world. The gain of favor by the state was great loss. A false, external, 'proper' Christianity was allowed to grow; an institutional and external body enjoyed the favor of men; it became popular to be a Christian. To the ranks of the leadership of this body were drawn men whose talent lay first in administration. Spiritual qualifications, while desirable, seemed of secondary importance, and the consequences were soon obvious. Opposition--purity; acceptance--corruption; this was the lesson of the first centuries.
The next several centuries saw the true church, the faithful bodies of believers, reduced to a remnant. As the teacher comes to the Middle Ages, he may introduce a second lesson of church history. The experience of those centuries illustrates the truth that God's people are always a minority. A few faithful are infinitely more powerful than many mighty. The Holy Spirit, through Paul the Apostle, declared, 'But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are' (I Cor. 1:27-28).
A trail of truth was cleared down through the centuries of ecclesiastical Christendom. Believers in diverse places and at diverse times gathered around the leadership of men armed with the Word of Truth. Largely unknown, limited in direct influence, often derided and scorned by the religious establishment, but making much of the Scriptures, they preserved the pure gospel. Though a despised minority, God's people were ultimately to win.
The turbulent emergence of the Reformation of the sixteenth century witnesses to a third lesson, to the fact that true Christianity is always born and nourished in controversy. In this period particularly, the teacher may demonstrate that the god of this world, the enemy of man's soul, allows slumbering saints to awaken only with a struggle. The resurgence of genuine Christian faith had to take the form of Protestantism--a protest against an apostate church and against the efforts of that church to continue to deny men the privilege of the priesthood of believers: direct access to God, His Word, and His grace.
Although controversy is not to be sought, it must be accepted. Wherever truth exposes error, error will oppose truth, and truth will be drawn into conflict. The believer must both stand and advance against the enemy. He cannot ignore the strife, though it is not of his making. Love is a noble virtue, but Christian love is love in the truth.
The age of revolutions followed the age of Reformation. The contrasting histories of the French and American Revolutions provide the lesson that 'Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.' Sixteenth-century England had embraced the Reformation, however imperfectly. When Spain tried to return England to the orbit of Roman Catholicism, her Armada was defeated by the English navy and by God's control of the heavens and the seas. Spain sank to the role of a third-rate power from which she has not yet recovered.
To Spain's northeast, the nation of France for a time tolerated the Reformation. But by the late seventeenth century, she had officially rejected Protestantism and exiled the Huguenots. To eighteenth-century France came revolution--bloody, unrestrained, and destructive of true liberty in spite of its claim to advance it. But across the Channel, England was enjoying the blessings of revival. John and Charles Wesley were used of God to spark a mighty moving of the Spirit of God and an awakening to righteousness that rescued England spiritually, morally, and politically.
The effects of that awakening were also felt across the ocean in North America, where other Englishmen joined the Dutch, German, French, and others to declare independence of their English mother. Less a revolution than a result of maturing and outgrowing the role of subject colonies, the American experiment was to require a half-dozen years of war to confirm that declaration. Unlike the French Revolution, which was based on the faith in man's reason and belief in natural rights, the American War for Independence recognized that God is the Author of rights. Many of the colonials, having come for refuge from the spiritual and political tyranny of men, were unwilling to submit to a government of men; they devised a government of law. God prospered their cause, independence was confirmed, and the new nation entered an age of remarkable blessing.
Finally, modern history affords ample opportunity for the teacher to illustrate our final lesson, that Satan's method is to counterfeit the true. From the temptation of our first parents to the temptation of our Savior and up to the present time, the father of lies has tried to deceive man into believing that he can please God in his own ways. How many modern totalitarian regimes have attempted to replace God with the state, His Word with an ideology, and His Son with a pseudo-messianic dictator! But Satan's counterfeits are not always so obvious.
We are conditioned to regard the 'good' in every mixture of good and evil, when, as discerning Christians, we should regard the evil. Few would value the scraps of good food in a garbage can. Just as the good food is totally contaminated by its association with the bad, so is whatever of good may seem to be in a spiritual mixture. In fact, the presence of the good makes the evil more subtly dangerous.
In our handling of the Word of God, in our proclaiming of the gospel of God, in our performing the work of God, in our witnessing by word and example, we would do well personally to be both cautioned and encouraged by these lessons. And our teaching must communicate these lessons to those tender souls whom God has entrusted to us.