Why a little church history is a necessary--and dangerous--thing
From the June issue of Christianity Today
Posted online on 06/17/10
My kids are growing up in North American evangelicalism, just like I did. My husband and I load up the family wagon every Sunday for primarily spiritual reasons, but as a byproduct, we are also marinating our offspring in a specific cultural broth. By the time they leave for college, they will have spent 18 years in a Reformational stew.
Church culture is the norm for our kids. They have no reason to believe that Christendom has ever been different, although they do recognize progress in that they can wear jeans on Sunday mornings.
One of the quirks of growing up in certain streams of evangelicalism is a lack of historical context. In my youth, a church father was a dad on the deacons' board. If we had to summarize Christianity's history, we would probably reference the apostle Paul, Billy Graham, and our congregation's building committee.
I would have remained ignorant if it weren't for books. G.K. Chesterton cajoled me to respect tradition as a way of "giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors." My ancestors, it turns out, are a lively bunch. I discovered them scattershot—Augustine's introspection, Eckhart's mysticism, Therese of Lisieux's humility, Benedict's organizational genius. I began to see church history as a trove of devotional information, a 2,000-year stream to be mined for the golden testimonies of saints who pursued God and recorded what happened.
Hungry for context, I delved deeper—and soon realized why we don't share much church history with our kids.
Yes, there are bright lights in the story. But there are also dark moments when the church and state joined hands to form one iron fist. Sacramentalism (the teaching that God's saving grace comes only through the sacraments) was often turned from a means of grace into a way to secure power (for only the church could perform the sacraments). To challenge official church doctrine meant consigning your soul to hell—and the church would likely help you get there quickly.
When Tertullian claimed that "the blood of the martyrs is seed of the church," he could not have dreamed how much blood would be spilled at the hands of other Christians. Like that of Jan Hus, a Bohemian preacher who argued that Scripture should be available to the masses and have the ultimate authority in doctrinal matters. Seeking church reform, he preached against corruption.
When Hus refused to recant his positions before the Council of Constance in 1415, he was condemned as a heretic, strangled, and burned. But a century later, his blood helped to seed the ideas of Martin Luther and Menno Simons. Out of the pain of their difficult labor, my own church tradition was born.
Then there's the case of Michael Sattler, a 16th-century Anabaptist who was pronounced an "arch-heretic," tortured, and executed for concluding that Scripture did not advocate infant baptism. A few days later, Sattler's wife was drowned for holding the same view.
How do we process these stories? I open my Bible, and I recognize my debt to those who fought for the accessibility and authority of Scripture. My church holds a baptismal service, and I think of those who were drowned for claiming the right to be baptized as adults.
I recognize, too, that without dissenting voices, there would have been no Reformation. This tempers my response to fellow Christians whom I believe are doctrinally unorthodox. I disagree with them as my conscience dictates, but I must also respect them as potential sparks in a reforming fire. As long as the church is made up of humans, it will need reform, and reform will require dissent from the status quo.
The story of Christianity ultimately leaves me shocked at the risks God takes with humans. Even the greatest lights in church history were dishearteningly imperfect. For all his heroism, Luther attacked the Jewish faith so polemically the Nazis later misappropriated his writings for their anti-Semitic cause. Reformer Ulrich Zwingli advocated justification by faith and concern for the poor, but he also endorsed the executions of two of his brightest disciples because they became Anabaptists. Simons was an inspired Anabaptist leader, but he overzealously excommunicated many who did not live up to his pious standards.
Yet God did great things through these flawed people, much as he did with Abraham, Isaac, Peter, and Paul. As long as there is a human element in his church, it will be prone to corruption. But as long as his Spirit moves, there will be reform and renewal.
When our kids are ready, we will give them context for their religious heritage. For now, they do not understand that the church they file into on Sunday mornings is a place as dangerous as it is holy. But if God is willing to keep taking a chance on it, so are we.
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