Hello. My name is Charles North, and I am a historian! Wow! I feel so good with that off my chest. Why study church history? Because we are not disconnected from the past, despite the need that every generation has to reinvent the wheel. People a lot smarter than you and I have already given answers to all the questions we are faced with today. “There is nothing new under the Sun.” For us to be purposefully ignorant of history, particularly the people and forces that have shaped the church over the past 2000 years, is just like self-inflicted amnesia or Alzheimer’s. I have just started teaching a Wednesday night series called "Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity." Here are my thoughts from the opening class.
There is a broad cultural shift that is taking place before our eyes. My parents were born in 1952. By the time my kids are adults, that world will have vanished forever. Culture, and technology, and politics, and communication, and travel, and religion have changed more rapidly than we can comprehend, and it aint slowing down. The world we were born into has already vanished, and it is not coming back! There have only been two other times in human history that this has happened – when Rome fell in the 5th century, and the period of Reformation in the 16th century. The world changed in one generation, and we are now living through the same kind of cataclysmic change – and it’s not just technology, it’s the way people think and believe because of the tension between modernism and postmodernism. Modern thinking recognizes that we no longer live in the Dark Ages. We no longer live in a time when magic and superstition make sense. We are a people of logic and reason. We believe that if there is a problem we can solve it through investigation, reason, and science. This is the foundation of American thought – progress toward a better life through science and technology, understanding and knowledge. Newtonian physics gave us the tools to make sense of the world. And then the 20th century happened – WWI, WWII, communism, terrorism, genocide. In the world of science, the theory of relativity unraveled our sense of certainty, and now quantum theory has shown that there can be effect without cause. Human cloning and stem cell research has given us more problems than solutions. So, has the world gotten better through progress? Think of what we’ve seen in New Orleans the past week – human civilization is a precariously thin veneer. Now that we understand so much about diseases, people don’t die anymore? But they do, don’t they? Now that we understand so much about psychology, we don’t have crime anymore? But we do, don’t we? Now that we have science and technology, and people are better educated, our world is more moral, right? No! And the postmoderns say, “Now you’re gettin it.”
The postmodern mindset says life is not about getting smarter, or being more right in this world of rational thinking that has not delivered what it has promised. But we have even gone beyond a postmodern world – we live in a post-Christian world. Christian thinking, and Christian values, and Christian morality are no longer the default mode of western civilization. Think of secular western Europe. People don’t visit those magnificent cathedrals to worship, they go to look at art and architecture. Closer to home, think of when most of you were children. There was nothing to do on Sunday but go to church. Everything was closed. Decent people observed the Sabbath and removed all temptation from those who did not. You prayed in school as routinely as you pledged allegiance to the flag. You memorized the 10 Commandments alongside your multiplication tables. And today? Look around. A few weeks ago Holly and I were talking with her grandmother, and she asked us what we were doing on Sunday evening, and I said, “I’m taking Holly to see a movie.” She stared at me with a blank look, and asked, “a movie -- on a Sunday?” Did you see that just yesterday the California legislature passed a bill allowing homosexuals to marry? I’ve got some bad news for those of you who are politically active in this regard. I’m with you all the way. I think that gay marriage is one of the stupidest and most ungodly ideas around, but we have lost that fight. Gay marriage all across the U.S. is inevitable. That snowball has gotten too big and gained too much momentum – it cannot be stopped. Why? Because we live in a post-Christian world. Christianity is no longer the solo voice, it is one of many voices making up a chorus of confusion.
This is not all bad news. The sooner we can admit that we are no longer under the warm and cozy protection of culture and government, the sooner we can engage the world as a counter-cultural force and practice real evangelism and discipleship the way God intended for us to, and the way the early church did. Right now, most of us are disoriented. Builders, in Medieval Europe, as they prepared to build a cathedral, made elaborate plans to lay out the foundation with the front facing east – towards Jerusalem, the orient. Before sun up, they would drive a stake into the ground that looked like a giant sewing needle, and the builder would peer through the “eye,” waiting for the sun to rise. As the sun peered over the horizen he would move that stake until it faced east. He oriented the foundation. To be disoriented is to be confused about which direction is east. It is to be off balance, unsure of ourselves, unclear over where we have been and where we are going.
To reorient ourselves, we need to return to Jesus’ parting words in Matthew 28:
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" – nothing that happens to us is ever outside the reach of his sovereignty. The good, the bad, the ugly, the ups and the downs – Christ rules!
"Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations" – Our purpose is to convert the world. It is to take the name of Jesus to every corner of the world.
"Surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age" – However we deviate from God’s plan, however we sin, however many times we mess up, we are sustained not by our wisdom, but by the presence of Christ.
But above all, here’s why we ought to study the history of Christianity: Alongside all the noble examples of heroism and faithfulness and discipleship, we also see a full accounting of human wrongdoing. We could respond with despair, or we could say that for 2000 years weak elders and weak deacons and weak preachers have ministered inadequately to weak and broken churches, because though the church is God’s idea and creation, it is made up of people, and people always mess up. But, the past 2000 years proves one thing – the promise of our Saviour has been fulfilled: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”