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Why is Church History important to missions?

Updated: May 11, 2020

Someone recently asked me a question, which was basically this:  “Why do you have those articles on church history and the details of the Roman Catholic false doctrines and false practices that are in past history?    I don’t see the connection specifically with missions.”

To use the title of a book by R. C. Sproul, “Now, that’s a good question!”

[Sproul’s book has nothing to do with missions, I am just using his title.  He answers common questions about the Bible and doctrine.]

The simple answer is this:

Church history is the record of the past of the outworking of missions, how the gospel spread to other cultures and peoples, and how the church perseveres (see Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 3:21), and grows, and understands the Bible (that’s called the development of doctrine and theology), and matures in holiness, love, and unity (John 17, Ephesians 4:1-16).  Basically, church history is the outworking of Jesus prayer in John 17:20-23 – “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word . . . “  (John 17:20 ESV)  Jesus is praying for all future believers  (see also Romans 8:31-34; Hebrews 7:25; 2:17-18; 4:14-16; 9:24) – “those who will believe in Me through their word”, that is, through the word of the apostles, that was preached, and was written down by some of the apostles.

Some churches disappeared in history – all of the seven churches of Revelation chapters 2-3 were conquered and eventually destroyed or eclipsed by Islam. (There is a very small Eastern/Greek Orthodox church still in Izmir (Smyrna) that claims to be from an unbroken chain back to Polycarp and Revelation 2, but the drifting of it from Biblical doctrine and the destruction of it by the Ottomans, gives us doubts about this.  It was later rebuilt after the burning of the city in the 1920s.)

The area of Galatia and Cappodicia also – nothing left of Christianity except cool places to visit and see ancient history.  Colossea and one of the famous churches in early church history, Hieropolis were also wiped out by Islam.   All of the churches in North Africa from Libya to Morocco were wiped out by Islam.  The Coptic Church in Egypt survived; and today other churches in other Middle Eastern areas, developed into what is known as Byzantine/Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches – they survive as dhimmis (second class citizens under the domination of Islam with no freedom to evangelize Muslims) in places like Lebanon, Syria, Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, and Iran.   Iran also has remnants of the Assyrian/Nestorian orthodox church of the east, and Armenian churches.  Armenian churches are also in Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, and other places in that general area. Yet, the worldwide body of Christ of true believers perseveres and the promise of Jesus is true in Matthew 16:18 and Ephesians 3:21.

The key to understanding that is that Jesus clearly says that individual churches can be judged and disciplined and their lamp stand can be taken away (see Revelation 2:4-5; see also the church at Pergamum, Thaityra, Sardis, and Laodicea – “I am coming to you and I will make war with you”; “I will spit you out of My mouth”; “I will visit you with sickness . . .” etc. if you do not repent”. )  But Jesus in those same passages speaks to individual believers and says “to the one who overcomes” = the one who perseveres – he or she will be saved.  So, churches can disappear in history, but true believers will persevere.  See Revelation 2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:26; 3:5; 3:12; 2:21

Also, when we evangelize, disciple new believers, teach, and raise up elders for a local church (see Acts 14:20-23; Titus 1:5-7), especially former Muslims, the new believers have questions about many things, such as God’s Sovereignty and suffering and practical issues of sanctification and church government, but three very important foundational doctrines that come up the most, that also have direct connection to the necessity of understanding church history are:

1. The doctrine of the Trinity – the theology had to be worked out, based on the Scriptures, because of wrong interpretations, imbalance of some verses over others, and the starting up of various heresies.

2.  The Canon of Scripture – How the church discerned which books were “God-breathed” (see 2 Timothy 3:16), therefore they were  “standard” or “criterion” or  “canon” (“canon” meant, law, principle, criterion, standard),  (this word “canon” later came to have the meaning of “the list of books that belong in the Bible”) of Scripture.

3.  The doctrine of Justification by faith alone (Sola Fide) – was it something that Luther invented, or is there evidence of it in church before Luther?

There are many other doctrines and issues that come up, but for purposes of this article and answering the question, these are the three big doctrinal issues that require understanding church history and historical theology.

These are the three issues that come up the most when discipling and teaching new believers who are former Muslims, and they necessitate understanding church history, because the understanding of these doctrines was made more explicit and clear by the historical process of attacks by heresies and false traditions that crept into the church, and the constant going back to all of Scripture to find out how to respond to new ideas and false doctrines.   The formulation of a doctrine that takes into account all of Scripture is what is called, “Systematic Theology” – what does all of Scripture say about a particular doctrine?

So, I will be seeking to flesh these issues out in the future, Lord willing, in how they specifically relate to details of church history.

Another reason:

Another reason for why this is important to get into the details of Roman Catholic stuff, is because if one does not understand those details, they could be tempted to be deceived by current Roman Catholic apologetics, which uses a heavy dose of epistemology and philosophy and citing of church history and early church writings.  Many former Evangelical Protestants are being deceived by current Roman Catholic apologetics to convert to Rome.  Of course, that means that those people, who have agreed with Rome’s false gospel and a conscious rejection of justification by faith alone, were not true believers in the first place ( 1 John 2:19; Matthew 7:21-23), if they don’t repent before they die.

So, staying ignorant of church history can be dangerous.

One of the reasons why some Protestant Evangelicals have been convinced by Roman Catholic apologetics is because they were ignorant of church history and historical theology.  They were unprepared for the methods of Roman Catholic apologists who used a lot of philosophy and sophistry and epistemological skepticism.  The Roman Catholic asks, “How do you know for sure you have the right interpretation?”  And “How do you know the church got the canon of Scripture right?”; and then they say, “You need an infallible interpreter to help you and give you the right answer”.  And they claim that the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church is the only infallible interpreter and a “living voice” who can walk into the room and settle all disputes between Christians.  Yeah, right; that’s worked real good so far, right?

The Roman Catholic modern apologist also quotes a lot of early church writers and famous early church fathers and earlier history than Luther and Calvin at the time of the Reformation (roughly from 1517, Luther’s posting of the 95 theses, to 1545- 1563, the Council of Trent, which was the Roman Catholic Church’s response to the Reformers and especially the doctrine of Justification by faith alone. (Sola Fide) .  “If we don’t learn the lessons of history, we are doomed to repeat them”, someone has famously said.   By staying ignorant of church history and the details of how the church drifted from the Bible and “left its first love” (Revelation 2:4-5), we put ourselves in danger of being deceived by the crafty methods of modern Roman Catholic apologists.

For review and laying the foundation, below here are links to the articles on church history that caused my friend to ask me this question.  He said I was not clear on what the connection is between the details of Roman Catholic history and missions. I appreciate feedback when I am ambiguous because I truly desire to be clear in communication.  Hopefully, one can see the connection now more clearly.  If the connection is not clear, I hope it will be made clearer in the future, and I welcome comments in the com boxes.

The Reformation and Missions

An Evangelical Introduction to Church History, Part 1

“An Evangelical Introduction to Church History, part 2” 

An Evangelical Introduction to Church History, Part 3 (From Orange to Trent)

“An Evangelical Introduction to Church History, Part 4” (also under the title:  “Muhammad and the Arabs did not get a credible Biblical Witness”)