“Those who forget the past are destined to repeat it,” observed Edmund Burke. That’s true. Our Bible would be much shorter if it weren’t. God’s people continually blunder into the same old messes. Because we fail to take the lessons from the past, we repeat our mistakes ad nauseam. Good thing we have a patient God.
It’s scary how little most Christians know about church history. Because each generation lives in a new age with different sets of circumstances, we need to know the past. We cannot afford to keep falling into the same old traps while facing all these new ones. Instructed by the past, we need to address our present with an eye to the future. Yet many Christians are historical agnostics, imagining themselves so spiritual and knowledgeable and gifted that they don’t need a history lesson. Unfortunately, history itself clearly teaches that they’re being hopelessly naive.
Lloyd Rang’s humorous but instructive bird’s-eye view gives us a global picture of two millennia of church history (see p. 18). In this wide-angle approach we can bicker over which events should or should not be included. But overall it gives us a good sense of the grand sweep of the Spirit’s movement. We can draw a variety of lessons from the church’s history.
One lesson that emerges is that Christ’s church constantly struggles, often unsuccessfully, to hold on to or recover two basic essentials: truth and unity. We know that those are essentials because Jesus, just before he went to the cross, petitioned the Father for them in his high-priestly prayer recorded in John 17:
- “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (v. 17).
- “I pray . . . that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (vv. 20-21).
In Scripture we see how our passion for the truth often leads the church into disunity (1 John 2:18-19) since we humans aren’t always so clear on what exactly the truth is. And often our earnest desire to stay together in the bonds of Christian love makes us downplay the truth. Through each and every jog in our history, those two remain in polar tension. So, for example, the early church councils tried to delineate exactly who Jesus is and what he does for us by writing creeds, arguing them, and then voting on them. As a result, many were expelled as “heretics.” So much for unity! Today the spirit of our age prompts us to worry more about loving and respecting each other than about any particular teaching or belief. Now truth gets trumped.
May our Good Shepherd, who alone gives us living bread and the river of life, grant us both. Heaven knows how much we need to be genuinely one in the Spirit, one in the Truth.
What lessons jump out at you as you reflect on Rang’s thumbnail sketch?