/ Nathan Eshelman

Messy Church History: Keepin' Us Honest

King David brought Bathsheba into a home where there were other wives and concubines. Not only was she another woman—a competing woman—but she was with child, and unbeknown to David’s other wives, she was a widow because of murder. Sometimes I imagine the wedding ceremony. Can you imagine it? A pregnant wife-to-be in a white dress, probably not even wanting to be there. She was beckoned by the king afterall; not really a culture where the king asks permission. Other wives were standing with her as the bridal party. Maybe embarassed, maybe confused. David with blood on his hands and a heart hardened against God.

Yet this man—this king—God's king--points us to Jesus Christ and is a called “a man after God’s own heart.”

That’s messy.

For the past few years I have been completing a Master of Theology degree in post-reformation church history. One of the difficulties with being a critical student of church history is that one comes to realize that church history is not a perfect line of faithfulness and good decisions.

Not even close.

As a pastor, I have tried to teach my congregation over the years that church history is messy, and that's okay. It’s okay to wrestle with the messiness of the history of the church, whether the whole church or our particular denomination's history. Often people want a sterile and holy history of one's particular denomination or church, but that's never the reality. Church history is not only God working in the world, but God working with sinful humanity. Messy humanity.

This messy church history paradigm ought not surprise the believer, but it often does. It ought not surprise us because the Scriptures themselves are messy. There are many difficulties in the Word of God that require the Christian to step out of his or her culture, worldview, and mindset in order to understand the culture, worldview, and mindset of the Scriptures. Difficulties such as slavery, sexual sin, applications of war, apparent genocide, and other matters require the believer to not put 21st century sensibilities onto the Scripture. I often say that you cannot impose the Geneva Convention onto the wars of the Bible. The same is true for other aspects of the inspired histories in the Bible.  The Scriptures are messy business, but the believer comes to the Word of God with the presuppositions that remind us that God is good, God is faithful, and God is just.

Just as the Scriptures have difficult things that we have to wrestle through, church history is equally messy and rarely without difficulty.  The best creeds of the ancient church were written under the directing eye of the civil government; churches that have good histories opposing human slavery, have failed in other race-relationships; heroes of the faith have failed as husbands and fathers; denominations have divided over secondary matters; big decisions have been made without thorough study of the Scriptures; missionaries have promoted their national kingdoms at the expense of the kingdom of God.

Church history is messy.

Church history is messy because of the fact that God uses fallen humanity to advance his kingdom. Church history is messy because the world’s history intersects with the church’s. Church history is messy because we cannot consider all unforeseen consequences of decisions and choices. Church history is messy because theology has a people-story connectedness. Church history is messy because there are applications the church must learn.

Messy.

There are five principles that need to be considered when one is a serious student of church history. These five principles are designed to help one to ask questions that lead to an honest interpretation of church history, rather than a black or white, good guy-bad guy interpretation. Rather than what is called hagiography.  These five principles are frequently in my mind when I interpret  church history and wrestle through the messiness of that which is studied:

  1. Church history is the story of sinners who were used of God in the work of building the kingdom.
  2. God uses second causes to advance the church. The history of the world around us shapes the history of the church, whether we like it or not.
  3. All events have consequences—even seemingly insignificant events can have lasting implications in church history.
  4. Church history is not just the story of people, it is also the story of dogma and theology. The story of people and the story of dogma interplay in church history.
  5. Church history is not just facts, but has experiential implications in the life of the church. We must apply church history.

All five of these principles point us to the over-arching truth of church history: it’s messy business. Christian, you need to be okay with that. Understanding this both liberates you to be honest about church history and deepens one's love for the Christ of church history.  Despite this messiness, the believer remembers that Christ is building his church and that church will not remain messy forever. She is being purified and will someday be presented as the spotless bride of her bridegroom. That time is not now, so pardon the mess while the church creates history.