Preaching Church History as Story and Gospel

How should church history affect your preaching?

This probably dogs any seminarian or Bible college student who’s gotten fired up about the Council of Nicea, or fascinated by the ins-and-outs of Reformation church politics – “why don’t people know this stuff?!”

If you’re a Brit, you expect basically everybody to know about 1066 and all that, or the Battle of Britain. If you’re American, the same goes for the Revolution or Civil War. Without knowledge of these things, someone can’t understand the world they live in now. When we find someone doesn’t know about these things, we allow ourselves a moment’s silence for the state of public education, and then sit them down for some schooling.

Church History: Absent, or Law

Yet it can be difficult to translate an enthusiasm for the obvious significance of church history into our discipleship, and preaching in particular. This is partly because preaching is primarily about faithfully exegeting a text so that we present Christ to his people, for their “progress and joy in the faith” (Phil. 1:25). It’s not always evident how we fold church history into it – or indeed, whether we should at all. Sermons are not history lessons, and preaching is not lecturing.

Bringing church history into the pulpit is also a challenge because history is complicated. Even historical events we think we know well are usually far more complicated than we think (e.g. British schoolchildren seem to spend more time studying WW1 than any other historical event, but basically nobody could tell you any of the competing theories of why it happened). Time is of the essence in the pulpit, and so if you’re someone who wants to do justice to church history, it can seem easier to just leave off it altogether.

When church history does end up in evangelical pulpits, it tends to come solely in the form of inspirational gobbets about the lives of great Christians. This is, essentially, evangelical hagiography, venerating our own selection of saints. I’m sure many of us have heard often from the pulpit about Martin Luther’s “here I stand!” moment, George Muller’s prayer life, Eric Liddell’s Sabbatarianism, Jim Elliot’s sacrifice, and more. And such stories are good to have in our preaching! (Although, Luther never said “here I stand!” but we’ll leave to that to one side).

However, when these hagiographic snippets become the only way that church history ever appears in our preaching, church history can become a rod for the Church’s back. Instead of inspiring, the cumulative effect of these examples can instead be crushing. We aim to build up “a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) to encourage our flock, but instead weigh them down with tales of seemingly unattainable holiness. This was the danger of medieval hagiography, with its exaggerated and outlandish tales about the saints, whose exploits enabled them to bypass purgatory.

So, to borrow Luther’s phrase, we risk falling off of two different sides of the horse: either we avoid church history in our preaching altogether, or we inadvertently use it as a kind of Law, which we don’t follow up with the Gospel.

Church History as Story and Gospel

There is though, I’d suggest, a way to ride the horse, a way to both include church history and avoid turning it into a shallow kind of “Dare to Be a Daniel”-ism. And I think that way is to present church history as an unfolding story of which Christians today are still a part.

This was all on my mind when I recently preached Acts 12:25-13:12. In this passage, Paul begins his first missionary journey – he and Barnabas are set apart by the Holy Spirit at Antioch for a special work, and sent off by the church there. They land in Cyprus and encounter Bar-Jesus, the Jewish sorcerer and false prophet. Paul strikes him blind, and the Roman proconsul, Serigus Paulus, is converted. Not a bad start to a missionary career, all things told.

I decided to present the passage in light of the Holy Spirit’s work in 13:2: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Barnabas and Saul’s specfic work (i.e. taking the Gospel to previously unreached Gentiles for the first time) is complete by 14:26, but it is a fair exegesis (in view of Acts 1:8) to regard this as part of the continuing work of the Spirit now, and so applicable to the church.

My first point was that, as we look at the Church in the passage (including Paul himself), we find “a call to receive the work.” It’s a remarkble thing that the church in Antioch so readily sent Paul and Barnabas off – imagine having those two as your pastors! But Antioch was itself a beneficiary of missionary activity, with Jewish Christians who fled persecution in Jerusalem sailing over to Antioch in order to share the Gospel there (Acts 11:20). So Antioch is, in effect, the first “church plant” in the New Testament, made of refugees from the Mother Church in Jerusalem, and local converts in the city. This is surely part of why, in 13:1, the church has such a diverse leadership.

Bear in mind that the Jerusalem church has basically spent two whole chapters (10-11) wrangling over whether the Holy Spirit can (or should) be poured out on the Gentiles, and whether they should be reached with the Gospel. In contrast, the Antiochene church sends its two finest men as soon as the Spirit tells them to. The difference is surely that Antioch knew it was a church that had benefitted from missionary activity. A firm knowledge of its place in the church’s (albeit, at this point, short) history made them ready to receive God’s work when it came.

Having exegeted this point, I was struck with a way I could weave church history into my sermon to drive the message home to my home congregation. An excerpt from my sermon script:

Imagine the impact of losing [Barnabas and Saul]. If the Apostle Paul was one of your elders, you would not want to lose him! They would have been superb preachers, and caring pastors, who had raised the church in Antioch up from its infancy. They would have been loved, and valued, and could maybe have enjoyed many more years of fruitful ministry in Antioch. But when the call comes, they are ready to go and the church is ready to send them.

Now, why was that? Well, Antioch was, effectively, a church plant, made of refugee Christians and local converts! So they know they are the product of someone else’s missionary activity. And they’re already living out a foretaste of the church’s diversity. Yes, they’re mainly Jews still, but Jews from all over, and Jews who would have plenty to disagree about.

They are ready to receive the Holy Spirit’s work, to sacrifice two of their best pastors and teachers, because they know they have benefitted from the missionary activity of others.

And the same is true of us at King’s Church Chessington. Unless you’re from a Jewish background (which I imagine almost none of us here are) it’s remarkable that you worship Jesus – not just because you’re a sinner, but because you’re a Gentile sinner! A British Christian is an incredibly exotic addition to the kingdom of God, as is a Nigerian Christian, or a Korean Christian, or an Eastern European Christian. Your ancestors were the kind of full-blown pagans Saul and Barnabas set out to reach. If you’re descended from people who were in the UK over 2000 years ago, they were running around worshiping trees and covered in blue paint!

We are here because of the work of the Holy Spirit in missionary activity. Yes, we’ve enjoyed 200 or so years of great sending missionary activity going out of the UK, but before that we were the beneficiares of missionary activity. Christians brought the Gospel to Britain here in the Roman era. Then, when Rome crumbled, Anglo-Saxon paganism largely took over again. So, in 596AD, Pope Gregory the Great (who John Calvin called “the last good pope”) sent a new mission to the UK, to convert all the pagans again! Augustine of Canterbury was the man who led it, which is why Cantberbury is the chief seat in the Church of England. That led, in one way or another, to Hook Evangelical Church, planting in Chessington 60 years ago, and that’s how we got King’s Church Chessington today! We need to bear these things in mind – that we are the beneficiaries of the Holy Spirit’s missionary work, and of the diversity that brings. That way, we will be ready to receive God’s work, and participate in reaching the nations.

I was trying to do a few things here. For one thing, I had to soften the blow of speaking well of a Pope and an Archbishop of Canterbury in my low-church, independent evangelical context!

But above all, I was trying to make it clear to the church that, just like Antioch, we are the beneficiaries of missionary activity. Brits find this hard to remember, due to the great Missionary Era in the 1800s, in which we sent so many out around the world with the Gospel. I think independent congregations can struggle with this especially – without a denominational history, our memory often only goes back as far as our oldest member. With this in mind, I decided I wanted to flag up both the Roman era and the Gregorian Mission of 596AD as the origins of Christianity in the UK.

Folding church history in like this allowed me, in the end, to preach Gospel rather than Law. It would have been very easy to challenge the church by looking at the example of Antioch and saying “be more like them! Let’s get back to how it was in Acts!” (which is often the tone of much teaching on Acts). But that felt like it would be preaching Law, not Gospel. A far better tack seemed to be drawing attention to the good news of God’s unfolding work in history, and to remind his people that they are already a part of it – and so they have an ongoing call to participate in it. I was aiming for a churchly version of Paul’s thinking in Romans 6:4: just as we have already died and risen with Christ, and so live with him, so we have already become part of the church’s story, and so continue in it. And bringing in some church history allowed me to do that. It bridged the millenia from Acts 28 to my church’s current context. By God’s grace, numerous folk after I preached this sermon told me how eye-opening and encouraging this (ultimately quite brief) mention of church history was in bringing the passage to life for them. It is, after all, their history – and more significant than 1066 or the Battle of Britain.

So, if you have struggled to integrate church history effectively into your preaching, perhaps consider how you can present it as story rather than as mere example. Examples are good and proper in their place, of course. But without a bigger story, they soon become morality tales.

How this plays in your preaching out will differ depending on both you and your flock. I imagine there may be significant differences depending on whether or not you are part of a historic denomination. And yet, we are all part of the same unfolding story in the end. So let’s tell it to our people – because it’s their story.


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