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Utilizing Church History and Tradition

June 28, 2024 -- Trevor Route

 

Not that long ago, I was sitting in my pastor’s office, browsing his impressive library. I picked up one of his books, a thick one on church history, and commented, “I would never be able to read something like this.” At the time, I had a low view of church history. It seemed boring and insignificant in my daily life. A few months later, he called my bluff and took our men’s discipleship group through the exact book that I picked up. I rolled my eyes at first, but as I worked through it, I found it to be a treasure of wisdom and a balm for my soul. It quickly became one of my favorite things to study. Now, I would say that church history and tradition have become indispensable tools for ministry.


For most of my life, I would have thought tradition meant mindlessly keeping the same practices for generations, because “that’s how we’ve always done it.” Now I see it similarly to the way G.K. Chesterton described it in Orthodoxy: “democracy extended through time” or “the democracy of the dead.” It gives an opportunity for our faithful ancestors to speak into our circumstances. Specifically within the church, tradition is the insights about God’s Word from Christians of the past. It is the transmission of teaching from “faithful men who [have been] able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). These interpretations include how we understand and apply the Scriptures. This “Great Tradition,” as some have called it, can offer much help to the rural pastor, both corporately and individually.


Corporately, church tradition unites churches to the catholicity of the church from all ages. By virtue of doing this, it protects churches in all contexts from serious errors. I grew up in a small, non-denominational church in my one red-light hometown. Without this church, it is likely I would not be a believer today, and I am truly thankful for them. However, since leaving this church, I have realized that teaching and understanding church history and tradition was under-emphasized. I have also realized they were a little too comfortable with another church that denies the Trinity and teaches modalism, an ancient heresy. I now believe that the first realization is directly linked to the second.


Unfortunately, this neglect of church history and tradition is not uncommon in many rural churches. For various reasons, rural church pastors and congregants often don’t utilize the voices of the Great Tradition. However, these voices can help to guard against doctrinal error through documents like the earliest creeds of the church. These creeds–especially the Apostles’, Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Anthanasian Creeds–summarize the Christian faith and help keep believers safe. They follow Paul’s example in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 in delivering the most important truths of the Christian faith. Dayton Hartman, in his work Church History for Modern Ministry, writes that the creeds are great tools that can be utilized as guide rails to “protect those traveling along the highway of biblical orthodoxy.” They have stood the test of time, earning unanimous approval from the Great Tradition. Not all tradition is created equal, but these creeds can help tremendously protect your church from errors.


Individually, church history can encourage and mentor pastors in practical, pastoral ministry. There are times when ministry in the local church can be discouraging. When I am struggling with discouragement I remember Paul’s encouragement in 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has come upon you except what is common to humanity...” The issues that we struggle with today are the same issues that Christians have struggled with for millennia.


There are a multitude of saints I can look to for help and encouragement. When I am struggling with discouragement and loneliness, I can look to my brother Athanasius, who was exiled five times and stayed resilient in his calling. When I want to improve my preaching, I can look to my brother John Chrysostom, who earned his name which literally means “golden mouth.” When I wonder how my church can train pastors without sending them to seminary for years, I can look to my brother Augustine, who trained men for faithful pastoral ministry within his local church. Whatever situation I run into, I can find encouragement and help from faithful saints of church history.


Therefore, let’s take advantage of this great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us (Heb. 12:1). Let’s not ignore our history and tradition of faithful saints. Let’s be encouraged by them, until we can worship our King with them together:


As saints of old still line the way,

retelling triumphs of His grace.

We hear their calls and hunger for the day,

when, with Christ, we stand in glory.”


(From O Church, Arise by Keith and Kristyn Getty)


 

Trevor Route grew up in the small town of Canton, PA. After graduating from Pennsylvania College of Technology, he interned at Christ Church in Wellsboro, PA, where he developed a love for rural ministry, hiking, and ultimate frisbee. He currently serves as the Pastoral Assistant at City Church in Williamsport, PA, and he is pursuing a Master's of Theological Studies from Grimke Seminary.

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