By Matt Reffie
Having recently completed my Masters in Church History, I have been surprised and encouraged to learn that our understanding of the history of the Church is changing, and for the better. Typically, when we think of Church history, events like the Protestant Reformation, the reign of Constantine, and the European crusades tend to come to mind most often. One problem Church historians have found in recent years, though, is that focusing on these main events too strongly has left us blind to large swaths of God’s work in the greater world and left us missing out on significant stories in the history of the body of Christ. For example, you’ve maybe never heard of the West African missionary William Wade Harris, even though he is largely responsible for the evangelization of Liberia, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast. Is it okay for Church History to have left the ‘Billy Graham’ of West Africa out of the history books? Perhaps some healthy change is in order.
What is Church history?
Through my recent studies I’ve come to define ‘Church history’ as the history of God’s work in and through His people in the world. Under such a definition, much of what we consider ‘the History of the Church’ is woefully incomplete. God’s work in Asia, Africa, and Latin America has been largely absent from our history books, or only understood through the lens of Western missions to these areas. Prominent Church historian Justo Gonzalez and others have been laboring to slowly remedy this by beginning to fill in the large gaps and bring us a fuller picture of God’s work in the world. In his book The Changing Shape of Church History, Gonzalez points out some of these inconsistencies in our historical coverage. For example, he tells us, “The debates over the veneration of images in eighteenth century Europe were part of church history, but the debate over the veneration of ancestors in nineteenth-century Asia was not” . While these similar debates have been equally important in the life and growth of the Church, our coverage of them has not treated them as such. To read most Church History texts you would be left with the impression that the veneration of images and the veneration of saintly figures in Europe were the only veneration issues the Church ever encountered. In fact, the veneration of ancestors is a much longer-standing and far-reaching issue for the Christians with roots in African, Asian, South Pacific, and Gaelic cultures, whose numbers far exceed those from Europe.
Another glaring example Gonzalez points out is how “the sixteenth century is not only the time of the Protestant Reformation but also of the Spanish conquest of the Western Hemisphere” . At the same time these important theological shifts were happening in Europe, in South America millions of indigenous inhabitants were being either killed, enslaved, or converted by Spanish conquerors under the authority of the Catholic Church in Rome. The millions of Latin American believers in the Church today are mostly all descendants of this tumultuous period. As an historian, Gonzales recognizes that this Latin American Church history is just as influential and far-reaching in terms of its effect on the growth of God’s Kingdom, and should be given equal attention and importance in our history books. This was surprising to me, and I’m guessing it may also be surprising to you. Our vision of the Church is often so narrow that we fail to see how utterly incomplete it is. Did you know that the fastest growing Christian communities today are in Latin America, Asia, and Africa? So much so that Western believers are projected to no longer be the ‘center’ of global Christianity within our lifetime. This is going to be a big change for some of us, largely because our limited history has left us ignorant of what God is doing in many parts of the world.
God moves even when we don’t or can’t see it
We have often mistakenly believed God is not moving in the places we aren’t looking. We’ve planned missions and planted Western-style churches sometimes in areas where indigenous expressions of Christianity are already thriving. In the Western vein of Christianity we have sometimes labored under the false assumption that faith in Christ is something only we have and it must proceed from us to all the other nations. However, our non-Western brothers and sisters don’t see it that way. One relatively recent example of this in the Baptist tradition is that American Baptists were surprised to learn of Baptist churches in Africa sending missionary teams to the United States to bring faith in Christ to Americans. As backwards as it might seem to some of us that missionaries from the same denomination are evangelizing each others’ continents, we must recognize that God is moving in a great multitude of directions, through a vastly diverse group of people.
Does the Gospel belong to the West?
As Gonzales puts it, the danger with our limited vision of Church history is that we “might come to confuse the Western interpretation of the gospel with the gospel itself” . Sadly, in many cases we have. We’ve often forced local expressions of the Gospel to conform to our ideal of what Church should look like, by changing their musical expressions to mimic ours, insisting on our Church structures and educational models, and over-emphasizing our particular Scriptural interpretations over theirs. If we look at the above-mentioned William Wade Harris, instead of considering and portraying him as a highly successful African missionary and praising God’s work in him to the tune of over 100,000 converts, we more often have characterized him only as someone who failed to condemn polygamy. In his ministry, he put the central message of faith in Christ above the particular prohibition against having multiple wives, which was common practice for many Western Africans at the time. He understood that some issues, like polygamy, needed to be secondary when it came to sharing the Gospel, and as a result, the over one million Christians in Western African today are nearly all spiritual descendants of his short ministry. Whereas his contemporary Western missionaries in Africa tended to over-emphasize such particular beliefs and practices as central to understanding the Gospel and accepting Christ, simply because polygamy was already a moral and social impropriety in the West.
The present lack of recognition of God’s work in brothers and sisters like William Wade Harris demonstrate that our version of Church History is sometimes so limited that we cannot even recognize when God is making himself known (making history) in others’ lives. Think for a moment, what do you know about what God is doing in whatever far-off country happens to come to mind? One obstacle is that we tend to have limited information about what is going on with our brothers and sisters around the world. Neither the news nor our history books are very good at bringing their stories to our attention. If it doesn’t have some kind of connection to us locally (like our denomination, city, or state), the news usually simply doesn’t reach us. The other part of our struggle is our own internal willingness to be open to what God is doing and actively seek out what he is doing in others around us. Surely we cannot expect to see it all, but too often we simply aren’t willing to see at all if it doesn’t fit into our existing viewpoint. Like the Western missionaries to Africa who failed to see God working in polygamous peoples, and like many Western Church historians who have failed to recognize God’s work through William Wade Harris because of his views on marriage, we sometimes just don’t recognize God working right before our eyes.
How can we see?
So how do we grow beyond this smaller view of God and what he is doing in the world? First, we support the Church historians who are laboring to remedy our limited vision of the Kingdom. There are several great books about the necessity to expand our Church history: Gonzalez’s The Changing Shape of Church History and Lamin Sanneh’s Disciples of All Nations, to name a couple. There are also many great works on the history of the Church in Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere lesser known to most Western Christians that can begin to fill you in on what God has done in those places. I can recommend A History of Christianity in Africa and A World History of Christianity, each of which provides an overview of God’s work from which you can begin to delve into the lives of those through whom God has done great works, like William Wade Harris. As you’re reading, keep an open posture, remembering that the people in God’s stories are brothers and sisters, no matter how different from you they may seem. Ask God what you can learn from them, from their trials and experiences. It is a rich experience we are largely missing out on presently.
Second, reach out beyond your immediate church tradition within your own community. I believe that almost everyone should try to visit every church in their immediate local community. Just show up on a Sunday with an open mind and a prayer that God would help you see that community through his eyes. As you get to know the other church communities you’ll likely begin to see areas of crossover where you can minister together, or notice areas of need that your community might help with (and vice versa). Another important way to reach out is to open yourself up to differing theological perspectives, recognizing that some issues are central to the Gospel and some are more secondary. You don’t have to change your theology or fully endorse anyone else’s but hearing their interpretation will help you understand better where they are coming from and may deepen your own understanding in the process. To do this you can join another group’s Bible study, attend or host a ‘Theology on Tap’ style topical discussion night, or (my favorite) host a selection of Scripture readings where each person shares their observations on the passage without any pressure to agree or come to a definitive interpretation.
I can say without a doubt that God has taught me the most when I’ve ventured beyond my comfort zone. There was a time when contemporary worship was just plain weird to me. My default mode of worship is silence and stillness; that is where I tend to see and hear God the best. So trying to experience God through guitar music and hand raising didn’t quite seem right to me at first. There was also a time when high liturgy was equally weird to me. Getting up and sitting down in unison while reciting thoughts and prayers from a book that somebody else wrote just wasn’t a natural mode of communication with God for me. The contemporary style seemed too informal and the liturgical too formal, but by opening myself up I’ve been able to see and hear new things from God in both. I’ve grown so much just by being willing to be vulnerable in my faith. If we don’t step out of our comfort zones, fully expecting and willing to see God in others, then we’ll only ever see our own reflection and miss out on the richness of God’s Kingdom and the long and deep history it has to offer. Thankfully, Church history is changing, becoming fuller, more accurate and more enlightening. Church historians are doing their part in bringing more and more of God’s work in the world to our attention. Let’s be sure to do our part by seeking out their works and absorbing them with an open heart so that as recorded Church history is changing, our own vision and attitudes are changing with it.
1) Gonzales, Justo. The Changing Shape of Church History. St. Louis, MO: 2002, 15.
2) Gonzales, Justo. The Changing Shape of Church History, 42.
3) Gonzales, Justo. The Changing Shape of Church History, 74.
Isichei, Elizabeth. A History of Christianity in Africa. Grand Rapids, MI: 1995.
Senneh, Lamin. Disciples of All Nations. Oxford, UK: 2008.
Hastings, Adrian. A World History of Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: 1999.