By Matt Emerson
Church history courses aren’t high on many incoming M.Div students’ must-tackle lists. They certainly weren’t on mine.
But what I’ve discovered—through my own reading and the guidance of my church history professor and doctoral supervisor—is that studying church history can play a big role in the discipleship of a believer. It’s also particularly helpful for training pastors.
Here are three reasons why.
1. Pastoral ministry is an ancient ministry.
Pastors have existed since the beginning of the church. In fact, pastoral ministry goes back to Jesus—the Good Shepherd—and is anticipated in the ministry of the kings and prophets in the Old Testament.
Paul, James, Peter, and John were pastors. Many of the major writers and thinkers in the post-apostolic, early church, Medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation periods were pastors.
Reading the works of these figures gives one a glimpse into how pastors have done their jobs for more than 2,000 years. The obstacles you face as a pastor aren’t new.
Sin isn’t new; grace isn’t new, and the Spirit’s ministry to His people through pastors isn’t new.
People have always been choosing to sin, they’ve always needed to hear a word of comfort, and they’ve always needed pastors (and congregations) to rejoice when they rejoice and to weep when they weep.
2. Pastoral ministry is theological ministry.
When I read the early church theologians, the Medieval thinkers, or the pastors of the Reformation, it becomes immediately obvious that the difficult theological questions they were addressing were pastoral questions.
Why does Athanasius go to great lengths to defend the Son’s full divinity? Ultimately, because that doctrine is in the Bible, yes. But for Athanasius, that biblical teaching is first and foremost pastoral.
If Jesus isn’t fully God, then He can’t possibly bring us into communion with the Father. And if Jesus isn’t fully God, then He can’t possibly sanctify us.
If Jesus isn’t fully God, then our baptism into His name is invalid. And if Jesus isn’t fully God, then we’re worshiping an idol on Sunday morning and will experience eternal torment.
The same goes for Calvin or Luther or the other Reformers in the sixteenth century. The theological fight with Rome over the doctrine of justification was ultimately pastoral. The Reformers were concerned Rome’s doctrine of justification put an undue burden on the people of God.
3. Pastoral ministry is a liturgical ministry.
One other emphasis of the early church, Medieval, and Reformation theologians is what happens on Sunday morning in corporate worship is just as pastoral and theological as what happens between Sunday mornings.
Pre-modern pastoral ministry included thinking deeply about the rhythms of corporate worship, the repeated practices we participate in together and are referred to by other traditions as “liturgy.”
Reading church history inspires me as a pastor to think better about what we’re doing together when we gather on Sunday, for the sake of the spiritual health of my people.
Are the practices we repeat every week building up the body of Christ? Do these practices deepen our understanding of Scripture? Are they promoting union with Christ and with one another by the Spirit?
Pastoral ministry has a long tradition in the communion of the saints. I’m encouraged whenever I read church history because I see what I do in my church, and my vocation is not new.
God has continually been at work in the life of His church through, in part, the pastors He calls. We can learn from those who have gone before us in the pastoral vocation about pastoral care, theological discipleship, and liturgical formation.
MATT EMERSON (@M_Y_Emerson) is a husband, father, Dickinson associate professor of religion and director of the Master of Arts in Christian Studies and Intercultural Studies Programs at the Hobbs College of Theology and Ministry of Oklahoma Baptist University.