Nathan Eshelman on the Importance of Staying Honest About the Messy History of the Church

Our church history is about the messy church; that’s a fact!

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 after all; not really a culture where the king asks permission. Other wives were standing with her as the bridal party. Maybe embarrassed, 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. And that’s messy church.

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 about messy church, 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. Messy church.

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.

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Source: Church Leaders