• corylakatos

It's Church History, Charlie Brown!

I have a confession to make: when I browse my local newspaper, I'm often more interested in the funnies than the actual news. This morning's comics did not disappoint:



Good ol' Charlie Brown indeed. I know the feeling, brother.


In her youthful ignorance, Sally identifies the universal Church with her pastor, and probably by extension with the local church her family attends. Therefore, Church history began in 1930 when her pastor was born. To my mind, Schulz's comic strip is both funny and cringeworthy because Sally's misunderstanding of Church history bears a striking resemblance to how many Christians actually think about the subject, even if they wouldn't articulate it that way if asked. It's all too common to treat one's congregation or denomination as if it were the Church itself, ignoring or condemning the Church of the past. But how did we get to the point where such an attitude, absurd on its face, is conceivable?


To answer that question, we need to do a bit of back-of-the-napkin historiography, examining the way Christians have understood their history throughout the ages—the history of Church history, if you will. Let's start with Catholics, who have always believed that Jesus himself founded the Catholic Church. By dying, rising, commissioning his apostles to preach the Gospel, ascending into heaven, and sending the Holy Spirit to empower his disciples, Jesus founded an organization—or better yet, created an organism, his Body on earth—that will carry out his mission until he comes again in glory. This Body is led by bishops who are successors of the apostles and presided over by the successor of St. Peter, the pope. Church history is "one whirling adventure," as G.K. Chesterton said; the Church has persisted throughout the ages, despite many trials and tribulations, and will still be around at the end of the age to greet the Lord at his return.


That view of Church history has been challenged ever since the Protestant Reformation began in 1517. Now, I don't think that most Protestants would deny that the Church began with Jesus, but many—perhaps most—think that the Church lost its way not too long after the apostolic age. From their perspective, for more than a thousand years Church history was less "one whirling adventure" than "one giant disaster." And different Protestants disagree about when the Church got back on track. Lutherans naturally point to Luther, Calvinists cite Calvin, and there's also a fuzzy notion out there that the sixteenth-century reformers collectively recovered the true Gospel and thereby rebooted the Church after a millennium of darkness. The numerous revival movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, plus the profusion of startup nondenominational churches in our own day, further muddy the waters. If there is one true Church that will go out to meet her Lord at the end, it's either quite a bit smaller than the sum total of all those who call themselves Christians, or it is invisible, and we can't know for sure who's in and who's out.


As far as I know, you won't find anyone saying "The Church was founded in 1517 by Martin Luther" or "The Church was founded in 1536 by John Calvin." For that matter, I doubt very much that anyone, even Sally Brown, would stand up and say "The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church was founded in 2002 by Pastor Bob at Community Bible Church." Nevertheless, it's my experience that Protestants often live as if these statements are true. Much of Church history is ignored as irrelevant or actively shunned as dangerous. This makes it easy to think too highly of your particular pastor, congregation, or denomination. Conversely, it sets you up for disillusionment and wandering when you realize that your experience of the Church doesn't actually represent "the very beginning."


During my Lutheran upbringing, I was taught about the Book of Acts, the Lutheran origin myth (95 Theses and all that jazz), and a little bit about the past five centuries. The rest of Church history was terra incognita. We neglected it because we didn't see it as our history, not really. My exposure to other kinds of Christians and to a wider span of Church history in my early adulthood made me realize that I was missing out on something big. My investigations into those missing fifteen centuries of Church history were a big part of my journey into the Catholic Church. (If you're interested in hearing more, listen to this episode of the Considering Catholicism podcast.)


Since this is part of my own personal experience, I'm the last person who would judge someone else harshly for their ignorance of Church history. But I am willing to gently challenge people about it when appropriate, because history is important! Our view of the past helps to determine our present and future. I came to believe that the Catholic understanding of Church history is true, and that made me want to be part of the Catholic community that lives in continuity with all the spiritual, intellectual, and cultural treasures of the Church that Jesus founded twenty centuries ago. It made me want to be in communion with the visible Church that has endured from "the very beginning" and will persevere to the very end. It made me want to live and die in the Catholic Church and be a tiny part of that vast history. If you're considering Catholicism, I challenge you to examine your own assumptions about Church history and your local congregation. Where are these assumptions leading you?


Lest it appear that I'm letting my fellow Catholics off the hook, I have a challenge for us, too. We may sometimes feel frustrated with our younger siblings in Christ (members of the Christian communities founded in the past five hundred years), rolling our eyes at them like Charlie Brown in the comic strip. But we need to speak and act with charity while also realizing that historical blindness can strike anyone, including Catholics. If I get too attached to the way the Church is today, or the way it used to be, or the way my local parish is, or the style of my current pastor, I'm setting myself up for a fall. After all, Church history didn't begin with the Second Vatican Council, or the Council of Trent, or the founding of my parish, or the birth of my pastor. It began with Jesus Christ, and it will most likely continue long after I am dead and buried. If you're Catholic, I challenge you (and myself) to examine your conscience for views of Church history that tend away from Catholic unity. Then humbly surrender your own small role in history to the Lord of History, who was there "in the very beginning" and will be with us "always, until the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).