WHOLISTIC CHURCH HISTORY

by Charles A. Maxfield
1 November, 1994

The way we teach church history today, will influence the history of the church tomorrow. This is because church history is closely related to identity.

But in the Apostles' Creed we affirm that the church is "catholic"--a church for all peoples, found in all places, and in many eras of history. The church will act on that principle tomorrow only if it is taught Church History in a wholistic--or catholic--way today.

What do we teach about the church by the way in which we teach church history?

If church history consists primarily of the study of historical theology, we are teaching that Christianity is an intellectual activity.
If we believe that Christianity involves the heart and the hands as well as the mind, we will teach church history accordingly.

If almost all of the church history we teach takes place in western Europe and North America, we are teaching that Christianity is an expression of one particular culture of the world.
If we believe that Christianity is for persons of all races and has found expression in numerous cultures, we will teach church history accordingly.

If church history is about the faith and actions of clergy only, we are teaching that the only people that count in the church are clergy.
If we believe that the laity--the whole people of God--are the church, then in church history we will also describe the faith and action of the laity.

If church history is almost exclusively about men, we are teaching that the church is of, by, and for men.
If we recognize that a majority of Christians through the ages have been women, their contributions to the story of the church cannot be ignored, and we will find ways to teach church history accordingly.

If church history consists of little more than a chronicle of church fights, we are teaching nothing beyond the doctrine of original sin.
If however, we believe that the reconciling power of Christ does work in the world, occasionally overcoming our human alienation, we will tell that story too.
Church history must be taught scientificly, dealing in a responsible way with the evidence. However, different people, all responsible historians, may select different stories to tell, with different emphasis. This selection process, for me, is influenced by a view of the church as catholic--or whole. It is also influenced by a concern for the church of today and tomorrow. Accurate information is needed to correct common falacies which lead to poor theological reflection. The experiences of the church in the past can inform us in our struggles with similar issues today.

I do not propose a "compensatory" history that lifts up the roles of neglected groups, to the exclusion of traditional themes in church history. What is needed is a balance. The whole story of the church needs to be told. What has been done by intellectuals, by Europeans, by clergy, and by men, is certainly an important part of the story, but it is not the whole story. Both male and feminist views of history must be considered, neither to the exclusion of the other.

Wholistic church history consists of the following eight elements. Others may organize these elements differently, and they are not all of equal importance, but they are all part of the story of the church.

  1. history of doctrine,
  2. history of institutions,
  3. church-state relationships,
  4. history of piety and devotion,
  5. liturgics,
  6. Christianity and the arts,
  7. history of the expansion of Christianity,
  8. Christianity and culture.
Ethioipia adopted the Christian faith before Ireland; the people of India heard the gospel preached before the English; churches and monestaries were established in China before Poland. These basic facts are shocking to many Christians, who have too closely associated Christianity with western civilization. If the church is to be global, multi-cultural and inclusive, it must know the extent to which it has been such in the past. This is just one example. In each of the other ways described above, in which Church history is mistaught, a true telling of the story will lead to a change in how we understand ourselves today, and what we will be tomorrow.
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