Roots. The most important part of a plant, yet mostly unseen. Healthy plants have roots that run deep. They stretch out and bring life, soaking up water and nutrients from the soil, providing necessary sustenance for growth. When roots find resistance, due to rocks or something buried in the soil, they weave around the barrier, finding a way to provide for the plant that we see above the ground, beautiful and flourishing in all its glory. Roots hold the plant firm when adversity come in forms of wind, rain, or even feet trampling over the plant. We tend to focus on the flowering bush, the edible plant, or the shade-giving tree that we see above the ground, but the roots… they matter. They hold everything together. They are life-giving.
There’s a problem with the modern evangelical church in the United States, especially in the more conservative, dare I say, fundamentalist circles. The church tends to focus so much on the current church, the modern church, the American church that we have forgotten our roots. The tree we call The Church (that is the collective body of believers) has deep roots that stretch back for 2000 years. Yet, we look only at the plant we see – with its beautiful blossoms and sometimes its grub-eaten leaves. We focus on what we can see, what’s blossomed lately and we don’t think about the origins of the body.
Our roots – what those in seminary might call “Church History” – are important. And they are woefully ignored or just given a cursory mention in some circles. Maybe it’s because I’ve been a Baptist my whole life until January of this year, but honestly, in my fundamentalist Christian school growing up, in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church I grew up, in the Southern Baptist churches I found respite in trying to leave severe legalism, even in the Southern Baptist college I attended (and took enough classes to have minored in Religion had I desired), there didn’t seem to be much in-depth look at Church History. Baptist history, yes. But not really Church history. I even remember Baptist leaders I knew proudly declaring that Baptists weren’t even Protestant. Because for some reason, that was a bad thing.
From what I remember, the basic things to know in the history of Christianity were this: John finished Revelation sometime near the end of the 1st century AD. Foxes book of Martyrs gets a mention. A couple hundred years later there was the council that met that determined the Canon of the Bible, along with a few other things, the Roman Catholic church kinda took off, the Orthodox church split, the Roman Catholic church was corrupt, kinda evil, dark ages, Gutenberg Press, more corruption, Martin Luther finally had enough of the Roman Catholic Church, nailed his 95 Thesis (no real detail there), Reformation happened – John Calvin was mentioned (either in support of TULIP or to decry the evils of TULIP), Zwingli was perhaps briefly mentioned, so was John Knox and a few other guys burned at a stake. Maybe something about Anabapists, Henry the VIII wanted a divorce and the Church of England (hello, Anglicanism!) split from the Roman Catholics (still, I remember being told The Church of England was almost as bad as the Papacy), Christians wanted out of England for freedom of religion, the US was founded and God shed his grace on thee, and all was right in the world of Christianity. And that’s all we need to know. ‘Merica!
What we miss in that condensed version of Church History is the nuance… the struggles… the debates among the ancient church. How the church fathers and mothers wanted to see the Gospel and doctrine of the Apostles followed. How they formed different councils to combat heresies and false teaching. We mostly don’t bother to study what those heresies were, which is interesting because in typical human fashion, there really is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes) and we see variations of those heresies even today.
Think about it this way. If we studied US History like we do church history, we’d talk about the colonies, the events leading up to the Revolutionary War, and probably stop in 1789 when the Constitution was ratified. Then we’d briefly mention Abraham Lincoln, some type of Civil War, mention there was a couple of world-wide wars, and then boom, we’d find ourselves in the 1990’s. We’d find ourselves here in our current time wondering why we had racial strife, why it is such a big deal China is Communist (what’s that?!), and not even know why Iran is our enemy and what led to world-wide terrorism. We’d have no context to place our current times in . We’d have large gaps that would have explained the struggles our country faces today. That would greatly hinder any real hope of solving our current problems and ensuring we didn’t make the same exact mistakes our fore-bearers did before us.
But yet, much of the Evangelical church is completely ignorant in Church History. Definitely our average, run of the mill church members, but even I find in our church leaders, some rather large gaps in understanding Church History. There is little understanding as to the struggles of the Reformers. There is even less emphasis on the ancient church and their practices and the really hard work they did in ensuring Christianity survived with orthodox, uniting beliefs. Modern beliefs that may have sprung up in the past couple hundred years are preached as fact from our pulpits, disregarding what the Reformers and even the older, Ancient church taught.
I’ve run into this more and more as I begin to study and read. When Eric and I started evaluating our belief system we kept going back to “how did the early Christians believe? What did they practice? How did they answer these questions we have?” And frankly, the questions that Christians have today for the most part have been in existence since the People of the Way were first called Christians. And that’s when we discovered the Creeds – the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and a couple others that are more involved (yes, I’ve written about this before – I keep coming back to roots and creeds for some reason).
Christians forever have struggled with wanting to believe the purest form of doctrine possible. It’s why Paul had to write about the Judiazers to the Galatians. It’s why John had to write his letters reminding churches to love. And then in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, this was a struggle. And every teacher wanted to think they were absolutely correct in their beliefs. And while some beliefs were out and out heresy, some where just minor disagreements over textual interpretation and practice. So the ancient church gathered and the Nicene Creed was formed at a council meeting of ancient church leaders. Valid doctrines were separated once and for all (or so they thought) from heresies.
The creeds outline the beliefs that were determined to be absolutely essential to pure, orthodox Christianity. Statements were written about actual heresies, but when it came to the minor disagreements, the ancient church decided that if you could hold to the statements in Creeds then that’s what mattered for Christian Unity. That was what was needed to be considered orthodox.
Debates continued to rage throughout Church history because after all we are human. St. Augustine is credited with saying, “In Essentials Unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity” but in reality it was probably 15th century theologian Rupertus Meldenius. Regardless, it’s such an important philosophy to live by.
In other words, the Essentials are what are in the Creeds. In those things we should be unified, and in the other disagreements, such as how to perform the sacraments or in the never-ending debate regarding free-will or predestination or young-earth creationism vs. old-earth creationism, we should have liberty. But overall, we should always express Christian love.
And this is where I get back to roots… our church history roots. Without a full understanding of the church’s storied roots, we find ourselves, especially in American Evangelical Christiantiy, leaving charity behind and not understanding that doctrines which popped up suddenly in the 1800’s are not essential to Christianity. Twitter wars and Facebook fights break out because infants are baptized, or woman are being ordained, or even eschatological beliefs based on ancient church doctrine don’t line up with the popular evangelical teaching. Our leaders and teachers are not always grounded in what brought us here today. The plant is examined, but the roots are ignored, so terms like heretical and false doctrine are thrown about. People are essentially damned to hell in some eyes because of a minor, what should be considered “non-essential,” doctrinal difference.
To use some Christianese sayings here, “We aren’t keeping the main thing the main thing” and too many people “Major in the Minors.” When this happens, Christian charity, the love and unity we should strive for among the Church, is forgotten. Knives are being taken to our Church roots and the plant will whither if we aren’t carefully tending to the whole plant.
I would love to see more evangelical churches focus on the Creeds. When Eric and I started looking for a new church home, emphasis on the Creeds and the essentials of Christianity was an important factor. We wanted our children to be grounded in what really matters. We wanted to find a church tradition that was okay with questions and doubt and that practiced liberty and charity in the non-essentials. We found that in the more mainline Christian tradition. So many evangelicals look at the mainline churches (the more liturgical and older denominations that can trace themselves back to the Protestant Reformation and even further) with disdain and have proclaimed mainline dying and stale.
But it is in the mainline denominations that you’ll find respect and deference given to our roots…our church history. Creeds are recited, liturgy can trace itself back to ancient times. Baptismal candidates in some mainline traditions are asked to affirm the doctrine found in the Creeds.
Roots… deep roots. Our mainline churches are far from perfect, but there is respect for roots. I’m not sure if this is why those millennials who say they are done with church often find themselves back in church at some point saying the liturgy and breaking bread at an ancient table in mainline churches. I think so many people who question, who doubt, who want to know why they believe what they believe find solace in older traditions that know their roots.
Roots… it’s why children ask about their family history. It’s why the adopted child wonders about his birth parents. It’s why geneological research is popular and even why pages upon pages of the Bible list geneolgies. Roots matter. They keep the plant healthy and thriving. They keep us grounded and in touch with the past. Roots provide stability.
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Now, I’m going to go look for a few good Church History books. I’m ready to learn more about our roots.