Aaron Armstrong

Three Reasons to Study Church History

Were it not for heretics, we might not have the New Testament canon. Or a clarified doctrine of the Trinity (insomuch as we can clarify that) as found in the Athanasian Creed. And we likely wouldn’t have the understanding of Jesus as being simultaneously both fully human and fully divine, or his being of the same substance as the Father, or… Knowing how these debates played out helps us to understand the challenges we face today.

What comes to mind when you read the word “history?”
I grew up going to Canada School, so I remember struggling through every class. It was the class I loathed almost as much as Gym.1 Now, I love history. It’s fascinating. And Canada’s is actually really, really interesting (read this book and tell me I’m wrong). But it’s hard to care about subjects where it’s pretty obvious your teachers don’t.
As a Christian, especially as I think about our current time, I am drawn to history. Specifically, to church history. The story of the church in the world throughout the centuries—the history of Christianity lived out—is fascinating. It’s not always pretty, but it’s always interesting. The many shining examples of those who persevered against societal pressures to deny Christ. The times when the church has been at her best. When we see Christians demonstrating the love of Christ in practical action while declaring the gospel’s good news. But also the times when the church has capitulated. When power has corrupted us, and the church has forsaken her love for Jesus in exchange for a love for herself. Times of being persecuted—and also persecuting.
Church history really is amazing. And we can learn so much from studying it. In fact, here are three reasons
1. Studying church history is an act of obedience
Over and over again, the Bible commands God’s people to “remember.” Specifically, we’re to look back on what God has done, and remember his wondrous works (Exodus. 13:3; Deuteronomy 5:15; 7:18; 8:1; 8:18; 1 Chronicles 16:12; Psalm 105:5). So in a very real sense, studying church history is an act of obedience to the Lord. If we remember what God did, we can look forward in confidence that he is faithful to keep his promises and fulfill his purposes in this world.
But studying history isn’t just an act of obedience. It helps us to live right now.
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Have We Failed if Our Child Isn’t Sure Christianity is True?

If the gospel is true, then it’s going to be Jesus who saves our kids, not us. He is the only one who can. And that’s the tension we have to live in. It might be 10 years before one of our children comes to faith. We might not live to see it. But it could also happen tomorrow. The truth is, we don’t know. But if Jesus is trustworthy, as he has already shown himself to be time and again, then we need to trust him with our kids. Because who else is worthy?

As our kids have grown from babies and toddlers, preschoolers to big kids, and now to teens and tweens, every stage has brought different blessings and challenges. When our kids were little, parenting was all about overt instruction: moral and obedience training that we often referred to as teaching them to people. As they grew we worked to introduce more complex reasoning and training to help them consider the “why” behind the decisions we all make. Now, we are more or less in the coaching stage of parenthood, trying to help them apply all the principles and values that we’ve taught them over the years.
I’d like to think that we’ve done a decent job raising them as Christian parents ought. To raise them in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4, NET). To point our kids to Jesus, sharing the gospel with them, explaining what we see in the world in light of our faith. But no one prepared me for the day when one of them would say they aren’t sure Christianity is true.
The Blessing and Challenge of a Questioning Kid
One of our kids asks a lot of big questions. A lot a lot of them. On every conceivable major issue. And, honestly, that’s really great. I love that this child feels safe asking challenging questions. That this child wants to discuss big topics.
But it is honestly a little soul crushing to hear that same child say that if feels like you’re always “shoving Bible verses and theology” at them. That this child only wants me to discuss big issues with verifiable facts. With things that are true, as this child described.1 Because how do we even know that anything in the Bible is even true? How do we know that Christianity is true when there are so many other religions? So what good are opinions when trying to deal with real questions?
Full disclosure: We struggle with communication in my family. Most, if not all of us, have some kind of neurological divergence: three people have ADHD. One is on the autism spectrum. One more is waiting for an assessment for diagnosis.2 This can lead to a number of difficulties, especially when discussing complex issues. But even so, we don’t shy away from them. Instead, we try to discuss openly and honestly.
Despite all this, when my child said all this to me, I felt like I had failed as a parent.
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Theology Levels the Playing Field for Humanity

Theology levels the playing field; it puts us in our proper perspective and grounds our mission in this world. Because all human begins are made in the image of God, the theological implication is we must treat all human beings with the dignity and respect that is their due in light of this reality. It doesn’t matter their nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual preference, or political affiliation—a person is a person is a person.

Human beings are a fascinating bunch. Without a doubt, we have some pretty… interesting ideas about ourselves, either seeing ourselves as beings of supreme importance or try to convince ourselves of our own insignificance. Some of us broadcast every thought and life event, no matter how insignificant (and when that doesn’t work, we selectively edit to make ourselves look better). We downplay our abilities in exchange for compliments. Some of us arrogantly act at though we are better than every other human being because of socioeconomic status, nationality, ethnicity, or even denominational traditions. And others still spend inordinate amounts of time trying to convince us all that we are all, essentially, cosmic accidents of no greater value than any other organism on this planet. Indeed we might even be the worst once you factor in overpopulation, pollution, and The Bachelor.
(Okay, that last one might be a stronger one.)
But theology challenges all of these attitudes and beliefs. Theology shapes how we see the world. It shows us that God is intimately involved with his creation. It tells us we are under his authority. But it does more than that. Theology puts humanity in its proper perspective. Although there are many—many—passages worthy of consideration, two will suffice for giving us a starting point.
The Theological Foundation for Understanding Humanity
The creation account gives us our starting point for understanding God, but also ourselves. And it’s profound. According to this passage, humanity is unique among all creation not because of our destructive capability. It is something else entirely. We are, according to Genesis 1:26, made in the image of God, in his likeness. In some mysterious way that we cannot fully comprehend—in a way that doesn’t fit neatly into utilitarian categories—we are like God. Moral agents who think, feel, and act. We have a will and desires. We are relational creatures, made to steward and nurture creation (or have “dominion” depending on your translation), acting as God’s representatives within the created world. (I’ve written about this a great deal, including in this article.)
Humanity doesn’t really make sense without a grasp of this truth. It’s what makes compassion and justice and love and marriage make sense. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Bible doesn’t stop there, and neither can we.
The Theological Road to Romans
The first two chapters of Genesis offer a breathtaking picture of perfection and the potential for human flourishing. But by Genesis 3, that potential had been squandered as the first humans were deceived and sinned against their Creator. They made a theological choice: they believed something false about God.
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The Best Way to Recognize False Teaching

We are inundated with all kinds of false promises today—and false teaching—in many forms. Some of it is deceptively Christian-ish in sound. But it is false teaching all the same. The answer to what threatens our focus on the gospel today is the same as it was in Colossae. We focus on Christ. 

One of my favorite books of the Bible is Colossians. Every time I read it, I’m overwhelmed. It is an incredibly powerful book, focused on the gospel message as “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27b) in the context of addressing some pretty serious false teaching. So given that our church is teaching through this book at the time of this writing—and I am preaching on that very verse I just quoted—you can imagine how I’m feeling right now.
The Old (and Current) Problem of False Teaching
Okay, a bit of context: The Colossians were falling prey to a peculiar form that may have been a synthesis of Jewish and pagan folk belief. Some scholars suggest a shaman-like figure was presenting himself as a Christian spiritual guide. A mystic claiming to have superior insight into the spiritual realm. From this lofty place of importance, this teacher could then advise the Christians to perform certain rites and rituals to protect themselves from evil spirits and for their deliverance from affliction:

To practice asceticism; to deny themselves certain food or drink.
To practice the Jewish festivals and the Sabbath.
To worship angels.
To experience visions of spiritual things.

This false teacher judged the believers for not practicing these things. His judgment, of course, only served one purpose: to puff himself up. To show that salvation could be attained through man-made effort and ecstatic experience, which is a problem that still exists today, and still masquerades as Christianity.
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How Do We Protect Ourselves against Rage-Driven Ministry?

Jesus came into this world to rescue us from sin and death, including the sins that fuel rage-driven ministry. He is our hope and our strength. No darkness will overcome Him or prevail against His church.

A cursory reading of the Bible reminds us that God really, really doesn’t take kindly to those who stir up division and dissension among His people. He wants His people to be united in love and truth.
This isn’t a new idea, and it shouldn’t be shocking. It isn’t the sort of insight that comes from years of faithful study, or a careful exploration of the languages, the context of the text, or anything like that. It’s an observation that literally anyone who is functionally literate is capable of making.
And yet, it’s one that we keep failing to really be mindful of, isn’t it?
Two Kinds of Divisive People
There are two sorts of divisive people, of course. There are the contentious and overt false teachers, the people that Paul warned about in so many places, like:

This is who we typically think of when we think about division. But they’re certainly not the only kind we’re cautioned against. The second is actually much more damaging. We are warned against:

Those among us who stir up foolish controversies (Titus 3:9 )
People who incite unrest and factionalism (2 Tim. 2:23 ; 16:17 )
Fools who sow discord and say they were only joking ( 26:19 )

The difficulty with this group is that, in many cases, they’re not teaching overtly false doctrine. In fact, many paint themselves as Defenders of the Truth; the last bulwark, the Spurgeons and Luthers of our day, here for a time such as this to hold back the encroaching darkness of theological liberalism.
And yet, perhaps ironically, their approach to defending the truth too often results in a different sort of falsehood—error based in both doctrine and practice. They bite and devour one another (Gal. 5:15 ), turning on an ever-decreasing set of allies until, eventually, none can meet their standard of orthodoxy.
The Fuel of Rage Driven-Ministry
No doubt, a list of names comes to mind as you read that sentence. No doubt some of them would cross over with the list I have in mind. I don’t feel the need to address those people specifically by name in this article, because naming names isn’t the point here. But those names you can think of should serve as a warning against what might be called a rage-driven approach to ministry, one that has embraced the way to get attention on the social Internet:
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Why it’s Hard to Believe in God’s Goodness

The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love. He is faithful to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. And this is exactly what we see Him do throughout the passage, and throughout all of history. We see that God’s goodness is not dependent upon His people’s faithfulness. And Nehemiah 9:18-25 certainly does demonstrate the unfaithfulness of the Israelites.

In the fall of 2021, as our church was going through the book of Nehemiah, I was working through the prayer of confession in chapter 9. As I studied the passage, it helped me to recognize something extremely important:
It’s really hard to believe in God’s goodness.
Most Christians will say that we do believe God is good, of course. We can affirm the general truth. But when we start looking at our own lives, we struggle to see how God can be good to us because we’re not terribly faithful people.
But Nehemiah 9 has some very good news for us all, even today, which is that God’s goodness is not limited by our faithfulness, because it’s not based on our faithfulness.
Where We Start in Thinking About God’s Goodness
The prayer that comprises Nehemiah 9 starts where it should—with praise for God’s self-disclosure, His creation of the world, His covenant with Abraham, and His rescuing of the people from bondage in Egypt. But in verse 16, the prayer moves from praise to confession. It is a recognition of the people’s ongoing rebellion against Him. That rather than responding with worship, they countered with rejection.
They refused to listen—they refused to obey God. They did not remember the wonders He performed, even the ones that
And then there’s the last half of verse 17:
But you are a forgiving God,gracious and compassionate,slow to anger and abounding in faithful love,and you did not abandon them.
Even in the midst of this confession of the people’s sin, the Levites couldn’t not point the people back to God. In fact, the language here is a paraphrase of God’s own self-disclosure from Exodus 34:6-7:
The Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin.
Now, stop and think about those words for a second. The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love. He is faithful to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. And this is exactly what we see Him do throughout the passage, and throughout all of history. We see that God’s goodness is not dependent upon His people’s faithfulness. And Nehemiah 9:18-25 certainly does demonstrate the unfaithfulness of the Israelites.
God’s Goodness to the Faithless
In the wilderness, the people denied Him at every opportunity. Before the Red Sea had been parted, they were sure that God had led them into the wilderness to be killed.
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Are Morals and Moralism in Conflict?

Just as virtues divorced from the gospel lead away from morality and into moralism, a virtue-less gospel leads to a cold-hearted, complacent, and ultimately dead faith. It’s a “gospel” that treats knowledge as the highest good. The Christian life becomes more about the pursuit of knowledge than about how we live in light of it.

I’ve always hated multiple choice questions. They always feel like a trick (because too many of them are). Three or four choices, all of which seem plausible, except for maybe one super-obvious non-answer thrown in to see if we’re paying attention, and the instruction to choose which we think is correct. But sometimes there’s an answer in these that can seem like a trick, but is actually really important:
All of the above.1
When we’re faced with multiple choices, we’re tempted to assume that there’s only one right answer. That the question or situation is an either/or, when in fact, it may be a both/and. Everything is “chicken or fish” when it might be “surf and turf.” We do this everywhere, in all areas of life. We even do it in how we view the Christian life.
Take, for example, the apparent choice between the gospel and virtues. There’s a tendency to present this as a clash between two entirely opposing forces. To treat them as a good vs evil struggle, where only one can prevail. And I get that. But the fact is, we shouldn’t treat these friends as foes, and when we do, it’s often because we misunderstand what each of these is.
Is There a Difference Between Morals and Moralism?
In pitting the gospel against virtues, we are often identifying a real issue, but we’re using the wrong language. Because the truth is, virtues are not a problem. To speak of virtues is to speak of character and morals. Character is incredibly important. In fact, it is so important that the Bible even says that, outside of a genuine love for God, it’s the most important trait to look for in anyone who aspires to be a leader (see 1 Timothy 3)! Our morals, our desire to live a virtuous and ethical life, stem from God’s desires for us as well. We should want to be honest and trustworthy. We are commanded and expected to be so, in fact (see Proverbs 11:1; 12:17).
The same is true for any other virtue that we would point to, such as having a charitable spirit, acting courageously, and growing in humility.
These are good things. They are God-honoring things, and no Christian should speak ill of them when they are in their proper context. But it’s when they’re removed from that context that we have a problem.
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When We’re Focused on What Won’t Last

While being a wise steward of what God’s entrusted to us is a virtue, increased wealth isn’t a sign of God’s blessing. It’s possible that we’re putting our identity in the wrong place, finding our value in what moths will destroy than in the One who provides for our every need.

At the beginning of 2022, my church began studying the book of James. This book is so helpful and practical in many ways. But one of the ways that it helps me personally is helping me to see when I’m focused on the wrong things.
Or maybe a better way to say it is, when I’m focused on what won’t last.
The Perennial Issue
James 1:9-11 introduces a perennial issue: our relationship with wealth. More specifically, it challenges the all-too-frequent assumption in a western society that wealth equates blessing or value. But James flips this assumption entirely, writing:
9 Let the brother of humble circumstances boast in his exaltation, 10 but let the rich boast in his humiliation because he will pass away like a flower of the field. 11 For the sun rises and, together with the scorching wind, dries up the grass; its flower falls off, and its beautiful appearance perishes. In the same way, the rich person will wither away while pursuing his activities.
The poor, he says, have cause to boast—to be proud in a godly sense, because they have a special place in God’s kingdom. They know that all they have is from God. They don’t hear the words of Jesus’s example of how to pray, saying “Give us today our daily bread,” as a truism (Matt. 6:11). It’s a way of life. Every day, every moment, is lived by faith. This is the faith of the majority church, not just throughout history, in places like Ethiopia, in Nicaragua, in Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador, China and dozens of other nations, it’s what faith looks like right now.
It’s the kind of faith that looks at their circumstances as an opportunity to boast in God, in His provision; glorifying Him with great joy in all things.
But to our cultural ears, that is strange.
When We’re Focused on What Won’t Last
In our society, the wealthy are exalted. They are our cultural icons whether they became wealthy through their ingenuity, abilities, or good old-fashioned dumb luck.
Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Elon Musk… While all have different stories of gaining wealth, they’re all primarily known to us today for one reason only:
They’re weird rich guys who built themselves spaceships.
But we still esteem them. We still exalt them. And, let’s be honest, if you were as insanely wealthy as them, you’d probably build yourself a spaceship, too.
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Freedom from the Tyranny of “Success”

Faithfulness is obedience—obedience to God’s commands, calling, and gifting—and obedience is success. That means that you may not be the most gifted teacher, you’re the right teacher for your church at this moment. Even though you may not be the greatest evangelist in the world, but you’re the person to share the gospel with your neighbor. And although you may not have much to offer by the world’s standards, but what you do have, you give joyfully.

Some time ago, a friend shared an announcement that he was writing a book for a well-respected publisher. I was, of course, excited—but I was also a little jealous. It was foolish and unnecessary, of course, but it was there. When I should have been fully celebrating my friend’s good fortune, I was wondering why I wasn’t experiencing the same.1
I know I’m not alone in this. All of us have moments where we don’t respond to God’s blessings to others in the way we would want or expect, whether His blessings to an individual, to an organization, or a church. We start to play comparison games, even if only in our heads. We start to wonder why this person or that church is more successful than us.
And there’s the problem: Success.
What does that even mean? What does success look like, especially in the context of ministry?
False Measures of Success
There are two primary ways we define success as Christians, especially when it comes to ministry:

“Orthodoxy.” Success in this sense is defined by our right beliefs. That if we’re consistently proclaiming and teaching truth, then we’re being successful.
Fruitfulness. Perhaps it’s because of how 1980s business culture affected overall leadership culture, but the most common way we measure success is by the numbers: attendance, giving, baptisms, professions of faith, and so forth.

But here’s the problem: it’s possible to be orthodox in word, but convey that truth in a way that undermines it. To be arrogant and belligerent, and mistake people being repulsed by your behavior as their rejection of the Lord. And I know, because I’ve been that guy on occasion, a “jerk for Jesus” wielding my Mighty Theological Hammer of Justice™, ready to smash any and all apparent heresies that might lure away an unsuspecting believer. (It’s not a good look.)
Unfortunately, fruitfulness also falls short as well, at least in the way that we define it.
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