Picture Christianity throughout its history as a giant tree that has continually grown for numerous generations. Some of its branches have gone one way, some another. Some are more in line with their roots in the apostolic church and the straight trunk of the first few centuries. We might call this trunk the “ancient catholic church” as opposed to later developments in the Western (Roman) Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Other branches, unworthy of a place on the tree, have withered and fallen off.
Now picture your church’s place on this massive tree. Your own church is but a tiny leaf, hanging from a small twig, shooting from a thin branch, attached to a large limb, connected to a thick bough, growing from a massive trunk. The diverse Christian churches and denominations of today (the various branches of the tree) are not necessarily united to each other through visible, institutional unity. However, every generation has been connected to the apostolic and ancient church by legitimately receiving its core beliefs and practices.
For example, every believer who has been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was baptized by somebody who had also been baptized by a predecessor. This line of baptism, though it may have taken various forms throughout history, connects present-day believers to the church of the first century. The same may be said of ministry ordination. Today’s ministers, who have been tried, tested, and approved by other ordained ministers, stand in a long and ancient line of those who had been themselves ordained by the “laying on of hands,” a practice that reaches back to the apostles, themselves. Evangelicals are also connected to the rich legacy of their Christian heritage by receiving—intact and unadulterated—the apostolic and prophetic Scriptures, as well as the core message of the Christian faith. Many participate further through orders of worship, hymns, liturgies, and denominational structures, which were passed down from previous generations.
By studying church history, evangelicals can connect to their own tradition actively, consciously, and critically. They can seek out their spiritual ancestors, experiencing familiarity and a feeling of kinship with the people of faith who preserved Scripture, took a stand for the gospel, reformed church practice, and glorified God with their words and works. They can see their own particular traditions in light of a broader spectrum of emphases and practices, understanding their own church’s attitudes and actions in light of its history. By re-establishing an active and conscious connection to their rich legacy, they will also be equipped to sort through the positive, negative, and neutral aspects of their beliefs and practices, led by more than mere personal preferences or thoughtless traditionalism.
Connecting to a rich legacy of the faith will therefore add a previously unknown depth to personal faith and corporate worship. It has the power to shape the identity of both individual believers and local churches. This identity will help us to transcend our own lonely and seemingly insignificant place on the greater tree, making us aware that we are all part of something far bigger than ourselves.