A friend of mine recently became a citizen of the United States of America. Until that point, he had been a mere resident, a visitor, a sojourner, a citizen of some other place. But he followed the process, he fulfilled his obligations, and he at last received the decision of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services—he would be granted the privilege of citizenship. So he stood before a judge and took the Oath of Allegiance, and in that moment became American. In that moment he became every bit as American as every other citizen of the land.
When my friend became American, he voluntarily took upon himself the rights and responsibilities of an American—rights he is expected to exercise and responsibilities he is expected to fulfill. By virtue of his new citizenship, his new identity as an American, he has gained a share in the present and future of America. But he has also gained a share in her past. America’s past accomplishments have become his accomplishments and her past transgressions have become his transgressions. He is right to feel pride over her accomplishments, to make them known, and to attempt to foster more like them. He is right to feel sorrow over her transgressions, to deal with them honestly, and to do his utmost to ensure they are never repeated.
For my friend to be a good and wise citizen he needs to know the past—the past that is now his by way of his citizenship—so he can better exercise his responsibilities in the present and future. He will be a better citizen of his new country if he knows and owns his past.
When you became a Christian, the history of Christianity became yours. You became a citizen of Christ’s kingdom and gained its past in all its glory and shame. The early church is your early church. The Church Fathers are your church fathers. The Reformation is your Reformation. The rise of Evangelicalism is your rise of Evangelicalism. On a less positive note, the religious wars and persecutions are yours, as are the advocacy of slavery and the apathy toward abuse within the church. You are right to feel pride over the church’s accomplishments as she has stood fast in the face of trial and error, carrying out the Great Commission given to her. You are right to make these accomplishments known and to attempt to ensure there are many more like them. Likewise, you are right to feel sorrow and even shame over the church’s transgressions and to work equally hard to ensure she never succumbs to such sins again.
You, too, need to know your past so you can help the church toward a better, purer future. You have entered into something. You have become a citizen of something with a present and a future, but also a past. And your ability to glorify God in the present and future requires knowing that past.
Where to begin? Here are some suggestions: