Letting Church History Open the Door for the Gospel

by Adam Coker

A missionary in Russia reminds us that church history
can work for us as we proclaim the life-giving message
of Jesus.

I love history. Looking through its ever-expanding lens, the world just seems to make more sense. A broader perspective can benefit almost any endeavor, including the work of the gospel ministry around the world. The innovative spirit of American society has been a powerful force in the world, but it can be a stumbling block if we allow it to detach us from past generations.  When “newer is better,” then the latest paradigms and cutting-edge methods of ministry are valued.  

The temptation could be to downplay the role our spiritual heritage has had in shaping our worldview. Likewise, we could ignore the many years of church history that have been formative in the culture of the people we are trying to reach on the mission field. To do so is to err. We all bring something to the table, whether we realize it or not. There is no escaping the fact that we are each influenced by the many traditions of the civilization that produced us. We are deceiving ourselves if we think that a new cross-cultural relationship can begin with a “blank slate.” What’s more, we could be missing out on a chance to really connect.

Learning from Captain Aubrey
The modern author Patrick O’Brian wrote a series of historical-fiction novels about the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey sails the high seas, doing battle with French men-of-war, running a tight ship, and enjoying the company of his friend Stephen Maturin, the ship’s surgeon.

In addition to a sense of Europe’s geopolitical situation at the turn of the nineteenth century, O’Brian is very skillful at re-creating the culture of the period and allowing the reader to feel as though he or she is present. A window is opened on the peculiarities of the times: dueling as a gentleman’s means of preserving honor, the medical use of laudanum (opium), and even the religious climate of the day. The Church of England is the Established Church in His Majesty’s territory, and even a not-so-religious naval officer understands the importance of the thirty-nine Articles of Faith.

To be sure, one can sense his irritation at those “blue-light admirals” who try to save the souls of their crew with tracts, and any overly-religious believers who are “enthusiastically evangelical.” (In those days, “enthusiasm” was a pejorative.) Still, Captain Aubrey is part of the system of society and everything has its proper place, including religion. He faithfully “rigs church” each Sunday at sea, even if there is no chaplain aboard, and the whole crew appears in formation to hear the reading of the Articles of War and perhaps an Anglican homily.

Even with no member of the clergy present, these depraved sailors stand in reverence while their less-than-pious commander goes through the motions prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer. The many traditions and practices that are part of the mechanism of “how things are done” contribute to a special equilibrium that we call society.

Mess with that equilibrium, and people become uncomfortable. The Methodists of that same period who wanted to see an end to nominal Christianity and challenged England’s churchgoers to live holy lives were labeled “dissenters.” The tag itself speaks to the fact that some were trying to tip the balance.

“Evangelicals” like John Wesley and his followers were disturbing the status quo. But what about people outside of the system, from different cultures for example? It is at this point that the fictional sea captain gives a profound insight. During “church,” the ship’s doctor doesn’t participate in this ceremony because he is Catholic. The captain doesn’t push the issue because, after all, he is an Irishman.

During one conversation about various religious sects, Captain Aubrey makes a comment that seems to leap off the page in terms of its significance in understanding nominal Christianity: “For my own part,” he says, “I have no notion of disliking a man for his beliefs, above all if he was born with them. I find I can get along very well with Jews or even [Papists]…” (The Wine-Dark Sea 1994).

Was this the same man who showed irritation for “enthusiastic” members of his own church and thought it was bad luck to have a parson on board? While deviation from the norm is looked upon with suspicion, there is essentially no threat from those of a completely different belief system, “…above all if he was born with them.” They have theirs and we have ours. This really set me to thinking.

Using “Culture” Religion to Share the Gospel
Life and ministry in Russia brings us into contact with something surprisingly similar.  Businessmen invite Orthodox priests to bless their store, people have icons on display in their homes and offices, and some even observe various fasts and holidays of the church calendar.  But personal religious faith is not often discussed and usually kept in its proper (nominal) place.

Those who are too overt about their beliefs are labeled “fanatics” (not unlike the “enthusiasts” of eighteenth-century England). Knowing how Russians tend to look upon evangelical Christians (sect, cult, traitor), I used to dread the moment in any spiritual conversation when they would ask, “Are you Orthodox?” In other words, “Are you one of us, or are you one of the cult-people of whom I should be afraid?” To be Russian is to be Orthodox. This unfortunate barrier is something Russian evangelicals have been up against for generations.  

But as I said earlier, Captain Aubrey’s comment about the beliefs people are “born with” got me thinking. Could this notion of religion as a cultural identity work in my favor rather than being the deal-breaker in every spiritual encounter? Could it be a bridge of understanding rather than emotional barbed-wire?

I decided to give it a try. The next time someone asked, “Are you Orthodox?” I replied, as if surprised, “Why should I be Orthodox? I’m not even Russian.” It was amazing what a difference this made. His response was a tolerant nod which seemed to say, “Yes, you’re right. I hadn’t thought of that.” At this point, a brief thumbnail demographic of world Christianity helped to confirm legitimacy. I continued:

You see, there are three major branches of Christianity in the world: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Ranked by numbers of adherents, Catholicism is largest worldwide, followed by Protestantism, and then Orthodoxy. In America, the opposite is true: Protestants are most numerous, then Catholics, then Orthodox. And in Russia, as you know, Orthodoxy is most prominent, followed by the other Christian churches.

So far, so good. It was now established that we were both “culturally justified” in holding to our respective religions. We could safely look each other in the eye. The next question my acquaintance asked was like a gift from heaven: “So, what is the difference?”

Including Protestant History
I urge everyone ministering in a foreign culture where nominal Christianity is prevalent to be prepared to share a brief history of the Protestant Reformation in the target language. You may never have a better opportunity to preach the gospel in an informal setting. In a country with over ninety percent literacy, there is no reason to shy away from solid content. See my answer to “What’s the Difference?” in the box below.

"What’s the Difference?"

In the sixteenth century, there were many problems in the Catholic Church. Through the selling of indulgences, people were led to believe that forgiveness for sins could be purchased. An illiterate public had no way of knowing God’s word themselves, but had to rely on the priests, some of whom abused their spiritual authority. Corruption and immorality among the clergy were all too prevalent. One monk, Martin Luther, became increasingly aware of these problems and spoke out against them. On October 31, 1517, he nailed his famous 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg. These were “protests” against what was going on. These ideas can be summarized by what Luther called the five “solas.” (Sola is Latin for “only” or “alone.”)

Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone): The Bible is our only source of inspired revelation and our guide in faith and practice.

Solus Christus (Christ Alone): Only in Christ is our salvation. He died on the cross for our sins and was resurrected.

Sola Gratia (Only by Grace): Salvation is a free gift that is not earned or bought.

Sola Fide (Only by Faith): By repenting of our sins and placing our trust in Jesus, who died for us, we can be forgiven of our sins and have a relationship with God.

Soli Deo Gloria (To God Alone Be the Glory).

This teaching spread and became known as the Protestant Reformation. This movement continues to this day and has been going strong for almost five hundred years. This form of Christianity is nearest to my heart, because I am not a perfect person. I need forgiveness, and know that I can’t earn it.

Learning to say something like this from memory in Russian was one of the best investments I’ve made since being on the mission field. It is an honest, historical answer to the question asked and a faithful proclamation of the tenets of the gospel. Usually, my new friends will thank me for answering their question and sometimes even ask follow-up questions or share something from their own spiritual journey.

Faithfully Continuing the Tradition
We are all people in context. We are not trying to artificially turn Russian Orthodox believers into Baptists, any more than the apostles were trying to turn Gentiles into Jews. Our goal is to expose people to the life-giving message of the cross. We preach Christ and him crucified.

The annals of church history can help us to do just that. The lives of those who have gone on before can be a powerful reminder that we are part of a history that is bigger than we are. This concept is something to which Russians and other Europeans can relate. Their cultures have centuries of history and tradition.

Throughout those centuries, faithful servants of the Lord have been telling the old story of Jesus and his love. Their stories are compelling: John Wycliffe sacrificing his life to translate the Bible into English, Cyril and Methodius carrying the gospel to the Slavic peoples and creating an alphabet for them, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield preaching in the Great Awakening of North America, and the lesser-known evangelical missionaries in Russia in the nineteenth century working among the Russian nobility.

These events and personalities are each part of the fabric of Western civilization. Telling their stories can provide opportunities to tell God’s story. The word they preached is still valid today.  

Faith of our fathers! We will strive
To win all nations unto thee
And through the truth that
comes from God
Mankind shall then be truly free
Faith of our fathers, holy faith!
We will be true to thee till death!

O’Brian, Patrick. 1994. The Wine-Dark Sea. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Adam Coker is a missionary with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, currently serving in Russia with his wife and children.

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 192-196. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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