Following Heroes of the Faith: Remembering the Past in the History of Christian Discipleship

 

Christianity is a faith that embraces the importance of knowing history because it reveals the continuing faithfulness and glory of God among humanity. Throughout the history of our faith, looking back to recount the faithfulness of God through the lives of His people has been used to inspire and shape disciples. Today, many of us are unfamiliar with those who have gone before us. What can looking back offer us as we move forward? Let’s take a look at how practicing remembrance  has taken place in past-

The Early Church:

The lives of people who have pursued the glory and will of God have been used throughout time to help challenge and shape Christians’ understandings of the spiritual life. Scripture shares the lives of many faithful Old and New Testament believers (both good and bad) to instruct us in understanding our own relationship to God. Even in the age directly following the lives of the Apostles, we find the stories of godly individuals being used to shape and challenge others.

The early epistle Martyrdom of Polycarp (1st century) served to record the faithfulmartyrdom of the bishop Polycarp, one of the men ordained to ministry by the Apostle John. This story served to challenge others to live lives that would, in turn, imitate Polycarp’s sacrificial obedience unto the Lord as he himself imitated the suffering ministry of Christ.

Polycarp
Polycarp (Wikipedia Commons, Public Domain)

These earliest stories focused on the suffering martyrdom of godly individuals. From this developed the practice of retelling the lives of people who not only suffered martyrdom, but lived extraordinary sacrificial lifestyles, as Robert Lewis Wilken notes.  Narratives would be crafted to emphasize certain characteristics and behaviors. These were recorded, shared, celebrated, and remembered in the Church. The church father Athanasius’ recounting of the Life of Anthony inspired many others to seek out a life of self-denial as Anthony had lived.[2] Wilken also notes that the retelling of the deeds of heroes also took the form of teaching through art, depicting characteristics and actions of godly saints in illustrative form.[3]

The Medieval Church:

The lives of the Saints also played a significant role in medieval spirituality. Gerald L. Sittser notes that the spirituality of pilgrimage to sights of the saints and relics of the saints grew out of the patristic period (early church) and developed into mystical practices that sought to connect with saints who now dwelled in heaven. These saints were believed to serve as intercessors for the medieval believers. [4] While this practice may seem odd to many modern protestants, we can imagine how seeking out of such places and relics would certainly cause reflection upon the deeds, morals, and faith of those who had gone before. In a society where a common laborer would probably have been biblically illiterate, the stories of saints would have helped to instruct and inspire the spiritual lives of everyday people. But, compared to the earliest stories of martyrdom and self-sacrifice, these practices were eschewed by superstitious belief.

The Modern Era:

Like the stories of the lives of the saints in ages past, the missionary stories of the modern era have undoubtedly shaped and inspired many others to live like them. Sittser notes that the extreme sacrificial devotion of the Puritan missionary to Native Americans David Brainerd inspired Jonathan Edwards to compile a biography and edited version of David’s diary.[5] The biography has in turn fueled the modern missions movement as its readers were inspired by Brainerd’s sacrificial devotion. The retelling of these lives has served to inspire others to sacrifice their own comfort for the spreading of the gospel.

David Brainerd
David Brainerd (Wikipedia Commons, Public Domain)

The lives of the saints have certainly shaped the spiritual journeys of many Christian’s throughout the years.  Most significantly, they have continued to be a source of challenge, inspiration, and hope to imitate as their narratives are passed on. This tradition, while largely not practiced within later Protestant groups, does find a place in the energizing of Protestant evangelical churches through the stories of missionaries who have given of their own lives, much like the martyrs, desert monks, and other saints of the early church.

Application for Discipleship Today:

Remembering the lives of the saints to encourage our own spiritual journeys may seem like an odd suggestion to evangelical believers today. Many people are either unfamiliar with or suspicious of such stories as smacking of Roman Catholicism. While we can certainly see how the glorifying of saints can become misguided and misapplied, I believe that the stories of those who have gone before can help to ground and shape our faith today.  In my own life, studying the lives and writings of past believers has sharpened my own understanding of redemption and the hope that we find in Christ and in the pages of Scripture. I also have found inspiration to pursue faithfulness and selflessness.

I believe that sharing the stories of those who have faithfully held fast to the faith can help guide believers in an age of constant change. Working stories of heroes into the discipleship process will take creativity. I have found that some believe the history of the church does not have direct relevance to our own spiritual lives and discipleship. While I believe that Scripture should remain our central focus in discipleship, we need to be reminded that our God has always been faithful to His people, that His Church has been preserved, and that we can count on Him to continue His work amongst us. Indeed, we should worship Him for His faithfulness demonstrated throughout the ages. We can also look to the past to find examples of love, sacrifice, and dedication to Christ for others to imitate. Stories, both in word and picture, are powerful and can inspire us to live the lives that we are called to. These stories inspire us, reminding us that we stand within God’s Church, and giving us reason to worship Him in anticipation of all that He is yet to do.

We can practically approach this in many ways. Many churches with strong educational programs (such as Sunday school, small groups, etc.) work general Church history into their rotation.  I have found that people who are exposed to the faith of past Christians become inspired to reread their Bibles and consider the blind spots they had in their understanding of the Christian life and faith. I believe that churches can be encouraged to be better celebrators of Church history in general, remembering significant events of the past in their worship time, and learning how their own local history has been shaped and blessed by God. Being reminded of our own history can encourage us to remain faithful, to imitate those who have gone before, and provide us a chance to express our thankfulness.

 

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. – Hebrews 13:7 (NIV)

 

 


[1] The Martyrdom of Polycarp, 22.

[2] Robert Lewis Wilken, “Christian Formation in the Early Church,” in Educating People of Faith, edited by John Van Engen (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 56-57.

[3] Ibid., 57.

[4] Gerald L. Sittser, Water From a Deep Well, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 155-156.

[5] Ibid., 277.

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