Written during this week's overseas family vacation in Ghent, Belgium, this book review will also be featured on my Goodreads page soon.
Disclosure: This book is on my required reading list for the ordination process in the Church of God. I submitted a more in depth book report to my Credentials Advisory Committee.
Several books have been written about the history of the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) reformation movement. “I Saw the Church,” however, is the first book to organize our church’s history with an emphasis on development of theology and practice, rather than merely document a timeline of events and church leaders. In other words, it’s not a chronological history. The non-chronological layout was disorienting at times (flashing back and forward to various decades/centuries, church leaders dying or bowing out of the scene and then reappearing in the narrative later, etc.), but upon my second reading it made sense why author Merle Strege made this stylistic choice.
Regarding the content itself, I was impressed at how candid and thorough Strege was with researching this book. Church history is placed within the context of then-current developments of the universal Christian church and society as a whole. Before reaching the more love-oriented modern era depicted at the end of the book, I learned much about the earlier eras of my own church movement.
Many parts were inspiring, though I occasionally found myself scribbling exclamation points in the margins at some of the primitive ideas that somehow went unchallenged for so long. I would’ve counted myself among the dissenters who revolted against the original tendencies towards legalism, exclusivism, and anti-intellectualism. Strege offers an unflinching look at how the Church of God has wrestled through issues of doctrine (though we don’t officially have a creed other than the Bible), theology, practice, organization, and social issues.
Throughout my life, I’ve found myself taking pride in our church movement’s relatively liberal stance towards women in ministry, racial equality, government, and other issues. This book helped me to understand that our movement’s earlier leaders had some rather eccentric views, mistakes were made along the way, major disagreements occurred (as well as silly minor disputes), and that it’s unrealistic to expect a completely smooth evolution of thought and practice from a church that is comprised of imperfect people. Regardless of the peripheral troubling spots in our church’s earlier history, it was inspiring to read an account of the men and women who have followed the call to pursue the vision of holiness and Christian unity.
“I Saw the Church” is written for anyone interested in a balanced, thoughtfully laid out examination of how the Church of God’s grass roots beginnings evolved into to our present era. The non-chronological structure takes some getting used to, but in retrospect, it was well worth the effort. This book is a wealth of information and insight into the heritage of our holiness movement.