By Curtis Shelburne: Religion columnist
Christians really do stand on shoulders of giants
By Curtis K. Shelburne
It’s been a long time since I sat in a classroom in the old main building at Abilene Christian University and listened to Lemoine Lewis lecture on church history.
Professor Lewis knew whereof he spoke. Harvard-educated and with more knowledge, wisdom and experience in the tip of his little finger than I had in my whole body, his eyes sort of glazed over as he began telling stories as if he were seeing pictures from another world, though it wasn’t another world he was seeing at all— just another time and another place so real to him that he made them real to us.
It was like he was there, transported back almost two thousand years. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he had indeed been there and seen those things in person. He had been teaching at ACU since my mother and father had been students there (mom was 42 when I was born).
Professor Lewis must have graded on the most serious curve those halls of learning ever beheld. I always took pages and pages of notes, trying in vain to jot down names and dates, but mostly trying to record the stories he told. When I took his tests, I knew for sure I’d failed miserably, yet somehow I always passed.
His tests scared the bejabbers out of me. But his stories enthralled me. I’ll never forget, for example, Professor Lewis’ telling the story of the martyrdom of Polycarp. Polycarp had been a student of the Apostle John and had later become Bishop of Smyrna.
Old Polycarp could have saved his physical life simply by denying Christ and swearing allegiance to the Roman Emperor, but, faced with that choice, this was his response: “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me wrong; and how can I now blaspheme my King that has saved me?” And Polycarp died, burned at the stake. As Professor Lewis told the story, tears rolled down his cheeks.
I’m pretty sure I deserved to fail the class. The grade was a gift. But the best gift Professor Lewis gave his students was in helping us connect to giants of our faith that we had never known. He inspired me to search for, to long for, more connection with giants across the centuries, and across oceans, and across denominational divides.
We are no smarter than were the ancient followers of Christ and certainly no more faithful. Only chronological snobbery of the worst ecclesiastical sort coupled with vast ignorance would make us think that Christianity has somehow arrived with our generation, or our denomination, or a group of folks fifty years ago, 200 years ago, 10 or 15 centuries ago, or whenever.
We stand on the shoulders of giants. And whether they’re named Paul, or Polycarp, or Martin Luther, or (I hope you name some of your own, too) G.B. Shelburne Jr., or Joe Harbin, or Tom Langford, or Tennie McCormick, I’m so thankful for the way God has blessed us with their lives and their stories.
Curtis Shelburne is pastor of 16th & Ave. D. Church of Christ in Muleshoe. Contact him at