Slave owners, sex addicts, and anti-semites: how do you talk about flawed heroes?

Jonathan Edwards? Yeah, I know him. He’s the guy who owned slaves, right?

Flawed Heroes (Will Smith from "Hancock")

I can’t tell you how many times I received a comment like this while I was teaching my Edwards seminar this summer. They came in through the blog, Facebook, Twitter, and email. Despite the fact that Edwards was one of America’s greatest theological minds, apparently the one fact that many Americans have retained about him is the fact that he owned slaves.

Oh yeah, and he talked about hell a lot.

Then I thought about it a bit more, and I realized that Edwards’ isn’t alone. Many people remember some of the great figures in church history primarily by a few of their less attractive qualities.

For example, here’s how many people remember…

  • Jonathan Edwards: slave owner who preached scary sermons about hell
  • John Calvin: intolerant control freak who burned Servetus at the stake
  • Martin Luther: anti-semite who drank too much and insulted people
  • Augustine: woman hater and/or sex-addict who was obsessed with sin

I could probably go on if I got creative. (If you have suggestions for people from church history known primarily by some negative attribute(s), let me know in the comments.) It seems that if you’re a key figure in church history you’re doomed to one of two fates: either most people won’t even know who you are or a lot of people will remember you but think you were a jerk.

I think what bothers me the most is that these comments usually come from Christians. I could understand it if a non-Christian wanted to paint a particularly negative portrait of some Christian leader. But, why are we Christians so obsessed with doing it? Can’t we recognize that our heroes were flawed without focusing exclusively on the negative and caricaturing our own people?

Our theological heroes were flawed and broken human beings just like the rest of us. But, let’s cut them some slack. I wouldn’t want to be known by my least attractive attributes. (Please don’t point out my least attractive attributes in the comments. I’m feeling fragile today, and that would be bad for my self-esteem.) And, I’m sure you wouldn’t either.

So, let’s try this. Extend the same grace to believers from the past that you would extend to the believer sitting next to you in church. The people next to you are flawed too, but you probably don’t point that out every time you talk about them. At least, I hope you don’t.


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on September 22, 2011, in Church History and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Someone quipped that every saint has a history and every sinner has a future.

    As for the bashing from the inside – I’ve met or read so many Christians from different denominations who were not aware that we were born on the outside of the Gates of Paradise.

  2. Good quip.

    I find it interesting that we don’t seem to think Paul’s exhortation to “Let your speech always be gracious” applies when we’re talking about dead people.

  3. Excellent post! How will people know we are Christians if not by our love for one another? These men and women of the faith have propelled us forward and we use their theological musings in our everyday prayer and worship, the least we can do is give them honor.

  4. ” I could understand it if a non-Christian wanted to paint a particularly negative portrait of some Christian leader.”

    I think that many times, we Christians are doing this very thing. It’s as if we can discredit someone’s theology that we disagree with by pointing out some serious character flaws. It’s as if we can simply throw out the theology we don’t like if we can prove that the “source” (so to speak) is tainted.

  5. With Pope Benedict visiting Erfurt Germany right now, where Luther was a Catholic & Augustinian monk, and the Reformation began (500 years ago). I pray for the true Spirit of Christ, and a true ecumenism!

  6. Great post, Marc. I’ve been thinking about this off and on for the last several months. Intrinsic in our categorization of people (adulterer, murderer, what-have-you), is often a denial of the complexity of the human person.

    As Christians when we promote this denial of complexity we are actually lying (or maybe we’re liars?), and failing in our witness to the truth of God’s work in our world.

  7. Marc,

    This was one of the reasons I was looking at you the other day, we must try to be arbitraters as pastors & teachers in the Spirit of Christ. I admit with my personality, and past as both Irish (and Anglo-Irish) and one from a military family, and my own history therein, I struggle today, especially as I age, and see this new generation in the Church. But we so need to appreciate our rich Judeo-Christian history, I say Judeo, because there are some fine past Jewish writers (Martin Buber, Abraham Heschel), etc. Btw, thanks for what you did have to say, as we engage the Text of God itself! We must simply learn, that the historical Biblical Text is often well beyond just a certain “kind” of history!

  8. @ “Extend the same grace to believers from the past that you would extend to the believer sitting next to you in church.” I wonder if that is exactly and sadly what is occurring when rancor toward the ancients emerges. I would wager the sharpness of tongue doesn’t cease with castigation of the dead. This accounts for my personal bumper sticker pastoral prayer before business meetings: “Lord protect me from your followers (including myself)” šŸ˜‰

    • Maybe the issue is how we talk about people when we don’t think they’re listening. I don’t think many of us would be that overtly rude to the person sitting right next to us at church. But, sadly, many of us will say similarly nasty things behind their backs. So, maybe the problem is that we don’t realize what terrible and malicious gossips we are when it comes to talking about these Christians from the past.

  9. And perhaps a huge lesson for many bibilobloggers! Sometimes the blog can become a high tower, away from the reality of just human ethics, much less Christian! My insight a bit anyway.

  10. Very well said, Marc. Dealt with this very problem at TIU–some writing JE off because of his (significant) flaws. He did treat the Stockbridge natives relatively well, and even defended them against his own relatives who were exploiting them.

    So even in cases where our heroes did have flaws, there is often more to be said. But nuance just complicates things–and makes us have to think.

  11. In my experience, it is often the case that the gadflies who make these remarks about dead Christians tend to be amazingly blind to their own shortcomings, or even the shortcomings of the epoch in which the church finds itself (e.g. in a few hundred years no one is going to look at early 21st c. Xianity in America and think = “Golden Age.” It is a safe way to be self-righteous.

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