How much does the moral quality of Christian lives commend following Jesus? Perhaps more importantly, how much do the moral failings of Christians denigrate following Jesus?
The documentary we at the Centre for Public Christianity have just made, For The Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined, wrestles with just this issue. And make no mistake, it’s a tricky – even disturbing – struggle. A key strategy of For the Love of God is to highlight a range of Christian heroes of the faith to commend the benefits of following Jesus. How successful is this?
One such hero is Martin Luther King Jr. The unqualified star of the US civil rights movement, King was a brilliant, courageous, inspiring man of faith. Dr Cornel West describes him as “first and foremost a revolutionary Christian – a black Baptist minister and pastor whose intellectual genius and rhetorical power was deployed in the name of the gospel of Jesus Christ. King understood this good news to be primarily radical love in freedom and radical freedom in love, a fallible enactment of the Beloved Community or finite embodiment of the Kingdom of God.”
King was unquestionably revolutionary. Unfortunately, he was also deeply and horribly flawed. His life was marked by stories of moral failure – especially multiple and persistent sexual infidelities. These flaws were bigger than just King. The revolutionary Christian civil rights movement was dogged by allegations of drug-fuelled orgies and paedophilia.
Every Christian should concede that the church is indeed a fallible enactment of beloved community. But just how much fallibility can we allow? How flawed can we let our Christian heroes be?
Doubtless for some readers, nothing like this much. I have sympathy for anyone – believer or sceptic – wondering whether King’s persistent unrepentance in this area compromises any claims he had to be truly following Jesus.
How flawed can we let our Christian heroes be?
King, of course, is not the only flawed historical hero of faith. Martin Luther was deeply antisemitic. George Whitefield owned slaves. There’s the Bible too. There we meet King David the adulterer and murderer; Samson the philanderer; Rahab the prostitute; Jacob the deceiver; Peter the denier; we could go on and on.
Oh, and then there’s me (and probably you). Not the hero bit – the flawed bit. Like all these aspiring people of faith I struggle – and fail to struggle – with persistent moral failures. I am relentlessly disappointed with my faith gaps, with my lack of following Jesus in key areas.
Can any Christian avoid the charge of bringing Christ into disrepute sometime, somehow, somewhere? I doubt it. And if so, can the church point to anyone for unproblematic evidence of the benefits of faith?
I hope so, because the Bible seems to demand it.
Moral behaviour really does matter for the witness of the church to the truth of the gospel.
Jesus said “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Listen, too, to how the Apostle Paul describes the fallible enactment of beloved community that we call church: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
We need to get this clear. Moral behaviour really does matter for the witness of the church to the truth of the gospel. The gospel doesn’t simply promise a ticket to heaven. It promises God’s enlivening, empowering, transformative presence by his Spirit. If the gospel of Jesus is true, then Christians must necessarily be in the process of being transformed, changed, grown in Christlikeness. But the reality of a process implies necessarily that Christians are not there yet: that they remain flawed.
This has a crucial bearing on how we regard our Christian heroes. But this bears primarily, I suggest, not on how we regard their flaws but on who we regard as heroes.
For me, the true Christian heroes are those in whom I see not togetherness, completeness or exemplariness. It is those in whom I see the deep, radical, supernatural, relentless pursuit of change.
My local church is packed full of flawed, persistently failing sinners (like me), who meet week by week to doggedly pursue divine transformation.
One of these heroes is named Sam.* He is a middle-aged, single, unemployed, Middle Eastern, Assyrian Christian who has lived the last 40 years with schizophrenia. He is paranoid of everyone, and many things. For years, I was the only person he allowed into his home. Each time I visited he greeted me with a large carving knife held to my chest in warning – just checking that I wasn’t an enemy disguised as Richard. We met to drink coffee, sometimes share a meal, to read the Bible and to pray. For this man of faith, it was an act of love not to attack those around him, not to stick the knife in (literally). It was a sign of massive transformation to build even a single friendship. It was a thing of glory for him to open his home.
Of course, Sam is just one of my heroes. I am surrounded by so many more in my own fallible enactment of beloved community. My local church is packed full of flawed, persistently failing sinners (like me), who meet week by week to doggedly pursue divine transformation into people who love better and shine more. It is a community, both ordinary and revolutionary, and in any number of unspectacular, un-famous acts of care and service I see the reality of Christ.
Is this enough to commend following Jesus to a sceptical world? Is it enough to compensate for the litany of dramatic public failures?
It is enough, I think, if we uphold the right heroes; if we value the right things in our heroes. It is enough if, like Jesus, we celebrate poor generous widows (Mark 12:41-44) and compassionate soldiers (Mark 8:5-13), more than extraordinary preachers or best-selling worship leaders. It is enough if we rejoice in being communities of change more than of excellence. It is enough if our heroes display the longings that Jesus describes as belonging to those of the kingdom: a mourning over fallenness and a hunger for righteousness.
*Not his real name.
Richard Shumack is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and Director of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology. The Centre for Public Christianity offers a Christian perspective on contemporary life. www.publicchristianity.org