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Unheroes of the past

I’ve posted recently about the failings of Thomas Cranmer and Jonathan Edwards, asking why we’re reluctant to speak about their shortcomings. I wonder whether we’re scared that this might discredit their ministry. My (anecdotal) argument is motivated by great ‘heroes’ of the Bible who were pretty suspect themselves. Their fallenness didn’t invalidate their ministry. So why are we reticent to highlight the fallenness of the heroes of recent church history?

I wonder whether many of the heroes from church history share the same failings as people in the Bible.

I’ve talked about Cranmer already, suggesting that he lacked integrity in his methods. But check out Samuel in 1 Sam 16 and see if there are any parallels.

I’ve questioned whether Edwards was proud and too confident in his own ability. I reckon he’s not far off the mark from the apostle Peter’s confidence.

Here are some others:

  • William Carey locked his wife in a cupboard when she had a nervous breakdown on the mission field. Not unlike Abraham’s cowardice in failing to look after his wife.
  • John Calvin has been thought by some to be a murderer, or at least to have left it open as an option. He may not have, but if he did, he’s no worse than Moses.
  • Many of us know of Martin Luther’s anti-semitism; perhaps less well known were his depressive episodes. Sounds a little like Jeremiah to me.
  • Karl Barth probably had an affair with his secretary while remaining married to his wife. In all likelihood, he was an adulterer, just like King David.

Why highlight the failings of people from church history and their similarities to Bible heroes? It’s not because God can only use dropkicks (Daniel springs to mind as an obvious counter to that). It’s certainly not so that we can emulate their mistakes! It’s definitely not so we can excuse certain behaviours or argue that the ends justify the means. (The story of Samson illustrates the consequences of sin.) But it’s because building strong leaders means building leaders who are strong in God’s strength, not their own. God works in leaders (as in all Christians) to make them more like his son, but that only happens as we face our failings, bringing them to light, to be dealt with.

Do you lack faith, like Elijah? Are you tempted to use your position to manipulate others, like Joseph?  Are you married to an unbeliever, like Esther? Have you been unmerciful to others in ministry, like Paul?  Face these difficulties, trusting in God: none of them have stopped God from working in the past. But hiding sin where it can fester is disastrous. The Bible often puts the failings of leaders on very public view. Will we have the courage to do the same?

Categories: History Ministry & mission Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

2 replies

  1. Hi Tamie,

    Good topic to reflect on. I think a related tangent of what your exploring here, is success in ministry. Not only is defining success problematic, on several levels as you’ve demonstrated with our “heroes” of the past, but measuring success is difficult. However, the advantage of history is hindsight, at least with time we’re able to make some sense of who was successful despite their failings.

  2. I agree Luke. I was chatting with someone at college today who observed (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that if you’re going to have a failing in ministry, you’d better make sure your theology is top-notch because if it’s not, you’ve got nothing in your favour!

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