Truth Is Truth—Whatever Its Source May Be (Thoughts about Christian Thinkers Who Sin)
I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked about a certain famous Christian apologist-speaker and writer who died recently. After his death he was accused of living an extremely immoral and possibly illegal/abusive secret life.
This reminds me of the earlier questions I received about John Howard Yoder who was accused by several female former students of sexually harassing them. It also reminds me of Paul Tillich whose wife Hannah wrote a book after his death about his sexual promiscuity.
Then I also get asked about Martin Luther and his writings against the Jews. And I could go on. There are so many examples. In case you think it’s only men, let me tell you about a case you might not know about.
Back in the mid-20th century “Sister” Aimee Semple McPherson was the religious celebrity of her day (in the U.S. especially). She founded her own mega-church, her own denomination, had her own radio station, etc., etc. A force of nature and extremely popular as well as controversial. Her biographers strongly suggest that she had several sexual dalliances with Hollywood celebrities and that her infamous “disappearance” was really a “shacking up” with a reporter. Anyway, there’s little doubt that she had her personal faults and flaws.
It seems to me that many of the people who ask me about these Christian leaders and thinkers want to know if the revelations about their personal means we should throw away their ideas and contributions. My cold and controversial answer is “no.”
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Second to third century church father, philosopher, theologian, teacher Clement of Alexandria rightly said that “All truth is God’s truth.” That has been quoted thousands of times. I learned not only the cliché but the idea from Wheaton College philosophy professor Arthur Holmes. I believe it.
If someone says something true, it doesn’t really matter what his or her life was or is like—in terms of the TRUTH status of what he or she said or wrote. We should embrace the truth regardless of the broken vessel that held it. That toward the end of his life Martin Luther viciously attacked the Jews of Europe in writing takes nothing away from his great preaching and writing about the biblical truth of justification by grace alone by faith alone. That John Calvin approved the execution of Michael Servetus takes nothing away from the truths that he taught and wrote. That Aimee Semple McPherson had three husbands (in succession) and almost certainly had affairs with other men takes nothing away from her magnificent accomplishments and the gospel she preached. That Paul Tillich was sexually promiscuous and probably a sexual harasser of female students takes nothing away from the truths in his theological writings. That John Howard Yoder harassed women students takes nothing away from his breakthrough thoughts about peace. That the recently deceased Christian apologist-speaker-writer went to massage therapists and is accused by several of sexually abusing them takes nothing away from the truths that he spoke and wrote.
I’m not minimizing the “badness” of these Christian leaders’ actions; I abhor and condemn them. However, I also detest our contemporary tendency to toss out truth just because the bearer was profoundly flawed morally.
I will say the same about slave owners. I hate that Jonathan Edward owned slaves, but that takes nothing away from whatever truths he communicated. If they were true, then I embrace them in spite of his slave-owning.
It seems to me that we contemporary Americans are on a binge of knocking people off their pedestals because of their sins. Well, my response is that perhaps we should never put anyone except Jesus on a pedestal! I’m not concerned with knocking people off pedestals, but I do worry that sometimes we cancel everything good and right and true that they said and wrote and did just because of some personal sin.
I do separate the truth from the communicator of it. If what a person says is true, it doesn’t matter what his or her life is like—as far as the truth remaining true and therefore being valuable.
I don’t believe in burning books, and yet that is being done by many people—figuratively speaking. If they were sexual harassers or slave owners or whatever, we tend to burn their whole contribution—including the truths that they communicated and the good that they did for others.
Again, I think the whole solution is never to put anyone except Jesus on a pedestal. I’m talking to Christians here. When it comes to valuing ideas, value the ideas regardless of the life lived by the person who discovered and communicated them—if they are truly valuable ideas.
I know some will be offended by my thoughts here, but so be it. This is what I think.
*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).