In part one of this series, Should I Read Books by Slaveholders?, Isaac wrote about processing the failings of our historical heroes. This piece takes a step further back to ask whether or not we should be reading or revering people in the first place if we know them to have been racists.
I’ll lay my cards on the table early–I think Christians have freedom to read or not read, and we should give each other space to make those decisions without judging each others’ motivations. In other words, we’re in the realm of Romans 14 freedom, not “thou shalt/ shalt not.”
Scripture is Our Only Must-Read
My favorite historic confession of faith begins with these words: “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.” Christians need to read the Bible. We know this. But that word “only” is really important. Only Scripture is perfect. Only Scripture is essential.
What this means is that every Christian author or teacher since the Scriptures has been, in a sense, dispensable. People get saved and mature into obedience without reading or hearing any one person other than Jesus.
I do not mean to say that every Christian is an island unto themselves–alone with the Scriptures–free to believe whatever they decide. I just quoted a 400 year old confession! I think the wisdom of saints through the ages is really important.
What I want to free us from is thinking any one person within any theological tradition is essential. Paul chastises the Corinthians for this kind of thinking: “One of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in Paul’s name?” (I Corinthians 1:12-13).
Other Books to Read, or Not
If a Christian, in good conscience, decides that he or she cannot read Jonathan Edwards because he was a slave-owner, that’s a legitimate decision. We should affirm such decisions even if we’ve made different ones. Giving racism a “yeah, but” to hold up our heroes harms the unity of Christ’s body. At the same time, a brother or sister might keep Edwards on the shelf and that doesn’t make them a racist.
Every one of us makes these calculations to a certain extent. Every Christian teacher is flawed. When do those flaws mean that a teacher’s work should be thrown out? I’ve already argued that there isn’t a perfect formula, so we should give each other room. But you might find the list of qualifications for pastors in I Timothy 3:1-7 helpful. Usually, if I’m going to read, and certainly if I’m going to quote someone, I think they should pass this test.
Let’s try to do this consistently. Let’s not rush to point out the moral flaws of Martin Luther King, Jr. as disqualifying without applying the same process to George Whitfield. Even if we reach different conclusions between ourselves, we will understand each other better if we acknowledge the validity of the approach.
As I consider how to make such judgments about teachers, the conclusion I keep coming back to is that I’m so grateful for a perfect Judge. I can’t weigh the spiritual condition of someone who had great theology but thought racism was fine. God can and will. I pray that each of us will come to know this God and press on towards greater obedience.
- 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1:1.
- As we encounter flawed teachers, pray against a pharisaical attitude, especially as faithful brothers and sisters reach differing conclusions.
- Lament before God the presence of racism in His churches.
- Pray to the One who can change hearts that His people would truly be as they are–one new humanity in Christ.