One of my heroes is George Whitefield, who was a key preacher in the great revival that swept the UK and America in the eighteenth century. John Pollock’s biography of him is one of the most encouraging books I’ve ever read.
And yet, when he was living in Bethesda, Maryland, Whitefield had a period in which he owned slaves. It is true that in this, he was a man of his time; it is also true that he made himself unpopular with slave owners by campaigning for their proper treatment, as few others did at the time. Nevertheless, given the barbarity of the American slave trade, another of his biographers, Arnold Dallimore, writes, “it is deeply to be regretted that Whitefield did not go all the way and see the necessity of complete abolition.”
Another of my heroes is Billy Graham, the great evangelist who died in 2018. I’ll never forget the events week he led at the Christian Union in Cambridge in 1980, and his influence for Christ worldwide was incalculable. And yet biographer George Martin tells us that in the early years of his ministry, he followed the custom of others by allowing racially segregated seating at his meetings (he later changed).
What are we to make of this? Are we to practise an historical version of ‘cancel culture’ and discount the rest of their ministries? Must they vanish from the bookstall? After all, we would find it impossible to justify their actions on these occasions – nor should we.
It is, tragically, true that some leaders have shipwrecked their reputations through sins which show dark secrets in their lives, and in some cases their ministries to have been fraudulent. But the same cannot be said of men like Whitefield or Graham. How, then, are we to process this?
The Bible points the way. The big heroes of Scripture were all also flawed. Abraham, the great man of faith, slept with his maidservant when he doubted God’s promise. David, the man after God’s own heart, slept with Bathsheba and arranged her husband’s death as a cover-up. The Apostle Paul publicly rebuked the Apostle Peter for a cowardice which denied the gospel. Rahab was a prostitute. And so on.
And yet God had dealings with these people, and used them greatly in His purposes. Because, of course, He is the God of grace. Paul’s point in the text at the top of this post is precisely that Abraham was not justified by his works! Nothing excuses their sin, but even in their flawed lives, we see the power and wonder of the true Hero at work. There is much to be encouraged by in the story of their lives, warts and all.
All of which should be an encouragement to us – because of course we are all flawed, too. There is no excuse for sin – we must repent of it and fight it – but thank God that despite its presence in our lives, He can use us! For He is the real hero.