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Due to the uncomfortable nature of this topic, most of us choose to ignore the question. We would rather act like we don't know that Jonathan Edwards, the great Puritan preacher, owned slaves or that Martin Luther, the courageous instigator of the Christian Reformation, is widely known to have been anti-Semitic?
So how do we wrestle through the reality that some of those that are generally regarded for their deep understanding of the gospel failed so miserably to live out this understanding as it pertained to their fellow man?
Wax offers this:
"The one thing we cannot do is to explain away our theological forebears’ attitudes and actions by appealing to the historical context of their time. It’s true we must take into consideration their context in order to understand them and refrain from unnecessary vilification. But we must make sure that as we point out the general social ethics of the day we do not diminish the sinfulness of their practice. Otherwise, we run the risk of elevating right doctrine over right practice in a way that departs from the teaching of the apostles.
Attitudes and actions matter. When Paul confronted Peter for separating himself from the Gentiles, he wasn’t worried that Peter had abandoned justification as a doctrine. Paul called him out because Peter was denying the truth by his practice. In other words, we cannot paper over the sinful actions of our forefathers by appealing to the soundness of their doctrinal beliefs. And let’s be clear. Racial and ethnic superiority is antithetical to the doctrine upon which the church of Jesus Christ stands or falls.
...Slavery is a great evil, but even slavery cannot stand in the way of the grace and glory of the gospel. And just as we learn from the blind spots of the generations who have gone before us, we trust that the blood of Christ will cover our own blind spots. That’s why the more we walk with God, the more we cry like David: "Cleanse me from my hidden faults.""The men and women that went before us were fallible human beings, just as we are today. Because they "missed it" in such an important area does not negate the truth of the message they preached, even if they failed to always live it out in their own lives. These men were influenced by the culture they lived in...and we are influenced by ours. It's a reminder that just because a popular preacher advocates something, it doesn't always mean it lines up with what Scripture teaches. We should always compare what we're being taught to what the Bible actually says.
Just as we are horrified to learn that Bible-believing Christians participated in the slave trade, future generations will be shocked to learn of issues that we tolerated (e.g. abortion). If history has taught us anything, it is not that people are inherently good and that the gospel is not needed but it has shown us that we are wicked and in desperate need of a Savior. Fortunately for us, that Savior is not found among sinful Christian leaders but He stands at the right hand of the Father pleading on our behalf.
To read the rest of Trevin's well-written post please click here.