Flawed Men

Church History is a deeply under-studied and under-valued part of Christianity today. It was not always like this. At one point, Church History was actually one of the two pillars of the church that defended the faith. Catholics believed that Church History and Theology together proved the Church’s teachings. Of course, some of that church history for the catholics were miracles and visions and the like. 

But the point was that Church History was once extremely important. And it should still be. I can point to several people, including St. Augustine, who a part of their coming to faith was reading the stories of those who lived for Christ before them. So even just from an evangelistic point of view church history should matter to us. 

We need it to strengthen our beliefs, to better understand our beliefs, and to appreciate God’s work throughout the two thousand years since Acts.

Yet Elise said this once in an interview, and I think it may be the number one reason we stay away from Church History. If it’s not number one, it’s very high on the list. We’re scared of Church History. 

We are scared of liking someone in church history, only to find out they hold to bad theology. Or they hold to bad beliefs of some other kind. Or something else about them. Maybe the denomination they started has gone south. There’s something there, so we are scared. 

We ignore much of the church history that does not align with our theological camp. We read the books and doctrines of great church history makers, but we ignore the works that they did while they were alive. We value their writings completely above their actual lives. Which only tells us some of the story.

And we do it because Church History is filled with flawed men. Flawed people. People who were not and are not perfect. And that makes us unable to enjoy it. Because in the modern age, we need perfection and goodness or we are afraid that the corruption will rub off on us. 

Revived Thoughts deals with this a lot. Half of our episodes we have to deal with controversial things about the speakers of the sermons we cover.

And let’s be not sugar coat it. Sometimes they’re pretty bad. 

Let’s start with the biggest one that society throws our way. Racism is real: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Cotton Mather (who we have an episode coming out soon on spoken by the world famous, Ed Backell), Dagg, Carroll. I mean, we have former Confederates on our show, slave-owners, etc. 

How do we deal with this? And how do we do it in a way that doesn’t “diminish” what they did, but also doesn’t idolize the one sin they had over the good that they did.

And even harder, how do we contextualize it? Are we allowed to? Some people would not want us to. Like, if I said, “George Whitefield held big evangelistic meetings for African Americans at a time when most speakers would not bother, and may have created the African Methodist Church,” by doing so, am I white-washing over his Slave-owning side? 

And this is just one aspect of a flaw. There is also Anti-Semitism. Luther wrote an entire book titled: The Jews and their Lies and called them, among many things, broods of Vipers. Several of the Reformed leaders that people look up to do not have nice things to say about the Jewish people. 

Although Calvin, in research for this episode, did. But then look at how Calvin lived his personal life. In his ideal city of Geneva, which we have praised the good parts of in earlier episodes (such as it being where the idea that all men are equal under the law, created equal, no favors for position born), was known to stone a girl who was rebellious to her parents. And put people in jail for gambling. A lot of people hear that and go, “Yikes, what could a guy who does stuff like that teach me today about God?” 

Cotton Mather helped lead the Salem Witch Trials which led to innocent people being killed in a massive panic. Balthasar Hubmaier held a pogrom against Jews (to be fair, prior to his conversion away from Catholicism), etc. 

And personal lives matter, too. If we knew of a pastor who had a terrible relationship with his wife and an ugly divorce, it’d make us question going to him, right? Well, John Wesley certainly had one of those. Or one who did not seem to care much about his kids? Well, A. W. Tozer could certainly be accused of that.

C. S. Lewis is beloved by many Christians from Catholics to Evangelicals. Yet he has made some troubling statements, which taken alone, could lead many to be concerned. Should we then throw him and his books out? (Here are the quotes:
still believe (as I do) that all Holy Scripture is in some sense—though not all parts of it in the same sense—the Word of God.”
In reference to Genesis: I have therefore no difficulty in accepting, say, the view of those scholars who tell us that the account of Creation in Genesis is derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical.

And then there’s the fact that people change. Some people who seemed great in their 40’s, in their 80s seem less so. And the reverse happens, too. Sometimes in their 40s their less great but they got better with age. When we study them, can we take the stuff at their 40s but forget the later stuff? Does it all flow together? Where do we draw these lines?

And then there is another aspect of the flawed men problem. Some men were heretics. Some men did lead cults. Some men really are only worth studying as a cautionary tale. Their sermons should be forgotten because they were teaching treachery. There’s no reason to bother with them. So it’s not like all of the people that history has declaimed should be remembered, because there really are people that we are better off leaving alone. 

With so many questions, it starts to make sense why so many have said, forget it. I have the Bible. I have so many theology books to read. There are plenty of great teachers today. I’ll not bother with all this history. 

One of my favorite moments in Church History is when Spurgeon is preaching at Whitefield’s old church. And he looks at the audience and he asks them, “Why, where is the Whitefield of today? Is there anyone encouraging, challenging, and convicting the people of London like men like Whitefield once did?” I love it because the irony is so present to us. Any of us hear that and probably can’t help but smile. Spurgeon was the Whitefield of his day. Massive crowds gathered to hear him in his day, and his sermons are still beloved over a hundred and 30 years after he died.

But Spurgeon had someone he was looking up to beyond himself. It was someone who had come before him. Someone, that in his mind, had crossed dangerous ocean waters to spread the Gospel all around the known world at his time. Spurgeon saw in Whitefield an evangelist who would go the extra mile to proclaim the Gospel. And it challenged him to see himself as less, and make more of a great saint of the past. 

When we leave out Church History, we become narrow-minded: 
We think the problems we deal with today are unique. Oh no, the church is becoming soft on doctrine. We’ve seen it before. It happens, in fact, pretty commonly. And the results of not taking it seriously are bad. We can look at Church History and point to places where it happens. But we can also see that when people stand up and take a firm stance, they will find that the church can weather the storm. When the whole world is telling you that you are wrong, we can point to examples of times when that happened before and they were the ones wrong. 

It gives you insight into your theology. People love their theology and doctrines. But knowing who created the statements, books, and creeds you love and understanding what they were facing helps you appreciate the work they did. Usually, even moreso when you realize how complicated and conflicted the times that they were fighting against. The Nicene Creed may be the most famous of these. Knowing that the entire Empire was being split in half between Arians and not, and that people going to the store were asked to pick a side before the shop-owner would sell to them, shows you just how important that creed was. 

It also reminds you: You do not have it so bad.

Did you just land in the worst civil war of all history like Hudson Taylor? 

Did you have to deal with the black plague like Wycliffe? 

Did you watch people die in the trenches of World War 1? 

Did you watch your family lose their fortune like J. C. Ryle?

Were you a criminal looking to score a few bucks, like Mueller?

And to borrow from Martyrs and Missionaries, have you ever experienced anything like Gladys Aylward? Watch 200 martyrs get killed in the town square? Or poisoning attempts like Annie Taylor? Or Tuberculosis like David Brainerd? Or animals maul your friends in the gladiator colosseum? Or does the Catholic church lock you in a tower like John Bradford?

No, when we look at Church History, we realize things could be a lot worse. 

And we also find people like us there: 
Do you have a physical handicap? George Matheson was blind, but he preached before the Queen of England at her highest moment of power.
Do you struggle with depression? Spurgeon can relate to that melancholy that haunts the soul. 
What about other mental disorders? So many of these guys, from Hudson Taylor’s later in life mental break (or Jonathan Swift’s) to A. B. Simpson, this is a common problem. 
What about disadvantages in life? Christmas Evans could not read until he was 17, as a poor miner kid in the 1800s. David Livingstone started working at the age of ten and had to pay for his own schooling at night while living in one room apartment with his six siblings and parents. 
DL Moody’s dad died, and his oldest brother ditched the family, leaving his mom alone with several kids to make ends meet.
Alexander Whyte’s dad was never in the picture and his mom had to raise him alone at a time when out of wedlock kids were frowned upon.
Calvin’s dad wanted him to be a lawyer. Luther’s dad did, too. 
Annie Taylor’s parents did not think she should be a missionary and cut her off for it. 
Andrew Gray’s dad locked him in the attic of the house to keep him from going to church. 

And this is just family situations. What situation you are in, there are Christians who faithfully persevered through it. Do you struggle with addiction to alcohol? Samuel P Jones and Scofield know what that’s like. Do you struggle with unrighteous lusts? St. Augustine has been there, too. Not cut out for ministry? David Livingstone failed his first preaching exam. As did so many others. Struggle with relating to people? Alexander Maclaren did not think he did that well, either. 

There’s so many. And so many to inspire us to be greater. To have courage and quit our jobs because we won’t agree with the prevailing ideologies of the day, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer did (The only one to not go along with the Nazi ideology at his university, except his brother in law). Or the courage to share the Gospel with everyone we meet like G. Campbell Morgan. 

There is so much we have to learn from these flawed men. This show has taught me that it is no surprise to find flawed men in history. All men are born sinners, right? We are all flawed. But what is surprising is to see one group of people, united throughout 2000 years, giving so much for the souls of others. It is one of the startling and most powerful forces of argument for our faith. That from Basil selling all he owned to give to the poor, to Jim Elliot, we have a long history of people giving up their belongings, their reputations, their families, their lives for God. 

And that is why, the flawed men do not bother us. And when you really know what you believe, and have confidence in it, you will not be bothered by it. You’ll love it! Because these flawed men, are your sisters and brothers in Christ. You’ll meet them in Heaven. And despite how broken they are, you’ll love how God used them to further His glorious purposes.