On the day we celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King in 2014, one of our contributors (Todd Benkert) wrote an article celebrating the fact that Dr. King’s birthday was “Not Just a Black Holiday” and that all of America should celebrate the work that this man did in bringing racial justice to our land. It did not take long for the discussion to be diverted to whether Dr. King was orthodox in his biblical beliefs or whether he was a liberal who denied the biblical gospel.
This year, Jared Moore posted “A Brief Timeline of the Civil Rights Movement & Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr” and by the second comment that same issue had been reintroduced. Instead of discussing what Dr. King meant to America we spent most of the discussion arguing again over the orthodoxy of King’s theology.
Once the discussion had moved in that direction for a while, I made this comment.
It would seem to me that MLK day would be a good day to focus on the inspirational message of the man, and the work he did, to honor his non-violence and his positive work.
Maybe sometime in July we can discuss some of his theological beliefs – if someone will do their homework. MLK was far from perfect and I’m sure I would not agree with much of his theology. I’d honestly love to see someone interact with his doctrine – after a serious study. That would be fascinating.
But on the national holiday it might be more productive to simply honor those things which this man did well. And frankly, outside of God’s Word, the “I have a dream” speech is maybe the best rhetoric ever.
To focus on his faults on a day when people are honoring his accomplishments sounds shrill, bitter, and even, well, racially insensitive. (I did not say racist, I said racially insensitive!) Are there those who have venerated Dr. King beyond that which is healthy? Certainly – just as some have Charles Haddon Spurgeon or John MacArthur or Adrian Rogers or Barack Obama or a host of other human beings. We tend to turn biography into hagiography. It is healthy for us to take an open-eyed look at our heroes and understand that they were men (or women) like us, with feet of clay, hearts of sin, weaknesses, failings, faults and flaws. But there is a time and a place to to make that examination.
You don’t go to a funeral and recount a man’s worst points, do you? MLK Day is not the time to do an in-depth analysis of Dr. King’s personal or theological failings. So if someone wants to give me a well-researched and documented discussion of Dr. King’s theology in June, fine. But the King holiday is not the time or place to bring that up, in my opinion.
This principle was illustrated ten days ago when ISIS released a bone-chilling video of 21 Coptic Christians being beheaded on a beach along the Mediterranean coast. The veracity of that video has been called into question by some experts. The prevailing opinion is that these 21 were almost certainly murdered by ISIS because of their Christian faith, but that much of that video was recreated or manipulated, computer generated or filmed in front of a green-screen. Still, the core fact remains unchallenged. This evil organization killed 21 men because they refused to renounce Christ.
Social media lit up as Christians expressed their sorrow and outrage at this brutality and identified with these men. How many people do you know who adopted the “21” status on Facebook or Twitter? It was clear and unmistakable that these men were killed for their faith, for their refusal to recant their faith in Jesus Christ. Who among us, who names Christ as Savior and Lord, doesn’t wonder what we would do if we stood before an evil man holding a knife threatening us with death if we did not renounce Christ? Would we have the courage to die for Christ as these men did?
It did not take long, however, until some started tweeting and blogging the fact that these Coptic Christians did not believe the gospel that we believe, were not orthodox in their confessions, did not hold to the ancient creeds and should not be considered true brothers in Christ. These men, according to some, were beheaded for their loyalty to a false version of Christianity, could not be considered Christian martyrs, and must therefore (I assume) be consigned to hell.
I have to admit that my knowledge of Coptic Christianity is limited. I certainly know more now than I did ten days ago, but I am far from an expert. There are some significant issues with their doctrine of the person of Christ and they seem to fall into many of the same errors of practice as the Roman and Eastern churches. But I’d have to leave it to those smarter and more educated than I am to give a better analysis of where the Coptic Christian church stands in terms of the gospel. Suffice it to say these issues are not insignificant.
Here is what I do know:
- That is a perfectly valid and important question. We ought to be free to inquire of every church, denomination and branch of Christianity whether they are faithful to the gospel, whether they are part of the faith once for all handed down to the saints (believers in Jesus Christ!) We ought to examine ourselves and others regularly. It’s a good, godly, and crucial discussion to have.
- When they were kneeling on the beach (let’s assume the video represents what actually happened) the 21 men were not questioned as to their fidelity to or knowledge of Coptic doctrine or their loyalty to the Coptic church, but their loyalty to Christ. It was not a sect or denomination for which they died, but a Savior.
- While there is a time to do a comparative analysis of the doctrinal correctness of the Coptic Christian faith, that was not the time and that was not the place. Twenty-one men were brutally murdered because they refused to renounce Christ. They stood for Jesus and they died for Jesus. That does not justify whatever false doctrines the Coptic church might hold nor is one automatically saved through martyrdom. But common decency and respect demanded that we honor their sacrifice and stand.
My point is that it just wasn’t the time to be making that argument. Why on earth would we need to argue whether these martyrs were in heaven or hell while their blood was still fresh on the beach? What good does that do? Men gave their heads as a testimony to their loyalty to Christ. Honor that. We need not besmirch that by assigning them to hell, do we? Does that serve any purpose? That was not the time or the place for that discussion, in my opinion.
- Would it have been productive for someone to say on September 11, 2001, that most of the 3000 who died that day likely went to a Christ-less eternity? We would all agree, wouldn’t we, that dying by the hand of a terrorist does not give one a place in heaven, and we know that wide is the road that leads to destruction! But wouldn’t you agree that while the buildings were still smoldering it might not have been the time and place to publicly announce that?
- We ought never shrink from truth or be ashamed of the gospel. But that does not require that we be belligerent, insensitive louts with the gospel, does it? I preach the gospel at every funeral I ever preach, but I never tell people that Billy Bob there in the casket is frying in hell, even if there is ample evidence to believe it. Do you? There’s a time and a place. That isn’t it. We don’t deny the truth, but we understand that there is a time and place where truth will be best heard.
Were those 21 truly born-again Christians? I’ve lost my paperback copy of Lamb’s Book of Life so I can’t really tell you. I’ve read enough to believe that the Coptic Christian church has serious doctrinal errors that put it outside the boundaries of orthodox Christianity. But I would say the same thing about the Roman Catholic Church and I’ve known people who were saved within that Church in spite of it. That is why they call God’s grace amazing So, all I know is that 21 men died because they refused to deny Christ. That much I know. Beyond that is speculation and I will leave the rest to God.
But it does seem that tact and common decency are sometimes lost in the rush for doctrinal purity and superiority. I am all for holding the line on doctrinal accountability. But it ought to be done within certain boundaries. That was not the time or place to deal with that issue.
One may wonder why I waited until the furor died down to raise this. Simple. I didn’t want to wade in when tempers were high and when accusations were flying back and forth. That is unproductive. I’d just like to lodge an opinion.
- It is perfectly right to ask whether a church, sect or denomination is orthodox or faithful to the gospel. It is not just okay, it is our duty.
- When the blood of martyrs is still wet on a beach on the Mediterranean – that may not be the best time to start the discussion.