Commenting on celebrities and social events has its hazardous side. We are warned that even a fool can be considered wise if he keeps silent (Prov.17:28). The death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, aged ninety, in December 2021 was followed soon after by Martin Luther King Day which is celebrated on 17 January each year in the USA. All and sundry were drawn into praising both men, and it seemed that only the most churlish would object.
Regarding the Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King, his ‘I have a dream’ speech of 1963 is moving but very self-conscious. Theologically, King was hardly an evangelical. When he was at Crozier Theological Seminary, he wrote essays where he rejected the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus. His social views are a little more complex. Fears on the part of some FBI agents that he was a communist reflect paranoia rather than reality. King was committed to non-violence, and the Jim Crow approach of forced segregation of blacks from whites was contrary to Scripture and doomed to fail. David Garrow reports that King had many extramarital affairs. Although King – unwisely, to put it mildly – accepted an award from Planned Parenthood in 1966, he opposed abortion. However, Coretta Scott King, his wife, and then widow after his assassination in 1968, supported both abortion and homosexual rights.
Like King, Desmond Tutu has been almost canonised by the mainstream media. Again, like King, there are achievements in Tutu’s life that are admirable. I recall seeing on television his courageous intervention to prevent an attempted case of ‘necklacing’ – placing a tyre filled with petrol around a victim’s neck, and then setting it alight. His stance in chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 was crucial, it would seem, in preventing a bloodbath in the aftermath of the dismantling of apartheid – although there was still plenty of violence.
The cynic might comment that nobody gets everything wrong. Tutu tried hard in significant areas of life. He supported abortion and euthanasia, and denounced the nation of Israel as a Nazi-like state. He vigorously supported the United Nations and Amnesty International in campaigning for the acceptance of homosexual behaviour. In doing so, he uttered words that surely no Christian would utter. He declared: ‘I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven … (and) I would not worship a God who is homophobic.’
What can the Christian make of this? Here are two well-known professing Christian leaders who did some impressive things and were undoubtedly used by God in one way or another. Yet they flouted the Word of God, trampling on what it clearly teaches. It becomes more complicated when one recalls that the great J. Gresham Machen supported segregation in a private exchange with B. B. Warfield in 1913. Having said that, he was supporting segregation, not slavery. Are we not, each one of us, in error? Calvin himself admitted: ‘We are all naturally prone to hypocrisy.’
In the later years of his long life, Richard Baxter commented: ‘I now see more good and more evil in all men than heretofore I did.’ That is true, and a humble heart is appropriate for all of us. Nevertheless, the worst lesson to be drawn from these considerations is the view that we ought to tolerate all who say they are Christian because we all make mistakes. That is lazy thinking disguised as humility. The waters are no doubt murky at times, and hard to navigate. Nevertheless, God’s Word is given as a lamp shining in a dark place (2 Pet.1:19). If we reject it – as King and Tutu did – the applause of naïve evangelicals and an unbelieving world will not suffice.