How Can We Love and Honor Christian Leaders with Complicated Pasts?

Jonathan Edwards owned slaves. Karl Barth had a long-term relationship with a woman not his wife. Martin Luther used anti-Semitic language. John Calvin supported the execution of Servetus. These and many other examples create a dilemma for Christians, especially evangelical leaders. Should these voices be cancelled because of their sinfulness? Should we refuse to read or engage with such figures? Should we make exceptions for them because of their overwhelmingly positive contributions? Is there a healthy way to respect and honor these figures in history without minimizing, justifying, rationalizing, dismissing, or otherwise excusing their sin?

In her book, A More Just Future, social psychologist Dolly Chugh presents a way to think about this tension and dilemma.1 Her case study focuses on patriotism; she identifies the “‘patriot’s dilemma,’ the more we love this county, the less likely we are to do the necessary work to improve it.”2 It should be noted, she is an immigrant and she writes as a patriot, a lover of the United States of America. She also writes, “The more we identify with heroes of the past, the more threatened we feel by their subheroic behavior.”3 This seems to summarize the dilemma Christian leaders face. Our theological anthropology includes both total depravity and the hope of progress in Christlikeness.

Chugh presents a seven-step practical process as a way to understand and embrace this tension. She begins with the first step, to see the problem. This often requires some unlearning of what one had thought; to accept reality. Then, she encourages the use of “three psychological tools—embracing the paradoxes of American history, connecting the dots between past and present, and rejecting fables obscuring facts.”4 Finally, she encourages her readers to take responsibility to build a future based on truth.

This paper will apply Chugh’s methodology to the questions raised upon. Although she approaches the question from a different discipline, her method does provide insights that theologians, historians, and biblical scholars could use to great advantage. After a summary of her argument, I will show how Christian leaders can embrace the tension of the reality that humans are fallen and fallible, that we are capable of great contributions and shameful behavior, and that loving the contributions of these heroic figures while acknowledging their brokenness is a healthy way forward. In this way, we can both love these heroes, not naively and ignorantly but rooted in the truth, while acknowledging their complicated pasts. Her method helps us to understand both the positives and the negatives, while also taking responsibility for our own behavior in our time.

1 Dolly Chugh, A More Just Future: Psychological Tools for Reckoning with Our Past and Driving Social Change (New York: Atria Books, 2022).
2 Chugh, More Just Future, 31.
3 Chugh, More Just Future, 31.
4 Chuch, More Just Future, 134.

3 thoughts on “How Can We Love and Honor Christian Leaders with Complicated Pasts?”

  1. Looks good, but I also question session fit
    Looks like a good paper, but might be better suited for another session. I think it should be included somewhere in the ETS program, but perhaps not in this session.


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