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Inspired by fallen men

December 4, 2010

Perhaps nothing stirs the hearts of believers more than learning about the human nature of saints of old.  The leaves of Scripture are filled with stories of men who both served God and also failed miserably to match His holiness.  Some of the tales read like a modern tabloid magazine.  Judah sleeping with his daughter-in-law.  Noah lying naked in a drunken stupor while his son mocks him.  Jacob deceiving his father and stealing his brother’s inheritance.  Solomon amassing a legion of wives.  David hiring the military to murder a man to conceal his own adultery.  Paul violently persecuting Christian believers.  No student of the Bible wears rose-colored glasses when looking at the people portrayed in it.  The struggles that they lived through and the choices that they made were fleshly–just like the men themselves.

In the New Testament James urges believers to confess their sins to one another and to pray for each other (5:16).  The ideal church model is not for pious Christians to put on a facade on Sunday morning.  Like the believers in Acts who came and “openly confessed” their sins, we too are to be authentic and expose our faults to our brethren.  Confessing sin is a humbling process that requires great humility.  But it is the process of overcoming sin that truly magnifies our Savior.  What a blessing it is to hear of someone caught in an addiction, in a lifestyle, in a horrible situation who cried out to Jesus for help and was rescued.

Oh, to have the humility of David who cried, “I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me” (Psa. 51:3).  Or the frank appraisal of the Apostle Paul, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15).  Solomon’s plush lifestyle became a source of despondency in his old age as he looked back with regret and uttered, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (Ecc. 1:2).

Imagine if you never knew the backdrop to Psalms 51—the timeless song of repentance.  What if Paul’s pre-Christian life, as you understood it, was the lily-white piety of a died-in-the wool Pharisee?  Would Solomon’s proverbs and end-of-life petitions pack the same punch if his famous womanizing wasn’t the first thing that came to mind when you read, “For the lips of an immoral woman drip honey, and her mouth is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword.  Her feet go down to death, her steps lay hold of hell” (Prov. 5:3-5).  The drama of the Bible is that the world is full of sin but God loved sinners enough to offer to save them—despite their utter lack of worthiness.

Like the New Testament church and Old Testament patriarchs, the modern church is full of people with history, believers with a story of redemption to tell.  Like garish tattoos, some histories are as visible as inked arms outstretched in prayer.  Others are the acutely embarrassing addictions and relationships that have taken their heavy personal toll.  Even believers with a less colorful past have a deep awareness of the sad state of their heart apart from Christ and can echo the words of Paul, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).

Why do Christians love to emphasize the humanity of their heroes of the faith?  Is it simply an indulgent form of lowering standards and expectations?  Perhaps reading about David’s affair would give license to someone tempted by adultery, and thus promote sin.  Jesus’ generous forgiveness and restitution to Peter could cause other believers to deny the Lord and expect immediate forgiveness as well.  Isn’t it dangerous to know all the flaws and shortcomings of such great men of faith?

As a Christian who has indulged in reading about the sins of Biblical characters, I can say this with a degree of personal experience:  knowing the past sins of others provides hope.  What a blessing to know that God is able to still use cracked and broken vessels!  He doesn’t abandon those who abandon Him.  He calls men to accountability and is ever-ready to forgive those who humble themselves in true repentance.  The Bible is not simply a documentary of the sordid affairs of men; it is a masterpiece biography on the nature of God.  How He deals with sinful men shows us His breathtaking love and forgiveness.

It is this acceptance by Christians of Biblical fallen heroes that must cause Mormons to cry foul.  How can Christians accept David and Paul but not Joseph Smith?  The Mormon Prophet’s life has been picked apart, scrutinized under a microscope and thoroughly dissected.  Yet, the portions of his life that the LDS church generally publishes are extremely tame when compared to the stories of the Bible, or to Joseph Smith’s own personal history.

When the Mormon missionaries visit they often want to end with a word of encouragement.  Here is a message that I would like to hear.  I’d like to hear an honest statement about their Prophet—a candid Biblical-style account.  I would love to hear them share the shortcomings of their Prophet and his repentance and restoration by God.  They could finish by challenging me, “If God could save a sinner like our Prophet he could rescue you as well.”

But, its a story I will never hear.  Within the walls of the LDS church Joseph Smith’s sins must remain unspoken.  He must remain an unspotted leader, without the clouds of controversy that could tarnish his relevance.  Why the reluctance to publicize his sins?  Perhaps it is the Prophet’s own lack of repentance and turning-away that causes LDS leadership to shy away from holding him up as a “sinner saved by grace.”

Our humanity causes us to look upon sin and dismiss it by shrugging, “We’re all human.”  But God’s holiness requires us to be more sober than that.  Let us be glad that the Judge of all the earth provides us with mercy and grace when we run to Him in repentance, openly acknowledging our sin.

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. December 4, 2010 6:09 pm

    Huh, I’ve never really thought about it from quite that angle – the part about Joseph Smith, I mean. Some of the more knowledgeable LDS folks I’ve talked to have naturally conceded the very real imperfections of their prophets. And yet, it doesn’t factor very much into the standard sterilized narrative that gets presented, in which those figures are larger than life. It’s in much the same vein that, I must admit, I have a tendency to not want to focus on the glaring faults of some of the Church Fathers a lot of the time. Part of it is because those are seized upon so readily in anti-orthodox polemics, and another part is that I don’t have a very particular desire to recognize those; I suspect that the same two dynamics are present in LDS perspectives on, e.g., Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Those are natural human impulses, and it’s often startling just how brilliantly the Bible exposes the fallenness of even some of its leading protagonists. I think it’s a standard of very difficult transparency to which we all need to somehow aspire.

  2. Seth R. permalink
    December 5, 2010 6:43 am

    Joseph only sinned in his marriages if he was not commanded by God to do them.

    Basically what you are doing here is begging the question and assuming from the get-go that his marriages were not commanded by God.

    Why should I, or any Mormon, concede that point to you?

  3. December 5, 2010 4:03 pm

    Seth, I didn’t notice anything in Stephanie’s post that specifically pointed to any of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages as the sins in question. All I saw was a general note that Joseph Smith, like all the rest of us, had his faults, areas of his life that needed to be redeemed and transformed by God’s grace – just as was the case with the biblical patriarchs, prophets, and apostles. Did I miss something that Stephanie said that unwarrantedly singled out any of Joseph Smith’s marital entanglements as among his sins without argument?

  4. NickyMac permalink
    December 5, 2010 11:23 pm

    This was a really great reminder, thanks Stephanie!

    It does comfort me to read that these men fell short too because I so often feel like Paul who said, “I do the things I don’t want to do but the things I want to do those I don’t do.”

    With regards to Joseph Smith I think its very telling that he is painted in perfection– and even more telling that the people who look up to him have to see him as perfect. Why would it affect anything for him not to be perfect? What are they building him up to be? Their Saviour?

    Things go horribly wrong for people when they start focusing more on men than God. God is a jealous God.

    What I love about God is that He uses–and will always use–the weak. He doesn’t use the already perfect. He seems to have more compassion on the pathetic. I love that verse that says, “She who is forgiven much loves much.” Horribly sinful people are quite aware of their sinful nature and this is the state a person needs to be in to receive grace.

  5. John Scherer permalink
    December 6, 2010 5:39 pm

    Nicki,

    I have never seen the prophet as perfect, nor have I even desired to. I think that you are making a broad genralization here.

  6. December 8, 2010 8:47 pm

    Seth~

    Joseph only sinned in his marriages if he was not commanded by God to do them.

    Polygamy was actually not the point of this post, even though coming from me that may be hard to believe. As much as a I personally disagree with polygamy, I don’t think that it is necessarily a sin in and of itself. It is never listed among the various sins in the New Testament and, except for the command for bishops to be a “husband of one wife,” I don’t see any blasting condemnation of the practice. On the other hand, the Bible doesn’t condemn speeding in school zones, but scripture does teach following the laws of the land.

    It is a gross oversimplification to label Joseph Smith’s marriages as simply “polygamous.” Meticulous biographers of Smith treat these relationships in a much more complex light and I think this is the kind of exposure that the LDS leadership should grant. Joseph Smith was a multi-faceted figure–how can followers accept his teachings while only being exposed to one aspect of his life? His sins are just as relevant as his revelations.

    John Scherer~

    The LDS church has a website devoted to Joseph Smith. I’ve searched it myself to see what they say about the less-favorable parts of his life and I haven’t found anything at all. You can look for yourself and see how he is portrayed in nothing less but glowing, flawless perfection.

    ~Stephanie

  7. John Scherer permalink
    December 9, 2010 1:49 pm

    Do most other churches detail their founder’s mistakes and flaws on missionary websites? I’m no expert, but I’d be surprised. Anyway, you don’t have to go any further than our established cannon to learn about Joesph’s mistakes and humanity.

  8. Seth R. permalink
    December 9, 2010 4:30 pm

    I don’t recall the Lutherans ever mentioning Martin Luther’s views on which books ought to be included in the Bible canon.

    Like that one time he called the Epistle of James “an epistle of straw.”

  9. December 9, 2010 9:27 pm

    John and Seth~

    Do most other churches detail their founder’s mistakes and flaws on missionary websites? I’m no expert, but I’d be surprised. Anyway, you don’t have to go any further than our established cannon to learn about Joesph’s mistakes and humanity.

    As I’m sure you know, Evangelical churches in America today don’t necessarily have a “founder” other than Christ. The comparison of Luther is a weak one since Luther is never called a Prophet (capital P) and never provided new revelation to the church. In fact, he was a reformer in the true sense of the word. Whereas the Catholic church was focusing on revelation through men, Luther emphasized the reliance upon scripture alone. For what its worth, I did search the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod’s website and found this article on Luther’s lack of acceptance of the books of James and Revelation.

    My last several pastors have all come to Christ later in life, and thus have a much more detailed testimony than those who grew up in a Christian home. Each of my pastors has been very public in their admission of past sins and how their life was transformed by Christ. This is the normal biblical pattern–repentance and restoration. My suggestion is that there is no good evidence that Joseph Smith did repent. This makes it difficult for LDS leadership to discuss his sins when it is obvious that he never turned from them.

  10. December 9, 2010 10:07 pm

    Stephanie’s right about Luther. And to my knowledge, Lutherans do not place nearly as much of an emphasis on Luther as a leader and an example as Latter-day Saints often do on Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and later leaders of their group. Also, for what it’s worth, I attend a seminary with a distinctively Wesleyan/Methodist heritage, and already at several chapel services speakers have distinctly and clearly mentioned a number of John Wesley’s personal failings. That seems to at least be a step in the direction of the biblical model of presenting leaders in a realistic manner, mentioning both their virtues and their vices.

    And like I said before, even if it were true that Lutherans (or Wesleyans, or members of any other distinctive Christian tradition) were prone to present a whitewashed view of Luther, Wesley, et al., this would only establish that Latter-day Saints aren’t alone in needing to work to overcome this tendency; it would by no means establish that the problem doesn’t exist.

  11. John scherer permalink
    December 9, 2010 11:19 pm

    ‘Whereas the Catholic church was focusing on revelation through men, Luther emphasized the reliance upon scripture alone.’

    -Not to rehash an old, tired debate that never goes anywhere, but I don’t think that’s possible. Without someone’s interpretation that is.

    ‘My suggestion is that there is no good evidence that Joseph Smith did repent. This makes it difficult for LDS leadership to discuss his sins when it is obvious that he never turned from them.’

    – I couldn’t disagree more.

  12. John Scherer permalink
    December 9, 2010 11:21 pm

    Unless, of course you’re looking for evidence that Joseph repented of things that he was commanded to do; you won’t find any evidence of that of course.

  13. Seth R. permalink
    December 9, 2010 11:47 pm

    Stephanie, I’m well aware that many Evangelicals use “pastor-shopping” as a tool for avoiding responsibility for their history.

    We should all be so fortunate.

  14. December 10, 2010 1:59 am

    John,

    Not to rehash an old, tired debate that never goes anywhere, but I don’t think that’s possible. Without someone’s interpretation that is.

    Point taken. I agree that the interpretation of the Bible is a vital difference among Christian groups. However, there is no denying that Luther did emphasize sola scriptura. That is much different than promoting new revelation from God.

    Unless, of course you’re looking for evidence that Joseph repented of things that he was commanded to do; you won’t find any evidence of that of course.

    I think that we have the ability to be more objective than this. After all, if God commanded me to kill you that certainly wouldn’t make it right, would it?

    Seth,

    Pastor shopping? I’m not sure where I said anything about that. 🙂

  15. Seth R. permalink
    December 10, 2010 2:09 am

    It’s part and parcel of a certain Evangelical mindset I see in some quarters that refuses to be held accountable for its own legacy and history.

    The truth is, Martin Luther was an impressive theological mind. He had powerful and compelling reasons for his dismissal of the Epistle of James. He’d thought the book, and its implications through much more thoroughly than most Evangelical bloggers have. When he made that statement – there was a reason. A reason you are not indicating you are interested in facing.

    I am simply not going to be impressed by attempts to wave Luther away by Evangelicals who seem to think God gave them the right to reinvent religion in their own image every day, without any reference to the past and minds much greater than theirs that is not both self-selecting, and rather opportunistic.

    It’s an entire ethos of religious practice plagued by a certain irresponsible abandon and dismissal of any past figure who causes even the slightest bit of discomfort.

    As a Mormon, I don’t have that luxury. But I see my theological position as just a bit more responsible and aware of the past than Evangelicals who’d like to cherry-pick only the attractive parts of the past and chuck the rest in the bin.

  16. Seth R. permalink
    December 10, 2010 2:11 am

    Some Evangelicals are like this, I should say.

    Like most of the crowd at Mormon Coffee.

    Must be nice not to have any responsibility for your legacy.

  17. December 11, 2010 6:11 pm

    In general I think Joseph Smith was rather open about his mistakes and human weakness and that it is natural for followers to uplift and protect the image of the leaders they respect and admire. We do it as Americans with our Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, etc.

    I find Joseph’s admission to sin and mistakes quite open, he is even directly and sometimes harshly rebuked in revelations he dictated, which is quite remarkable when you think about it, particularly if one does not believe that Joseph’s revelations were from God. His personal journals and writings are widely available and the church is going to great lengths to make them more accessible through the Joseph Smith Papers. The church supports and even is proud of having historians such as Richard Bushman among their ranks who have analyzed Joseph’s character, warts and all, yet are not out to just smear his image.

    I think the Mormons generally have good taste in seeing the good in people and in human potential and choosing to focus on that for both people both in and outside Mormonism even when they are completely opposed to one another morally and doctrinally. Perhaps because of their own history I think Mormons are generally averse to vilifying others.

  18. December 11, 2010 10:33 pm

    We had a discussion of this over at Tim’s blog a year ago, here. I contrasted a few evangelical biographies of great Christian men: Harry S. Stout’s biography on George Whitefield, which other evangelicals criticized for dwelling on Whitefield’s foibles and shortcomings, and Iain Murray’s biography of Jonathan Edwards, which Stout criticizes for omitting warts such as the fact that Edwards was a slave-holder. Some of the points that were made in the discussion:

    – Yes, evangelicals do sometimes whitewash the sins of great evangelical leaders
    – The thing that evangelicals are probably most guilty of whitewashing is the Bible
    – When we do share the sins of our leaders, it’s usually because they can be crafted into the service of a theological narrative, i. e. “this person was once lost and now s/he is found,” or “look how God rehabilitated him/her from his/her sins.”

    That isn’t to say that we’re entirely in the same boat as Mormons on this subject, because we’re not. The fact is, our strong emphasis on the sinful and fallen nature of humanity creates a lot more space for talking about the warts of our leaders. Furthermore, we aren’t saddled with a taboo against “speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed.”

    This is an excerpt from a book that my advisor here at TEDS wrote, in the chapter dealing with the evangelical history of slavery and racism. I think it does a good job showing how evangelicals call out the sins of their past leaders while crafting a narrative of God’s redemption at work within us:

    “The evangelical movement has suffered from the sins of racial prejudice ever since it first emerged from the eighteenth-century Great Awakening. While evangelicals did not invent the sins of racism or ethnocentrism, the slave trade, segregation, discrimination, or racial hate groups, literally millions of white evangelicals have either participated in or sanctioned one or more of these things, distorting their common witness to the gospel. . . . [E]vangelicals are still untangling themselves from this sordid legacy.

    “It is important not to forget the utter enormity of this evil or the extent to which evangelicals condoned it. But it is also important not to forget that evangelicals played a greater role than any other group in taking the gospel to the slaves and treating them as spiritual equals. Paradoxically, while many leading white evangelical ministers owned slaves (Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield), defended slavery (Charles Hodge and James Henley Thornwell), and preached to segregated crowds (Charles Finney, D. L. Moody, and Billy Graham), some of these people also pioneered black evangelization, education, and even economic uplift. Many other, more progressive evangelical reformers played a major role in the rise of antislavery agitation. Further, evangelicals have contributed more than most white groups to the development of African American worship, doctrine, and practice. Conversely, African Americans have exerted extensive influence on the worship, doctrine, and practice of white evangelicals.” ~ Douglas A. Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement (Grand Rapids, Mich.: BakerAcademic, 2005), 108-9.

    Note the words and phrases that he uses to describe evangelicalism’s history with race:

    “the sins of racial prejudice”
    “sins of racism or ethnocentrism, the slave trade, segregation, discrimination, or racial hate groups”
    “sordid legacy”
    “utter enormity of this evil”

    Can you imagine a Mormon historian saying similar things about Mormonism’s history with race? I can’t. It would be seen as speaking evil against the Brethren.

    And that’s the challenge for Mormon historians: how to narrate the wrong-doings of past leaders—particularly the wrong-doings of leaders who never expressed repentance or regret, as is usually the case—without being seen as criticizing the Brethren. I’m not sure it can be done.

  19. December 14, 2010 12:26 am

    Seth,

    I think that you bring up a valid point about Luther. The situation Luther and his fellow reformers found themselves in with the rejection of Roman Catholic tradition was unique. Especially when you consider that part of that tradition was in some respects the canon itself. The recognition of the canonical books by the Protestants in the 16th century presented a whole host of issues. We cannot just dismiss this comment but taken in its historical context it does seem to be a minor issue that was handled when the statement was removed from subsequent editions of his translation of the Bible.

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