We who believe in Jesus Christ, need to use this time in history not to attack other believers, dead or alive, but to proclaim our solidarity with fellow believers which include men like Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel (Hebrews 11), men of faith, who committed grievous sins. We cannot be one with them and their faith without being one with them in acknowledgment of the sinfulness of our hearts.
Often in reading the Bible I find that statements that perplex me. They are either saying things that I think sound wrong or that I simply do not understand. I find these discoveries exciting because they give me the opportunity to dig in and try to discover something about the mind of God that my dull mind and darkened heart has not understood. One such portion I have recently revisited is Matthew 23:29-32. Jesus says:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers.”
It is the phrase, “Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets,” that always trips me up. If Jesus had added “even though you are planning to kill me” that would have made sense to me, but I have often struggled to understand Jesus’ meaning in these words. How does decorating the tombs of the prophets and confessing that our fathers were wrong prove the Pharisees are children of (just like) their fathers? I have read several commentaries and they have helped but I still didn’t seem to really understand. Then, by God’s grace my eyes were opened a bit more to see an important truth.
Those who killed the prophets did so primarily to protect themselves from having to face their guilt. They tried to silence the prophets in various ways and ultimately some of the prophets were silenced by murder. No longer did “our fathers” have to face the guilt of their sin day in and day out because the prophet had been silenced. The Pharisees, living hundreds of years later, proclaimed themselves to be better people by decorating the tombs of the prophets and by saying that they would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.
Their motive in doing so was not because they were pure of heart, remember they were trying to get rid of Jesus and would soon plot to kill him. Why did they hate Jesus? Because he pointed out their sin and made them face their guilt. Was this not also their motive in proclaiming their superiority to their fathers? They proclaimed that they were not guilty of grievous sin, like their fathers, for they agreed with the prophets. Jesus pointed out that this made them just like their fathers in a deeper way, they would do anything to escape facing their own guilt.
What an important message for our moment in history! Christians are joining the movement to proclaim the sins of their fathers. For many it is uncomfortable to do so, but like a cornered criminal they will turn on their partner in crime to save themselves. According to one of the most recent announcements First Presbyterian Church of Columbia, South Carolina is removing the names of James Henley Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer from its church buildings, lecture series and church publications. This is just one example of what is happening in the church today. Christians are proclaiming the sins or their forefathers and distancing themselves from them.
But if, as Jesus says in Matthew 23, by confessing the sins of our forefathers we are proving to be their children what are we to do? We need to understand that it is not the confession of sin that is wrong but the sitting in judgment over our forefathers’ sins rather than in standing in solidarity with them confessing our sin.
Let me suggest one approach to be considered. In the First Presbyterian situation would it not be better to keep the names on the buildings and place two plaques under them? The first would list some of the great accomplishments that brought the church to recognize them so highly. There had to be good reasons for their recognition by the church, unless the reason for their recognition was because of their pro slavery position and their twisting of scripture.
The second plaque would go something like this. “James Henley Thornwell was, like us, a believer in Jesus Christ, redeemed by the blood of the lamb. Like us, he was endowed and empowered by the Holy Spirit. But he was also a sinner who was dull in mind and darkened in heart. One outworking of his fallen nature was that he twisted Scripture to justify and promote slavery. He, like us, was saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We confess that we are of the same nature as James Henley Thornwell and if we had lived in his place and time in history there is no reason to expect that we would have thought and acted differently than he did. We confess that we are dull in mind and darkened in hearts so that we do not love God with all our hearts, souls and minds; nor do we love our neighbor as ourselves. Some of the specific sins that flow from our darkened hearts we are aware of and we do freely confess and repent of those sins. Other specific sins in our dullness brought on by the devil, the world and our own sinful nature, like our forefathers, we are blind to see. We rest on the righteousness of Christ alone to save us. We also pray that by God’s grace He would open our minds and hearts and that He would lead us to see our sin and repent from our hearts of all our sins.”
We who believe in Jesus Christ, need to use this time in history not to attack other believers, dead or alive, but to proclaim our solidarity with fellow believers which include men like Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel (Hebrews 11), men of faith, who committed grievous sins. We cannot be one with them and their faith without being one with them in acknowledgment of the sinfulness of our hearts. Will we be followers of the Pharisees in these days or will we heed the words of Jesus in Matthew 23?
Dennis Eide is a retired Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America; he lives in Winter Springs, Florida.