godfather problem: learning arithmetic from hitler

**Just so there’s no confusion, Bill Hybels is not Hitler.**

I was recently doing some light reading on anti-natalism. If you don’t know what that is, anti-natalism is a perky little philosophy that argues procreation is inherently bad and it would have been far better if none of us had ever been born. Therefore refraining from bringing any more life into the world is morally upright. This is also known – at least to me – as the “Cleveland Browns dilemma.” It would be far better that the Browns had never existed than that anyone would have to live his life as a Browns fan. Therefore, it is morally reprehensible for a parent to encourage his child to give his devotion to the Cleveland Browns. Anti-natalists are great at parties.

David Benatar is one of the leading voices for this philosophy. He is also notoriously and intentionally private. It is difficult to find out anything about his personal life or even a picture of him online – a pretty remarkable feat nowadays. His motivation for this intense privacy is more than personal; it is philosophical. He does not want anyone to judge his ideas based on who he is as a person. His ideas stand or fall on their own regardless of his personal choices or lifestyle.

Most people would justifiably be dubious of Benatar’s philosophy if it was discovered that he has five children and coaches his son’s soccer team. But that’s exactly his point. An idea is either true or false – regardless of a person’s willingness or ability to live it out with precision. If it were discovered that Benatar were a hypocrite, that wouldn’t necessarily negate his philosophy. It would just prove him to be a hypocrite.

There’s some truth here. Imagine you discovered that your nutritionist weighed 350 pounds and lived on cheeseburgers and Coke, would that then negate any of the nutrition guidance that he has given you? No. He would be a hypocrite and you probably should find a new nutritionist – someone who is more passionate, committed, and consistent. But his choices don’t suddenly change what is true.

Or imagine that you learned arithmetic from Adolph Hitler. Yes, he’s arguably the worst person who has ever lived. But that fact shouldn’t cause you to question whether 2+2=4. Things are true or things are false. Arguing ad hominem doesn’t necessarily change that.

What about the Church or particular leaders in the church? When the Church behaves badly or when Christians have what I’m calling their Godfather moments, what should we do? Gerhard Kittel was a Lutheran theologian who helped to edit the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, one of the most important works on New Testament words ever produced. He was also a Nazi and a remorseless anti-Semite. John Howard Yoder was an extremely influential Christian ethicist. He was also a notorious sexual predator. Or what about Bill Hybels? He was instrumental in starting one of the largest and most dynamic churches in North America. As a leader, a preacher, and an author, he has influenced millions. And I’m sure that you’ve also heard the disturbing charges that have recently surfaced about him. Do the failings of these and countless other men and women render false and null all of the things that they taught?

I really hope not. For my own sake. The difference between Bill Hybels (to use just one example) and any of us is a difference only in degree, not in kind. I don’t say that to excuse him, but to keep us from the toxic self-righteousness that blinds us to the fact that we are all nothing more than cracked vessels. I’d have to throw away every book on my shelf if it were required that every author were free of hypocrisy – INCLUDING THE BIBLE! Has Hybels lost all credibility? Yes. Has he disqualified himself from leadership ministry? Yes, probably forever. Will I be recommending his books in the future? Heavens no. Should he publicly repent and face the consequences for his actions? Again, yes. Is he deserving of grace, forgiveness, and eventually reconciliation? I hope that’s not a serious question. But none of his failures necessarily render the things that he taught false. When it comes to the Kittels, the Yoders, and the Hybels of the church, we should be careful to seriously evaluate their work for traces of the disease that undid their personal lives. But honestly, we should probably learn to evaluate everything that we read with more care.

The point is that even a wrong person can say true things. And even a imperfect Church can announce a perfect Lord.

Paul told Timothy to watch his life and doctrine closely and to persevere in them both for Timothy’s own sake and for the sake of those to whom he ministers (1 Tim 4:16). In gospel witness both character and doctrine matter. An upright person who teaches false doctrine may gather a crowd to himself but not necessarily to Jesus. Similarly, a deeply flawed person who teaches the truth may never get a hearing or may repel people to the truth because of his character. There are no invisible advocates of the gospel message. But the great truths of the gospel are not grounded in any particular individual or congregation. And thank God for that.

We live in a culture that has grown increasingly agnostic about grounding principles – foundational ideas and ideals, virtues, and truths. Principles have become muted leaving only personalities. Any principles that might exist become intertwined with the personalities of those who lead us in our culture of celebrity. This is a dangerous game. It sets us up to be led away from our principles by a powerful personality or to become completely alienated from our principles when someone in power fails. This is unhealthy for our culture and it is completely toxic for the Church. We are grounded in the truth of the gospel and the authority of the Scriptures. We are ruled by the Lordship of Jesus and are guided by the ministry of the Spirit. Our principles do not cease to be true principles when they are perverted or forgotten by individuals or churches that should know better. In our Godfather moments, we shouldn’t conclude that the Gospel is apparently false. Instead, we should ask “How have we been false to the Gospel?”

Some of you I’m sure have been hurt by Christians or by a church (I don’t say the Church here because I believe it is important to distinguish between the actions of a particular congregation and the Church as an historical and global institution). I know that you’re pain and hurt are real things, and it may be healthy for you to withdraw from an individual or a congregation that has behaved in ways that are inconsistent with the Gospel. But please know that their bad behavior does not change the truth that God exists. He loves you. And he has saved you through the victory of Jesus.

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