Discerning Christians have a duty to be very careful in choosing their heroes. We should not idolize anyone because it’s popular to do so, but examine the person’s life very carefully, keeping in mind the full counsel of scripture. A lot of good Christians, both liberal and conservative, admire Martin Luther King, and hold him up as a great man, worthy of reverence and imitation. A careful examination of King’s life convinces me that Christians should not hold him up as a great hero.
First and foremost, King was an unrepentant adulterer. While the full details are impossible to pin down, it’s beyond any reasonable doubt that he was not faithful to Coretta, and had many affairs. If you believe the testimony of his right hand man, Ralph Abernathy, he was even committing adultery on the day of his death in Memphis. Rather shamefully, the official guardians of King’s legacy fight tooth and nail against acknowledging any of this, and try to pretend nothing ever happened.
You might ask why his unfaithfulness matters. Shouldn’t we focus on his civil rights activism, and let his private life be private? Biblically, the answer must be no. Whether private or not, sexual immorality is considered something of utmost importance by God. The Old Testament prophets, when describing why God punished Israel and Judah with destruction, does mention injustice to the poor. But just as often, it mentions the people’s sexual immorality. God will not overlook a practice of unrepentant adultery just because you stand up for the poor and needy.
Adultery has a corrosive and horrific effect on any nation. It destroys families, cheapens marriage, annihilates trust, and quite often leads to outright murder in the form of abortion. Nearly half a century after King’s death, millions of American families lie broken, destroyed by the false idol of sexual freedom, and a rejection of Biblical sexual morality. King ministered at a critical time in history, when the Moynihan Report had just come out. He could have been a powerful voice for sexual fidelity, as he was against discrimination and poverty. But instead he indulged his lusts, and generation upon generation has been influenced by his negative example.
As bad as his adultery was, it was still not his worst sin. Even worse was his cynical and insincere use of Christ and the Christian religion to advance his goals. An examination of King’s theological writings proves beyond any doubt that he rejected basically every doctrine of orthodox Christianity. He did not believe in the virgin birth, the trinity, the atonement, the second coming, the divinity of Christ, or ever the resurrection. Jesus truly was no more special to him than Gandhi or Aristotle. Why then was he, of all things, a Baptist preacher? Simple – his goal was advancing civil rights, and being a preacher was the best platform to pursue that goal. Christianity was a mask to be worn for the masses, but true faith was not in his heart
Again, you may ask why this matters. His civil rights aims were commendable, so why care if his theology was off-base? The answer is because King was taking God’s name in vain. God was just a tool to him, a name to cynically be invoked in the promotion of his own agenda. A totally disposable means to an end. In the words of 2 Timothy 3:5, he was a man who “had the appearance of godliness while denying the power thereof.” This is not the glory, honor, and respect that God deserves. God detests the invocation of His name by hypocrites who actually believe in him. How much more does he detest its invocation by someone who does not.
There are many other reasons to criticize Martin Luther King. Most importantly, his theory of passive resistance deviates from sound Biblical teaching on submission to government rather blatantly. But putting aside any other reasons, the two outlined above are more than reason enough to not hold him out as a hero for Christians. When we revere him, we continue to send the toxic messages that it’s OK to cynically invoke a God you don’t believe in for your own purposes, and that private sexual immorality is really no grave evil at all. Those are pretty horrible messages for Christians to tacitly promote. When it comes to men of the faith to imitate and learn from, we can do better.