Calvinist Racism and King’s Alleged Adultery—A Connection?

Calvinist Racism and King’s Alleged Adultery—A Connection?

What’s the connection between Martin Luther King’s alleged adultery and Calvinist racism? Or Arminian racism? Or King’s liberal theology?

The fact that I can use the term “Calvinist racism” should make it clear that “King’s alleged adultery” does not exclude him from heroic standing in the cause of civil rights, any more than “Calvinist racism” excludes me from loving Calvinism — and King.

But there is a connection. It goes like this: Don’t use a leader’s sin to determine the truth of his ideas. Not King’s. Not the Calvinist’s. Not the Arminian’s. And so on.

Imprecise Rhetoric on Race

This is a plea to think and speak carefully about the relationship between racial harmony and right doctrine. Few things give rise to imprecise rhetoric like the issue of race. It’s understandable, but damaging. I’m thinking of rhetoric from white and black and Asian and Latino. I am sure I myself have fallen short of what I am pleading for here.

Rhetoric is not a bad word in my vocabulary. Historically, it simply refers to the study and practice of composition and oratory. Thus the Bible is full of godly rhetoric. So with us, it can be glorious, and it can be sloppy. It can be powerful, and it can be misleading.

The kind of imprecision I’m concerned about is the relationship between right doctrine and racial diversity. For example, what if someone says, “Churches that claim to have right doctrine, but have all one color of people on Sunday morning, are not really orthodox”? “Heteropraxy belies orthodoxy,” they say. “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15).

The argument for this claim might well be this biblical truth: At the heart of Christ’s purpose when he died was to

ransom people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (Revelation 5:9), . . . to create in himself one new man in place of the two . . . to reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross (Ephesians 2:15–16); so that here [in the church] there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11)

I love this vision and this longing. There are great truths standing up behind the rhetoric, waving their arms, wanting to be seen. For example:

  • It is true that false doctrine would be present where a church teaches that Christ did not come to bring about racial/ethnic/socio-economic diversity and harmony in the new, visible people of God.

  • It is true that false doctrine would be present where a church teaches that the New Testament does not tell us to pursue such diversity and harmony in the visible Christian community.

  • It is true that it would be a sin in a church to agree that such diversity and harmony are taught in the New Testament, but not to care about them, or not to make sustained, Spirit-dependent, prayer-filled efforts to see them come to pass.

At least those three truths are waving their arms wanting to be seen behind the rhetoric: “Churches that claim to have right doctrine, but have all one color of people on Sunday morning, are not really orthodox. Heteropraxy belies orthodoxy. You will know them by their fruits.”

Why It’s Too Simple

But here’s the problem. To make the de facto presence of diversity on Sunday morning the litmus paper of orthodoxy is a mistake. That is, to say that the absence of racial diversity on Sunday morning proves heterodoxy in the church doctrine, or racial sin the church leadership, is too simple. For at least four reasons:

  1. What if pastoral leadership with biblical views on the beauties of ethnic diversity has come to a church, but their vision has not brought the people with them yet? Is the remaining homogeneity on Sunday morning an indictment of this leadership and its doctrine?

  2. What if a church has indeed repented of its sins in this regard, and is now devoted to prayerful, biblical efforts toward racial and ethnic diversity and harmony, but they have a long way to go? Is the doctrine they embrace suspect because it has not yet yielded its full fruit?

  3. What if the community in which the church exists is almost totally homogeneous in regard to race and ethnicity? Is the lopsidedness of Sunday morning a sure sign of faulty doctrine or sin? There may indeed be racial sin in such a church, but is the Sunday color the proof?

  4. If the de facto presence of diversity is made the test of true doctrine, what percentage of whites in a formerly all-black church are we going to use to decide when the “black” church qualifies for orthodoxy? Or vice versa?

What I suggest, in place of the rhetoric that makes de facto homogeneity the litmus paper of orthodoxy, is that we determine orthodoxy by what’s taught in the Bible, and we determine sin by what’s out of sync with the truth.

This leaves room in the church for true doctrine to coexist with sin. If it can’t, then the only orthodox churches are perfect churches.

How the Apostles Did It

But the apostles criticized sin in the churches not first by telling them their doctrine was defective, but by telling them they were acting as if they didn’t know their doctrine.

  • “Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” (1 Corinthians 6:1–2)

  • “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 6:15)

  • “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:4)

  • “I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.” (Galatians 2:14)

This is how the apostles criticized sin in the churches: They were acting out of sync with the truth. But when it came to determining truth, the issue was: what do the apostles teach: “The things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized” (1 Corinthians 14:37–38). The presence of sin was not a certain signal of heterodoxy. Heterodoxy was doctrine out of sync with the apostolic teaching. Sin was behavior out of sync with the same. The two did not always go together.

Let’s Be Careful with Rhetoric

All of us might wish that our vision of theology was the magic bullet that excludes the sin of racism or adultery from our churches — or our civil rights heroes. Arminians and Calvinists, for example, wish we could point to a history that proves the doctrine is true because it never coexisted with racism and adultery. Or that the civil rights movement was valid because its leaders were chaste. But alas, there is no such history.

Therefore, if we are going to criticize the racial failures of a church or a theological camp, let’s be careful with our rhetoric, and do it the way the apostles did it. As much as we can, let’s defend the truth by pointing to what the apostles taught, and let’s call out sin by pointing to the inconsistencies between what we say we believe and what we do.


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John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.