Saturday, January 15, 2011

Is MLK, Jr., a “Top Ten” Christian?

Last year I posted (on 9/15) a list of people whom I consider to be the “top ten” Christians. In making that list, I excluded people of New Testament times and those still alive, and I also weighted it toward modern times.

Martin Luther King, Jr., made my list. Some Thinking Friends, however, objected to my inclusion of King. So let’s think more about him today, the eighty-second anniversary of his birth, and again on Monday, the holiday honoring him. In 1983 President Reagan signed a law making the first Monday after Jan. 15 a federal holiday: Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. The new holiday was first observed in 1986, but it was not until 2000 that it was officially observed in all fifty states.

There were, of course, some who objected to the naming of the new holiday, and many of those objections reflected racial prejudice. But the national celebration of the birthday of MLK, Jr., is quite appropriate and significant, it seems to me. It is a public recognition of the nation’s overcoming a long, sordid history of slavery and its on-going desire to combat racism in the present. King’s unflagging efforts leading to the passing of civil rights legislation in 1964 was meritorious indeed!

But should he be considered a “top ten” Christian? After posting my list, one of my TFs wrote saying that she has “difficulty with those who preach one thing and practice another, e.g. MLK. That is just as distasteful as the choices of some conservatives whom we criticize today.”

Unfortunately, it seems to be true that King had extra-marital sexual relationships. That was behavior I cannot excuse or condone. Such activity was clearly unchristian. Yet, in spite of knowing about his infidelities I still put him on my top ten list.

Even saints are not perfect. In the Old Testament, David is one of the most important persons, ranking perhaps third after Abraham and Moses. 1 Samuel 13:14 refers to him as a man after God’s own heart. But, as is well known, he was guilty of an illicit liaison with Bathsheba.

And there are some on my list with whom I seriously disagree on some points. Mother Teresa, for example. I put her on the list in spite of her rather outrageous (to me) anti-abortion, anti-sterilization, and anti-contraception statements.

I have long held that for people with public power—primarily politicians, but including people like King—their pubic activity is far more important than their private lives. In fact, I often say, “the private lives of public people is nobody’s business.”

The private indiscretions of MLK, Jr., are regrettable. But the good he did as a public follower of Jesus, the way he emphasized love and peace in a climate of hatred and violence, and the great contribution he made to the betterment of American society—to say nothing of his widespread influence for good around the world—make him deserving of the high ranking I gave him, IMHO.

Two of my favorite sayings of MLK, Jr.:
Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
“We must learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or perish together as fools.”


  1. There is no question that great things were accomplished through the work of MLK. As to the issue of his Christianity being denied due to his immorality, I'd say that is the wrong place to start. Not that it isn't important, but one's profession of Christ, regardless of their morality, must be the starting point in considering whether or not one is a Christian.

    So, I would object to MLK's 'Christianity' in light of his denial of the divinity, resurrection and virgin birth of the Lord Jesus. If he denied these tenets of the Christian faith then all the other moral actions don't really matter much.

  2. Here is a comment from an esteemed friend in Kentucky:

    "He was a saint Leroy. Like all saints, he was not perfect. But the grace of God irradiated his life and work, and all of us have benefited from them."

  3. A top ten list has an easy reference in sports, Who is going to win? No simple test measures a good Christian. So we find equivocations in the meaning of "top" and the meaning of "Christian." So does top mean best? Or most effective? Or most passionate? We have been over the Christian question before.

    So was Martin Luther King, Jr. a top Christian? He is the public face of, and a major participant in, a major reformation of American society. He was a key factor in making Christian faith relevant to a generation of Americans. He is an iconic figure to this day. So I believe it is reasonable to find him in that top group, in the ways that it makes sense to measure such a top group.

    Now, it has been presented that he was a flawed individual, with less than perfect theology. Well, on my reading of the Bible, from Adam to Paul, it appears to be full of damaged people, who still frequently
    became vehicles of God's grace. If you want to judge who has the best personal Christianity, most churches probably have a number of saints who would rank above King although none of them would tell you. It is a widow's mite kind of thing.