Mortal Heroes and Fallen Leaders
What are we to do with all our fallen heroes? Would it be better to not have heroes of the faith? Should we just assume and expect the worst?
Let’s begin by abandoning any notions that we are better than the world around us. The times when sermons could receive thunderous applause for promoting the moral superiority of Christian leaders is far over. Our theology should have led us to this place long ago.
We actually have a category for this mess. It’s called sin. And not a single one of us is immune.
We can no longer run on a “we’re better than you platform.” We’re not. Read the headlines. Look in the mirror. Forgiven? Yes. Better? No.
The Hall of Shame
In my estimation, no chapter in the New Testament illustrates the messiness of living for God in a fallen world more than Hebrews 11. This passage is often described as the “hall of faith.” It’s filled with fallen heroes. Before we walk through the famous hall, let’s see where it leads:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3)
Hebrews 11 commends several biblical characters for their faith in God. They are the “cloud of witnesses” in the passage above.
The majority are individuals with less than stellar track records. It might be more appropriate to call Hebrews 11 the “hall of shame.”
Take Abraham for example (Hebrews 11:8-19). The guy lied about being married to his wife so he could avoid personal danger. He seemed okay exposing his wife to potential harm. But at least he only did it once, right? Nope, he did it twice.
Check it out for yourself in Genesis chapters 12 and 20. And while you are at it, read chapter 26 where his son Isaac, who is also mentioned in the “hall of faith” (Hebrews 11:20), does the same thing to his wife. Is this the model example of living by faith?
The failings continue as we walk through the hall. Isaac’s son, Jacob, lied to his dad to get the blessing that should have been his brother’s (Genesis 27). Moses was used by God to rescue the Israelites from Egypt, yet he was forbidden from entering the promised land because he had disobeyed God’s command (Numbers 20:12). And Gideon ended up making a gold object that he and all the Israelites worshiped instead of God (Judges 8:22-27).
Or think about King David (Hebrews 11:32). He was a big part of God’s promised plan of providing salvation. He was a sheep leader, a lion killer, a bear wrestler, and a giant slayer. He was a song writer, a war hero, a king, an adulterer, a murderer, a liar, and a man after God’s own heart. It’s messy. So are you.
The Mafia Don Who Made It in the Hall of Faith
To be honest, these aren’t even the most scandalous shout-outs in Hebrews 11. Consider Jephthah mentioned in Hebrews 11:32. This guy had a rough life. His mom was a prostitute. His stepbrothers kicked him out the house so he wouldn’t share in their father’s inheritance.
But Jephthah did okay for himself though. He became a mob boss. In Judges 11:3 Jephthah is said to be in cahoots with “a gang of scoundrels.” To top it off, he seems to be their leader.
When bad times came in the form of a military invasion, his brothers sought out Jephthah for help. You know he had to be a bad dude if his brothers, who kicked him out of the house, went straight to him for support. They knew if he joined their side the chance of them winning would increase exponentially.
I imagine them walking into his preferred pizzeria after being frisked by the tough guys keeping watch out front. Jephthah probably had a bib tied around his neck, a large bowl of spaghetti and meatballs on the table in front of him, and a cigar hanging out of his mouth. In a cloud of smoke, with a deep voice, he bellows, “Go ahead, make me an offer I can’t refuse.”
Here’s where things get weird. Jephthah agrees to help them, primarily because they promise that if they get the victory he will become their “head.” This is really a power play. The Godfather Jephthah is expanding his territory.
But before they go to battle Jephthah makes a peculiar vow to God. If God will give grant success, he will sacrifice whatever comes out of his house to meet him upon his return home (Judges 11:29-31). I think that’s more odd than most Bible scholars dare admit.
Some Bible commentaries point out that in this culture it would have been likely that animals were kept on the first floor and the family would be on the second. The notion is that it would have certainly been an animal to come out first. But even if that’s the case, it’s an unusual commitment to make. Why not vow to kill a lamb or ox and be a bit more specific? And do you normally talk of animals greeting you? It’s seems a little more personal than just a cow mooing as he walked up to the house.
Long story short, Jephthah’s daughter is the one to come out of his house to greet him after he comes back from the victory. The Bible says he was greatly troubled. If it wasn’t an animal to greet him, who was he hoping for? Was he gunning for his wife?
It’s just a jacked up situation. But Jephthah kept his word and sacrificed his daughter. And now we read of him in the hall of faith in Hebrews 11.
We don’t have to resolve the details of this particular account to see how the hall of faith is covered with muddy footprints. It’s not a sterile passageway. It’s littered with messy lives: liars, idolaters, adulterers, cowards, and murderers. It’s an untidy hallway. But it does lead somewhere…
Jesus: Our Better Way
At our house we have a mudroom when you enter the backdoor. It’s where our kids take their shoes off before walking into the house. Hebrews 11 is something like a mudroom. We meet men and women who did some exemplary things by faith, even if their lives were inconsistent in other areas.
But we aren’t meant to stop there. We have to enter the house. There’s a meal sitting on the table, fresh coffee brewing, a pie in the oven, and a fire in the fireplace. We have to see beyond the mudroom to something better.
Fix your eyes on Jesus. That’s what the author of Hebrews tells us. The real hero of Hebrews chapter eleven is found in chapter twelve. Everyone else falls short. I think that’s the point. A theme throughout the book of Hebrews is that Jesus is better. Why should that theme stop with the hall of faith?
But the author of Hebrews says more. He tells us to examine our own lives, to cast off the sin that has a death grip on us and things that keep us from running. After focusing on the flaws of our fallen leaders we can forget that we too are far from perfect.
The hip hop artist Andy Mineo says it well on his recent album:
All I, all I want is clarity, clarity
‘Cause all of my heroes are frauds just like me, just like me
So let every man be a liar, let only God be true
And all of your heroes are frauds just like you
What can we do with our fallen heroes? We can remind ourselves that we never should have put them on a pedestal in the first place. We can remember that we too have besetting sins and distractions that keep us from doing all God has for us to do. We can refocus our lives on Jesus, knowing he alone is good. Everyone else falls short, including us.
The good news is that God offers forgiveness for repentant rebels who have tried to rewrite his moral code. If we confess our sins, he is faithful to forgive us (1 John 1:9). The New Testament also tells us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another (James 5:16). In Christ we find forgiveness and strength; and in community with brothers and sisters who are also fighting the battle of faith, we find accountability and support. It’s here where we can learn to run.
In the gospels we see that Jesus faithfully walked the path God the Father ordained for him. He endured the cross, all the while despising the shame (Hebrews 12:2). The cloud of witnesses is helpful. Our heroes have served us well in the past, even ones who didn’t finish well. Let that remind you Jesus is better. Jesus shows us how to follow God in a fallen world filled with fallen heroes. Let’s fix our eyes on him.
This post was originally published at The Good Book Company. I write more about the theme of what it looks like to live in a fallen world in my book Life in the Wild.