Every January much of the American public and their handlers in education, media, entertainment, and government take turns trying to be the most effusive in praise and adulation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Every January also sees learned critics of popular culture, though they are fewer in number, trying to dispel the myths that seem an impenetrable shell surrounding the man. By now there is well-documented information available to the public that shows the real MLK to have been morally corrupt and doctrinally unorthodox. His habitual plagiarism now is a well-established fact. Not only was his PhD thesis plagiarized, but so were many of his other well-known writings, such as the “I Have A Dream” speech and the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” Documentation exists for public review showing that King not only was a serial adulterer, but also was given to orgies and “unnatural” sexual practices. Furthermore, King’s doctrinal unorthodoxy is available for public review in the letters and papers that have been collected and published by a Stanford University project. These papers show that King harbored heretical views such as denying the divine inspiration of Scripture, denying the deity of Christ, and denying the bodily resurrection of Christ. Rather than orthodox Christianity, King became fascinated by the writings of Gandhi. In collusion with known communists he employed the tactics of Gandhi to foment racial conflict. But this was marketed as a noble struggle against “racism,” and so it appealed to a syrupy sentimentality. But there is nothing here to appeal to a rigorously biblical theology of social order.
So, what does Martin Luther King, Jr., have left to offer the general Christian public? By any objective measure, he has nothing at all. However, theological liberals venerate him as a “prophet.” This, of course, should not be surprising, for MLK was one of theirs. Evangelicals continue to laud him as a great Christian. This also should not be surprising, for evangelicals are on an eternal quest for “relevancy.” Perhaps the Cardus organization will provide a more critical review. Cardus claims to implement the Kuyperian vision of “public theology for the public good.” They claim that their approach to civil order is “rooted in 2000 years of Christian social thought. Yet a recent Cardus article on MLK does not even pretend to ground any of his mystique in theology.
The Cardus article was written by Gregory Thompson. According to the Cardus website, Thompson is “the Director of Research and Strategy at Clayborn Reborn, a historic Civil Rights site in Memphis Tennessee.” Thompson also previously served as CEO of the Thriving Cities Group, and Executive Director of New City Commons. Let the reader search these websites for any occurrence of the word theology. Thompson is not about theology. He has no interest in restoring cities or culture through redemption in Christ. He is thoroughly humanist in outlook and appeals to MLK as a prophet of “love.” He goes on and on about “love” without any compulsion to define “love” theologically. The Cardus folks evidently felt that an appeal to “love” was sufficient to rope Thompson—and via Thompson, King—into the corral of “public theology.” So much for a cutting-edge critique of modern culture.
For critique of MLK we might look with more hope to the offerings of the “Reformed” theological trend. Those Christians who call themselves “Reformed” are most likely to embrace orthodox Christianity, and therefore are most likely to demythologize MLK. However, many among the “Reformed” crowd enthusiastically join evangelicals and liberals in praising him instead.
For example, consider The Gospel Coalition. This group affirms the divine inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the deity of Christ, and the bodily resurrection of Christ, all of which MLK denied. Also, they seem to acknowledge that MLK was morally corrupt. Yet this does not dampen their MLK advocacy. TGC Council Member Thabiti Anyabwile has declared, “I don’t think the moral failures of prominent figures in Christianity should erase our appreciation for their contribution to the church and society. And we can think of many examples of this from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Jonathan Edwards…” Let us add up all of this. MLK was not an orthodox Christian, plus he was an unrepentant moral degenerate until the end of his life. Nevertheless, we ought to appreciate his contribution to the church? It is great to overlook a man’s past mistakes in order to grasp his truly good works. But once you finish overlooking MLK’s mistakes (which he kept current and ongoing throughout his life), there is nothing else left to see.
Another regrettable example of “Reformed” adulation of MLK comes out of Reformed Theological Seminary. RTS affirms all of the Reformed doctrines that MLK denied. One RTS professor is Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr. In a recent video interview Ellis devises some means to characterize MLK as “orthodox.” In this interview Ellis is asked to speak directly to the question, Was MLK orthodox? A simple “no” would have sufficed. However, Ellis waxes eloquent in an attempt to find some way to make the label “orthodox” stick to MLK. In order to do this Ellis wishes to separate out two different ways of being orthodox. He says:
Theology is one coin with two sides. There is the epistemological side of theology which basically concerns itself with what we should know about God. And there is the ethical side; how would you obey God. You don’t have theology without having both of those. If you only have one, you have an illegitimate theology.
With the two-sides-of-one-coin metaphor Ellis effectively declares that it is possible to know what is ethical without knowing what is doctrinal. Of course, in reality all of Christian truth is integrated into a single system. Ellis seems to know this, and therefore as soon as he separates ethics and doctrine he turns around and unites them again, declaring that theology is “illegitimate” if both are not united. That is basis enough to declare MLK’s theology illegitimate. Ellis seems to acknowledge that MLK denied the doctrines that Ellis, as faculty of Reformed Theological Seminary, is called upon to affirm. Therefore MLK was not orthodox. End of story, right? But no. Ellis goes on to re-separate ethics and doctrine and push for MLK’s orthodoxy.
His basic case is that White theology has tended to emphasize doctrine and Black theology has tended to emphasize ethics. He says, for example, that Jonathan Edwards and many of his day were great on doctrine but got ethics wrong since they condoned slavery. In a similar way he argues that MLK was ethically orthodox even though he was not so good on doctrine. Ellis has a very interesting way of putting his point:
He [MLK] was orthodox in terms of social ethics. He might not have been quite as orthodox in terms of epistemological stuff. But then you look at these guys like Whitefield and Edwards, and them. They might have been orthodox in terms of epistemology, but they were in heresy in terms of ethics.
Ellis is not bashful about charging Jonathan Edwards with “heresy” because he condoned slavery. But he just cannot bring himself to charge MLK with “heresy” because he denied doctrine. The most he can say is: “He might not have been quite as orthodox in terms of epistemological stuff.” You think? Maybe? Not quite? When speaking of Whitefield and Edwards, he says that because they condoned slavery, “Their theology was defective at its very core.” By that same standard MLK’s theology was defective at its very core too, since he denied the faith. But Ellis gives MLK the kid-glove treatment. In his mind Edwards was a “heretic” because he condoned slavery, and MLK was “orthodox” because he opposed “racism.” Ellis’ bottom line is, “I believe that he was a prophet.”
The annual MLK love-fest is about to begin. It should be no surprise that the world has gone after him. The general culture today has been effectively massaged into a mentality that “racism” is the unforgivable sin. One can be anything so long as he is not a “racist.” Martin Luther King, Jr. could be a plagiarizer, a womanizer, a pervert, a communist fellow-traveler, and a doctrinal heretic. But what is most important to the current mindset is that he was not a racist. He is perceived as having given his life fighting racism. That makes him a hero and a saint in the eyes of many. It should be cause of great dismay and concern that it also makes him a saint in the eyes of so many among the “Reformed.” The world has another gospel to sell, and Christians—even the “Reformed”— have bought into it. The Gospel Coalition is planning a two-day conference in honor of MLK because “racial unity is a gospel issue.” To make racial unity a gospel issue is to pervert the gospel. The litmus test of historic and biblical orthodoxy has been abandoned in favor of the new litmus test of “racial justice.” According to this perversion, whoever works for racial unity is doing the work of the gospel. Ergo, according to the new orthodoxy of the perverted gospel, MLK was a “prophet.” Only by focusing on an “orthodoxy” of “racial unity” can Christians who fancy themselves as preachers and defenders of the gospel embrace a heretical moral degenerate.