Lots of Christians have a habit of “stained glassing” Bible characters. Sometimes it seems like pretty much anyone other than Jezebel and Judas Iscariot will get a free pass and find their actions vindicated by believers.
Why does this happen? Perhaps it is the result of Sunday School training that can sometimes turn the biblical narrative into myth-like stories with morales based primarily on character behaviour. Perhaps it comes from too easily assuming that faith in God is a binary reality whereby any faith in an individual equates to full faithfulness, rather than recognising that God patiently works with people who are in the process of learning to trust Him rather than themselves. Perhaps we are just nice people who assume almost everyone in the Bible is a nice person too (i.e. you have to be overtly evil to be anything other than laudable). Perhaps it comes from forgetting that the primary character to focus on in the Bible is God, rather than the people, so that the people become models for our actions where perhaps they shouldn’t.
So where does this happen in the canon? There are countless examples, but let me prod our thoughts with a few characters that tend to get “stain glassed.”
The Patriarchs – Abraham responds to a call from God, but when does he really trust God’s promise? Sure, he moves with his family a long distance, but it is only after he separates from his family that God follows up with him. Then it is another while before Abraham seems to finally trust God’s promise about his seed. So between his initial call and his being declared righteous by faith there is the bizarre incident with giving his wife away in Egypt. Abraham is on a journey, a faith journey. And if we try to sanctify his decisions and affirm it all, then we may upset the wives in our congregation, and misrepresent the text.
Other OT Characters – Ruth was amazingly godly, but was Naomi acting by faith when she setup a very compromised situation? Do we want to affirm everything about Mordecai and Esther? Heroic and courageous? Certainly. But deeply faithful? Worth pondering. Nehemiah always gets lauded as the ultimate leader, but what legacy did he leave in respect to the hearts of the people, as well as the building project? Was Jonah just reluctant, or was there a heart issue with him, in contrast to the character of the God he ended up somewhat representing?
Disciples – This is an interesting category. Perhaps it is an anti-category. That is, often I hear the disciples being treated like dunces when we treat them as if they should have fully grasped the content of all four gospels before the gospels were even written!
The Bible is full of real people with real issues and real messy mixed up faith responses, and for that we should be profoundly thankful.
3 thoughts on “Don’t Stain Glass the Bible Folks”
Thank you for writing this! The amazing story is that God calls us righteous in spite of our many flaws. My take-away from these very human and deeply flawed characters is this: If God can make these people righteous in spite of themselves, he can do it with me too. Now that is a powerful God.
Hi Peter. Thanks for this helpful post. It raises an issue that I’d like to hear your input on. For the past couple of months, I have been studying the book of Esther in preparation to teach a series of lessons on it in the high school youth group I teach at church. (I have taught 3 lessons on Esther and have 2 more to go.) One challenge that I have is determining whether the actions of the characters in the story are commendable or not. Even some commentators are hesitant to say unequivocally whether certain actions were right or wrong (i.e. Esther going before King Xerxes in chapter 2 or extending the king’s edict in chapter 9). I suppose one solution to this would be to preach the character of God rather than moralizing lessons based on the characters’ behavior. But Paul does say in 1 Cor. 10:6 that OT stories contain examples for us to avoid, so I do not want to completely dispense with drawing lessons based on the characters’ actions. I realize this is a complicated issue, but any input you have would be helpful to me. Thanks!
I totally agree – this is a complicated business! You are right that 1 Cor 10 refers to OT stories having exemplary value for us, but I don’t think that makes them have exemplary value separated from the primary issue of whether the characters were trusting God or not. There are warnings and encouragements to be had this way, but not as a mere conduct manual. Esther is particularly challenging because the text is even more silent in respect to the “narrator’s divine perspective” than other narratives. So we have to decide whether that is a strategic silence that assumes great godliness (the way I tend to hear it preached), or a reflective silence that reflects the lack of god-awareness of people who had chosen to remain in exile rather than return to the Promised Land. As such, the lack of reference to God becomes a deafening silence when He is still so obviously at work behind the scenes, even where his people are functioning as if He is not important to them. So is Esther courageous in approaching the King? Certainly. But is Esther, or even Mordecai, a person of deep personal faith and trust in God that leads to wise decision making? That is harder to be dogmatic about. I would preach Esther with a huge focus on the faithfulness of God even when His people appear to be functioning independently. With that as your backdrop, there is space for some gentle lessons, examples and warnings, but always being aware of the danger of moralising that is implicit in such an exercise.