Christians need heroes.

Yes, I know, Jesus is the ultimate hero. He is the only flawless hero, the only substitute-for-our-sins hero, the only dying and rising hero. But that doesn’t mean Jesus is the only kind of hero.

As Christians, we are right to be inspired by faithful brothers and sisters. Why else were Timothy and Titus supposed to set the believers a good example? Why else do we have the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11? Why else are we told in Hebrews 13:7 to remember our leaders, to consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith? God says to us, just as he said to the audience in Hebrews: don’t forget your heroes; learn from their example; be like them in all that was good.

But how can we tell which heroes should really be heroes?

We can all agree that every hero, except for Jesus, is flawed. We can also agree that many flawed heroes have elements of their theology, their practice, or their courage that are worth emulating. But beyond those truisms, who gets to be celebrated? Is Martin Luther off limits because of his comments in old age about the Jews? Or Calvin because of Servetus? Or Jonathan Edwards because of slavery? Is Dabney a theologian worth celebrating even if he was a strident racist? Can Martin Luther King Jr. be lauded even if his theology was not evangelical and he repeatedly violated the seventh commandment? Who gets to be the subject of inspiring Christian biographies? Who gets to be assigned in our seminaries? Who gets to have buildings and schools and conferences (and children!) named after them? Who gets to be our homeboys (or homegirls)?

Leaders in Hebrews

One way to answer the question is to look again at Hebrews 13:7, “Remember your leaders, who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” To be sure, there are thousands of people, dead and alive, we can learn from in life. You can celebrate the courage of Jackie Robinson, the statesmanship of Winston Churchill, or the magnanimity of Abraham Lincoln without making them patron saints of evangelical Christianity. But when it comes to Christian heroes for a Christian people, Hebrews instructs us to look for three things: they taught the Word faithfully, they lived an exemplary life, and they trusted in the promises of God.

That’s a start in evaluating heroes and potential heroes. We all have failings. We all have areas of our personality and practice that others would do well to avoid. But the “leaders” in Hebrews were, it seems, at least in general terms people worth imitating. We aren’t talking about perfection, but examples. Ask yourself this question: if more people in the church believed what my heroes taught and lived liked my heroes lived, would the church be a healthier, holier place?

Of course, even this question can be answered in a variety of ways, depending on your context and depending on what elements you think are most important in teaching and living an exemplary Christian life. There may be different heroes for different times and different places. But we aren’t left entirely to our own rankings of Really Important virtues and Really Bad vices. Perhaps we can approach some common ground in ruling a Christian hero “in” or “out” by looking at the whole life lived.

Kings in Chronicles

The assessments of the kings of Judah are instructive in this regard. Consider several examples.

Rehoboam: He may have been strong in some respects, but, overall, he did evil and did not seek the Lord (2 Chron. 12:13-14)

Asa: He did what was good and right in the eyes of the Lord (2 Chron. 14:2). Asa was one of Judah’s best kings, even though he was far from flawless. The high places were not taken out of Israel, but the heart of Asa was wholly true all his days (2 Chron. 15:17). Even though Asa finished his reign as a foolish, cruel, proud king, he was still afforded a place of privilege in his death, and they made a great fire in his honor (2 Chron. 16:14).

Jehoshaphat: He was another good king who did what was right in the sight of the Lord. But again, like his father, the high places were not taken away (2 Chron. 20:32-33).

Jehoram: This is as bad as it gets. He did what was evil and died to no one’s regret. He was buried in the city of David, but not in the tombs of the kings (2 Chron. 21:20).

Joash: He did what was right all the days of Jehoiada the priest, but once Jehoiada was gone, Joash turned treacherous. When he died he was buried in the city of David, but not in the tombs of the kings (2 Chron. 24:2, 25).

Hezekiah: He was one of Judah’s best kings, doing what was right in the eyes of Lord (2 Chron. 29:2). Even though his last days were marked with petty pride, he was honored at his death (2 Chron. 32:33).

Manasseh: He was one of the only kings who ended better than he started. He did evil in the sight of the Lord, but in his last days he humbled himself before God (2 Chron. 33:2, 12-13). Nevertheless, he was remembered as an exemplar of evil, a king whose reign was marked by sin and faithlessness (2 Chron. 33:19, 22).

This is a partial list, only seven of the 20 monarchs of the southern kingdom. But the list is enough to reinforce our main point: in determining whether a “leader” is worthy of honor, we must look at the whole life lived. Joash was not a hero in Judah for getting his reign half right. Manasseh’s reign was not salvaged by his final humility, even if spiritually Manasseh was in a much better place by the end of his life. Conversely, Asa was given great honor in his death, even though he stumbled across the finish line. Hezekiah could end up on a T-shirt, Rehoboam not so much.

Heroes in the Church

So what does all this mean for us and our heroes? For starters, we should be honest—candid about the faults of the good guys and forthright about the things the bad guys got right. More than that, the examples in Chronicles suggest that we should distinguish between high places and high-handed sins. At the risk of offending everyone, my conviction is that slavery was a high place for Edwards, while racism was a high-handed sin for Dabney. Slavery hardly played any role—let alone a central role—in Edwards’s thought and ministry. While Dabney’s writings are often infused with racism and animated by a desire to defend slavery. Does that mean we can’t learn from Dabney’s theology? Of course not, but it means that I would not celebrate Dabney, like I would Edwards, as one of the great heroes of the faith.

I realize that a cursory look at Hebrews 13 and at Chronicles will not answer all the thorny questions surrounding our flawed heroes. But at least we can see that the Bible has a category for heroes, and a category for flawed ones at that. May God give us wisdom, humility, and courage to be honest about our high places, while still giving thanks for those—living and dead—whom God would have us honor.