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What To Do When Heroes Fail Us

My life has been shaped in significant ways by the lives of men and women whom I look up to. Like it or not, this is true of everyone of us. "Hero-worship exists," wrote Thomas Carlyle, "has existed, and will forever exist, universally, among mankind." We were made for worship, ultimately the worship of God, but we all "worship" certain people. Tragically, in the modern world, hero worship has degenerated into celebrity worship, the worship of men and women who worship themselves, and have spent their lives trying to get the rest of the world to do the same. True heroes are heroes in large part because they didn't worship themselves. They lived for something larger than themselves.

In the unfolding story of redemption in the Bible, we meet some great heroes, or at least some men and women who had heroic moments in their lives: David slaying Goliath, Daniel and the three Jewish exiles standing fearlessly before powerful and capricious politicians, Jesus' mother and the other women who remained at the foot of Jesus' cross, while most of the men high-tailed it in the tumbleweed.

While unpacking my books the other day--most of them written by my heroes--I pulled out a leather volume gifted to me by one of my students, Sermons by Hugh Latimer, Sometime Bishop of Worcester. I try to keep several books going in various genre; I had recently finished reading Thomas Boston's Crook in the Lot (blog post forthcoming) and was looking for a spiritual classic. Sermons preached by Latimer, the Knox of England, would be just the thing. What's not to look up to in a man who fearlessly took his stand against lecherous King Henry VIII, an overfed monarch whose favorite response to anyone who didn't bow to his every whim was, “Off with his head”?

Henry VIII had called Latimer to be royal chaplain in January of 1530; now in such close proximity to the king, Latimer had ample reasons to fear the worst. Warned by a courtier to “Speak as he speaks,” saintly Latimer entered the service of one of the most notorious monarchs, responsible for beheading two of his six wives (he divorced the rest, save one who outlived him). Over 50,000 people had reasons to mourn the loss of someone who died at the command of this tyrant, including notables such as Thomas More, and William Tyndale.

Being chaplain to Henry was as likely to result in Latimer losing his head as it was to encounter drizzle in London. Understandably, Latimer treaded softly during his first weeks in court, justifying his reticence to speak on the basis “that prudence is necessary.” But weeks turned into months, and Latimer felt increasingly uncomfortable about not speaking with the king about the condition of his soul.

Then one day in November, while reading in the early church fathers, Latimer came across this by Augustine, “He who for fear of any power hides the truth, provokes the wrath of God to come upon him, for he fears men more than God.” Smitten, Latimer read on; this from Chrysostom, “he is not only a traitor to the truth who openly for truth teaches a lie, but he also who does not pronounce and show the truth that he knoweth.”

The good chaplain later wrote of these rebukes, “They made me sore afraid,” they “troubled and vexed me grievously in my conscience.” He resolved to declare the truth as taught in Holy Scripture, though he knew that it would most likely cost him his life. “I had rather suffer extreme punishment,” he wrote, “than be a traitor unto the truth.” Boldly, Latimer set his pen to paper.

“Your Grace, I must show forth such things as I have learned in Scripture, or else deny Jesus Christ. The which denying ought more to be dreaded than the loss of all temporal goods… honor, and all manner of torments and cruelties, yea, and death itself, be it ever so shameful and painful.” I would have avoided giving Henry ideas. But holy Latimer was in earnest.

One of the first things he raised with the king spoke directly to the heart of the Reformation, Sola Scriptura: “Your Grace promised by your last proclamation that we should have the Scripture in English. Let not the wickedness of worldly men divert you from your godly purpose and promise.” This was not the way to speak to the Tudor tyrant, not if you valued your life.

Latimer was just warming up. Critical of many of Henry’s clerical advisors, Latimer said they “hinder the Gospel of Christ,” that through these false teachers it was really Henry who “would send a thousand men to hell ere [he] send one to heaven.” Undaunted by Henry’s hubris, Latimer pressed on, “I pray to God that your Grace may do what God commandeth, and not what seemeth good in your own eyes.”

Men who frowned at the wrong moment lost their heads in Henry’s court. But Latimer was undaunted. Confronting the king's mistaken understanding of his temporal authority over the church, Latimer spoke of the two spheres of authority and charged Henry, self-declared supreme head of the Anglican Church, to “make not a mingle-mangle of them.” A century later 18,000 Christians would lose their lives for denying that the king of England was the head of the Church of Scotland. For now, Latimer lived on, preaching regularly before the king. After one bold sermon, a friend told Latimer, “We were convinced you would sleep tonight in the Tower.” Latimer replied, “The king’s heart is in the hands of the Lord.”

Impossible as it seems, Latimer survived Henry, but in October of 1555, by order of Henry’s Catholic daughter, Bloody Mary, Latimer and his friend and fellow preacher, Nicholas Ridley, were bound to the stake before Balliol College, Oxford, where Wycliffe once taught. As the flames were lit, Latimer said to his friend, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

Stories like these fire my blood, infuse new gospel resolve in my veins. They make me want to "play the man." I feel much the same way while singing lines from a hymn of John Newton's, “Let the world deride or pity,/We will glory in the Name." This is why, more than ever, we need, and our children need, the very best heroes--like Newton and Hugh Latimer.

Eager for more inspiring words and deeds from Latimer, I opened the little volume of sermons and began reading. As I read, I came across a sermon he delivered to young King Edward VI, protestant Christian king who was crowned after his power-grubbing father went to his reward. March 8, 1549, while instructing the young king in the Bible's words about marriage, Latimer attempted to admonish the adolescent boy about women and how to avoid "wantonness and the inclinations of the flesh and vain affections."

Latimer pressed on, contrasting instruction on marriage from the Old and the New Covenants, "Christ limiteth unto us one wife only; and it is a great thing to rule one wife rightly and ordinately." I paused in my reading. I wished Latimer had not used the verb rule. Why? Because it's not the Bible's verbal command to husbands. To be sure, Paul admonishes wives to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-33), but nowhere does he command husbands to make them submit by ruling over their wives. After making the declarative statement that husbands are the head of their wives, Paul did not use the imperative verb to rule--husbands, rule your wives. What did he command husbands? "Husbands, love your wives (emphasis added), even as Christ loved the church, and gave himself for it" (5:25). I pondered Latimer's choice of words. Why not use the Bible's word, love? But maybe I was being too picky. So, I read on.

"For a woman is frail, and proclive unto all evils: a woman is a very weak vessel, and may soon deceive a man and bring him unto ruin. Many examples we have in holy scripture." And then, beginning with Eve in the garden, Latimer proceeded to describe Jezebel's deceptive perversions. These examples are, of course, true. But as I read, my mind raced to the far greater number of examples of men in the Bible who had a proclivity toward monstrously evil behavior, and, conversely, my mind rehearsed the significant number of examples of godly women throughout the Bible's pages: Hannah, the Shunamite woman, Rahab, Abigail, Naomi, Ruth, the Proverbs-31 woman, Jesus' mother, Elizabeth, Mary and Martha, Priscilla, Eunice, Lois--my list grew longer.

Latimer must not have been thinking of these examples--and he didn't know my mother, or the love of my life, and the many other godly women whose lives have had such powerful gospel influences on me through the years--and whom I consider to be heroines of the faith. There are so many wonderful examples of virtuous women throughout Church history that one Scottish theologian, speaking about child raising, quipped, "Give them a good Presbyterian mother and any old thing will do for a father."

In light of all this, and in light of some of my own afflictions and recent deliverances, Latimer's over generalization about women troubled me. But it also reminded me that all our heroes have feet of clay. We must choose the best ones, bearing in mind that no fallen human being--male or female--is flawless. We must be discerning. And we must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith. During his earthly ministry, Jesus always dealt tenderly with women, often coming to their defense when they were being maligned or dismissed. His words, unlike Latimer's, were full of honor, compassion, and forgiveness toward women.

What are we to conclude? Only one "hero" got everything right--the Lord Jesus. Every other hero, however fearless before tyrants, will get at least some things wrong. Only when we are immersed in the Logos, the Word made flesh, Christ as he is revealed on every page of the Bible, will we develop wise discernment about what to celebrate and emulate, and what to critique and reject. I want more of Latimer's boldness, his fearless proclamation of the Word of God before wicked and powerful men--regardless of the consequences. And I want more of Jesus' tenderness and compassion toward the weak and powerless--be they men or women.

Douglas Bond is author of more than thirty books, including his latest release The Hobgoblins, a novel on John Bunyan, The Resistance set in enemy occupied Normandy, and many others. Two-time Grace Award book finalist, Bond is also lyricist for New Reformation Hymns; he directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, is editor for other authors and publishers, is an award-winning teacher, speaker at conferences, and leader of Church history tours in Europe.


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