One of the ways we believe we can become mature followers of Jesus is by being fluent in both Gospel and cultural conversations. We often take time on a Sunday to pray about important cultural moments. As we approach the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, we must ask, “Why is it important for me as a believer in Jesus Christ to care about MLK Day?”


For some, the answer is straightforward. For others, however, the question needs serious consideration. To focus on Dr. King also begs us to focus on the divisive conversation about how race and the Gospel are supposed to interact. Some might wonder, by highlighting and celebrating Martin Luther King, are we unintentionally being distracted from the Gospel by some “woke” agenda?


In addition to the question of cultural agenda, the passing of time has laid bare the flawed humanity of Dr. King in ways that make us uncomfortable. Stories of his alleged sexual affairs have made us wrestle with who we can call a hero. Does celebrating his birthday mean we are ignoring behavior that clearly goes against what the Bible would warn against and that we have seen overlooked far too often in the modern Church?


Let’s talk about these one at a time.


First, the question of race. We must start by clearly saying racial reconciliation is not the Gospel in and of itself. But it is a fruit of the Gospel’s mission. The Gospel’s power is shown most profoundly when deeply embedded individual and cultural sins are overcome because of the glory of what Jesus has accomplished. When the message of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and return captures our hearts, we no longer see the “other” as an enemy. The result is the captivating picture in the book of Revelation where every people group is experiencing the glory of God together.


This means there is a day that is coming when the segregationist, who has repented to Jesus, and the Civil Rights activist, who has called Christ Lord, stand around the throne of God, celebrating the Lamb who was slain. There is a day that is coming when the former SS officer of Nazi Germany and the victim of his atrocities worship shoulder to shoulder because they both found redemption in Jesus. This is not true because Martin dreamed it but because Christ purchased it. Furthermore, when we stop to celebrate the efforts of the American Civil Rights Movement, we express a prophetic longing for a day when this type of ethnic harmony is the norm, not the exception.


Our second concern is the Church seemingly being submitted to a cultural agenda. One of the saddest artifacts of history is the number of European cities with churches serving only as architectural wonders at the center of their communities, nothing more than museums. There are moments in history when the Church has been the epicenter of society and change. In our nation’s history, this was never more true than during the late 1950s and 1960s through the Civil Rights Movement.


Think about this: The Civil Rights Movement was not led by an elected official, a historical monarch, or a conquering general. A preacher led it. Appeals for legal reform were not born in the halls of Congress but prayed for and sought after in the sanctuaries of the local Church. The streets were not filled with the sound of the marching boots of soldiers or the battle hymn of the platoon but the quiet rhythm of penny loafers and the hymns of ordinary brothers and sisters in Christ. The Civil Rights Movement was not the Church cosigning the cultural agenda. It was the Church standing against it. As a church called to multiply leaders in every sphere of society to bring about kingdom-flourishing, the efforts of Dr. King remind us that the Church plays a pivotal role in cultural change.


The final issue asks, “How are we supposed to reconcile Dr. King’s achievements with his allegations?” If I were to be vulnerable, as a black man who deeply admires Dr. King, it pains me to have to address this, but it is irresponsible to ignore it.


The complexity of Dr. King’s public achievement and the allegations about his personal sin force us to deal with our own Christ ethics. If the Gospel of John describes Jesus as full of grace and truth, how do we see this through a sober, Jesus-honoring lens? 


A former colleague, Jamin Roller, once said this regarding leaders who sin, “You can despise the sin. You can be angry, and disappointed, and sad, and broken for the sinner. And you can be grateful for the work that came out of his life. And you can be all of that at the same time.”


Dr. King’s birthday allows us to feel all these things simultaneously. And it will not be the last time we do it. Life will continue to present this complexity among those we call heroes. I pray we will not fall into the ditch on either side of the road. One side says we should minimize sin and celebrate the leader’s impact—the other ditch calls for us to cancel anyone and everything that sins while in a prominent position. But the follower of Jesus walks the road of grace and truth; we can feel all these things at the same time.


MLK Day reminds us of the harmony we long for, our role as the Church in bringing it to pass, and the grace and truth we will need along the way.


King’s Harbor Church is a Christian Church in Torrance, CA, committed to demonstrating the love of Jesus to our community. To learn more about us, check out this link.