On Thursday, 5 December, former president of South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela passed away. My purpose today is not to write a tribute to this man as more capable men have already done this. The best one I have found so far is Dr. Mohler’s and you can read it here.

As I write this, I am watching the memorial service of this historical figure. Since his death I have read many articles and statuses across social media platforms. What has been most saddening is the reaction from certain quarters of Christianity.

When some see Mandela, all they see is a communist terrorist who to some degree has been part of a secret white genocide plan; an interfaith, liberal, corrupt leader; a champion of abortion and the gay agenda. And they are happy to be very vocal about this perception. They have joined a scrum in the culture war, but have gone from “touch” to “engage” without pausing to think.

Why Are We So Surprised?

I am not sure why Christians are so surprised at the “idolizing” of Nelson Mandela and why they feel the need to point it out at every opportunity. Paul writes in one of his epistles, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges” (1 Corinthians 5:12–13a). Paul, is speaking in line with Christ, of whom John writes, “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:17–18).

What is the church’s mission policy? How do we interact with an unbelieving world? Based on these two passages I think we should be careful when we communicate with a non-believer who is behaving in a way consistent with his worldview. People are not condemned because they have idols, but because they do not know Christ.

Political Idolatry in Scripture

Probably the closest example in Scripture to what some people see as the idolizing of Nelson Mandela is found in Daniel 3:14–30. In this passage, the whole known world is summoned to worship a figure which I am convinced represents “pluralism.” Following the examples of the minority group of believers Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, we can learn how we are to behave in a pluralistic, idol-worshipping society. They don’t argue; in fact, they even kind of revel in it. In v. 16 they say, “Oh Nebuchadnezzar, we are not going to defend ourselves.” That sounds arrogant, but they are saying that they are not defensive. Nebuchadnezzar makes all sorts of arguments in this passage, you can imagine, but they don’t come back with arguments. What do they do? They live out their absolute truth. They don’t argue about it. (I am not against arguments, more about that in the next section.)

Ninety-five percent of the time, the best way to defend absolute truth, if it’s Jesus, is to live it. These believers show Nebuchadnezzar the opposite of what he was showing them. He is angry, he is frothing at the mouth; they are calm, they are respectful and—notice in the story—they had to be turned in. If you read the first part of the chapter, one of the interesting things is that even though they have been commanded to come, and every single administrator is commanded to come and bow down, they don’t come, but they don’t make a big case out of it. They don’t say, “We are doing civil disobedience. Shame on these filthy idolaters!” They quietly just don’t show up, and in the end jealous astrologers have to turn them in. But they don’t go weeping in the streets about how horrible this idolatry is.

How Paul Dealt With Idolatry

Now most of the time, when Christians open their mouth to speak in the public realm, they either sound cowardly or obnoxious, and I am sad to say that much of what I have read of Christian responses to Mandela’s death at this time sounds obnoxious.

In Acts 17 we learn a bit from Paul. If you read you will see his speech starts off very respectfully and calmly, but there is also indignation, and here is why Paul was effective. If you are not filled with indignation you won’t have the courage to do what he did. And if you are only filled with indignation you won’t have the gentleness and the care to get into people’s questions, to understand them. They won’t feel respected and they will tune you out. Paul was neither obnoxious nor cowardly. He was filled with holy loving jealousy. We are not. We are either too afraid to open our mouths, too cowardly, or when we do we are obnoxious. How do we overcome that? The answer is this: Paul told the Corinthians that when he first came to them, he was filled with fear and trembling, and he resolved to know nothing but Christ and him crucified when he was among them (1 Corinthians 2:2). Anybody who says they are a Christian but is harsh or condemning, the problem is not that they are too fanatical about the gospel, it’s that they are not fanatical enough—because the real gospel is the only place where we see a God who is not more fundamentally holy than loving. Anybody that understands the real gospel is turned into someone who is both thundering and tender.

What did Paul feel? Holy Jealousy, deep complexity, indignation and compassion. He didn’t start by railing against the flagrant idolatry. No, he found a point at which to connect with the people and show them the true God.

All of this to say, that responding to so-called idolatry by calling it out and making self-righteous statements is not conducive to the gospel message spreading, and is not demonstrated for us in Scripture.

Judging a Politician as a Preacher

One of the most confusing things to me is all the talk about Mandela’s spiritual state. Was he a Christian or not? While this is an important question, and should be something believers pray and think about, it is not the main issue in South Africa at the moment. Mandela was a political figure, not an ecclesiastical figure. His comments about religion, Christianity and morality need to be judged as coming from a politician, not from a pastor. What difference does this distinction make? The answer is the difference between a heretic/apostate, and a secular leader.

Did Mandela accurately expound the doctrine of total depravity? No, he didn’t. Was Mandela wrong on abortion? Clearly he was. Was he involved in terrorism? Yes, just as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Puritan Oliver Cromwell and the zealot Peter who became an apostle may be accused. Do we have to celebrate abortion today? No. But we can celebrate a political event in history that reflects the common grace effects of the gospel, coupled with the want that only the fullness of the return of Christ will bring.

Everything this side of eternity is going to be a mixture of good and evil. Every wonderful marriage is going to be marred by sin; every Bible preaching church is going to have sinful elders; every liberation of a people may have an over correction. As the walls of apartheid fell, not everything was perfect, but it cannot be until Christ comes.

What Some Sound Like When they Criticize Mandela at this Time

Forgive my fondness for comic books. Bruce Wayne, in his anticipation of creating the Batman figure, said, “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I’m flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed; but as a symbol . . .  as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.” Mandela was not just a man, he was a symbol. This is why Christians need to think carefully when they speak about him. Even Paul knew the importance of this kind of thing: In Acts 22 he apologized for speaking inappropriately about the high priest, even though the high priest was not a believer. Why did Paul do this? Because if we as Christians are going to be offensive, it must our gospel and the cross that offends—nothing else.

When one speaks critically about Nelson Mandela, or about the honouring of him; one may be against the idolatry, Communism, abortion, the gay agenda or adultery—but that’s not what people hear. People hear a message against what he symbolized. Mandela symbolized to the watching world reconciliation, and as Bruce Wayne said, that symbol is “incorruptible.”

There is a problem in communication called “the curse of knowledge.” It basically means that when you communicate, you don’t know what it’s like not to know what you know. Others don’t know what you know, and thus they don’t know what you mean. You may know that you are against apartheid and pro-reconciliation, but people who hear you don’t know that. There is racial baggage that goes along with any communication in South Africa, and we compromise the voice of the gospel when we speak in simplistic ways. If we are critical of the symbol of the fall of apartheid and racism in an unsophisticated way, we automatically cement in many people’s minds that lie that those who hold Bibles are racist, and that Scripture defends apartheid.

How Should Christians Respond?

We should respond a lot less like agenda-pushers and a lot more like Christ-lovers. One article I read said that we must stop comparing Mandela to Jesus. I wonder if a similar article was written in the papers of Athens when Paul compared Yahweh to the unknown god of the Greeks. If Mandela is a modern symbol of reconciliation, and Christ came to bring true reconciliation, I am not sure what the problem is. What an opportunity for the gospel! Mandela and his fame say something about the hungering in our hearts for a Messiah who will bring true reconciliation. He is definitely a messianic figure in that sense, just as many in history have been; they are pale shadows that speak of our need for a Saviour outside of ourselves. Mandela didn’t bring ultimate true reconciliation, and he couldn’t. No man can, except the God man Jesus Christ.

If all you can think about when you consider Mandela is abortion, adultery, communism, or whatever else, the indictment is on us and the church. How sad it is that there was none who openly professed faith in Jesus Christ that arose as the symbol of the end of apartheid and reconciliation. How anaemic was the church that God had to use a secular leader to bring to bear the common grace of the gospel on racial relations and human rights in South Africa? Just as God used the pagan king Cyrus, as shown by Isaiah the prophet, so in our day God used Mandela for his own purposes.

For a helpful round-up of what others in South Africa have said regarding Mandela, click here.