Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated more than 50 years ago, but his life’s work is still having an impact. He was, by calling, a pastor, and there are some important lessons that pastors today can learn from his life.
1. Actions still speak louder than words.
Dr. King ministered in a time when many southern white Christians said the right things about God and faith, but treated black people, even black Christians, with prejudice and hatred. As he led the nation to meet degrading jeers, fire hoses, attack dogs and white supremacist mob violence with Christ’s love and nonviolent protest, he brought conviction to all who were Christian by transformation and not just by culture.
Dr. King’s life challenges us to live by all of God’s principles for life in His Word and not just a favorite few. Pastors can learn that words and thoughts really do matter. As 1 John 4:20 says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and yet hates his brother or sister, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother or sister whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” James 2:17 also affirms, “In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself.” People need to see the love of God in action.
2. Integrity and conviction are required for all Christians, especially pastors.
One line often quoted from Dr. King’s speeches says, “A man who does not have something for which he is willing to die is not fit to live.” These words might be unique, but the thought is not. In Luke 9:23 Jesus said, “…If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.”
God calls pastors to be leaders and change agents, but sometimes we settle for being conformist and comfortable. We bite our tongues to save ourselves some grief and sometimes to save our jobs. Like Jeremiah, God has called the pastor to be a “prophet to the nations.” (Jer. 1:5). Pastors can be reminded and encouraged to rise to this task. The world needs to hear our prophetic voice now as much as it ever has before. Such integrity and conviction cost both Martin Luther King, Jr. and King Jesus their lives. It will at times cost us something too.
3. The Christian Life can never be just about “I,” it must also include “we.”
Dr. King’s life and work reminds us that personal piety is never enough. Doesn’t the Lord’s Prayer say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.”? Romans 14:7 says, “For none of us lives for himself, and no one dies for himself.” 1 John 1:3-4 says, “What we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may also have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
All these scriptures remind us of the “We-ness” of the Christian faith. It is not enough for us to be excited about what heaven is like and not try to make earth more like heaven; or to be personally good and not work for goodness around us; or even for us to be saved and not work for the salvation of others. The protest song that accompanied the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s and 60’s was, “We Shall Overcome”, but did you know that the song was written and originally published in 1900 by Dr. Charles Albert Tindley as “I’ll Overcome Some Day”? It must be “we”, not “I.”
Dr. King reminds us as pastors that the Christian faith cannot be lived in isolation. “For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16. His life and words challenge us even here. One thing is certain. All of us ought to be challenged by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life to work to leave the world a better place.
“I have a dream that one day this Nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.