Mandela: Responding Rightly

mandelaOn Thursday the 5th of 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 ‘idolising’ 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.[i]” 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.[ii]

What is the churches 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 shadrackin 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 Shadrack, Meshach and Abedigo, 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 v16 they say, “Oh Nebuchadnezzar, we are not going to defend ourselves”. And 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).

95% of the time, the best way to defend absolute truth, if it’s Jesus, is to live it. These believers showed 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 had been commanded to come, every single administrator was commanded to come and bow down, they did not come, but they didn’t make a big case out of it, they did say, “We are doing civil disobedience. Shame on these filthy idolaters” they quietly just didn’t show up, and in the end jealous astrologers had to turn them in. But they didn’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.

paul in athensIn 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, they will tune you out

Paul was neither obnoxious nor cowardly. He was filled with holy loving jealousy. We are not. We are either to 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[iii]. Anybody who says they are a Christian but are 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 it 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 not accurately expound the doctrine of total depravity? No, he didn’t. Was Mandela wrong on abortion? Clearly he was[iv]. Was he involved in terrorism? Yes, just as Dietrich Bonheoffer, 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.

batmanForgive my fondness for comic books: Bruce Wayne, in his anticipation of creating the Batman figure said this, “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.[v]

Mandela is not just a man, he is 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 apologises 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, gay agenda or adultery, but that’s not what people hear. People hear a message against what he symbolised. Mandela symbolises to the watching world reconciliation, and as Bruce Wayne said, this 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?

reconciliationWe 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 says something about the hungering in our hearts for a Messiah that 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.


[i] 1 Corinthians 5:12-13a

[ii] John 3:17-18

[iii] 1 Corinthians 2:2

[iv] accessed 2013-12-10

[v] accessed 2013-12-10

  12 comments for “Mandela: Responding Rightly

  1. Wilna Jansen van Rensburg
    December 11, 2013 at 9:25 am

    Thank you for this! Well written and sobering article amongst all the emotional responses.

  2. December 11, 2013 at 9:48 am

    Thank you Tyrell. Here is many things to think about and I will meditate on it.

    After my first read I have one question: From your article you mainly address how we should respond to the unbelieving community and what you say about that is very sound. My problem is the Church and how they deal with this situation. I find little discernment from believers about this issue. For example: should a Church have a memorial service to Mandela as a great man of God? Should the Christian community teach how to model the example of Mandela in the same sense as Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ”. This is what I saw among many Churches and Christians. My last sentence was exactly the response from a pastor about Mandela and his life. That is why I think the debate about Mandela’s Christianity became a hot topic. Because if the Christian community can say he was a Christian, then they have good reason to say we must follow his example in SA as a believer and this is what many Churches and Christians do. As a person he did set some examples, but as a Christian, I do not find and example to follow him in the same breath as Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ. This issue I feel you did not address clearly and this issue is what the Christian community is discerning badly.

    God definitely used Mandela under the umbrella of common grace as you point out correctly. But Christians must be careful to declare him a saint and bring him into the Church as a believer in the same way we honour the teachings of the reformers and puritans. This is what many Christian and Churches did. This is what sparked the debate about his Christianity.

    To sum up I feel the response to the Christian community about the Nelson Mandela is different than how we respond to the world. Christians need to be warned about pulling Mandela in among us as a believers, because this set the stage for ecumenism and interfaith.

    So my question to you is: How should we respond to the Church at large about Mandela and making him one of the body of Christ?

  3. December 11, 2013 at 9:52 am

    While I do not agree with you on some things you have written ( and preached) this time I agree you nailed it. Thank you

  4. Ramano Meth
    December 11, 2013 at 10:42 am

    Thanks for the article Tyrell. It was quite helpful…i found myself somewhat frustrated at how so many, if not all, of those who spoke at Madiba’s memorial tended to hang onto his memory in a way that seemed to immortalize him. Those words of Hamlet came to mind when i listened to Zuma’s speech, “He was a man. Take him for all in all.”

  5. Roland Eskinazi
    December 11, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    Excellent Tyrell
    I think you have captured well what has concerned me about all the heat generated on this issue.

  6. Nelis Bornman
    December 11, 2013 at 9:57 pm

    “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.”

    I think this is the main issue that concerns the glorious salvation and worship due of to God through Christ – the only saviour.

    Some people I work with think (still darkened in their understanding), that Mandella will now be with God, based on what good He has done. This is what is declared and propagated in the media since last Friday. Not by being justified, adopted and sanctified, bearing the fruits of the Spirit through faith in what the Son of God has done for us. This is the way that the gospel offends, not by our works, acts of kindness or even political reconciliation, but by what Christ has done for you if you repent and believe.

    The media (beast / false prophet) is misleading and anti-Christ.

    I often have to remind myself that I should not expect acceptance and favour from unbelievers.
    We also live in a humanistic culture where nobody wants to be offended. Yet Christ said, if they hate you, remember they also hated me before you. John 15:18

    The hard question for me is, do I love and pray for those who hate me for speaking the truth, yet being mindfull that as Christ’s servant I’m no greater than my Master.

    Mat 16:4 An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.

    Thanks Tyrell for helping us think about this, and God be praised for his acts of common grace in our country.

  7. Rudie Booyens
    December 13, 2013 at 8:11 am

    Thank you for your wisdom and insight. You have helped me to see the broader picture. This is an excellent article!

  8. Christo
    December 14, 2013 at 8:58 pm

    What you don’t know and what I suspected for a very long time was that Mandela was a Christian. Oops! Read the South African edition of the Mail & Guardian, 13 to 19 December 2013, page 12, Confessions of a closet Christian by Verashni Pillay. I do not defend the man. It is a case of not feeling what I am told I should be feeling as is reported by a black woman in the same paper.

    It astonishes how Tyrell falls into the logic trap of what should be done or not. How to evaluate the man or not. That smacks of judgementalism. He did many wrong things and that cautions me against idolization. That; however; does not detract one jot from the fact that he was crucial to averting a bloodbath in this country. He was the leading light. He took the helm in steering this country to where we are today. He made one crucial decision and I doubt many white South Africans even grasp the critical nature of it.

    He decided to handle the situation with forgiveness. Looking closely at all sorts of philosophies and religions, it seems to me ultimately unlikely that he decided on this without being informed by Christ Himself. As reported by Pillay, he (Mandela) chose not to style himself as champion of or give any preference to any specific religion. He was a baptized Methodist. Considering the partisanship and highly emotional content of religionists’ motives and actions, that was the correct course of action.

    Beware the debate on the count of angels dancing on a pinhead. Also the Crusaders. I believe the count for Christians killed In Palestine then – all in the name of God at that! – was 25 000.

    Ultimately God and Christ should be taken as the reference points in how to handle Mandela. No man is a saint, in this, Mandela is not the lodestone. Period. We should thank God that He used Mandela to show the world that forgiveness is the only way in which to resolve conflicts. Take Serbia and Ireland as opposites in how forgiveness changes the hearts of men.

    It is all very well that we idolize Mandela for his forgiveness, but our own dismal failure not to do likewise in ALL our deliberations, evaluations and pronunciations.

    Funny thing, the apartheid regime were “the good guys” being the government of the day. All Christians regularly attending Sunday church and Holy Mass. Then Hector Petersen happened.

    I think we should take the historians caveat to heart. No history is written before fifty years have passed. That means that two generations have already passed away before reasonable assessments can be made as to what and how it really happened. Ten days have now passed and we want to judge the man already. A little too close for comfort, I’d say.

    • tyrellh
      December 14, 2013 at 11:02 pm

      Hi Christo. thanks for your response. I don’t know if you read my article to the end, I encourage you to do so. My article was not about judgements on Nelson Mandela, but was actually about judgements of Christians reaction to him. So I think you totally missed the point.

      Secondly, I am aware of the faith claims around Mandela. I do however think that an evangelical and orthodox definition of a Christian is going to be very different from the Mail and Guardian. In the secular realm a ‘Christian’ is someone who is the member of a church and has been baptised, perhaps the give assent to some creed. For a Pastor of an evangelical church like me, a Christian is someone’s who’s first allegiance is to Jesus Christ, there is a trust in His death and resurrection and a forsaking of sin in ones personal life; faith is a personal thing, but never a private thing. Thus with this definition I think I will probably come to different conclusions than most liberal newspapers. Note: I am not saying he was not a Christian, since I never knew him personally, but he has made interfaith statements that would cast a spurious light on his genuine conversion at the time he made the statements.

      You raise a number of issues that I am not sure are pertinent. But please reread the article, and if you respond, I encourage you to keep the response as brief and succinct as possible.

  9. Alien & Stranger
    December 15, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    Thank you for a balanced commentary. I have been appalled at the vitriol I’ve seen in comment threads, especially on American Christian and pro-life websites, as well as by white racists in or from South Africa. I have no illusions about Nelson Mandela – he was a human being with his good and bad points, flawed like you and me. He was a product of his time and the oppressive apartheid regime that encouraged the poor and oppressed to turn to Communism and Liberation Theology. While Mandela did push the ANC to turn to violence, and he did sign into law the act legalising abortion on demand, he was also noted for having played a major role in the transition to full democracy, when he chose to put hatred and bitterness behind him and pursue reconciliation – an example which many have failed to follow. For that I respect him, because I know how easily the negotiations prior to the 1994 elections could have been derailed (and nearly were).
    The other factor, which the media ignore, is that Christians were praying during the whole period from Mandela’s release right up to the elections, and we believe that the Lord also intervened when the IFP was brought back to the table while Christians were praying at the Jesus Prayer Rally, at sports stadia. Michael Cassidy of African Enterprise (which organised the rally) speaks of this time in his books African Harvest and A Witness Forever.
    At Mandela’s State funeral, we were told that the Methodist Church was his spiritual home, but it is possible, even likely, that he subscribed to liberal and/ or liberation theology for most of his life, which many Methodists espoused during the “struggle years”. A bit later at the funeral, we were told of Mandela’s love for children, which is well known, but which I find ironic in view of the fact that over 1 million babies (mostly black) have been killed through abortion since 1997, after Mandela signed the law into effect. I do not presume to judge whether Mandela was saved or not. He certainly bore the fruit of forgiveness, reconciliation and humility, but it is the Lord who knows a man’s heart. Who knows what happened after he left office, especially in his final years?

  10. December 31, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    Forgive me,but anyone who claims to understand this crap written down here can just as well honour a terrorist, murderer pimpernel etc.etc……. Mandela was a spineless murderer and terrorist who never admitted following Christ in a liftime of 95 years!! That is it!! No long scripts full of rubbish can change this!! It is for God to judge and to decide where his soul goes, but anyone has the right the to decide what to think about him and to follow his ways of doing things or not!!Anyone giving approval of Mandela`s ways is for practical purposes also a murderer!! You show your approval and teach children it is fine to achieve your goals through violence!! Shame on you!! Please read what the Bible says about someone who let a child stumble!!

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