Does Character Matter Anymore?

Recently the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame (HOF) ballots went out to some 500 sports writers who have the responsibility to vote on candidates to the Hall each year.  This year, rather unusually, there was not a single player who reached the required 75% level of approval in order to be elected to the Hall.  That has renewed the annual debate the last number of years about whether or not character matters in voting one into the Hall.  The reason it has been such a debate is because the all-time leader in home runs (Barry Bonds) and one of the greatest pitchers of all time (Roger Clemens) both continue to fall short of the votes needed to enter the Hall. If they fall short one more year, they will not get into the Hall as they will fall off the ballot.

These two were perhaps the two premier players of their era. Yet for nine straight years, they have not gotten 75% of the vote because both of them were tainted by the use of performance enhancing drugs which raised the level of their “abilities” to greater heights. In the case of Barry Bonds, over one offseason he went from a gifted young athlete with what might be considered a normal athletic build, into a muscle-bound behemoth that, along with his natural ability, launched him to becoming a home run hitting machine. Neither has ever admitted to using PEDs but anecdotal evidence along with testimony from many others, including those who consistently administered the PEDs, abounds. Thus, the character issue.

This year, along with Bonds and Clemens, another former player who is eligible for the Hall, Kurt Schilling, who is likewise eminently qualified for Hall induction, again fell short. The reason is because Schilling has made a number of incendiary comments that many take to be racist and bigoted.  His ideological worldview is also suspect by many.  The character issue has bitten him too.

But Detroit News writer, Lynn Henning, whom I enjoy as a sportswriter, has taken up the cause of these three arguing that a character qualification should not be used to keep anyone out of the Hall. Ostensibly, for Henning, a serial killer who had a HOF worthy baseball career ought to be inducted based on his on-field performance alone. Others are listening.

This is a part of a larger conversation in our public square.  Should character matter in those we honor or those who lead us?  For more and more people, the answer is no. If the CEO can turn us a profit, character is not an issue. If “our” politician is in power, then lying, philandering, and questionable ethics is dismissible.

Back when Bill Clinton was president, the news came out in 1998 of his sexual philanderings in the White House with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.  The day the news broke, my dear friend Fred Froman came into my office and said, “That’s it. He cannot survive this. He will be removed from office.” I said in reply, “Fred, there is not enough moral backbone left in America to dismiss that man for this.” Well, we all know how that turned out.

Should character matter?  Well, one of the problems we have today is we have divorced “character” from morals. From the founding of our nation until the last 50 years or so, good character meant that there was a recognizable moral standard.  To live in adultery, to co-habit before marriage, or to be a liar, a cheat, or a fraud was to disqualify one from recognition and places of honor and responsibility lacking the requisite character to be entrusted with such positions. Today, it is almost expected behavior. While not encouraged necessarily, it is also not disqualifying.  But, as we all know, standards of morality have all changed in our culture. In reality, there is no such thing as “morality” in a society that does not recognize God.  “Morality”, even if we use the term anymore, is determined by the society and thus is always a moving target. If a dictator is in power, morality is what the dictator says it is (visa vi Nazi Germany). If it is a democratic people, morality is determined by whatever “the majority” deems to be moral. In a democracy, you can change anything with enough votes including morality. The Constitution or the Bill of Rights can be changed or even dismissed if enough votes can be mustered. In terms of morality today, a hard and fast standard of morality no longer exists. For these, character is divorced from such morality.

So, what is character?  Hebrews 1:3 tells us.  Speaking of Jesus Christ, the author writes, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (ESV). Those words “exact imprint” is the translation of a single word in the Greek.  Do you know what that word is? Character. The Greek word here is pronounced exactly as our English word “character”. The KJV translated this Greek word “express image”.  Thus, a biblical definition of character is one who conforms to the image of God reflected in the person of Christ. Now, none of us as sinners is the exact image of God in Christ. But character can be defined as “the extent to which we reflect the image of Christ”.  One who disregards the image of Christ in his or her behavior, lacks character. One who strives to reflect the image of Christ, though imperfectly, can be designated as one having character.

So, does character matter? To Lynn Henning in terms of the HOF, the answer is no. To the world, no.  To the majority of our society, no. Sadly, even to an ever-increasing number of evangelicals professing faith in Christ, the answer is no. To these, character is relative and to be determined on a sliding scale. But to the genuine believer, character is to be like Christ.  And the extent to which we do that is the extent to which we have character. And to us, character matters.


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