A Response to Dr. Robert Jeffress
This week, Dr. Robert Jeffress, senior minister at First Baptist in Dallas, TX has given some interviews in response to President Trump’s claims that the United States may soon respond with “fire, fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
Many see this claim by the President as reckless and dangerous as they heighten the possibility of a nuclear war in which no one will win and far too many, most of them innocents, will suffer.
But I’m as concerned with the incredibly un-Christian response by Dr. Jeffress.
You might recall Dr. Jeffress being in the news recently for the Trump rally held at First Baptist Dallas, prompting critics to call the “service” full of idolatry (an article about this even made the local paper, The Knoxville Sun).
You might also recall Dr. Jeffress during the Presidential election explaining his support for Donald Trump by saying, “When I’m looking for a leader…I don’t want some meek and mild leader or somebody who’s going to turn the other cheek” (see this interview he gave with NPR).
So, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when Dr. Jeffress says something un-Christian, but his responses to President Trump’s comments about North Korea are so un-Biblical and anti-Christian that I feel I need to respond to them.
Here is his statement:
“When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un. I’m heartened to see that our president — contrary to what we’ve seen with past administrations who have taken, at best, a sheepish stance toward dictators and oppressors — will not tolerate any threat against the American people. When President Trump draws a red line, he will not erase it, move it, or back away from it. Thank God for a President who is serious about protecting our country.”
The problem, of course, is that Dr. Jeffress is taking a portion of Romans completely out of context as well as ignoring all the other times Paul spoke about political power.
What Dr. Jeffress is referring to when he says “the book of Romans,” is specifically Romans 13: 1-4.
13Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.
This does seem to be a bit of a troubling passage as it seems to legitimize tyrannical leaders. But even if we take it at face value, it still doesn’t really help the case that Dr. Jeffress is attempting to make. After all, if Trump is ordained by God to take the actions he is taking due to Romans 13:1-4, then that necessarily means that Kim Jong-Un is also God-ordained and so sanctioned due to Romans 13:1-4. The scripture, quite clearly if we are just taking it at face value, is referring to leader’s having judgment and power over those that are subject to their leadership, not other leaders. So Trump has no power or say or God-given anything over other world leaders, only over those he does have authority over, the American people.
But, let’s be honest, I’m not sure that I feel much better about that interpretation of this scripture either, even if just looking at it on its face the way Dr. Jeffress does, so lets dig a little more into the context of this Scripture as well as look at a few other things Paul has to say on political leaders and the like.
First, let’s look at Romans 13:1-4 in context.
Some argue that this portion of Romans is a later addition, as it doesn’t seem to flow very well with the passages just before and after it (the portion before ending at Romans 12:21 and the next section beginning at Romans 13:8). To be fair to those who make this argument, the transition does feel smoother between Romans 12:21 and Romans 13:8, but the evidence is not nearly strong enough for me to accept that this was a later edition as it is in other places in Paul’s writings, so I’m of the opinion that this is Paul’s writing, and he meant it to go right here in this letter. Anyway, the fact remains that Paul’s writing or not, it is canonized text in our Bible and therefore, we need to deal with it.
What we need to remember is that Paul wasn’t writing this to be read thousands of years later as Scripture (Paul was a little vain, but he wasn’t anywhere near that vain) but was writing to a particular audience in a particular context. In this situation, he was writing to the churches in Rome.
Amongst these churches were two congregations, mentioned in Romans 16, particularly, 16:10b and 16:11b. Many translations have these as “family” of Aristobulus and Narcissus, but the better translation is “slaves” of those Romans as opposed to family of them. Robert Jewett, Biblical scholar and expert on Paul’s letter to the Romans, surmises that these were Imperial Slaves that were working for and on behalf of local Roman government, and therefore Paul was in part assuring them that the work they were doing was also God’s work. He writes that “the implication of Paul’s wording is that they would not be exercising their power without divine appointment” (see page 788 of Romans: A Commentary by Robert Jewett, in the Hermeneia series, published by Fortress Press 2007). He further writes that the wording used in Romans 13:1 “encompasses a variety of imperial and local offices” (ibid). In other words, Paul is specifically talking about local government in Rome here and isn’t at all meaning that this should be used to apply to all government everywhere throughout the rest of time. He certainly isn’t referring to government in 2017 in the United States of America. And remember, Paul’s theology was such that he greatly believed that the fulfillment of God’s plan was due to commence at ANY MINUTE, so he didn’t even concern himself with the thought of how this might be taken down the line.
Secondly, while what he is writing might seem on the surface to legitimize the power of the local government, it is actually quite a subversive take on the power of the local, Roman government. You see, Paul is quite radical in his words here. The Romans believed themselves to have divine right to rule, yes, but a right that came down from the Greco-Roman deities that they worship, gods of war and chaos such as Mars and Jupiter, not the God that Paul had been illuminating for the past 12 chapters of this book, a God rooted in the actions of the Christ, a God whose power overcame death with the resurrection. In other words, they have the power to rule not as they saw it, in the laws they held and enforced, but in the fact that only Christ is the fulfillment of the law (see Romans 10:4, “For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes”).
Romans scholar Robert Jewett writes,
“If the Roman authorities had understood this argument, it would have been viewed as thoroughly subversive. The the Roman authorities were appointed by the God and Father of Jesus Christ turns the entire Roman civic cult on its head, exposing its suppression of the truth. It’s involvement in the martyrdom of Christ, crucified under Pontius Pilate, cannot have been forgotten by the readers of chapter 13, who knew from first hand experience of the Edict of Claudius the hollowness of Rome’s claim to have established a benign rule of law. The critique of the law in all its forms in the first eight chapters of this letter cannot have been forgotten.” (ibid, 790)
And as this quote in part points out, Romans 13 isn’t the only place that Paul has something to say about political issues and leaders. It isn’t the only place in the letter of Romans!
Let’s look at some of those. In Romans 8:38-39:
“38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
“Nor rulers, nor powers,” Paul writes. Whatever authority they may have, Paul doesn’t believe they have the power or the right to separate us from God’s unfailing love. God’s love that includes the people trapped under the regime of Kim Jong-Un who would most certainly perish if the President were to drop “fire and fury” upon them. Despite what Paul says in Romans 13, he still firmly believes what he had to say here in Romans 8 as well.
Paul’s feelings about the leaders of his world are made clear in 1 Corinthians 2:8. For fuller context, I will provide 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 for you:
“6 Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. 7But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9But, as it is written,
‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him’—
10these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”
None of the rulers of this age understand, Paul writes, including those he talks about in Romans 13. Furthermore, Paul blames the powers that be, the rulers of his time for the action of crucifying Jesus. Had they understood, had they known what God was trying to do in the world, they would have worked with and followed Jesus, not crucified him. Doesn’t sound like Paul thought they were properly utilizing the power and authority they received from God, which means that despite having that authority, they aren’t always correct in using it.
I think we can safely say that we have the right to wonder whether or not President Trump is correct in escalating tensions with North Korea despite Dr. Jeffress’s reading (incorrect and out of context reading) of Romans 13.
In an article from the Washington Post about this statement, Dr. Jeffress made the claim that those who don’t follow his understanding of these issues and his belief in some of the harsher edicts of our President towards minorities and foreigners just don’t have a strong understanding of the Bible.
“It’s antithetical to some of the mushy rhetoric you hear from some circles today. Frankly, it’s because they are not well taught in the scriptures.”
I beg to differ, Dr. Jeffress. I think the Bible is pretty clear in its preference for the “mushy rhetoric” as you refer to it. The Bible, when taken as a whole, and especially the Gospels, seem to take a stand on the side of Peace and Love.
Isaiah 2:4b and Micah 4:3b
“they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.”
“43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
“28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ 29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’”
Dr. Jeffress, you are free to believe that the Bible tells you that war, violence, and hate are the answers. I, for one, will err on the side of love.