Saturday, August 12, 2017

Robert Jeffress and Romans 13: Troubling Comments

We Southern Baptists are back in the news this week, and it isn’t for our gospel efforts.

A few days ago, in a statement to the Brody File, Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, made this 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.

A story at Dallas News by Sarah Pulliam Bailey contained some follow-up quotes from Pastor Jeffress.

He made it clear that he sees Romans 13 as authorizing Trump’s administration to undertake almost unlimited actions against Kim from North Korea.

That gives the government to the authority to do whatever, whether it’s assassination, capital punishment or evil punishment to quell the actions of evildoers like Kim Jong Un.

Did he say that the government has the authority to do evil (evil punishment) to quell evildoers? Am I reading him right there?

Of course, he also denigrated anyone who did not see this passage as he does.

Some Christians, perhaps younger Christians, have to think this through. 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.

One need never wonder where Robert Jeffress stands – that is squarely behind President Trump. But is he right that his view of Romans 13 is the only view, and that anyone who doesn’t agree with him is theologically ignorant? Does Romans 13 grant our government unfettered right to destroy the clearly unhinged ruler of North Korea?

And when is it unwise to “think this through?” Isn’t thoughtful exegesis a good thing?

I would offer the following thoughts.

1. Kim is undoubtedly a cruel and evil dictator who has caused great harm to this world. He appears to be detached from reality, vicious, and violent. He ignores basic human rights, abuses his own people, persecutes Christians, and makes wild threats against other nations. He claims to have nuclear weapons. An evil madman with nuclear weapons – yes, our government has legitimate interests in dealing with him. The question is not whether we should deal with him, but how. More importantly, the question is what kinds of violence are justified in that effort.

2. Evangelical Christians have generally followed the theory of Just War since Augustine first began to develop these principles. They are not spelled out biblically or universally adhered to, and some pacifists reject them entirely. But one site gives a fair summary. 

  • A just war must be undertaken as a last resort after peaceful options are considered and exhausted.
  • A just war is waged by a legitimate governmental authority, not by individuals or groups.
  • A just war must have a just cause. It must be a response to a wrong suffered. Either it should be self-defense or the pursuit of a noble and just goal.
  • A just war should have a rational probability of success. Entering into hopeless causes is not just.
  • A just war must be undertaken with the right intentions – to establish peace and to enforce justice.
  • A just war must engage only in violence proportional to the casualties suffered. Only that amount of force necessary to accomplish the just goal should be used.
  • A just war must distinguish between military and civilians. Civilians must never be the target of military action. Civilian deaths are unavoidable in war, but they should be avoided as much as is possible.

Is military action against North Korea and Kim Jong Un justified? He seems to be dangerous and is threatening peaceful nations around him. Have all peaceful options been exhausted? I am not an expert in geo-political affairs, but it seems like nothing has worked so far. Military action may well be our only option.

The question is whether the force of some of Jeffress’ words is in the spirit of just war. Perhaps he is engaging in hyperbole for effect, but the tone of his words is troubling. Are there limits to how far we can go in destroying Kim and his regime? Does anything go? Does Romans 13 authorize a no-holds-barred destruction of North Korea?

3. Romans 13 is not just for America.

Ultimately, this is my quarrel with the tone of many “God and country” homilies – they seem to imply a special place for America in the heart of God. Romans 13 was written in the Roman Empire. The authority given power there was Nero – if he was an improvement on Kim, it was not by much.

Bart Barber tweeted an interesting thought, which I assume was in response to this kerfuffle.

Kim Jong Un is a murderous dictator, but Romans 13 gives him just as much authority as it does to President Trump. #Exegesis.

He followed that up with a Facebook comment.

Apart from the politics, I think the meaning of Romans 13 is lost if we think that it applies only to leaders we favor of our own country in those decisions with which we agree. It applied, you know, to a dictatorial, anti-Christian, foreign oppressor named Nero.

Romans 13 does not just apply to America – we are not God’s special chosen.

4. No government’s authority is unlimited.

The statement that causes me the greatest angst is his statement, “That gives the government to the authority to do whatever…” Following that statement, he included assassinations, something most civilized governments frown on as a tactic of war, and “evil punishment.” I don’t know what that means, but it sounds ominous.

No, we do not have the right to do evil in the pursuit of good. The ends do not justify the means. Civilized nations put limits on the extent of warfare and a prominent pastor encouraging war without moral limits is troubling.

5. As pastors, we ought to remember what team we play for.

Yes, Kim is nuts. Military action against him may be necessary, just, and wise. As an American, I would cheer for the removal of Kim from power. But my highest calling is not as an American, but as an ambassador of Christ. As such, I must remember that the North Koreans are not our enemy, they are the battleground. We don’t fight AGAINST them, we fight FOR them. We wrestle against principalities and powers for people who are enslaved in the darkness. We are here FOR Muslims and FOR North Koreans and FOR Chinese and FOR…well, people of every tribe and language.

Our citizenship is in heaven.

Our loyalties will always be divided. As Americans, we will rejoice when an evil dictator is confronted and brought low. History has not supported the idea that good results when evil is allowed to fester. But our hearts, our focus, AND OUR PUBLIC WORDS should be focused on gospel concerns. Is it really best for a Baptist preacher to be cheerleading for war? Is that the message we want to send to the world? Does that further the cause of the Great Commission?

6. Jeffress’ statement that he didn’t want Trump to obey the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount is baffling.

The Dallas news article has this quote.

A Christian writer asked me, ‘Don’t you want the president to embody the Sermon on the Mount? I said absolutely not.

Why would he instruct the President not to live out the teachings of Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 5-7. I was bothered when his inaugural message left out the gospel entirely, but actively instructing the President not to conform his life to the teachings of God’s word? I don’t get it. I am not going to read an explanation into it, but I sure wish he’d explain his comments.

Ought we ever to encourage people not to obey Scripture?

7. Robert Jeffress is NOT a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention. 

I say this for the many secular and non-SBC readers who have begun to follow our blogposts here. Southern Baptist churches are autonomous and no Southern Baptist speaks for all Southern Baptists. FBC, Dallas, is certainly one of our most famous pulpits, but the pastor of that church speaks for himself, perhaps his church, and not for the convention. Yes, many agree with him, but many do not.

I speak for myself. I don’t represent the SBC. I don’t even speak for my church on this blog. Robert Jeffress does not speak for me, or for Southern Baptists. Whether his opinions are a majority or not, I don’t know. Yes, most evangelicals voted for Trump, but most I talked to did so with much less enthusiasm than Jeffress did.

Simply put, in Southern Baptist life, no individual speaks for all of us.

Wrapping It Up

I do not anathematize Jeffress’ comments, but they disturb me. I agree with some of his points but he goes too far and his excesses nullify the value of the truths he shares, in my view.

  1. I agree with him that Romans 13 authorizes governments to deal with evildoers. I do not believe it applies to America in any way over other nations. I do not believe it gives the government of our nation or any other unchecked authority to do whatever it wants. I do not think that Robert Jeffress is giving a full and accurate exposition of Romans 13 in his comments.
  2. I agree with him that our government should be concerned about Kim and North Korea but I do not believe that Jeffress’ rhetoric is helpful. As pastors, we ought to serve as the conscience of the land, not as cheerleaders for the war machine. We ought to be examining Scripture and applying just war principles, not encouraging assassinations and “evil punishment” in other lands. Our hearts ought to be focused on gospel efforts more than military ones. Yes, it is true that the removal of Kim would, in the long run, open doors in Korea (depending on what follows), but we are always courting disaster when we become the rooting section for a politician or for an administration.
  3. I agree with him that we want a president with backbone willing to stand up against those who would do evil in the world. However, his rhetoric drifts into dangerous waters. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Our system is designed to make sure no one has unhindered power.
  4. I am not sure what he meant when he encouraged the president not to live out the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, but that statement baffles me, befuddles me, and bothers me. (Got 3 alliterated words in there!)
  5. Perhaps most disturbing is Jeffress’ tone, obviously a subjective thing. He seems combative and aggressive. Dr. Mohler had a comment on Facebook last night that captured what I believe is a much more biblical attitude in a situation like this.

With heavy hearts, thoughtful and biblical Christians recognize that military action is sometimes absolutely called for; but it’s never called for for Christians to be bellicose, in any way to celebrate war.

While Dr. Jeffress has a nugget of truth, his erroneous statements and false applications of those truths, coupled with his bellicose tone and indiscriminate support of war are red flags. Was he just being hyperbolic? Unguarded? Maybe. But he usually seems to know what he’s saying.

Yes, I believe there is still reason to “think this through” not to be mushy, but to come to greater clarity than his words offer.


NOTE: An excellent article by Christianity Today’s Mark Galli explored some of these topics, especially the subject of nuclear war and also Jeffress’ use of Romans 13. It is not Scripture and not inerrant, but it makes some interesting points and is worth reading. 

DISCUSSION NOTES: I realize this is a “trigger” post. Criticizing Jeffress has become an SBC taboo. I am not denigrating him, but I do question his statements – whether they are wise. So, if you wish to discuss this, you will NOT insult Jeffress personally nor will you insult personally anyone who questions Jeffress. Deal with the IDEAS.

And, I may be a little more heavy-handed with moderation to keep us on topic. Rabbit trails here are fraught with land mines!

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