Sarah Pulliam Bailey has an article in today’s Post about yet another controversy around Robert Jeffress, about whom this blog has previously voiced disdain. Alas, it appears that the time has come again in which I must I denounce, in the strongest possible terms, Jeffress’ public theology. Here is the latest from the megachurch pastor: “When it comes to how we should deal with evildoers, 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.” Oy vey.
Jeffress has credentials that are undeniable. He has legitimate degrees from legitimate institutions, albeit ones within the Southern Baptist Convention and with emphases on dispensationalism. He is not one with only a passing understanding of the bible. That’s one of the reasons that he is particularly dangerous. And he is Trump’s go-to pastor for biblical justification of unbiblical things. This blog has featured many, many, many, many, many, many, many entries on Trump, many focusing on religion but not all. I object bigly to any claims that God has anointed Trump a holy instrument.
Jeffress came to prominence with Trump after the two dined on Wendy’s hamburgers. The pastor said that God was going to place Trump in the White House. Trump’s shocking victory gave the minister all the credence he needed; Jeffress–and other pastors, to be fair–is complicit in presenting as a true Christian the man who claims he has never needed to repent for anything. As a pastor myself, I try to steer well-clear of judging the sins of anyone else, which is one of the reasons I am so open about my own shortcomings. I still have an oak tree in my own eye, so there is no need to point out the splinter in someone else’s.
However, I do have the obligation as an Ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament to speak out when I feel that the bible is being used in irresponsible ways. Jeffress maintains that Romans 13 gives “the government … the authority to do whatever, whether it’s assassination, capital punishment or evil punishment to quell the actions of evildoers like Kim Jong Un.” He then goes on to argue that objections raised by the previous contextual chapter (Romans 12) only refer to how Christians treat one another. That’s right. Christians only have to love other Christians. You see, the good reverend does not want a president who will follow the Sermon on the Mount. I’ll say it once again: oy vey.
Romans 13 has been written about a lot. I mean, a lot. I had heated, but respectful debates in seminary about the chapter. The definitive work was done by my fellow Finn, Vilho Riekkinen (I strongly recommend Romans: A Commentary by Robert Jewett, although it is very expensive, so thank God for Logos). These are the main sources of information, along with my not insignificant education. When Paul was writing Romans, Nero was in power. However, it was not yet the batshit crazy Nero, so things were peaceful. Paul was already receiving major pushback from Jews and Jesus-followers, so the last thing that he wanted to do was put another target on his back. Further, as Riekkinen argues in his doctoral dissertation, Paul was trying to negotiate incredibly complex power dynamics. More recent German scholars have argued that Romans 13 refers to Christian relationships with the Roman civic cult. This also helps to situate the whole Matthew 22 “render unto Caesar what is Caesar” advice. Recall that Jesus is holding a Roman coin with the image of Caesar. Said coin would not be allowed in the Temple, so Jesus is saying, the coin has Caesar’s picture, so give it back to him. But you belong to God.
The notion that Paul was referring to the unholy, unrepentant, arrogant, sophomoric walking id that occupies the Oval Office in-between rounds of golf and bilking the American taxpayer is insulting to any person who takes the scripture seriously. Further, the argument is that Christians are to give respect to those offices and persons who are worthy of respect. The Tanakh is filled with examples of God raising up foreign powers to chasten the people. I can make the argument biblically that God could be using Kim Jong Un. I wouldn’t, though, because I know that is not how scripture works.
Jeffress maintains pastors like me are the problem. Again, according to the Post article, “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.” Okay, pastor. I’m game.
How about Proverbs 29:2? “When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, But when a wicked man rules, people groan.” Or Proverbs 28:15? “Like a roaring lion and a rushing bear is a wicked ruler over a poor people.” The first verse of Isaiah 10, perhaps? “Woe to those who enact evil statutes And to those who constantly record unjust decisions.” The prophet Micah said a lot about the sort of financial malfeasance of the current president: “Concerning evil, both hands do it well The prince asks, also the judge, for a bribe, And a great man speaks the desire of his soul; So they weave it together” (7:3). I could go on.
Jeffress pastors a church that boasts nearly 4,000 in worship each week. This is not a place that allows for theological exploration or variety. What is even more frightening, is that Jeffress is filling delusional Trump with talk of being God’s agent, and I imagine there has been talk of ushering in an apocalypse. I’ll be covering that in a series of blogs over the next month. But let we in the Church who understand the damaging and errant words and work of Jeffress and his ilk not be complacent. These megachurches are all around us, luring people in with their coffee bars and promises of a guaranteed place in heaven. Churches that vest authority in the personalities and whims of the pastors, limiting who deserves love and expanding who deserves damnation.
If this is the Christianity that is to remain, the faith needs to die. It pains me deeply each time I say it, but the sort of Christianity that would cozy up to Trump and empower white supremacists has nothing to do with Jesus.
And I love me some Jesus.