Over the years, our church has had to spend some time visiting the local synagogue to apologize for things that our fellow-coreligionists have said and proposed. For instance, there was that time several years ago that the President of the Southern Baptist Convention offered his misguided opinion that God didn’t hear the prayers of Jewish people. Yeah, we had to visit the synagogue then. Also, when the Southern Baptist Convention decided to boycott Disney. Yeah, that was a goofy idea. More synagogue time. The members of the local synagogue have always been very gracious and welcoming to us.
So of course, this past week we got to hear another Southern Baptist make comments that end up sounding bad—largely because they are bad. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the 12,000-member First Baptist Church in Dallas, said that "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." Jeffress’ point was to justify whatever actions the current occupant of the White House might chose regarding North Korea. The passage in the New Testament that Jeffress is referencing is found in Romans 13, the first five verses which read as follows (following the NIV translation):
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
An astute reader of the passage might fail to notice where it says that the current American President can “use whatever means necessary” to “stop evil.” Such an intelligent reader might also be hard pressed to find anywhere in the passage that speaks about “war.” Given the context of the actual words of the passage, including the situation in which Paul, the author of the passage was writing—a Jewish man living in the first century Roman Empire—I suspect that he was thinking more in terms of the government’s right and authority to handle lawbreakers—you know, criminals. I don’t think international relationships, whether diplomacy or war, were in his mind at all.
This particular passage in Romans has a long history of being misused, mostly by kings and tyrants, who in times past argued for what was called “the divine right of kings” based on their reading of Paul’s words. During the American Revolution some of those who opposed the revolution parked themselves on this passage and used these words against those who fought against Great Britain. But of course the problem with invoking the passage to support tyranny are all the times elsewhere in scripture when prophets condemned rulers, worked to undermine rulers, or anointed new kings to take the place of the current king that God no longer liked. It is surprisingly hard to justify by scripture that tyrants have a right to tyranny, unless one happens to be a tyrant who is trying to prove his point of view and doesn’t really care to pay attention to little things like context.
Arrogance of the sort that Jeffress’ words express seem to me always out of place. During the Democratic debate of February 29, 2004, Senator John Edwards said:
“Well, there's a wonderful story about Abraham Lincoln during the middle of the Civil War bringing in a group of leaders, and at the end of the meeting one of the leaders said, ‘Mr. President, can we pray, can we please join in prayer that God is on our side?’ And Abraham Lincoln's response was, ‘I won't join you in that prayer, but I'll join you in a prayer that we're on God’s side.’”
Jeffress, and those like him throughout history, make the mistake of assuming that they know God is on their side and that they know what he wants. I prefer Lincoln’s attitude.