Several years ago a church in our area went through a very nasty split. The pastor had been caught in serious sin but refused to let go of the church or give up the pastorate. This pastor, and those devoted to him, warned detractors that they faced the judgment of God if they went up against the “Lord’s anointed.” His call was not from men, but directly from God. When other leaders in the church objected that his sin disqualified him from ministry he compared himself with King David and thus only accountable to God. The church eventually expelled him from ministry (and is doing great as far as I can tell) and this pastor planted a new church, right around the corner from my house. While this whole thing was going on a friend asked me to weigh in on how the comparison between the role of pastor and the role of King of Israel. As a response I wrote the post “Dear Pastor, You are Not King David”, which is still one of the most viewed posts on this blog.
I’m seeing this same comparison to King David a lot recently. This time it’s not in the context of the role of pastor, but the role of President. I have seen this comparison used, so far exclusively, to defend Donald Trump. I really do understand why some reasonable people feel as though it is responsible (though messy) and necessary (though painful) to vote for Donald Trump in order to prevent Hillary Clinton from appointing judges who will set back both religious liberty and abortion laws for decades. I disagree with this argument (as stated here and here) but I can understand it. But what pains me as a pastor is when I see sloppy, and dangerous, interpretations of Scripture, used purely for political reasons. I have become too numb to try to argue with anyone to vote or not vote for a particular candidate. But I am still passionate that Scripture not be abused for political reasons. If I had seen this argument once I would have ignored it, but it has become prevalent enough to warrant a response.
Allow me to restate how the argument is framed: God has used all kinds of people throughout history to carry out his will, even people who were morally sketchy. He used David, who committed adultery and murder. He used Samson who was hot tempered and easily seduced. Maybe God is using Trump in the same way. Trump has good policies (so the argument goes, though I personally have serious issues with some of them) and his character is not great, but God has used people of poor character in the past so we shouldn’t worry about Trump.
Let’s see what’s wrong with this argument:
First, it ignores the big differences between Israel and America in terms of government and selection of leaders. Israel was a theocracy. God ruled the nation through the king which he directly appointed, first through the prophet Samuel and then through family succession. In America, we have a democracy selected by the people. In Israel, the individual people took no responsibility for the selection of its leaders. In America, we do. We are called to act responsibly, seeking to love God and love our neighbors.
Second, and relatedly, it confuses God’s sovereign will with God’s moral will. Since these are theological terms, I will take some time to explain. In short, God’s sovereign will is what he actually does in history. One of those things is the establishment of authorities. God established David and Solomon. He also established Barack Obama. I know that God set up Barack Obama as the president because that’s what happened in history and God is sovereign over history. If Trump becomes President, then that’s who God made president. If it’s Clinton, then a Clinton presidency is within God’s sovereign will. In accomplishing God’s sovereign will he will sometimes establish good leaders and he will sometimes establish bad leaders. Sometimes it’s a blessing for the nation. Sometimes it’s an act of judgment. (It’s hard to not view this election in terms of God’s (well deserved) judgment on our nation.) We don’t know God’s sovereign will until it happens.
God’s moral will, on the other hand, is what God wants us as humans to do. He wants us to love Him. He wants us to love our neighbors. He wants us to obey his commands. God has revealed his moral will to us in Scripture and he commands us to live in accordance with his moral will. To do this requires discernment and wisdom. We have to act on what we know is right and wrong and we have to act during times of moral ambiguity. Sometimes we have to think “what is most likely to occur?” or, perhaps, “what from Scripture tells me what I should expect will happen?”
Let’s bring this back around to the comparison between Donald Trump and King David. The comparison points to God’s sovereign will – God has, throughout history, used morally suspect leaders for a good purpose. This is, of course, true. And we should thank God for his mercy. But the conclusion – we should not worry about morally suspect leaders – does not follow. We should instead be asking the question – what from Scripture should we expect will happen if we elect a wicked person?
That brings me to number three. These comparisons cherry pick David and forget both the consequence of his sin and the history of Israel. Israel’s history is a pretty bleak one. The nation was quickly divided and conquered by outside forces. Why? What happened? Again and again the nation was ruled by kings who turned away from God and thus incurred his judgment. They were idolaters. They were wicked. They were proud. And they caused the nation to fall. And where did that seed of wickedness and judgment begin? There were seeds of it already in David. Does this in some way nullify God’s sovereign action? Am I saying God made the wrong choice? By no means. What I’m saying is that the moral character of the leaders of Israel contributed to its ultimate downfall.
I think we have reason to expect the same thing in this case. Let’s consider two more pieces of Scripture. First, take note of a pair of Proverbs in chapter 28. Verses 12 and 28 basically say the same thing: “when the wicked rise to power, people go into hiding.” Why do people go into hiding when the wicked rise to power? Because wickedness leads to injustice, and injustice to suffering. There is a direct correlation between the wickedness of the leader and the fear of the people. Second, it is wise to note that there are qualifications given for elders and deacons and that those qualifications have to do with the character of those being selected for leadership. Why are those qualifications in place? Because for a church to survive it needs leaders who have character. A wicked church leader guts and destroys a church, even if his theology is otherwise excellent. He will bully the flock. He will take advantage of it. Can God still use such a man for good purposes? You bet, and he has, but God has given his church the responsibility to act in accordance with his moral will.
But, you say, we aren’t looking for a pastor (or elder or deacon), we’re looking for a President. We don’t need someone who is a choir boy. Those qualifications for elders/deacons don’t apply here. You’re right. Those qualifications don’t apply. But the principle still applies. Character matters in leadership. Maybe there is a different set of qualifications, but character still matters.
Fourth, these comparisons are inevitably paired with a minimization of sin. I don’t think they necessarily have to, but they always are. Trump’s language isn’t abusive and lewd, it’s “locker room talk.” He’s just not PC. He can be “a little rude,” or “a little crude.” He “has faults.” He’s “not polished.” Sorry, but this minimization of sin is not becoming for believers in the gospel. Vote for him if you must but at least be honest. It’s a harsh conclusion I know but from my judgment Trump is a “wicked” man. He is a bully. He is full of pride and arrogance. His sexual liaisons and speech prove not only that he is unfaithful, but that he is a “fool” in the biblical sense of the word. He is a chronic liar. Friends, let’s not minimize this. If we seek to justify him because he has the “right policies” then we lose our credibility and prophetic voice, and we desperately need both of those. We’re called to speak truth to the powerful and the weak, to our enemies and our allies. Let’s do that. Let’s not cover up what is going on here.
As soon as these comparisons happen (either for pastors or Presidential candidates) I see Christians turn off their moral radar and begin justifying sin. Every time. Either it’s that the sin isn’t so bad (he just fell once, we need to show mercy, let he who is without sin cast the first stone) or it suddenly doesn’t matter because we’re not dealing with an ordinary individual. We’re dealing with God’s chosen. We’re dealing with the “anointed.” We’re dealing with someone who is called be God to sweep in and save America from evil Hillary.
Yes, those were words I read, and they were written without a hint of irony. Trump took the place of God in Isaiah 40. Trump became, for this “Christian” writer, the one through whom God would save, through whom God would reign. Friends, such words are borderline blasphemy. Our anointed Savor and Lord is none other than Jesus Christ and Him alone!
So, where does that leave us? I believe that character matters. Must the President be perfect. No, I don’t think so. But we need to use wisdom and judgment to ask, what characteristics are necessary for him to act in such way that will provide justice for my neighbor. I think honesty matters. Faithfulness. Humility. A teachable spirit. Fairness. Care for others. A willingness to be wrong. Coolness under pressure. Etc. All of these things will affect how a President leads and thus whether or not such a presidency would be good for my neighbor.
Judge for yourself. We are in difficult times and the situation is complex. Search the Scripture and search the heart of God. But whatever you choose, seek God’s moral will. God will handle his sovereign will. Thanks be to God that he can use anyone for any purpose. But make your decisions based on his revealed Word.