Tag Archives: Politics

What does Paul mean when he says “do not be partners with them”?

For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.

Ephesians 5:5-7

What does Paul mean when he says we should not be partners with the “immoral, impure, or greedy” person? More specifically, what does he mean by “partner”?

Let’s cover the obvious first. He doesn’t mean that we should be completely isolated from the world. We’re called into the world in order to share the love of Christ with the world. Jesus Himself spent a lot of time with sinners without violating this – or any – command of God.

On the other side, it’s obvious that, at a minimum, we shouldn’t participate in sin ourselves. We shouldn’t be immoral, impure, or greedy. At least Paul means that we shouldn’t sin, but I think he means more than that here. He’s already called us to live obediently. No, his concern here is with believers “partnership” with people in their wicked acts.

Lessons from the Old Testament

The first Scriptural reference that comes to mind – since my pastor is currently preaching through Kings – is the story of Jehoshaphat. It’s an interesting story because it’s not very cut and dry. Jehoshaphat, who was the good king of Judah, allied himself with Ahab, the wicked king of Israel. His first alliance was for a war. He rode out with Ahab to fight Ramoth Gilead. The battle was a trap that God set for Ahab, who was mortally wounded. Jehoshaphat (who was dressed up like Ahab) had a brush with death, but was spared by God (2 Chronicles 18:31). Later, Jehoshaphat had an alliance with Ahab’s (almost as wicked) son Joram. In this case, God gave the alliance victory, but only because of Jehoshaphat (” Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord Almighty lives, whom I serve, if I did not have respect for the presence of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, I would not pay any attention to you.”) So, Jehoshaphat didn’t suffer any consequence for his military alliances with Ahab, at least nothing explicitly stated in Scripture. But, there’s an important clue that Jehoshaphat shouldn’t have made this alliance and was only spared because of he otherwise served the Lord.

Here’s how Jehoshaphat’s story is wrapped up in 2 Chronicles 20:

35 Later, Jehoshaphat king of Judah made an alliance with Ahaziah king of Israel, whose ways were wicked. 36 He agreed with him to construct a fleet of trading ships. After these were built at Ezion Geber, 37 Eliezer son of Dodavahu of Mareshah prophesied against Jehoshaphat, saying, “Because you have made an alliance with Ahaziah, the Lord will destroy what you have made.” The ships were wrecked and were not able to set sail to trade.

This follows the principle from Ephesians 5:6-7. Jehoshaphat partnered with a man under God’s judgment, and because of that experienced some of that judgment himself, though he was also spared from what could have been a lot worse.

The other example that comes to mind is when Israel was about to be invaded by the Babylonians. To try to avoid military defeat, they turned to Egypt. Here’s what I wrote last year:

As the threat of invasion loomed and the prophets warned of God’s judgment the leaders and people of Israel looked to Egypt for answers. Remember, it was the Egyptians who enslaved Israel. The Egyptians were still enemies of God and they were still under God’s judgment. Going to Egypt was a tactical move, but it was not a move that pleased God. Going to Egypt was an attempt to thwart or escape the Babylonians, but it was also a moral compromise.

Jeremiah warned Israel that their peace with Egypt would prove futile: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of me, ‘Pharaoh’s army, which has marched out to support you, will go back to its own land, to Egypt. Then the Babylonians will return and attack this city; they will capture it and burn it to the ground” (Jeremiah 37:7-8). If you go to the Egyptians, Jeremiah says, “You will be disappointed by Egypt as you were by Assyria” (Jeremiah 2:36).

Modern Examples

The news this week offers two possible modern examples. Both are political and controversial. Sorry about that. I’m less interested in an individual’s conclusion on the matters, than on illustrating the process.

The Wedding Cake: Yesterday the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop. Phillips refused to make a wedding cake for a gay wedding and was found in violation of an anti-discrimination law. Phillips appealed to the Supreme Court. The legal question (or one of them) is over whether baking a cake is an artistic expression and thus protected speech. If it is, then the Court will likely rule for Phillips. Or, the court could view the case through the lens of discrimination and say that Phillips refused to bake the cake simply because his customers were gay. If they do that, then they will likely rule against Phillips.

Legal questions aside, we can also view this case from the perspective of Ephesians 5:7. Was Phillips right morally to refuse to bake the cake for the gay wedding? If we believe what the Bible says about homosexual behavior, and we see baking a wedding cake as – to some degree – a religious expression and thus even an act of worship, then Phillips decision makes sense. He would be actively and creatively partnering in an activity is morally objectionable.

But how far should Christians take this? An owner of a auto body shop in West Michigan once said he wouldn’t provide services to gay couples. That seems like a different kind of thing altogether. I’m sure it wouldn’t be legally protected, nor do I think it falls under Ephesians 5:7. Why? Because the auto body shop owner isn’t partnering in any sinful behavior, he would just be working on a car. His would be a clear act of discrimination from a legal perspective, and unwarranted from a biblical one.

The Sleazy Politician: We’re less than a week away from a special election for an Alabama senate seat. The Republican in the race is Roy Moore, a man who has portrayed himself as a man with Christian values. He has, however, been accused of sexual assault against girls, by multiple people. He denies these charges, but even what he has admitted to is creepy. It’s hard to prove one way or the other what happened but the volume of accusers, plus the things we do know, make him look guilty (to me, anyway). If we believe he is being falsely accused, that’s another matter, but if you believed he were guilty, would voting for him be a violation of Ephesians 5:7?

Like the cake shop question, it’s not entirely clear. What is a vote anyway? What message are you sending with a vote? Is it always a decision between two evils, or can it just be a decision between two “bads”. Do you have an obligation to vote for one or another or is it okay to opt out? Indeed, would a Christian be obligated to opt out in this case? (See this excellent post by pastor Kevin DeYoung on Voting in a Two-Party System)

If I were voting in Alabama, I would opt out for multiple reasons, and one of them would be to avoid violating Ephesians 5:7. To me, a vote is an endorsement. It sends a message. It’s a partnership. It’s what sends a person into office. So, in this case I could not in good conscience partner with someone who appears to me, based on the evidence, to be a wicked man. Neither could I vote for someone who supports abortion. Again, for me this would be partnership in a systematic evil.

Questions to ask 

Both the Old Testament examples, and the modern day examples, illustrate that it’s hard to know where to draw the lines. Why would Jehoshaphat experience judgment for creating a fleet of trade ships with Ahaziah, but not for the shared military campaigns with Ahab and his son? Should we avoid putting money into mutual funds because we could be funding businesses with unethical practices or goals? How bad does a politicians character or policies have to be for us to refuse to vote for them? There’s considerable gray area here, and it can be hard to know what constitutes partnership and what doesn’t. But that doesn’t get us out of the obligation of doing the hard work. Complete isolation or disregarding the command aren’t options. We’re called to the hard work of wisdom – and grace towards others in hard decisions.

When faced with a possible instance of “partnership” with someone engaged in doing wrong, these diagnostic questions might be helpful to ask:

Will this partnership cause me to participate in an evil act? There’s nothing wrong with driving a car, but if you’re driving the getaway car for an armed robbery you’re knowingly providing material support to someone doing wrong. Even if you’re a taxi driver and it’s your job, if you know what you’re doing, it would be wrong to participate.

Will this partnership lead me to moral compromise? The initial establishment of the agreement might not be wrong in itself, but it could lead to later compromise. For instance, getting involved with someone with shady business practices, or getting support with a lot of strings attached, is a good way to lead to moral compromises down the road.

What message does this partnership send? Not only: “What do I mean by this partnership?” but “How will this partnership be reasonably understood?” Voting for a sleazy politician sends a message, intended or not. It sends a message to political parties that they don’t need to put forward a candidate of character. In this case it sends a message that all this talk of the importance of character and morality doesn’t really matter when it comes to election time. Specifically baking a cake for a gay wedding would be reasonably interpreted as an endorsement of that wedding. On the other hand, buying mutual funds would probably not be see as an endorsement of every company that the mutual fund is split between.

How significant is the partnership? Jehoshaphat’s partnerships with Ahab weren’t mere business transactions. They had an alliance. The more meaningful an alliance the more dangerous it would be to participate. Voting for someone is different from running their campaign, for example, though both might be a problem. This also gets to a related question: What do you know or what should you know? If I sell a car to someone who uses it to run down some pedestrians, I’m probably not guilty of anything. But if I knew that he was going to use the car for that purpose, I’d be guilty as sin.

There are probably more diagnostic questions we could ask, but my main point is that we need to ask them. This is an area where simple answers don’t often work. We need the Holy Spirit to grant us discernment.

A quick personal story: I work in the area of aviation, and have frequently worked on projects for the U.S. military. I would constitute this a partnership. I had to wrestle with the question of whether or not I was okay with working on aircraft which would likely be used in military operations to deploy troops or fire weapons. If I objected to military force (or America’s use of military force) I should have avoided this partnership and either asked to only work on civil projects, or found another job. I decided, ultimately, that if I were conscripted I would serve in the military. Since I would not object to serving in the military, I decided that my very tangential role in the “military industrial complex” would not be a problem. My point here is simply that we need to do the work and ask the questions. By God’s grace, He will bring all things to light. That light gives us guidance, but it also exposes evil and makes it open to judgment. We need to be illuminated by the light, not exposed – and judged – for partnerships that displease God.

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“America at the Crossroads” (a review)

This past Sunday Pastor Robert Jeffress, a prominent and controversial Southern Baptist pastor invited conservative political commentator Sean Hannity to speak at his church on Sunday morning, paired with his own sermon titled “America at the Crossroads.” Instead of reading commentary about the event, I first listened to both the sermon and the interview with Sean Hannity. Here’s my own take on the message:

The Sunday event was controversial before Jeffress or Hannity said a word. The whole setup was problematic to begin with. Hannity is a political commentator and Jeffress invited him to a worship service. Not only that, but Hannity is a partisan. He isn’t exactly known for his even-handedness. Now, I am not one of those who believe that pastors should never talk about politics (as I discussed in this post), but (1) I view the worship service as a sacred event, specially set aside for worship (and allegiance) to God, and (2) it’s not hard to see how the Hannity interview would distract from both that worship and the task of gospel proclamation.

I’m not sure which came first in the service, the interview or the sermon, but I listened to the sermon first so I’ll start there.

First let me say that there was nothing particularly theologically objectionable in “America at the Crossroads.” (I struggle to admit it but) Jeffress and I are probably really close in our interpretation of Scripture. Where we disagree, as we’ll see, is in our interpretation in what is wrong with America and how to fix it.

A Coming Implosion

Jeffress starts the sermon with the story of the demolition of their old church building (to make room for the new one). It started with a series of explosions around the base of the building, followed by a pause, and then the sudden implosion. America, Jeffress said, had already experienced the explosions and we are now merely living in the pause before the coming implosion.

What are those explosions? Jeffress pointed to three Supreme Court decisions, the first which took prayer out of the schools, the second which legalized abortion, and the third which legalized gay marriage. The first was one of a series of events which took Christianity out of the public sphere, the second sanctioned murder, and the third undermines the most foundational of institutions, marriage.

What are we to do? Is there any hope for America? Jeffress argues that the duty of Christians now is to be salt in the world. How can we be salt? We need to get out of the salt shaker and influence the political process. We need to vote for representatives who will reverse the direction our nation has taken. In doing so, we will love our neighbor by ensuring that civil government does its role of restraining evil and, in doing so, avoids the coming implosion.

Jeffress ends the sermon by saying that it’s also important to help people come to faith, to turn America around one person at a time.

The problem and the solution – good vs evil

Except for the bit at the end, Jeffress identified both the problem and the solution in America to be political. We’re where we’re at because of a series of political decisions. Therefore, the solution is also political, the election of leaders who will reverse those decisions and get our country back on track.

This allows Jeffress to frame the 2016 election as good vs evil (I’m not exaggerating here, he specifically said that if there was one thing you should take out of the message it was that elections are a battle between good and evil.) On the one side you had Trump who opposed abortion. On the other side you had Clinton, who supported it in all its forms. Through this lens Trump is the force for good and Clinton the force for evil. The choice was clear.

Has Jeffress rightly identified the problem?

But what if the problems we face aren’t primarily political? I’ve become convinced that our problems are deeper than mere politics, but that they spring up from a long-secularizing culture. (For a recent account of this cultural decline see the first couple chapters of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option). Furthermore, the church should have acted in a counter-cultural “salty” way but, instead, has itself faced the same secularizing cultural creep as the rest of the nation. We’ve become both a nation and a church of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deists”, embracing a shallow faith. We’ve wrapped up many cultural narratives in religious garb and called it Christianity. Our political condition is, in part, a function of that cultural decline and the failure of the church to remain faithful to the full gospel.

If the problems are more broadly cultural, both outside and inside the church, then the solution won’t be political, at least it won’t be primarily political. Like Jeffress, I agree that the solution will be for the church to be “salt” in the world, but I interpret that salt with a different emphasis. To be the salt the church will need to recapture the primacy of the gospel, it will need to reignited with a fire for evangelism, it will need to re-evaluate the way it has been influenced by cultural narratives that are opposed to the way of Christ.

My perspective on 2016 and beyond.

This was the primary lens by which I viewed the 2016 election. Through this lens I saw the election not between good and evil, but between evil in different forms. Trump had the right position on abortion, but it was still hard for me to view him as pro-life in any sort of broad sense. Instead, his words and actions demonstrated again and again that he was a fool, in the biblical sense, and thus unfit for authority, especially this highest position of authority. I saw broad evangelical support for Trump as a step backwards both for the culture and for the faithfulness of the church. By aligning ourselves with such a troubled man, I worried that we (as the church) were both damaging our witness and compromising our moral standards.

I don’t write this to take another shot at Trump, but to show how drastically different Jeffress and I understand both the problem and the solution. For Jeffress the political problem required a political solution, i.e., Trump. For me, both Trump and Clinton were symptoms of the cultural/church problem and the solution was to disentangle ourselves from the whole mess, either by opting out or selecting a different candidate altogether. This is, of course, my interpretation, and a minority one at that. My conscience is clear, but so are the consciences of others who, like Jeffress, saw the world differently (Or, who had the same concerns I did but still felt an obligation to oppose Clinton’s extreme abortion position by voting for Trump.) I’m not here to judge, but to lend my voice to the community as a whole.

Be the Salt.

Pastor Jeffress says we should be the salt of the earth. I agree. But that includes a lot more than political engagement. It means, first, obedience to Christ and with it, love for neighbor. It means inner transformation. It means gospel distinctiveness. It means participation within the local church. Political engagement plays a role, but we need to be wary of overplaying that one task. I’m not against talking about political issues from the pulpit. Christ is Lord over all and it’s the task of Christians to see how the Lordship of Christ affects all areas of life. But we can never let politics eclipse the rest. It must always be seen within and under the broader context of discipleship. My fear is that a sermon like “America at the Crossroads” will give the wrong impression, even if it’s not what Jeffress intends, that discipleship means fighting the liberals and retaking political power and that a successful church is one that mobilizes voters towards that end.

What’s wrong with the Hannity interview

If you want some good analysis on the interview, I recommend to you this article by Rod Dreher. Dreher says it better than I but basically Hannity says that he rejects the Roman Catholic view of the Papal Authority because he believes that the authority Jesus was describing to Peter came from God speaking directly into Peter’s heart. Hannity goes on to say that he sees this personal/private revelation as God speaking to our consciences. Hannity himself tries to listen to this voice, which he equates to the voice of the Holy Spirit, to guide his spiritual life. It might be possible to read this as nothing more than “the Holy Spirit convicts me of sin” but given that he tied it to Peter’s authority it sounds a lot more like he’s saying “my conscience is the basis for spiritual authority in my life.” That’s not the Christian teaching on the matter – Protestant or Catholic. The conscience matters, but it’s not authoritative. Of course, Dreher admits, Hannity’s is the default position of many Christians in our country. Jeffress leaves Hannity’s statement uncorrected.

Conclusion

I share many of the same concerns of Jeffress. I’m worried that our nation is in moral decline and that the church is unprepared for the future. But, I’m also worried that continuing to entangle ourselves in partisan politics is a step in the wrong direction. We need to engage politically as one way to love our neighbors, but we need to be cautious. We need to keep the main things the main things: worship of God, faithfulness to Christ, and proclamation of the gospel.

Automation, The future of work, and the soul

Last Sunday’s Grand Rapids Press ran a story on pilot programs in the United States and elsewhere to provide every citizen with a “universal basic income.” This “income” isn’t tied to any actual work, just a lump sum provided to each household to provide for basic needs. What’s driving this movement? The automation revolution.

This topic is an intersection of three topics which interest me: faith, engineering, and politics: faith, because work is a component of our spiritual lives, engineering because technology drives automation, and politics, because we’ll need to decide collectively on what to do about this revolution.

The Increasing Trend Toward Automation

In my (first/second/other) career I’m an engineer. My specialty has been primarily in testing and verification, though my primary job right now is as a project manager. One of my primary goals in testing has been to increase the amount of automation that we do. Automation reduces costs, allows us to perform testing more frequently (which could increase quality), and reduces the number of human errors leading to rework. From a business perspective, it makes a lot of sense. But the consequence of this automation is that if you have a machine to do the work, you don’t need an employee to do that work. In a perfect world, this frees those engineers up for more interesting and productive work. But, we don’t live in a perfect world.

The trend toward automation has been going for a while, primarily in manufacturing. But it’s very prevalent in engineering as well, and plenty of other fields. It’s not just manual labor that’s being automated, but mental work as well (like the kind that I work on) and service jobs as well. (I’ve even read articles on “empathetic” machines which could take over certain caring professions!) Most economists that I’ve read on this topic see workforce automation increasing at an accelerated pace. We’re truly in the middle of a revolution.

There’s a long history of technology transforming labor and economy. Each time it seems to spell widespread unemployment, but after an adjustment period, people find work in a new field. There are inevitably winners and losers, but on the whole wealth increases. It’s hard to tell what the future would bring, and I would be skeptical of anyone who says they know what will happen. Yet, it’s worth considering some possibilities.

Two Dystopias

I see two possible dystopias. In one, the extreme capitalist version, the “owners” control all the production without the need for workers. Workers, having been completely displaced, find no way to make any money. This leads to extreme wealth inequality, and thus probably to violence.

In the other one, the means of production moves to the government, which provides a “universal basic income.” Nobody has to work, but still has all of their needs provided for them. Maybe this sounds like a utopia to you, but it doesn’t to me. First, there’s the fairly obvious issue of the government having essentially complete control over people’s lives. They don’t like your behavior? They cut off your “universal” basic income and you have no recourse. I don’t trust the government to act fairly or virtuously, especially one with this much power. Do you?

Built To Work

Just as profoundly, though, is the question of what effect not having to work would do to us, as persons. We’re built to work. We’re built to produce. God gave us dominion over nature, to work the Garden, and to build culture and civilization. The curse wasn’t the start of the working man, but his corruption. Work became toil after the Fall, but there was still work before it.

What happens if we don’t have to work? What happens if we cease to be producers? What happens if we’re nothing but consumers? I don’t think it’s a pretty picture. That’s why I call this vision a dystopia.

Heaven on Earth? 

Could it be a utopia? On the New Heaven and the New Earth (literal utopia), I suspect that we’ll have work without toil. No one will need to work, and yet the process of culture and civilization will continue. Nobody will be driven by greed or fear (major drivers of our current economic system), yet we’ll all be producers. Can we bring “heaven on earth” now by automating all our labor?

The problem with this line of logic is that it ignores the sin nature. The genius of the capitalist system (with all its flaws) is that it’s able to harness our self-interest and turn it into wealth. And, in a free system, it’s able to provide opportunity for wealth building for all. Other systems have assumed better of our natures, and failed miserably.

What if we find ourselves there? 

I really have no idea if either of these possibilities is in our future. But, if it were, how should Christians respond? Here’s the main thing: Even if work isn’t necessary, Christians should still endeavor to work. Why? First, work is core to our “personness.” God has made us to be creators and producers, not just consumers. Second, work is service. Even if you’re not in the “service” industry, your work is useful to somebody (your paycheck is proof of that). Continuing to work would mean continuing to serve. It’s a tangible way we love our neighbors.

I don’t know what will happen, or when. But we can begin now embracing work as service and as calling, not just as a means to a paycheck.

Recommended for Further Reading

The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Jobs

Related blog: How do I Choose a Job? 

Work: The Meaning of Your Life: A Christian Perspective

Seven notes on Kristoff’s “Pious Paul” hit piece

Earlier this week Nicholas Kristoff wrote a hit piece on Paul Ryan (specifically regarding the GOP health care bill) which ended by using Jesus’s words to condemn “Pious Paul” to hell. Here are seven quick notes on the article.

  1. Before I criticize the article I want to recommend Kristoff’s book Half the Sky. It’s an important book which sheds light on the oppression of women worldwide. It’s “prophetic” in a secular sense in that it tells the brutal truth and has enough content to annoy liberals and conservatives alike. (Personally, I think the authors are unfair in their treatment of the Apostle Paul.) But there’s also a massive amount of common ground on which all people can find unity and the stakes are incredible.
  2. The article consistently takes Jesus’s words out of context.
  3. It’s hard to know how to apply Scripture to public policy. As I’ve tried to make the case here, what I want is a government which is informed by biblical values and acts within its realm of limited responsibility based on those value. Often, partisan liberals and conservatives opt for a more wooden application, one that is rightly identified as hypocritical. (See Matt Walsh’s tweet “Liberals on entitlements: “The Bible says give to the poor!” Liberals on gay marriage: “This isn’t a theocracy! Keep religion at church!”)
  4. Kristoff opts for this simplistic approach and uses it to bludgeon Paul Ryan. Two important layers of religious/moral reasoning are missed. First, Kristoff implies that Ryan does not care about the poor. Perhaps he has already forgotten what he wrote in Half the Sky, that Christians give significantly more of their incomes to charity – including non-religious charity – than non-religious people. I don’t know Paul Ryan’s heart, but it’s wrong to assume that his (or conservatives in general) don’t care about the poor. The question isn’t just whether or not we have concern, but what role the government should play. Second, even if we agree that the government plays a role, we have to exercise wisdom in developing policy. Some government charities do more harm than good, particularly through undermining social structures which form the basis of a well-functioning society. All this is dismissed in Kristoff’s piece.
  5. Since I just read Haidt’s The Righteous Mind what I see in Kristoff’s article is a clash of moral visions. Kristoff, like most liberals, bases his moral reasoning primarily on the care/harm moral foundation. Something is right/wrong based on whether or not someone is helped or hurt. He then applies Jesus’s words to back up his moral intuitions. Ryan, as a conservative, also bases moral reasoning on care/harm, but uses other foundations as well. Specifically, he probably cares about proportionality (“do people get out of the system what they put in?”) and liberty (“is the government impinging on personal freedoms through excessive taxes?”) These other foundations stand in tension with care/harm, making for a more morally nuanced approach to healthcare (I’m not saying better) that Kristoff either doesn’t understand or ignores. Kristoff should read Haidt if he hasn’t already.
  6. The article perpetuates the false narrative that religious conservatives are hypocritical and don’t care about the poor. Whether or not you agree with their policies, this myth about motives needs to end. Are there some hard-hearted religious conservatives out there? Yes, and I’ve met them. But Kristoff himself noted in Half the Sky, those same religious conservatives are often the only ones on the front lines of caring for those most in need.
  7. I’m not going to offer an assessment of the Health Care Plan. I have too little knowledge. Maybe it deserves a strong critique. But Kristoff doesn’t need to malign Paul Ryan’s motives to do so.

Refugees and immigrants: A case study in Christian political engagement

Immigration, either from Mexico, or through refugees coming from Syria or surrounding nations fleeing from war and violence, is a hot topic in the news these days, and an important one for Christians to think critically about. There’s a lot on the line, both for those immigrants seeking a better life, or really any life at all, and (potentially) the future of America.

The purpose of this post isn’t to take one position or another, at least not a national political position, but to think about how this issues is understood through different lenses, and then think critically of the various positions being held. [Edit: Upon further reflection, this didn’t quite turn out to be true, see the quote from O. Alan Noble below which reflects the sort of position I find most compelling.]

What is clear

What is clear is that Christians ought to have compassion for those in other countries who are seeking to escape from war, violence, persecution, or extreme poverty and that Christians ought to have compassion for those neighbors in the United States who are especially vulnerable to injustice – including immigrants. As I have elsewhere argued, and where many others have been doing for a while now, the Old Testament is full of instructions to care for widows, orphans, and aliens living within the land. The call to care for strangers and sojourners is directly tied to Israel’s status as foreigners and strangers in Egypt. This principle in the Old Testament is consistent with the general principle of all Scripture that Christians should have compassion (that leads to material care) for those who are especially vulnerable. I can’t think of a single Christian I know – Republican or Democrat, Trump supporter or Trump detractor – who doesn’t agree with this.

What is less clear

What is significantly less clear is what role the Civil Government – in this case the American government – should do.

Let’s do a little thought experiment. Imagine that it was the “Right” that was calling for more open borders and the “Left” that was calling for tighter borders and controls and let’s also imagine that the “Right” was still heavily populated with evangelical Christians who were using the Scriptural argument above as a key part of their argument. I can picture the complaint of the “Left” already: You need to leave God out of politics. We live in a secular world. Do you want us to adopt all the laws of the Old Testament, too? Do you want us to become a theocracy!?

I think that the current more-open-borders-because-we-should-have-compassion-because-the-bible-tells-me-to position (sorry, I should shorten that name) is at least somewhat open to that charge. That position, to the extent that it argues for a one-to-one relationship between Israel and the United States, ironically makes the same mistake that it often complains those of the “Moral Majority” school of making.

The conservative argument against the more “compassionate” position of those calling for more admission of refugees is that, while it’s the role of the church and individual Christians to show compassion, it’s the role of the Civil government to restrain evil by bringing about justice for its citizens and protecting its borders from outside threats. If more immigration and refugees pose a threat to the people of this nation, then it would be the role of the government to protect its citizens by enacting greater controls, more “extreme vetting,” building a wall, or even banning immigration from certain countries.

I am sympathetic to this argument because I generally believe that the sanctioned role of government is rather limited. I also find it somewhat ironic, since those arguing in this way want to see religion and religious beliefs play a larger role in government in many other areas.

(As an aside, since I can’t help but compare most political issues back to abortion, it’s interesting to note that one of the legal justifications for abortion is that you’re not a citizen until you are born. Only citizens have rights under the constitution so only babies which have been born have the right to life (regardless of whether or not they are living humans, which they are). On the other side of the political spectrum, I’ve seen conservatives argue that non-citizens (read: refugees) don’t have rights since they are non-citizens while liberals argue for a more inclusive vision for mankind that doesn’t worry so much about citizenship.)

And so on one side of the spectrum we have a very simple God-and-government position: The Bible tells us to be compassionate towards strangers and foreigners and the vulnerable so we should have a more open immigration system. And on the other side we have a very simple separation-of-Church-and-State position: Yes, we need to be compassionate as individuals and a church but it’s the role of government to protect its own citizens from threats and not to worry about non-citizens.

A muddy middle

It should come as no surprise, if you’ve made it this far, that I want to argue for a more nuanced position than either two extremes. I admit it’s not fleshed out, but I will state my position as follows: I want a government that acts within its own realm of responsibilities and within its own character in a way that is informed by a biblical worldview. Let me unpack that:

A government that acts within its own realm of responsibilities. I don’t want my government to do everything or to take the role of the church or the role of the family. There are some “goods” which, while nevertheless good, are not the task of a civil/secular government to do. I don’t want my government doing evangelism or running church services, for instance. But, it is within the realm of the government to regulate its borders and it’s also within the realm of the government to act justly towards all mankind in a way that acknowledges a shared humanity (more on that last part in this post). It might not be the role of the government to care for refugees, but it might be the role of the government to make it possible for kind-hearted, gospel-driven citizens to do just that.

A government that acts within its own character. This may be a specifically American desire but America was founded on certain principles which I would hate to see lost or trampled on. Two of those principles are religious freedom and equality of persons. So, when Muslims are specifically targeted for exclusion, or when Mexican immigrants are demonized, we are acting outside of our character as a nation.

A government informed by a biblical worldview. I’m not saying I want a theocratic state, but I do want my government to be informed by a biblical worldview. In this case, I want it to be informed by an ethic of compassion towards the vulnerable as described in the Old Testament injunctions cited above, and then weigh that against relative threats to security and then act wisely and justly towards all people.

What we have then are (potentially) competing interests. The government ought to act in the best interests of its citizens – including security – and it ought to act in a way informed by biblical compassion for those who are especially vulnerable – including non-citizens. This is a muddy middle, perhaps, but it’s also the hard work of governance.

O. Alan Noble suggests just this sort of balanced position, arguing for community-based resettlement programs that makes room for the church to help refugees integrate into those communities. Addressing Muslim immigration in particular he states:

“Both extremes [Islamophobia and Mass Immigration] carry tremendous rhetorical weight in an election year, but neither reflects the kind of resettlement we actually do in the US. Carefully planned, community-based resettlement programs can help those in need, strengthen communities, offer new opportunities to share the gospel, and mitigate the major concerns about Muslim immigration.”

Two final notes

In many cases, the threat which immigrants and refugees plays to the American public seems to be trumped up out of proportion to the actual threat (see Ed Stetzer’s CT article). Sometimes immigration is even framed as an outside invasion, and not as families desperately seeking to get out of a horrible situation (which I think more accurately characterizes the vast majority of circumstances). We shouldn’t be naïve about the possibility of danger, but we should try to be accurate about just what danger there might be.

What if the government closes its borders entirely? What can Christians in America do then? Well, even before that happens the most direct way to help refugees for most of us is by working through organizations which have contact with refugees oversees. At the end of last year my family was able to contribute to Syrian refugee relief through the SBC.  If we want to care for immigrants and refugees, we need to do more than just complain about our government (though I have long maintained the role of advocacy) but be willing to be creative about how we can directly or indirectly love our neighbors in Jesus’s name.

The path to authoritarianism?

Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto is a lot to take in but for this post I want to just elaborate on one short paragraph. Before we get there, though, we need to understand Schaeffer’s broader point and his use of language. His thesis is that there are two competing worldviews in America and Northern Europe, an older Judea-Christian worldview which places God at the center of all reality, and a “humanist” worldview which denies the presence of God and places material, energy, and chance as the only basis for all reality. “Humanism” for Schaeffer, doesn’t mean having a high regard for human life – or being “humanitarian” – but rather subverting God’s place in the universe with Man. Ironically, when God is removed and only material, energy, and chance remain, the dignity of human life is undermined. It is this great clash of worldviews which for Schaeffer stands at the root of great societal shifts, particularly in America. A Christian Manifesto, written in 1981, the year before I was born, is a call to cultural and political action to turn the course back toward a Judea-Christian worldview.

Humanism leads to chaos by undermining the basis of law

Now to the paragraph in question:

“The humanists push for “freedom,” but having no Christian consensus to contain it, that “freedom” leads to chaos or to slavery under the state (or under an elite). Humanism, with its lack of any final base for law, always leads to chaos. It then naturally leads to some form of authoritarianism to control the chaos. Having produced the sickness, humanism gives more of the same kind of medicine for a cure. With its mistaken concept of final reality, it has no intrinsic reason to be interested in the individual, the human being. Its natural interest is the two collectives; the state and society.” (A Christian Manifesto, p. 29-30)

There are two important points here. First, that the “freedom” offered by humanism always leads to chaos. This is a bold statement but it flows logically. A materialistic worldview leaves no ultimate basis for moral or political law. Instead, laws become arbitrary, or at least becomes based on some sort of arbitrary set of standards. Schaeffer makes a strong case elsewhere the constitution is also undermined and provides no final defense of law either. For an historical illustration, Schaeffer compares the American revolution with the French revolution. The American revaluation, strongly influenced by Reformation ideals, led to a balance of form-freedom in government. The French revolution, based on humanist ideals, led to chaos.

Authoritarianism steps in to reign in the chaos

Schaeffer’s second point is that humanism then leads to authoritarianism. The chaos must be reined in and the most convenient way is through force – which is the basis of all governments based purely on a materialistic worldview. In a Judeo-Christian worldview, the government is still subject to a higher authority. But in the humanist worldview, there is simply no higher authority to which we can appeal. So the state – or as Schaeffer understands it, some sort of intellectual or technocratic elite – steps in to control the chaos through authoritarian control. How this authoritarianism takes hold is a question he leaves open but he guesses that it could easily be done through the promise of better economic conditions.

Conclusion – Modern equivalence?

This paragraph struck me because I immediately drew a connection to our present political situation, though whether this connection is warranted is another discussion. Regardless, we have been on the steady slope of humanism in every area of culture and government since Schaeffer wrote this book. And, this steady “progress” has led to greater levels of social chaos (at least perceived). One of the reactions against this “chaos” was the election of Donald Trump, seen by many as having authoritarian tendencies. He rose to prominence primarily by promising to rein in chaos and by promising an economic resurgence.

If that interpretation of Trump is correct, then America is not heading “back” to a better time (if one really existed) where a humanistic liberalism is held back, but is simply on the next leg of the humanist journey. I hope that this interpretation is wrong. Time will tell. Meanwhile, we are still wise to heed Schaeffer’s warning.

Book Recommendation
A Christian Manifesto

On Comparisons between King David and Presidential Candidates

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.

God bless,

Steve