Robert Jeffress, Trump, and North Korea: Does Romans 13 Apply?

Back before the nominations, I wrote a post about how I found a lot of Christian support of Donald Trump to be curious, and one name I mentioned was Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas.  I’ve heard him preach a few times and I do not doubt his commitment to the gospel, but he’s also known to create controversy with his comments on politics.  Recently, he made the news again when he stated in an interview with The Washington Post that he supported Trump’s strong remarks against North Korea because God has given Trump the authority to “take out” Kim Jong Un.  He cited Romans 13 as his basis and said that the president, as part of the government, should not seek to follow the Sermon on the Mount in his role.  His comments were met with widespread criticism from the media as well as other Christians who accused of him of warmongering and for using the Bible to justify violence.

I’ll mostly leave aside the question about what to do about North Korea.  As a Korean, I know full well that North Korea has an evil government that might be the most backward on the planet, but what to do with them is not a question I’ll seek to answer here.  Instead, I’ll narrow my focus to Jeffress’ use of Romans 13.  He actually has a point, but the application of Romans 13 to this situation is a bit murky, and he could have worded what he said more carefully.

Romans 13:1-7: God and Government

In this chapter, Paul addresses how Christians should try to live in peace and love with others.  Verses 1-7 is where Paul discusses how Christians should relate to government:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.

There is not space here to fully exegete this passage, but here is a rough outline:

  • Command (Every person should submit to the governing authorities, 1a).
    • Principle behind the command (authorities exist due to God, 1b).
      • Consequence for not following principle (those who resist incur judgment, 2).
        • Reason for this consequence (rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, 3a).
      • Consequence for following principle (receive praise, 3b).
    • Reason for command (it is the servant of God for good and bears the sword, 4).
  • Summary (not just because of wrath but also for conscience, 5).
  • Application (pay taxes and give proper respect, 6-7).

In a nutshell, Christians should generally submit themselves to the governing authorities because government is instituted by God.  The government’s role is to reward good and punish evil, but Christians should submit not simply due to this (“wrath”) but also due to “conscience,” which I do not believe means a general awareness of right and wrong in this passage but remembering the principle he just talked about: Government comes from God.  Thus, even under a pagan and sometimes oppressive government like Rome, Christians should do what they can to submit to it, which includes paying taxes.

This naturally leads to questions about evil governments like North Korea.  Also, it’s not like there aren’t biblical examples of people disobeying the government: Daniel defied Darius about prayer and his three friends defied Nebuchadnezzar, for instance.  Furthermore, God frequently expresses displeasure with rulers; the OT is littered with examples of God punishing countries and rulers, including flat removing kings like Saul.

Here’s a good way to make sense of this: Generally, rebelling against government is wrong not because governments are great themselves but because ultimately it is rebelling against God’s order.  Paul’s other commands to submit to God’s or society’s order are helpful to look at, such as wives submitting to husbands or slaves submitting to masters.  In these cases, Paul is clearly not saying husbands and masters are always right or have absolute authority; in fact, they are also given commands to be kind, loving, and just and are told that they are ultimately under Christ.  He is instead stating that there is an order to things, and Christians should respect it.

The absence of an explicit command for the government in Romans 13 is understandable in light of the fact that the government is not a Christian who is under Paul’s authority.  However, there is an implied standard: Governments should reward good and punish evil as God’s appointees who have delegated authority.  Just as a president does not necessarily agree with everything his appointments do, so God does not always like what governments do with their given power.  Thus, they can be called to account when their shortcomings become egregious enough, especially in a governmental system like the United States’ that allows for a greater political voice than Rome ever did.  If it gets bad enough such that they have utterly failed God’s intended order, it is not outside the realm of possibility that citizens can seek to replace their government.  Christians should live at peace with others, but only so far as it depends on them (Rom. 12:18).  If people or governments want Christians to disobey God, Christians have to obey God and not man (Acts 5:29).

In summary, governments are established by God to dispense justice and preserve order and should be submitted to insofar as they roughly adhere to that role.  This also clearly gives a different role to the government from that of the church (because Jesus hasn’t come back yet).  This doesn’t mean that the church doesn’t care about justice or that the government can’t ever be merciful, but it does mean that governments are enforcers in a way that the church should not be.

Application to Jeffress

Jeffress is right about this: It is not the government’s job to turn the other cheek because that’s a government that won’t last long, nor is that what Scripture teaches.  The president is elected to be the government’s leader, not an elder in a church, and one of the most important responsibilities of the president is to protect the nation.  He is right that many Christians illegitimately conflate the role of government and the role of the church.  He is also correct that some governments may become so evil that removing them may be a just option, and there is no doubt that North Korea is a piece of garbage.

Where his use of Romans 13 goes awry is that it is not clear how Romans 13 applies to government-to-government relations.  Perhaps it can be used to identify the fact that a government is failing its appointed role, but the passage is directed towards Christian citizens of a government, not as a blueprint for foreign policy.  Just War doctrine has a long tradition in the church, but Jeffress would have been better served to use other passages and to state Just War philosophy a bit more carefully than he did.

In addition, the fact that North Korea has a terrible government does not make America the great dispenser of God’s justice, so a blanket assertion that Trump has the God-given authority to take out Kim Jong-Un is rather bold.  Sure, God has punished nations by using other nations, but even then, those other nations are not always great themselves and are also subject to God’s judgment.  After all, even if Trump was not elected to be a church elder, he should still be expected to be wise and compassionate as a leader.  There are also a lot of practical considerations regarding military action and diplomacy that have to be taken into account.

Conclusion

Jeffress’ point that the church and government are different cannot be ignored because it is true.  Still, that doesn’t mean Romans 13 fully grants Trump authority to simply take out even an obviously evil government like North Korea with military force or assassination.  There are other factors to consider, and Romans 13 is primarily about how Christians can live peaceably and responsibly under non-Christian governments rather than explaining when governments can go to war.  If it has any application to the latter at all, it would be pretty tangential, and such a position would need other supporting arguments.

I did not react as hysterically to Jeffress’ comments as others because I get where he’s coming from, but frankly, if Jeffress wants to point out that the church and government have different roles, he should also be wary about cheerleading the government or its leaders too much.  I understand why he and other Christians voted for Trump over Hillary and I think pastors can and should comment on politics sometimes, but his seemingly unequivocal support of Trump is a bit concerning.  Only Christ deserves steadfast allegiance, and he should perhaps do some self-reflection that he isn’t doubling down too much on his man who says and does immature things.

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