Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, the same man whose church performed a “Make America Great Again” “hymn” at a political rally in July, caused a stir earlier this week when he said President Donald Trump has a God-given right to “take out” North Korean President Kim Jong Un.
“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, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, said in a statement. “In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, Jeffress cited Romans 13, arguing that that passage gives the government authority to punish evildoers. “That 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.”
Jeffress seemed to expect criticism, noting that many pacifist Christians will cite Romans 12, a passage that forbids Christians from seeking revenge and telling them to “not repay evil for evil.” He said that passage is for Christians, not governments.
“A Christian writer asked me, ‘Don’t you want the president to embody the Sermon on the Mount?'” Jeffress recalled. In that sermon (Matthew 5-7), Jesus held his disciples to a high moral standard, telling them to love their enemies, to refrain from anger and lust, and not to resist evil. Jeffress said he did not want a president to abide by this morality — “absolutely not.”
In his sermon on the morning of Trump’s inauguration, Jeffress compared the new president to the prophet Nehemiah, who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem (and made the Persians pay for it!). He first met Trump over cheeseburgers at Wendy’s in Iowa last year, and after that meeting, Jeffress said he believed Trump would be the next president.
The Dallas megachurch pastor attacked former President Barack Obama as paving the way for the antichrist, and he attacked Mormonism as a cult during the 2012 Republican primary, undercutting the eventual nominee Mitt Romney.
Some Christians — conservative and liberal alike — denounced Jeffress’ remarks. Ryan Anderson, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, attacked the Dallas pastor’s position as “heresy.” Anderson denounced the idea that “God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary” as contrary to Christian doctrine, because they “cannot use evil means to good end.”
Heresy: "God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary." Cannot use evil means to good end. https://t.co/fxa7vLM6AM
— Ryan T. Anderson (@RyanTAnd) August 9, 2017
The Rev. Chuck Currie, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ who teaches at Pacific University, also denounced Jeffress’ remarks. “You promote a dangerous theology of war that goes against Prince of Peace who preached just peace,” Currie tweeted. “I see nothing Christian in your remarks.”
You promote a dangerous theology of war that goes against Prince of Peace who preached just peace. I see nothing Christian in your remarks.
— Rev. Dr. Chuck Currie (@RevChuckCurrie) August 9, 2017
In Jeffress’ defense, Jesus did not just preach peace (Matthew 10:34), John the Baptist did not tell soldiers to stop fighting wars (Luke 3:14), and Christians have long justified war through Just War theory (but even that only justifies wars in very specific cases).
But Jesus did oppose a very specific type of warfare. In first century Israel, the Romans oppressed the Jews, and the Jews looked for a leader from God — the Messiah — to save them from this oppression. Notably, Jesus did not order his followers to rebel against Rome. Far from it. He explicitly told them to pay taxes to the Roman empire (Matthew 22:21). God’s judgment against Rome would come later.
Contrary to Jeffress, Romans 13 is not a justification for rulers to do whatever they want, but rather a passage telling Christians to obey the ruling authorities.
The passage comes after Romans 12, where the Apostle Paul told the Christians in Rome to “never avenge,” because “vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” The passage concludes with, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Immediately after this (Paul’s original letter did not have chapter breaks), Paul tells the Christians in Rome to “be subject to the ruling authorities.” Romans 13:1-4:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
To a limited extent, Jeffress is correct. In this passage, Paul urges Christians to obey the ruling authorities, almost no matter what they do. God has instituted them over men, and Christians should hope and pray that they will rule justly.
The perfect example of this is the prophet Daniel, who served well under the Babylonian empire, the very government which destroyed God’s Temple in Jerusalem, enslaved the Jewish people, and took captives to Babylon. Rather than fostering rebellion, Daniel helped the Babylonian empire be just, and served the king well.
“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare,” Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:7). Christians are to live in a similar kind of exile, accepting the power and rule of the authorities while allowing Jesus Christ to rule in their hearts.
Romans 13 is not directed to the rulers themselves, however. Christians are not supposed to rebel, because God has ordained the ruler’s authority for good. But this does not mean that rulers can do anything just because God has given them power. The authority God gives is clear — to punish the evil and reward the good.
This is justice, and it is the ground of right authority. The Bible consistently condemns injustice, especially when rulers ignore the plight of the poor. Romans 13 is not a blank check for rulers to do whatever they wish. Instead, it emphasizes why God gave them authority, and severely limits their power.
Finally, in North Korea, Romans 13 would encourage Christians to obey Kim Jong Un. This is a very difficult passage for anyone advocating violent revolution — even in cases like the American Revolution. When rulers oppress their people, they arguably surrender the right to rule. But who is to judge that?
An American can argue that the “governing authorities” includes the Constitution, which places the people in charge over the government. In this way, obeying the governing authorities means Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court would have to abide by the Constitution — what a novel concept!
This would limit Trump’s authority even further. Under Article I Section 8, it is Congress, not the president, that can declare war. As for assassination, that’s more complicated. But the Constitution clearly binds Trump to only use war if Congress declares war.
So, no, Robert Jeffress, Romans 13 does not give Trump the moral authority to wage war against Kim Jong Un. It seems Jeffress might have allowed his worship of Trump to cloud his judgment on scripture. Romans 13 does not invalidate the Constitution, and it is not a blank check on presidential power. If anything, this passage undercuts Trump’s authority, rather than strengthening it.