Repairing Evangelical Political Theology and Defending Dr. Robert Jeffress on Immigration

Defending Dr. Robert Jeffress and conservative evangelicals requires repairing our evangelical political theology

Dr. Robert Jeffress and conservative evangelical Christians who oppose open immigration are not “utilitarians” who think like abortionists as one SBC blogger wrote. Such a charge is a damnable lie and mischaracterization, but we should expect no less of the followers of Russell Moore and his progressive fellow travelers who have infiltrated the Southern Baptist Convention.

The key charge from SBC Voices is that Dr. Jeffress views immigrants no differently than abortion supporters view infants. “At the core, Jeffress uses the same logic to restrict certain groups of people from entering the country as abortion lobbyists use to restrict babies from entering life outside the womb. On the one hand it is perceived value to the person and on the other hand it is perceived value to the nation.”

This is nonsense. Carrying this logic to its conclusion presents its absurdity. When hiring someone for a job, may I consider their qualifications? Is that using abortion logic if I hire based on talent and skills instead of God’s view of the person? Or, are the situations different? Perhaps, as in hiring, determining immigration policy isn’t a Gospel issue or any type of moral issue, but rather a reasonable wisdom issue where Christians should look to the merits of the policy instead of condemning one another.

Abortion is a judgement made about life and immigration policy about who gets to share in the benefits of the nation-state. Abortion is about the inalienable right-to-life for the innocent. Immigration policy about the totally contingent place of residence. For the Christian, the state and individuals cannot select who should have a right to life because God explicitly tells us that innocent life must be protected. For the Christian, the state possesses and always has possessed the power over who it allows into its borders. There is no inalienable right to access a land or territory based on any Old or New Testament text. (For a good view of what the Mosaic Law said on this subject read Dr. Hoffmeier’s book The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens and the Bible). To treat it otherwise is to make the Gospel and even Israel’s theocratic system into something they are not—binding in all its minutiae on Christians and non-Christians alike.

Going back to the hiring analogy, a business would cease to be profitable if it cannot make judgments on a value to the organization. Likewise, the state would go bankrupt allowing unlimited immigration or open borders as the ranks of entitlement recipients swelled. That is not to say mercy cannot or should not be part of the immigration discussion. However, it cannot be the only consideration. Making it the only consideration is nothing short of setting up a progressive-Christian theonomy in a dangerous attempt to realize the eschaton and usher in a Gospel-Utopia.

At heart of such claims is a childish political theology Mercy and Love are good things and with justice are important. However, they cannot be the only considerations when viewing a policy. Any evangelical political theology must contain at its core a respect for God’s created intention for government. Evangelicals in general and Baptists in particular need a robust political theology.

Political Theology for Evangelicals

Political Theology from the Bible: The state exists to create order, so people can live their lives safely and the church can do its evangelism.

Political Theology from SBC Voices: “When we view people as being in the image of God, however, the question is not: ‘What value can you add to my life?’ But rather: ‘How can I help enrich your life?’ This is why Paul wrote in Philippians, ‘In humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not to his own interest, but also to the interests of others.’”

Political Theology from the ERLC: “We are fulfilling the Great Commission when we welcome people from other nations to our country” -@JennyYangWR #EFL2018 (see image for tweet that was later deleted by the ERLC.) 

The SBC Voices essay and the ERLC tweet promoting Yang are emblematic of the problem in modern evangelicalism. It confuses the purpose of the state with the purpose of the individual and the church. Instead of encouraging the state to do its job creating order by balancing security and justice, evangelicals like Yang and SBC Voices encourage the state to be Gospel-y. Unfortunately, such a political theology harms both the church and the state. By confusing the role and ethics of the state with the role and ethics of the individual and the church, we weaken both and undermine God’s created order.

The biblical data is clear, the state exists to create order so that Christians can have lives of safety and quiet. Here are a few key texts:

Romans 13:3, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong.”[1]

Here, Paul tells us that government is God’s servant (diakonos) that punishes wrongdoers. The service the state renders to God is twofold in helping its subjects toward good and preventing evil. One commentary, explains the formulation as, “Hence even Christians, ‘freed’ by Christ Jesus from the powers of this world, cannot resist the political authority that comes ultimately from God, even if that authority is at the time in the hands of heathens.”[2] This is a very important point. The state was not transformed by Christ’s work or the preaching of the Gospel. The Gospel’s preaching changed individuals. Government exists as it did prior to Christ’s work on the Cross and His resurrection. If we carefully consider what some neo-Kuyperian political thinkers push, that as Christians we must transform the state into an institution carrying out Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, and that Christ’s work has totally transformed the state (or at least should transform the state), then we must ask why are we not told such in the explicit texts dealing with government? It seems uniform in the New Testament writings that government is given one role and the church another.

The focus on the state as a servant to create order is echoed by Peter in his New Testament writings.

1 Peter 2:13-17: “Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority 14 or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. 15 For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. 16 Submit as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but as God’s slaves. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brothers and sisters. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” [3]

One commentary places Peter and Paul’s thinking on government within the context of the bad elements of man’s character, “One rabbinic writer bids Jews ‘Pray for the welfare of the government, since without the fear of it people would devour one another alive’ (m. Aboth 3.2). Both Peter (in this chapter) and Paul (Rom. 13:6–7) express a similar sentiment in less colorful terms.”[4] Curbing the evil of man’s character is a theme hit up by other commentators on these verses.

C.E.B. Cranfield helpfully explains in volume 2 of his Commentary on Romans, “The ruler helps the Christian toward ‘the good’ which God has in store for him, toward salvation (we take it that it is salvation to which, mainly at any rate, τὸ ἀγαθόν in this verse refers), if he is a just ruler, by providing him with encouragement to do good and discouragement from doing evil (which even the Christian needs in so far as he is still also an unbeliever), and by curbing the worst excesses of other men’s sinfulness and providing them with selfish reasons for acting justly.”[5]

Another verse helping explain the purpose of the state is I Timothy 2:1-7: First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, a testimony at the proper time. For this I was appointed a herald, an apostle (I am telling the truth; I am not lying), and a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. [6]

On these verses, Cranfield explains the purpose of the state is to provide the conditions for evangelism via keeping chaos under control: “It is implied that God wills the state as a means to promoting peace and quiet among human beings, and that God desires such peace and quiet because they are in some way conducive to human beings’ salvation. It is God’s purpose that the state should, by restraining chaotic tendencies of human beings’ self-assertion, maintain those outward conditions under which the gospel may be preached to all and sundry without hindrance.”[7]

Another commentator urges Christians to consider the importance of getting political theology right, “The motif that Christians will benefit by a right attitude to the State is clearly present in each occurrence of the tradition… What this prayer shows is the church’s awareness of civil government as an institution ordained by God (Rom 13:1–7. 1 Pet 2:13–17) as well as the need to live and minister in a way that observes this responsibility.”[8]

A right view of the government then must include some basic concepts. From within the writings of Peter and Paul, the state has a primary purpose—punishing evil. The state is an avenger, according to Paul and because of this enables the quiet life of safety. This requires us to understand the state must be powerful enough to protect itself from inside rebellion and outside invasion. Security then should be part of the political evaluation Christians use when evaluating public policy. Key here is that Christians must recognize God created government for a specific purpose: To punish evil by the power of the sword so that Christians and all people can live quiet lives and this arrangement furthers the spread of the Gospel. It isn’t wrong to keep the salvation of men in our thoughts. However, the best way to fulfill the Great Commission is not to ignore security and economic considerations for the state, but to make sure the state picks the policies that balance justice and security.

John Warwick Montgomery warned that even bad law is preferable to disorder. He wrote, “Scripture clearly holds that even bad law is nonetheless law and that there is something worse than even bad law—namely, anarchy.”[9] It would seem problematic within this view of government, if people (Dreamers though they might be) are rewarded for violation of the law. The universal dictum has always been, crimen omnia ex se nata vitiat. Yet, this is what, so many evangelicals want when it comes to immigration. They want to reward the perceived weak by ignoring the law and rewriting the rules to favor their preferred class. This is fraught with danger because it confuses the purpose of law. Law is not meant to realize the eschaton. Montgomery helpfully explains that while Christians should work for a more just society that must be tempered, “Politically, the law is regarded as a restraint for the wicked, not as a means of building the ‘perfect society.’”[10]

Of course, they constrain such lawlessness by appealing to our need to “Obey God rather than man” and to claim immigration laws are unjust. But this assertion is anything but clear. The appeals to the Old Testament seem answered by Prof. Hoffmeier’s book on the subject showing that there is significant nuance between the technical terms employed for foreigner, sojourner and stranger for Israel. One of the key arguments against a general understanding of welcoming all foreigners is that the most often used verse in the Old Testament in support is Leviticus 19:34. However, the word ger rendered stranger in many English translations was rendered in the LXX (the Bible the New Testament often quotes) rendered the Hebrew word as προσήλυτος (prosélutos) in Greek and that is clearly—proselyte. So, the Law commanded Jews to welcome people like Ruth who followed the lawful path into the theocracy. In any case, on the issue of immigration there seems to be a significantly muddled ethical picture from the Bible. Without clear authority, the likes of Russell Moore who are attacking other Christians and undermining the credibility of the Gospel by claiming non-essential issues are “Gospel issues.” Clearly, they are not. Otherwise, like abortion, there would be clarity in the biblical record. Or, as Montgomery counseled, “Christians can fight for nonrevelational viewpoints, but they must make plain these are their own personal opinions, not necessarily God’s opinions.”[11] I’ve yet to hear Russell Moore or his ERLC crowd approach any issue with such needed humility. Instead, when questioned on any issue Dr. Moore and his ERLC cohorts smugly attack pastors, pew sitting Baptists and others.

What does this mean for government? For centuries, Christians have held that in the case of civil society, only certain of God’s commands apply. Geisler helpfully points out that government’s creation in Genesis pre-dated the Mosaic Law and the Gospel’s introduction. He wrote, “Furthermore there was God-ordained civil government (cf. Gen. 9:6) long before there was a Bible.”[12]

Government before the Bible then was based on something else. Geisler offers natural revelation as God’s standard. “Government is not based on special revelation, such as the Bible. It is based on God’s general revelation to all men…Thus civil law, based as it is in natural moral law, lays no specifically religious obligation on man.”[13]  Importantly, “(Isaac) Watts is emphatic in his conclusion that ‘the gospel of Christ does not pretend to erect a kingdom of this world, and therefore it alters nothing in the nature of civil government; but leaves to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; Matt. 22:21.’”[14]

Trying to force Gospel principles on the state is out of place. It would result in absurdities. Would justice be served if the government turned the other cheek to open rebellion? Should the state forgive the felon 70 times 7? Of course not. (Though prison reforming advocates in evangelicalism sure seem intent on pushing that as part of their prison reform agenda.) These are principles for individuals. The principles governing the state are to foster order so that all of us are empowered to carry out those acts of love and mercy. Evangelicals must firmly resist confusing the purpose of the state with the purpose for the Christian. Otherwise, the state cannot do its job protecting us.

[1] Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), Ro 13:3–4.

[2] Joseph A. Fitzmyer S.J., Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 33, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 667.

[3] Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), 1 Pe 2:13–17.

[4] Norman Hillyer, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 77.

[5] C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, International Critical Commentary (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 666.

[6] Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), 1 Ti 2:1–7.

[7] C. E. B. Cranfield, The Christian’s Political Responsibility According to the New Testament, SJT 15 (1962), pp. 176-192. (Also in Cranfield’s The Bible & Christian Life).

[8] I. Howard Marshall and Philip H. Towner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, International Critical Commentary (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 422.

[9] John Montgomery Warwick, Christians in the Public Square: Law, Gospel & Public Policy, (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology and Public Policy, 1996), 137.

[10] Ibid, 142.

[11] Ibid, p. 66.

[12] Norman L. Geisler, “A premillennial view of law and government.” Bibliotheca Sacra 142, no. 567: 250-266.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

6 thoughts on “Repairing Evangelical Political Theology: Getting the State Right”

  1. “the state and individuals cannot select who should have a right to life because God explicitly tells us that innocent life must be protected.” Then why can the state turn away innocent life fleeing those who would kill them? Even if the innocent life that must be protected is somehow only the unborn, then how can the state turn away pregnant refugees?

    1. Where did I or anyone say the state should turn away a legitimate case of a refugee fleeing certain death? I’m fine with a program that gives preference to say Middle Eastern Christians fleeing religious and/or political persecution. That wouldn’t in any way change the reasonable nature of say a merit-based immigration system for other immigrants. However, not all refugee relief efforts are best focused on resettlement. Often, other mechanisms are effective. Also, as in the case of much of the Latin American immigration to the US from say Guatemala and Honduras, violence isn’t the main driver–but rather economics.

  2. “The state was not transformed by Christ’s work or the preaching of the Gospel… Government exists as it did prior to Christ’s work on the Cross and His resurrection.”
    So the mission is to carry on as in the days of Nero Caesar and Attila the Hun. That certainly explains a lot about Robert Jeffress.

  3. At root of our schizophrenic open-borders immigration policies is an absurdity that speaks to the reversal of God’s commands to the Hebrews “to cast out the Canaanites from your midst” as their position was essentially anti-law, anti-Christ, and anti-God-likenessing-nation. Why should we as Christians open our arms to such absurdity in the name of the Gospel? To let them in without following our legal protocol to citizenship is not actualizing the Great Commission but denying the design of God for His people and a nation that pursues His Kingdom on earth. We can be empathetic to their plight without opening our homes, borders, coffers and laying down defenses so we will be destroyed for our foolishness at their hands! That is not love but double-minded stupidity! We must preach the Gospel but Great Commission objectives are discipleship and obedience – not anarchy and lawlessness! Hold the line!

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