moral equivalence abortion

Arrogance, Abortion, and Death

Gerald McDermott on October 30, 2020

John Piper is one of the most famous and controversial evangelical preachers in America. Last week he released an article that has gone viral because of its implicit denunciation of Christians who vote for President Donald Trump (never named but clearly implied) in next week’s election. Piper says he is “baffled” by Christians who say they overlook Trump’s crudity because of his policies, especially those that support the sanctity of human life. Piper argues that character is more important than policy, that abortion and arrogance are equally deadly, and that in fact “self-absorbed, self-exalting boastfulness is the most deadly behavior in the world.” Therefore pastors need to warn their flocks that voting for Trump will “undermine” their “calling (and the church’s mission) to stand for Christ-exalting faith and hope and love.”

By suggesting the moral equivalence of abortion and arrogance, Piper misses fundamental distinctions about sin in the Bible. Piper is right to suggest that some sins are worse than others in the Bible (John 19:11; 1 John 5:16-17), but he is wrong to imply that arrogance or boastfulness is as deadly or weighty in God’s eyes as the shedding of innocent blood (abortion). When Jesus lists the sins that have eternal implications, he highlights murder among other violations of the Ten Commandments (Matt. 19:18; Mark 10:19; Luke 18: 18-20). Arrogance and boasting don’t make the cut. The same pattern appears in Paul’s list of sins against God’s commandments: murder is a chief sin, and there is no mention of boastfulness (Rom 13:9).

Jesus and Paul were Jews for whom the Old Testament was binding. There too arrogance is not among its lists of most serious sins. The four sins that cry out to God for vengeance are shedding innocent blood (Gen. 4:10), Sodomite sexual sin (Gen. 18:20-21), oppression and slavery (Exod. 2:23), and injustice to the poor (Exod. 22:21-24).

Two sins are singled out by the Old Testament as abominations that pollute a land—shedding innocent blood (Numb 35:33; Deut 19:13) and sexual perversion (Lev. 18:24-28; 20:22-23). In neither of these OT lists of most serious sins does boastfulness show up.

Piper uses 2 Thess. 1:9 and Romans 1:32 to claim that unrepentant arrogance/boastfulness is “deadly forever” and leads to eternal destruction. Yet the 2 Thessalonians text speaks not of boastfulness but of those who “do not obey the gospel,” and the Romans 1 passage is about those who “suppress the truth” about God, refuse to “honor him as God or give thanks to him,” and fail to “acknowledge him.” The context in each case is a description of people who reject God and the gospel entirely, hardly fitting for a president who claims (sincerely or not) to honor God and accept the gospel.

Piper cites Herod in Acts 12 and Moab in Jeremiah 48 as illustrations of deadly arrogance.  But here again the comparison does not fit. Herod had recently murdered James, the leader of the early church; Moab had tried to curse Israel (Nb 22) and later attacked Israel (Judges 3:12-14). Trump is boastful indeed, but he neither kills Christians nor attacks Israel.

There are two theological problems with Piper’s moral equivalence of arrogance and abortion. First, his determination that a politician’s character trumps policy suggests a neo-Donatism that is foreign to both the Bible and the Christian tradition. The Donatists were condemned by the historic Church for insisting that the efficacy of the sacraments depends on the personal character or sanctity of the cleric administering a sacrament. This principle has been thought to apply to secular magistrates, but even more so since they are not administering sacred rites. Thus Joseph could serve an idolatrous and probably immoral Pharaoh. Daniel served leaders in Babylon whose character was likely far below Jewish standards. God calls Cyrus his “anointed one” (literally, his Christ; Isa. 45:1) despite the Persian king’s heathen character and ignorance of YHWH. Paul urged the Christians at Rome to respect and honor Caesar, who was probably the Nero who six years before had scapegoated and massacred Christians in Rome (Rom 13:1-7).

The second theological problem here is confusion of categories. Piper confuses the personal righteousness expected of God’s people on the one hand with the civic virtue of prudence in a secular democratic election on the other. Prudence is that classical Christian virtue that was suggested by Jesus’ admonition to his disciples to be “shrewd as serpents but innocent as a dove” (Matt 10:16) and Paul’s advice to the church at Corinth to be “infants in evil but mature in thinking” (1 Cor 14:20).

Prudence refuses the utopian temptation to stay away from the polls because neither candidate passes the character test. It recognizes that Jeremiah told the Jews in Babylon to “seek the welfare of the city where God sent you into exile” (Jer 29:7). Prudence knows that the election will result in two drastically different courses for this American Babylon, and that one course is far better for the welfare of our republic than the other.

John Piper suggests that both candidates will lead this nation on a “path of destruction” and that it might not “do any good” to support either. The historic Christian virtue of prudence speaks otherwise—that for the sake of this American “city” Christians should reject the moral equivalence of abortion and arrogance, refuse Essene-like retreat from civic responsibility, and vote for the candidate whose platform will best serve the common good.

Gerald McDermott recently retired from the Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School. He is the editor of Race and Covenant: Retrieving the Religious Roots for American Reconciliation.

  1. Comment by Douglas E Ehrhardt on October 30, 2020 at 7:36 am

    Very good analysis and Biblical . Thanks for the clarity.

  2. Comment by David Stewart on October 30, 2020 at 8:35 am

    But there is this issue, which neither man mentions…. both candidates say they are Christians and there in lies the problem. A unrepentant Christian in a number of areas which Piper cites but who opposes policies advocating unlimited abortion on demand can have a more damaging witness in a pluralistic, secular, post-Christian society than one who supports said policies, which a sizable volume of said society supports.

  3. Comment by David Stewart on October 30, 2020 at 8:40 am

    ….and exhibits humility, marital fidelity, and the like.

  4. Comment by Gary Bebop on October 30, 2020 at 12:14 pm

    Gerald McDermott nails it in this piece. Let’s have more writing like this and less sophistry from Piper and his acolytes.

  5. Comment by David on October 30, 2020 at 4:32 pm

    We are electing a President and not a Pope. It seems unAmerican to me to select someone on the basis of pushing a particular religious viewpoint on the country. We have already had a President who declared.”The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession.”

  6. Comment by Bob on October 30, 2020 at 5:33 pm

    Integrity is the issue for many Christians. My 30+ years in the military made clear that the moral leadership required for senior level command involved qualities that would have someone like Trump relieved of command. When proven leaders of the quality of Generals Mattis and Kelly are obliged by conscience to resign, there is a problem. When major military policy shifts are announced with no consultation, and revealed by tweet rather than official channels, there is a problem. When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs makes an unprecedented public apology for being used as a prop at a political photo op at a church, there is a problem. When personal invective is routinely used to dismiss those who offer unwelcomed advice or insights (General Mattis “overrated?..General Kelly “over his head”?) there is a problem. Mussolini made the trains run on time, so overlook his other foibles? Sorry, I personally knew men killed in combat due to ineffective leadership that refused to hear contrary opinions because he knew what was best. Simply firing that leader (which happened) didn’t bring back the 10 men killed that day…as a believer I affirm excellence in personal, moral and professional leadership, and while neither candidate is without sin, and unintended consequences will flow from either choice, I see a clear choice here.

  7. Comment by Tom on October 30, 2020 at 5:33 pm

    So (serious question) will John Piper be doing a follow-up column now that we know about Biden’s corruption, bribery, and greed?

    I have long benefitted from John Piper’s ministry and so am willing to give him a mulligan. But it is a terrible column.

  8. Comment by M King on October 30, 2020 at 6:23 pm

    Piper’s wrong on this one. A vote not for either of the leading candidates is a wasted vote.

  9. Comment by Mike on October 30, 2020 at 8:46 pm

    Noticeably absent from Piper’s article or any of the “I hate Donald Trump” articles is that having Joe Biden talk about character is like like having a prostitute talk about chastity. The man has is a plagiarizer, been and continues to be a serial liar (and there are videos confirming these lies). And as a man that not burdened with the substance of conviction has no problem in repealing the Hyde Amendment and allowing publicly funded abortions. Yet John Piper says I should have a problem voting for Donald Trump. I have friends who reluctantly left their home countries of Zimbabwe and Venezuela. The reason they are pro Trump is because they have seen first hand that a country can be destroyed in a relatively short period of time. I doubt whether he has read the Biden Unity Task Form recommendations. They espouse policies which attack our freedom and faith. If I want to live in Zimbabwe or Venezuela I can move there. I’d prefer to fight for the United States

  10. Comment by Jeff on November 1, 2020 at 7:27 am

    Like many so-called “evangelicals” that oppose Trump, Piper’s hatred of the man Donald Trump is soulish and visceral.

    That is, Piper did not begin with a neutral view of Donald Trump and reason his way to “orange man bad!” by examining scripture. Rather, the “scripture” Piper spouts as justification is backfill, to dummy up a case that YOU ought to join him in his poorly reasoned, purely organic assessment.

    Not to diminish Rev. McDermott’s excellent skills at reasoning from Scripture, but relatively speaking it must have been child’s play for him (and for Rev. Grudem before him) to refute this scriptural-reasoning backfill by Piper, soundly and thoroughly.

    Jesus said we will recognize His followers by their fruit. Opposition to the murder of the unborn — lowest Black unemployment in history — just judges appointed to our courts — restoration of Zion, City of GOD forever, to its righteous place, blessed Peace in Israel, support for followers of CHRIST around the world. These are what President Donald Trump has DELIVERED and every single one of them is supported in GOD’s Holy Word.

    Oh yes, and one more thing: after failed marriages and a misogynous past, an obviously repentant Donald J. Trump has turned from those wicked ways and remained faithful to the devout and prayerful Christian woman Melania Trump.

    “But what do you think? A man … said, ‘Son, go work in the vineyard today.’ And answering he said, ‘I will not.’ But afterward, having repented, he went. Which of the two did the will of the father?”

    This evangelical Christian has ignored Piper and without shame or hesitation placed his vote for the best Christian candidate in the race.

  11. Comment by Jun on November 1, 2020 at 8:08 am

    Excellent riposte to Piper.

  12. Comment by Dan W on November 1, 2020 at 4:50 pm

    I enjoyed Rev. McDermott’s article, a good civics lesson for Christians. Advance voting is a blessing and I voted last week. The long line for advanced voting was very diverse – adults of all ages and ethnicities. We were not a solid red or blue line, we were all over the place. Everyone was friendly, helpful and enthusiastic. It was a beautiful day and despite the long line, I was thankful to be outside in the sunshine. I think the young folks in line behind me were voting for the other candidate, but we were all voting for a better USA. Both Biden and Trump are extremely flawed candidates. I put my faith in Jesus, and my fellow Americans who will find a way to work together and lift each other up.

    I will add, I believe Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett were wonderful appointments to our highest court!

  13. Comment by William on November 2, 2020 at 7:57 am

    Prudence, common sense demands an answer to this basic question —- which candidate represents the far too corrupt political establishment in Washington?

  14. Comment by Jim on November 2, 2020 at 10:48 am

    In the second century, Rome had a competent emperor, Marcus Aurelius, who was known as a Stoic philosopher with recognized integrity. He also instituted one of the worst and vicious persecutions of Christians. Under Aurelius Justin Martyr, Blandina, and Ponticus lost their lives. Marcus Aurelius was succeeded by his incompetent son, Commodus, who re-instituted the gladiatorial games, but put an end to his father’s lethal persecution of Christians. Just suppose that citizens of Rome could vote for their leaders and Marcus and Commodus were not father and son but were running against each other for the office of caesar. Piper would tell us that Christians should vote for neither or for Marcus? Hmmm. I’m not at all convinced of Biden’s noble character, but yes, character is important, yet it seems that history indicates that policy, more than character, has had a greater impact on the actual lives and living conditions of a nation’s people. Ideas have had greater consequence than character.

  15. Comment by Thomas F Neagle on November 2, 2020 at 5:34 pm

    One more comment here. Someone else has asked if John Piper is familiar with King David.

    I’ll go him one better–the judge Samson. He was one of the most immoral people in the Old Testament. And yet he makes the roll call of OT heroes in Hebrews 11. Just sayin’.

  16. Comment by Search4Truth on November 6, 2020 at 10:06 am

    Piper needs to do better research before he reveals his unfounded prejudices. Several charges and even pictures of one candidate fondling women and even young girls. Charges of fraud and misconduct protected by the all-powerful, one-sided media. An honest person could go on and on. Our diocesan bishop put out a similar paper stating in essence that one could not say the Lord’s prayer or receive the Eucharist and even passively support a culture of death. This is one author whose books I will never pick up again.

  17. Comment by Jim on November 6, 2020 at 5:25 pm

    Should there end up being a Biden administration, the executive orders will begin to roll out within hours of inauguration. Mr. Piper, Ron Sider, Dennis Hollinger,, will be responsible for the guaranteed assault on religious liberty. Mr. Piper you may think Joe is a nice man, won’t matter. The all star lineup of leftists that he puts in the game are not nice people. They are chomping at the bit to implement policies that will inflict revenge on Trump’s base. It will make the bakers and florists injustices seem like small potatoes.

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