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.