You’d have to be living under a rock to miss the surprising results of last week’s presidential election. Defying nearly every prediction and projection, Donald J. Trump was voted the 45th president of the United States.
After a bitter election season, many thought that Election Day would bring a sense of closure and conclusion to the constant bickering that’s characterized the past year. But as the dust is settling, the division seems to be sharper than before. Some Christians are relieved by Trump’s election. Others are ecstatic. Some are afraid. Others are angry. Many are ambivalent. But how should we feel? Better yet, how should Christians respond to the election of Donald Trump?
Rather than turning to the non-stop partisan punditry that plagues our cable television and social media news feeds, allow me to turn back the clock to an earlier time long before Trump or Hillary. Long before the United States of America for that matter. In the 1500s, theologian Martin Luther had much to say about Christianity and politics. Perhaps his words can still instruct and encourage us today.
Political Authority is Ordained
Following the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 13:1, Luther clearly believed that government is ordained by God. Religious authorities are neither different nor superior to other Christians, but they have a special role to play as leaders. The same is true of governmental authorities. Luther explained:
“Therefore, just as those who are now called “spiritual,” that is, priests, bishops, or popes, are neither different from other Christians nor superior to them, except that they are charged with the administration of the word of God and the sacraments, which is their work and office, so it is with the temporal authorities. They bear the sword and rod in their hand to punish the wicked and protect the good.”[i]
This is why Christian theologians have always insisted that we obey and pray for our rulers, whether we agree with them or not (see Matthew 22:15-22, Romans 13:1-7, 1 Timothy 2:1-3, Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:13-17).
This includes President-Elect Donald Trump. We have a God-given responsibility to pray for him and honor him.
Political Authority is Limited
Nevertheless, Luther did not believe the government’s authority was universal. There were occasions when a Christian should reject governmental authority. Such occasions arise whenever the government compels Christians to disobey their ultimate authority, God Himself. Luther put it this way:
“If your prince or temporal ruler commands you to side with the pope, to believe thus and so, or to get rid of certain books, you should say, ‘It is not fitting that Lucifer should sit at the side of God. Gracious sir, I owe you obedience in body and property; command me within the limits of your authority on earth, and I will obey. But if you command me to believe or to get rid of certain books, I will not obey; for then you are a tyrant and overreach yourself, commanding where you have neither the right nor the authority.’”[ii]
Nevertheless, if Christians engage in civil disobedience, they must be prepared to accept the consequences. Luther continued:
“Should he seize your property on account of this and punish such disobedience, then blessed are you; thank God that you are worthy to suffer for the sake of the divine word. Let him rage, fool that he is; he will meet his judge. For I tell you, if you fail to withstand him, if you give in to him and let him take away your faith and your books, you have truly denied God.”[iii]
When should a Christian disobey his or her government? When government orders its citizens to (1) violate Scripture (see Acts 5:27-29) or (2) violate their biblically-informed consciences (see Esther 4). However, when Christians exercise this right they must be prepared to face the consequences.
This includes President-Elect Donald Trump. Christians who are concerned by the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency must remember that the One who occupies heaven’s throne, not the future resident of the White House, is our ultimate Authority.
Political Sins Should Be Exposed
Luther firmly believed that there was evil in government. He experienced much of this firsthand. The Roman Catholic Church exercised significant political power in Luther’s day, much which was employed to silence him and the growth of the Reformation. But even as Germany slowly moved towards the acceptance and endorsement of Protestant thought, Luther did not naively endorse or accept everything the government promoted. In fact, he urged Christian preachers to preach against evils in government. On one occasion he wrote:
“There are lazy and useless preachers who do not denounce the evils of princes and lords, some because they do not even notice them. … Some even fear for their skins and worry that they will lose body and goods for it. They do not stand up and be true to Christ!”[iv]
This was not idle talk for Luther. He refused to keep silent when his city governor, persisted in fornication.[v] He was unafraid to expose and rebuke his government’s tacit approval of evil.[vi] Unlike many Christian preachers today, Luther was ready and willing to preach against the sins in government wherever they were found. Even when the government he opposed was affiliated with Protestantism.
Churches can follow Luther’s example today by resisting the urge to too closely affiliate themselves with a political party, either on the right or the left. As Russell Moore warns in his book Onward, Christians should strive to be a prophetic minority, speaking clearly and courageously against the sins in both parties.[vii]
This includes President-Elect Donald Trump. Whether you voted for Donald Trump or not, you should be willing to expose and condemn anything flowing from his presidency that threatens human flourishing.
Political Good Should Be Praised
American Christians have become accustomed to denouncing the sins we see within our government. Where we often struggle is to praise the good we see in government. One of the ways to encourage godly government is to encourage Christians to pursue politics. In his final sermon, Luther lamented the lack of wisdom in government:
“In worldly affairs and government… a few people are often endowed with great wisdom and understanding, unlike ordinary people. Often God gives us a fine, noble, intelligent man, who could serve principalities and people with wisdom and counsel. But such persons flee from the business of government and it is hard to bring them to govern.”[viii]
To remedy the gaping hole in worldly government, Luther encouraged gospel-believing Christians to take up the mantle and lead. Rather than cutting down political leaders left and right, Luther took opportunities to praise his leaders when their actions and attitudes were praiseworthy.
Luther exemplified this in a funeral sermon he preached for one of his political leaders, Elector John of Saxony who died in August 1532. In a bold move to unite the supporters and detractors of a deceased government official, Luther reminded his hearers of the gospel. He explained:
“I shall not praise [Elector John] for his great virtues, but rather let him remain a sinner like all the rest of us, who also purpose to go to the judgment and hand over to our Lord God many a grievous sin, as we too hold steadfast to that article which is called “the forgiveness of sins.” Therefore, I am not going to make out that our beloved [elector] was altogether pure, though he was a very devout, kindly man. . . . Our beloved elector openly confessed Christ’s death and resurrection before the whole world and he stuck to it . . . And since this confession is publicly known, we are ready to praise him for it as a Christian. If along with this there should be something lacking in his personal life, we shall let this pass, for we will not consider such insignificant sins in such a great person, but rather, over against this, praise the fact that he confessed Christ’s death and resurrection, by which He swallowed up death and hell and all sins, and remained steadfast in this confession.”[ix]
Rather than praising the virtues of his leader, Luther reminded them of the Gospel that John believed in. And instead of lamenting his vices, Luther urged his congregation to remember that John’s sins had been forgiven by Christ.
In these few words Luther leaves a powerful legacy for pastors and Christians today. Rather than merely highlighting the vices and virtues of our political leaders, let’s highlight the gospel. Rather than uniting based on political parties and platforms, let’s unite in the gospel.
This includes President-Elect Donald Trump. Whether you voted for Donald Trump or not, one way you can honor your future president is by praising the things he says and does that are righteous and good.
Politics are Secondary not Primary
All in all, Luther’s example reminds us that politics are secondary, not primary. Luther was interested in German politics, but he was more interested in the local church and the Kingdom of God. He was first and foremost not a German citizen, but a citizen of heaven (Philippians 3:23). American Christians would do well to hold their political affiliations loosely while they cling to the gospel with a vice grip.
Yes, let’s fight for truth and justice and pray for righteousness to prevail. Yes, let’s labor to see the government exercise the sword in a God-honoring way that leads to human flourishing. Yes, let’s vote for leaders who will “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). Yes, let’s hope and pray for President-Elect Donald Trump. Let’s praise him whenever he promotes what is just and good. Let’s lovingly rebuke him whenever he promotes what is harmful and evil. But let us remember that our hope is not built on any presidency past, present, or future.
Our hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
We dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ the Solid Rock we stand
All other ground is sinking sand.
Or, as Russell Moore puts it, “We are Americans best when we are not Americans first.”[x]
© M. Hopson Boutot, 2016
[i] Luther’s Works, 44: 130.
[ii] Luther’s Works, 45:111-12.
[iv] As quoted in Lewis W. Spitz, The Political Luther. http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-34/political-luther.html
[vi] In a sermon on 1 Peter 4:7-11, Luther denounced his government’s refusal to deal with rampant drunkenness among the citizenship. Luther’s Works, 51: 295.
[vii] Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 29.
[viii] Luther’s Works, 51: 385.
[ix] Luther’s Works, 51: 236-37.
[x] Onward, 160.