Wayne Grudem, Donald Trump, and Christian Suffering
This past election season popular evangelical theologian, Wayne Grudem, penned two controversial articles for Townhall.com, wherein he defended, inter alia, the Christian Trump vote. The article, in a style that mimics a campaign website’s policy position statements, is lengthy and not revolutionary, especially in hindsight. Yet, at the time a particular statement caught my eye. Hopefully, now that we are more than two months into a Trump administration, my analysis and humble refutation of Grudem’s arguments will be received as an effort to critique Christian thought rather than partisan pandering. I have benefited greatly from Grudem’s theological writings and probably agree with him on a majority of doctrinal issues (save his Trinitarian subordinationism). It is only his recent political commentary that I take issue with here.
After recounting the 2014 Hobby Lobby case, alleging the threat of its reversal under a liberal court, and warning that Christian business owners (in his estimation) could be targeted by such a court, Grudem states:
“These incidents show that it is not an exaggeration to say that, under a liberal Supreme Court resulting from Hillary Clinton’s election, Christians would increasingly experience systematic exclusion from hundreds of occupations, with thousands of people losing their jobs. Step-by-step, Christians would increasingly be marginalized to the silent fringes of society. Is withholding a vote from Donald Trump important enough to pay this high a price in loss of freedom?”1
He goes on to say,
“Some Christians have even hinted to me that ‘persecution would be good for us.’ But the Bible never encourages us to seek persecution or hope for it. We should rather work to prevent such oppression of Christians, just as Jesus taught us to pray, ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’ (Matthew 6:13). Paul did not encourage us to pray that God would give us bad rulers but good ones who would allow us to ‘lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way’ (1Tim. 2:2).”2
In the first paragraph, Grudem essentially asks whether the adherence to conscience, specifically those consciences that did not allow their owners to support Trump enthusiastically, is worth loss of freedom. He paints a pretty grim picture of a hypothetical, nigh-dystopian world under a Clinton regime, and the implied answer to the above question is, no.
In the second paragraph, Grudem answers negatively to the question of whether Christians should seek out suffering. Grudem’s application of both texts here is questionable, especially 1 Timothy 2:2. It is true that Paul does not command believers to be masochists by praying that God would provide them with evil rulers. But it is equally true that Paul does not command believers to pray that God would send them favorable ones either. Rather, Paul posits a more realist approach by instructing Christians to pray for the wellbeing of the already established government, which at that time only offered them persecution. Matthew Henry said this about the passage:
“See how far the Christian religion was from being a sect, when it taught men this diffusive charity, to pray, not only for those of their own way, but for all men. Pray for kings (v. 2); though the kings at this time were heathens, enemies to Christianity, and persecutors of Christians, yet they must pray for them, because it is for the public good that there should be civil government [in general], and proper [i.e. qualified] persons entrusted with the administration of it, for whom therefore we ought to pray, yea, though we ourselves suffer under them.”3
This is the point of 1 Timothy 2. Paul is not advocating prayer as a sort of spiritual lobbying of the heavenlies for a favorable ruler, but as concern for the earthly institutions ordained by God and the people placed therein by God in his sovereignty. It is by praying for rulers, and conducting ourselves “in all godliness and honesty,” rather than plotting against them, that Christians can achieve a quiet and peaceable life, which is the “summit of the ambition of a good Christian.”4
Grudem Argument #1: Political Protectionism
Based on my own examination of electoral politics this past cycle, I am convinced that Grudem’s position reflects that of many Christians, especially white, evangelicals. Though evangelicals as a whole did not end up voting for Trump at a rate quite as high as the media presented it, Grudem’s arguments here are similar to the ones I heard circulating. Namely, that withholding a vote from Trump by conscientious objection was not worth the supposed repercussions that would ensue were the alternative candidate to win. The risk of encroachment on our most valuable freedoms was simply too great. Was withholding a vote from one philandering demagogue really worth being “marginalized to the silent fringes of society” forever?
This prioritizing of political freedoms over conscience strikes me as painfully skewed, making individual “rights” the end of the Christian’s life on earth. Rod Dreher, in his new, highly anticipated book, The Benedict Option, addresses this very issue. Responding to warnings by Christians of government encroachment on Christian freedom he says:
“True. As important as religious liberty is, though, Christians cannot forget that religious liberty is not an end in itself but a means to the end of living as Christians in full. Religious liberty is an important component in permitting us to get on with the real work of the church and with the Benedict Option. If protecting religious liberty requires us to compromise the moral beliefs that define us as Christians, then any victories we achieve will be hollow.”5
Grudem is occupied with the end, whereas Dreher is occupied with the means—that is, the process itself—never expecting a favorable result, but seeing the Christian life as worth living (to the full) for its own sake within the political sphere. Therefore, the conscientious objection to voting for a particular candidate cannot be analyzed based on what result it may or may not cause, but rather whether or not it was fundamentally Christian at the root and in action. By voting this way, the Christian offers to the culture an alternative to the “increasingly cold and indifferent political and economic arrangements.”6 It is not enough to avoid what is bad, Dreher says, we must also embrace what is good. Grudem’s call to Christian protectionism at the cost of embracing what many believed to be bad, simply does not achieve the true purpose and role of Christians in society.
As Dreher says at the end of his chapter on politics, “Ceasing to believe that the fat of the American empire is in our hands frees us to put them to work for the kingdom of God in our own little shires.”7 Earthly, political freedom is a tool to be used to God’s glory. This is not to deny that there is an element of pragmatism inherent in all political engagement as the art of the possible. It is not Grudem’s implicit notion of pragmatism, nor his decision to vote for Trump in the midst of a presidential election unlike any other that gives me pause. Rather it was his willingness to dismiss concerns of conscience for the sake of momentary, finite benefit that bothers me; his allowing politics and personal freedoms to become more than tools.
By making the arguments in focus here, not only did Grudem prioritize earthly freedom over the consciences of individual believers, he also fell into the same trap in which many modern evangelicals seem to have fallen, that of making politics an ultimate good.
In response to a question about dwindling confidence in the American project, William F. Buckley Jr. identified a “restlessness” in society (in the late 1960s) as a result of an undue dependence on the government for fulfillment, adding that:
“For so long as liberalism suggested that it could bring happiness to the individual then people tended to look to government agencies for those narcotic substitutes, for a search for happiness and contentment which they ought to have found in their religion, in their institutions, and in their culture, themselves.”8
It is shameful that this same “restlessness” was so easily discernible even among Christians during this past election cycle. By prioritizing earthly freedoms and political victories over and against the Christian conscience, Grudem is thinking (and exhorting others to think) like the world, relying on government (a poor substitute, indeed) for fulfillment, and making politics (the mechanism) the ultimate focus, wherein every political situation becomes Manichean and seems to be a decision between life and the apocalypse. As politics inevitably fails us, those who look to it as a vehicle of fulfillment will become increasingly frustrated. To avoid this restlessness (read, unhappiness) and disappointment, Christians must rediscover true American exceptionalism: i.e. limiting government so that the more important and sanctified elements of life can flourish. At this week’s Gospel Coalition Conference, Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) addressed this very issue. I could not possibly improve upon Sasse’s analysis, nor reference Aristotle, Martin Luther, and Alexis de Tocqueville so expertly—thus, I heartily suggest everyone watch it rather than finishing the rest of this article.
Grudem Argument #2: Avoiding Suffering
Some Christians, early in the circus that was 2016, dubbed the whole debacle a lost cause and resigned to cast their vote for a third party candidate or abstain completely from the booth, come what may. It was often these Christians who began to discuss whether persecution was inevitable, and therefore to be embraced, and even welcomed, as it is often beneficial to the Church. It is this position that Grudem attempts to refute in the second paragraph above in saying that we should not wish suffering upon ourselves. Said differently, we should avoid great (political) suffering at the cost of lesser suffering: the casualty of our conscience. This position simply does not comport with both Scripture (specifically 1 Peter) and the attitude of the early church. Perhaps modern evangelicals could benefit from a recovery of the early church’s view of martyrdom as exhibited by figures like Ignatius of Antioch.
Ignatius of Antioch
On his way to martyrdom via combat with wild beasts in the Coliseum, Ignatius of Antioch wrote letters of exhortation and encouragement to several churches. As he neared the climax of his final journey to Rome, many of his fellow believers plotted a rescue plan.
In his letter to the Romans, Ignatius commanded them to not save him from martyrdom, but rather to pray that he might endure martyrdom well. “Pray, then, do not seek to confer any greater favor upon me than that I be sacrificed to God while the altar is still prepared.”9 Ignatius wanted to finish the race well, both for his own gain in Christ, and so that those who remained would offer praise to God for it. Martyrdom was not seen as something to be avoided, but rather the culmination and confirmation of a race run well (1 Cor. 9:24), and ultimately, identification with Christ.10 Indeed, in his letters, Ignatius was more concerned for the doctrinal health of the church in the face of heresy (e.g. Docetism) than he was with his own well-being.
At the very least, Ignatius challenges the modern obsession with comfort and should make us pump the brakes before diving headlong into the secular culture’s love affair with politics, wellness, and self-interest. On another level, Ignatius’s testimony should make us look hard at our own appetite for suffering and our theology of martyrdom. In the early church, martyrdom was obviously not self-inflicted, for then it would cease to be martyrdom. But suffering for Christ was a badge of honor, never to be avoided. If Ignatius were to answer Grudem’s question on whether withholding a vote from Trump in the name of biblical standards of Christian morality was worth the loss of freedom (and potential suffering), he would answer with a resounding “yes”.
The apostle Peter would have echoed Ignatius’s rebuttal of Grudem. In 1 Peter 3, suffering is presented not as a mere possibility that can be avoided through righteous living, but rather, an inevitability. As one commentator puts it, although no harm can come to Christians in terms of their eschatological destiny “in this life, believers will experience social ostracism, ridicule, and may be killed by those who are offended by the Christian’s reverent, humble, godly lifestyle.”11
“[H]aving the proper perspective on [suffering] will increase believers’ ability to be steadfast.”12 Like Ignatius, Peter is most concerned with the health and stability of the Church than he is with her earthly comfort. Not only is suffering for godliness (for example, voting one’s conscience to the detriment of one’s own freedom) an indication of future reward (Matt. 5:11-12), but it is also an opportunity for evangelism (1 Peter 3:15).13 Making the right and holy decision based on a biblically convicted conscience will often not make sense to a world that is driven by Machiavellian self-preservation. Suffering for choosing the good, as Dreher phrases it, is a marker of holiness (1 Peter 4:1).1415 The inference made by Peter is that the world will persecute Christians precisely because they reject sinful self-interest.16 Christians have never suffered merely because they hold strange religious beliefs, but because those beliefs compel them to act in a way that is subversive in secular society, which awakens a spiritual animosity against said Christians amongst the populace as they are simultaneously confronted with their own sin and the holiness of Christ’s bride (John 15:19). Though I am not applying this to Grudem per se, there is no doubt in my mind that part of what beguiled many evangelical Trump diehards was the subversiveness of fellow evangelicals that refused to sacrifice conscience for their own self-interest.
As we attempt to chart a God-honoring course through an increasingly hostile modern world, we must get over our own narcissism—telling us that our current situation is unprecedented—and look to the guide of Scripture and the lives of those giants of the faith that have gone before us as pertinent guides for Christian living. Let us pray as Ignatius did, “…let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.”17
(1) Grudem, Wayne, “If You Don’t Like Either Candidate, Then Vote For Trump’s Policies.” Townhall, October 19, 2016, https://townhall.com/columnists/waynegrudem/2016/10/19/if-you-dont-like-either-candidate-then-vote-for-trumps-policies-n2234187.
(3) Henry, Matthew, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. vi (Iowa Falls, IA: World Bible Publishers), 811-12.
(5) Dreher, Rod, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York, NY: Penguin Random House, 2017), 88.
(6) Ibid., 97-98.
(7) Ibid., 99.
(8) Buckley, William, F., Jr., Best of Enemies: Buckley v. Vidal. Film. Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville. Magnolia Pictures, 2015.
(9) Ignatius, The Letters of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, ND), 200.
(10) Ibid., 201.
(11) Cline, Timothy, (doctoral diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, May, 2017), 44.
(12) Ibid., 44.
(13) Ibid., 45.
(14) Ibid., 46.
(15) Grudem has made this very point in his other writings. See Grudem, Wyane, 1 Peter, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2009), 175.
(16) Cline, 46.
(17) Letters of Ignatius, 203.