Columns Government & Politics Leaders & Institutions Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Michael Curry v. Robert Jeffress on the biblical view of government

Bishop Michael Curry speaks at a Reclaiming Jesus event in Washington on May 24, 2018. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Ah, celebrity! Thanks to his star turn preaching at the recent royal wedding, Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, has become the first Mainline Protestant leader in a generation to require criticism from the religious right.

So the other day, Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church Dallas, went on Lou Dobbs to attack Curry for joining other Protestant leaders in promoting a “Reclaiming Jesus” proclamation that protests the policies of the Trump Administration towards the least among us.

“They’re sincere, but they’re sincerely wrong, Lou, about their understanding about what the Bible says about government,” said Jeffress. “Yes, we’re to do what the bishop says and follow the way of love—individually. We’re to love each other, forgive each other, turn the other cheek. But government is never commanded to do that in the Bible. Government is supposed to look out for the protection of its citizens.”

Actually, the Bible does pretty much command the way of love, at least when it comes to caring for the poor. In Leviticus 19:9-10, God ordains this social welfare policy:

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

This was not optional charity. This is a mandate to the people from what, in the original theocracy, was governmental authority.

Now Jeffress himself claims that only Old Testament rules that are repeated in the New Testament “apply to us today.” When it comes to government, the heart of New Testament teaching is Romans 13, where Paul insists on obedience to civil authorities, as divinely established.

A central function of the Roman government of the first century was the dole—providing free grain to the poor (hence Juvenal’s snide reference to “bread and circuses”). As much as the New Testament urges voluntary charity, it never levels criticism at that governmental function.

Indeed, after the Emperor Constantine, a Christian convert, came to power, one of the ways he enhanced the Church’s status was to give responsibility for the grain doles to the bishops. At that point, you might say, government social welfare policy and the Christian rule of love merged.

You might also say that it’s Jeffress, not Curry, who is sincerely wrong about his understanding about what the Bible says about government.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


Click here to post a comment

  • Sorry, but Leviticus 19 isn’t about a government mandate. And even if it were, the U.S. isn’t a biblical theocracy. It’s a pluralistic democracy.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for greater charitable outreach. I just don’t believe in coercing people into it by force of legislation.

    The problem with passing the buck for charity to the government is that governments by their nature aren’t capable of compassion. Only individuals are. True charity — caritas — reguires metanoia, and metanoia can only happen within the human heart.

  • Sorry, but Leviticus 19 is about a mandate, as a legal obligation; not metanoia. It declares the society’s collective obligation to care for the poor, regardless of whether an individual has true charity in his or her heart. That’s precisely the point.

  • I never claimed that Leviticus is about metanoia. But the New Testament very much is. The movement of Salvation History — as well as that of societal evolution — is clearly from behavior by force of law to behavior by conversion of heart.

    Believe me, I’m not sympathetic to the likes of Pastor Jeffress, who I suspect is just looking for biblical angles for justifying personal greed and self-interest. But history has taught us that turning over the fulfillment of spiritual obligations (which is what caritas is) to the government is a tricky proposition. Better to keep separate what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God — and God’s people.

  • If it comes between Jeffress and Curry, I would believe Jeffress.
    Jeffress isn’t lying to people that they are all going to Heaven. Jeffress isn’t lying to people that God will wink at their sin, and that we should teach children that sin is ok, nothing to be worried about.
    Jeffress is not knowingly participating in communion with people who are proud, unrepentant sinners – spitting on Christ while He was on the cross
    I think I’ll stay with Jeffress
    The first mandate for Christians is to make disciples and tell all that Christ commanded. Curry doesn’t seem to know that priority in his search for political popularity. His god is an idol and he is trying to get Christians to worship his idol, rather than Christ. (edited)

  • And then Christ came and made making disciples and teaching His commands, of more importance Mark. Curry only remembers that when he can manipulate with it. (edit) And caring for the poor, as is Biblical – starts with the church first
    “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.: (Galatians 6:10) Do you think Curry is pushing that?

  • My point is that the obligation to care for the vulnerable was understood in both ancient Rome (including Christian Rome) and ancient Israel as something belonging to Caesar. That it was also, for Christians (and Jews) a personal moral and spiritual obligation does not obviate that fact. And, indeed, it is not fair to the poor to have to depend on the metanoia of the better off.

  • Leviticus was directed to Israelites, not like the the Seven Laws of Noah (Sheva Mitzvot B’nei Noach) to all mankind.

    When you write “the society’s collective obligation”, the society is in fact the society of Jews to whom it was addressed.

    So, at best, you can attempt to convince fellow members of society that the content of Leviticus 19 is the sort of thing which they ought to endorse in their own society, but I would not cite Leviticus 19 while doing so, particularly as something authoritative.

  • Ancient Israel made no distinction between a secular government and the religion of the people. The religion passed and enforced laws.

    So that is inapplicable to a country like the USA.

    There was in fact private charity in ancient Rome, but I would bone up on it as it was practiced before citing it in support of much of anything.

    Caesar – whose wealth was not accrued by a fair system of income taxation and tariffs – was hardly motivated by higher motives than keeping the crowds supporting him.

    The old saw “bread and circuses” had its origin in reality.

  • Better check the weather conditions in the nether world. I have a feeling it’s freezing down there.

    Nice to be on the same side for a change, Bob. But let’s try not to make a habit of it. ?

  • No one was more surprised than I was.

    Your comments were lucid, on point, to the point, and well-reasoned.

  • Leave the down trodden naked and starving until they capitulate?!
    That’s known as torture under the Geneva Convention as I was taught in the military.

  • Social welfare benefits are not charity.

    They are a form of protection from the public hazards of poverty.

    Extreme poverty undermines democratic institutions and makes autocratic government seem like a viable choice. Poverty creates public hazards to us all in the form of crime, widespread health issues, and general unrest. We should not ever have to depend on churches and charities to create and maintain a standard of living which is humane.

  • The trouble with Jeffress’s view is that it selectively both reduces the role of government and interprets the OT scriptures. Yes, Romans 13 says that the government is to protect people, but the OT says that we are to look out and provide for the alien. And a factor that Jeffress does not take into consideration is when the foreign policies of a one’s own government causes one’s own nation to receive an unnecessary increase in immigrants who are trying to escape poverty and violence.

    There are a couple of places where the Reclaiming Jesus statement goes too far. And yet, its overall direction is far more Biblical that the direction pursued by the Trump Administration and supported by people like Jeffress. The treatment of immigrants supported by Jeffress seems to be driven by self-centeredness and feelings of insecurity. And though the latter does not imply a deficient moral direction, the former does. And it seems that religiously conservative Christians like Jeffress are attempting to sanctify that self-centeredness and that dishonors the Gospel.

  • I don’t disagree with any of your points. But that form of social welfare is something that we, as a society, have freely chosen to embrace as a value. We don’t do it because of a perceived mandate from God.

  • Social Welfare Policy for the USA hanging on Leviticus 19? Is this what “Reclaiming Jesus is going to look like?

    While we are at it let’s add in the 2+ percent of the Muslim giving and the Priestly tithe as well.
    Theocracies and Democracies and Autocracies still have distinctions for very good reasons.

    Pretending to make the Hebrew Theocratic government our own or even to homogenize it with Rome is a Silk-Curry-love stretch indeed.

    “You might also say that it’s Jeffress, not Curry, who is sincerely wrong about his understanding about what the Bible says about government.” But I won’t. (and I am not trying to prop up Jeffress either)

    “If they had a social gospel in the days of the prodigal son,
    somebody would have given him a bed and a sandwich
    and he never would have gone home.”
    – Vance Havner

  • I don’t see anything in the Leviticus verse that would indicate it is the government’s job to distribute output. Sounds like collectivism to me. This verse is a guideline for producers to fairly and compassionately distribute their output. And in the New Testament we note that the Apostles gave everything they had VOLUNTARILY. Sorry, but Jeffress win this one. His views are consistent with the long-held belief that it is church’s duty to care for the poor. It is voluntary, no coercive as is the case with government.

  • Curry has a tough act to follow. The last presiding bishop watched as entire dioceses broke away. In her last public address, she told the Episc general convention not to worry about those thousands of members that headed for the exit, they don’t mean a thing, just keep smiling. Curry will probably see the membership drop to less than a million under his tenure.