The Political Pietism of John Piper
A sense of pious self-righteousness is a high price to pay for passively aiding aborticidal apostasy.
Dear Friends and Supporters:
I’ve been down with a respiratory infection (not Covid) this week, so this CultureChange is later than usual. I’ve decided to summarily dissect a troublesome post from John Piper, long-time pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis and president of Desiring God.
Likely no prominent evangelical exemplifies both the assets and liabilities of contemporary pietism more than Piper.
Pietism is the 17th century Protestant (mostly Lutheran) movement led first by Philip Jakob Spener and then Hermann Francke at the University of Halle reacting against the widespread orthodox scholasticism and insisting on personal zeal, sanctification, and piety as central criteria for authentic Christianity.
In the theological development of the West, pietism rescued Protestantism from dead orthodoxy, but in its privatized and anti-dogmatic emphases also paved the way for 19th century Romantic liberalism. Marginalizing doctrine is not an effective technique for guarding against dead orthodoxy. Biblical orthodoxy wedded to devotion is the unbreakable barrier to dead, scholastic orthodoxy. Pietism, by contrast, links passionate personal devotion to an omission of concern for God’s kingdom in this world, notably as it extends beyond the individual, family and church.
Pietism was mistaken, therefore, not so much in what it affirmed (a warm, personal zeal for God) as in what it omitted or marginalized (rigorous theology and a commitment to Christian culture).
Not surprisingly, the seeds of pietism emerged in the wake of the gradual collapse of Christendom and Christian culture in Restorationist (post-1660) Puritanism. As The Westminster Dictionary of Christian History observes:
Pietism was thus representative of the new status of Christianity in modern Europe, when it was no longer possible to Christianize civilization, maintain a uniform state church, or build Christian culture.
This mark of pietism survives to this day, and it explains why unrelenting proponents of Christian culture (like me) oppose modern pietism, which is even more troubling than the original pietism.
Character Counts — All of It
John Piper’s burden is to show that Christian support for Donald Trump is wrong — and dangerous. Oddly, Piper doesn’t even mention Trump’s name in a post given to undermining Christian support for Trump. And, to be sure, Christians need not be enthusiastic about Trump (as I am not) to note the fallacies of Piper’s arguments.
Perhaps more significantly, however, his view reflects a distinctly pietistic paradigm relating to Christ’s Lordship. Piper writes:
… I remain baffled that so many Christians consider the [i.e., Trump’s] sins of unrepentant sexual immorality (porneia), unrepentant boastfulness (alazoneia), unrepentant vulgarity (aischrologia), unrepentant factiousness (dichostasiai), and the like, to be only toxic for our nation, while policies that endorse baby-killing, sex-switching, freedom-limiting, and socialistic overreach are viewed as deadly.
The reason I put those Greek words in parentheses is to give a graphic reminder that these are sins mentioned in the New Testament. To be more specific, they are sins that destroy people. They are not just deadly. They are deadly forever. They lead to eternal destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
Doubtless Trump has committed and might again commit these “deadly” sins. Immorality, boastfulness, vulgarity, and fractiousness are indeed toxic, and Piper is correct that if Trump or anybody else refuses to repent of them, he (and they, and we) will be eternally judged. This is also true of nations. Piper correctly argues that a leader’s character influences his culture’s character.
If anything, however, Piper doesn’t carry his argument far enough. For example, he somehow neglected to mention how Trump’s blunt opposition to Cultural Marxism, his unwavering support for law-enforcement in the face of Black Lives Matter mob chaos, and his nomination of justices committed to upholding the law are character traits the Bible lauds and demands.
I suspect the reason that Piper neglects to mention these virtuous character traits is that they are not among the ones he considers especially pious. The forthright, bold, direct, confrontational, sin-crushing, and God-honoring piety of Moses, Phineas, Elijah, David, John the Baptist, Paul, and our Lord doesn’t quite conform to the quiet, personal, timid and more obsequious piety that Piper seems to prefer.
It is for this reason that (as a rare reader of Piper) I don’t recall his exposing Barack Obama to the withering criticism he has leveled at Donald Trump, despite the fact that Obama’s character, judged by biblical standards in their cultural totality, and not in an individualistic selectivity, has been inferior to Trump’s.
None of this is to defend Trump’s obvious sins and defects. It is, however, to point out Piper’s misleading ethical selectivity. (For a non-pietistic, evenhanded assessment of Trump, see David Bahnsen’s post.)
Individual Evil versus Cultural Evil
Piper is obliged to address the Christian argument that, despite Trump’s obvious character defects, he stands strongly for the signal moral issue of our time: the legal defense of preborn life, while Biden offers full-throated support for abortion. Piper acknowledges the evil of abortion, but sets it on par with Trump’s sins:
In fact, I think it is a drastic mistake to think that the deadly influences of a leader come only through his policies and not also through his person…. There is a character connection between rulers and subjects. When the Bible describes a king by saying, “He sinned and made Israel to sin” (1 Kings 14:16), it does not mean he twisted their arm. It means his influence shaped the people. That’s the calling of a leader. Take the lead in giving shape to the character of your people. So it happens. For good or for ill.
Therefore, Christians communicate a falsehood to unbelievers (who are also baffled!) when we act as if policies and laws that protect life and freedom are more precious than being a certain kind of person. The church is paying dearly, and will continue to pay, for our communicating this falsehood year after year.
The justifications for ranking the destructive effects of persons below the destructive effects of policies ring hollow.
I find it bewildering that Christians can be so sure that greater damage will be done by bad judges, bad laws, and bad policies than is being done by the culture-infecting spread of the gangrene of sinful self-exaltation, and boasting, and strife-stirring (eristikos).
How do they know this? Seriously! Where do they get the sure knowledge that judges, laws, and policies are less destructive than boastful factiousness in high places?
This is where Piper’s political pietism leads him culturally astray. It is true that individual sins provoke individual judgment and cultural sins provoke cultural judgment, but individual sins and cultural sins are not weighed equally in the temporal world. Think only about lust. Jesus warns that sexual lust in one’s heart is as personally deadly as the act of adultery (Mt. 5:28).
This does not mean, of course, that sexual lust is as culturally deleterious as adultery. The Mosaic law imposed civil sanctions for adultery as a culturally (and not merely individually) subversive act, but none for lust, which could never be infallibly detected anyway. Adultery is more culturally injurious than lust by far. The matter will be different in heaven’s court, but we are not presently standing before the Lord at the consummate judgment. We are living within pre-consummate human culture.
Analogously, legalized murder of preborn children is much more dangerous than the cultural effects of even an immoral, boastful, and arrogant president. But Piper’s political pietism, which democratizes the effects of personal and cultural sin, blinds him to the unique — and uniquely pernicious — effects of the latter.
I’m surprised at his citation of 1 Kings 14:16. The Scripture is referring to the apostate King Jeroboam, first ruler of Israel at the nation’s division, and the previous chapters alert us to the sin that stimulated God’s judgment: escorting God’s people into idolatrous apostasy in violation of public, cultural aspects of the Mosaic law, not adultery or arrogance or boastfulness. Likely Jeroboam was arrogant and immoral, but the sin for which God judged him and Israel was public, cultural idolatry.
It was not Jeroboam’s personal conduct transmitted to the Jews that exposed him to God’s judgment, but his apostate political legalization of idolatry. Certainly God would’ve judged this wicked king had he been personally immoral, arrogant, and boastful, but he judged the nation because it had followed him in publicly violating the Mosaic law.
In the same way, if Trump refuses to repent of immorality and arrogance, God will judge him. But the far more culturally damning sin is Biden’s support for the legalized murder of preborn children.
This is one principal reason many Christians are willing to vote for Trump and would never vote for Biden, and not because they excuse Trump’s personal sins. And this reason for supporting Trump is not somehow less pious than refusing to support Trump because of his personal sins.
We sometimes hear the well-meaning exhortation, “Christianity doesn’t start with the Bible, but with Jesus Christ.” This might very well be true, but Christians must embrace biblical truth anterior to Christianity, and that is creation as the Bible describes it. Put another way: the Bible is bigger than Christianity. We will not understand his person and work in their greater depths if we bypass creation. This is a small book about not bypassing creation. It’s a book about thinking in creational categories, and purging contra-creational categories that infect our culture and, in too many cases, our churches.
You can order the e-book or paperback here.
Virtue Demands Liberty
Piper is convinced, in addition, that Christian support for Trump on the grounds that he will preserve political liberty is insufficient and misguided:
Freedom and life are precious. We all want to live and be free to pursue happiness. But if our freedoms, and even our lives, are threatened or taken, the essence of our identity in Christ, the certainty of our everlasting joy with Christ, and the holiness and love for which we have been saved by Christ — none of these is lost with the loss of life and freedom….
Piper seems not to recognize that in the social realm, liberty is an escapable aspect of virtue, and while our identity in Christ isn’t imperiled by persecution, our task in cultivating and extending that identity in the world is imperiled.
Modern pietism often supposes that political hostility and suffering for the church are preferable to political liberty. This is just the opposite of what Paul declares (1 Tim. 2:2). To pray and labor and fight for political liberty is to pray and fight and labor for greater freedom to preach the gospel, to rear children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, to evangelize the world, and to extend the kingdom of God and Christian culture.
Modern pietists aren’t interested in Christian culture, however, and therefore sometimes sound like cultural masochists: the more we suffer persecution, the more our personal piety is evidenced. There’s sometimes a capitulation to resignation theology rather than a bold embrace of resistance theology. They consider “Christian Counterpunching” to be impious, despite the fact that it is a form of biblical piety.
Politically Binary Obedience
Piper argues that supporting either Trump or Biden (though Trump appears the bigger threat) hastens a path to destruction:
I will not develop some calculus to determine which path of destruction I will support. That is not my duty. My calling is to lead people to see Jesus Christ, trust his forgiveness for sins, treasure him above everything in this world, live in a way that shows his all-satisfying value, and help them make it to heaven with love and holiness. That calling is contradicted by supporting either pathway to cultural corruption and eternal ruin.
You may believe that there are kinds of support for such pathways that do not involve such a contradiction — such an undermining of authentic Christian witness. You must act on what you see. I can’t see it. That is why I said my way need not be yours.
When I consider the remote possibility that I might do any good by endorsing the devastation already evident in the two choices before me, I am loath to undermine my calling (and the church’s mission) to stand for Christ-exalting faith and hope and love.
One wonders whether Piper has sufficiently pondered the inescapably bipartisan American political system, whose binary character always demands voting for the lesser of two evils or, to put it another way, the best political path under the circumstances.
More theologically disturbing, however, is his otherworldly ministry objective to help individuals “make it to heaven with love and holiness” — with the implication that we do not treasure the Lord if we seek to advance his kingdom in this world.
We Are Not Exiles and Pilgrims in God’s World
For Piper, Christians are exiles in this world:
Have you [pastors] inadvertently created the mindset that the greatest issue in life is saving America and its earthly benefits? Or have you shown your people that the greatest issue is exalting Christ with or without America? Have you shown them that the people who do the most good for the greatest number for the longest time (including America!) are people who have the aroma of another world with another King? …
May I suggest to pastors that in the quietness of your study you do this? Imagine that America collapses. First anarchy, then tyranny — from the right or the left. Imagine that religious freedom is gone. What remains for Christians is fines, prison, exile, and martyrdom. Then ask yourself this: Has my preaching been developing real, radical Christians? Christians who can sing on the scaffold,
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still;
His kingdom is forever.
Christians who will act like the believers in Hebrews 10:34: “You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” Christians who will face hate and reviling and exclusion for Christ’s sake and yet “rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, [their] reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6:22–23).
The biblical term “exiles” doesn’t mean what he appears to think it does. It refers to people currently residing among foreigners (see C. van Der Waal’s The World Our Home). It does not refer to an otherworldly people marooned on earth until they can escape. The Bible teaches Kingdom Theology, not Pilgrim Theology:
The Christian responsibility is to fulfill the cultural gospel mandate, pressing the Lord’s kingdom under the power of his Spirit and according to his Word in all areas of life and thought. It is not to maintain merely personal piety; get through this life the best we can; avoid voting for political leader that will protect innocent life merely on the grounds that his personal life is patently sinful; and escape, in the end, to a platonic, Gnosticized heaven. Piper does not explicitly champion this entire view in his article, but modern political pietism does routinely champion it.
The modern political pietism John Piper exemplifies shirks Christian responsibility in the present world, including in politics. Politics is not the central responsibility of Christians, but it is one aspect of the central responsibility, which is seeking first the kingdom of God in all things.
Whether we vote for Donald Trump or not, we must know this: while Trump has been personally impious, his cultural and political decisions have bolstered a righteous judiciary, added additional protection to unborn children, and steeled the Biblical requirement of law and order. His policies have, to be sure, been far from perfect.
But they’ve also been far from Joe Biden’s, whose worldview is an unmitigated moral disaster. Trump’s is a confused cauldron that nonetheless includes some remarkable God-honoring successes.
And here’s a reminder to all the political pietists who can’t deign to dirty their hands with either Trump or Biden: In the American system, you get to choose only one.
A sense of pious self-righteousness is a high price to pay for passively aiding aborticidal apostasy.
Most of you know by now that the CCL symposium is Saturday, November 7, four days after the election in a gorgeous Bayview hotel in scenic San Francisco.
The theme is: “2020 Vision for a Blurry Year.”
The upsides of a downside year
Presidential election as chaos
The political ideology of the COVID-19 drama
Cultural Marxists in the streets
The Supreme Court battle and the assault on Amy Coney Barrett
Social justice goes to church — without wearing a mask
The wokeness of sports
We have three seats left, as of Friday afternoon, October 23. There’s no charge, but the event is by invitation only, so please contact me if you wish to attend. Send me a private FB message or email me (sandlin[at]saber[dot]net) within the next few days.
I’ll see many of you there.
Please get and promote my new book on Creational Worldview (above) if you haven’t yet. All donors and symposioum attendees will get a complimentary softcover copy.
I’m eager to see some of you soon.
For the advance of the Kingdom, and against a world-denying pietism,
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