With Donald Trump threatening “fire and fury” against North Korea for its provocative nuclear program, many in the United States are braced for the worst. But not everyone is concerned. Robert Jeffress, a Texas evangelical Christian pastor (and outspoken Trump supporter) backed Trump’s hostile moves. He specifically pointed to a Biblical passage on government authority — Romans 13 — to justify a potential war against North Korea. Jeffress’ use of this passage to support military action, however, is a dangerous misinterpretation of what the Bible actually says.
There are reasons to be concerned about Jeffress’ argument that have nothing to do with his Biblical exegesis. A U.S. airstrike on North Korea could lead to North Korean retaliation against South Korea and Japan, harming our allies and troops stationed there. North Korea may also be able to launch missiles that could hit the U.S. west coast. Accordingly, some have pushed back on Trump because of these dangers, and would likely say the same things to Jeffress.
But Jeffress is also missing the point of the Bible passage he cites. First, what is he talking about? In Romans 13, Paul wrote (using the NIV translation): “Let everyone be subject to governing authorities.” Later, he wrote “they [governments] are agents of God’s wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” So does this mean Trump has God’s backing to bomb North Korea?
Now, I am neither a theologian nor a religious studies scholar. So I don’t claim expertise, and I hope experts in this area will address any important points I leave out. But when we apply a passage from religious scripture to a contemporary issue, we need to think about three things. First, do we understand what it actually says? Second, does our understanding fit with the context of the passage? Finally, does our understanding fall within traditional approaches to the issue? Jeffress’ statement fails on all three points.
First, he misses the point of Romans 13 (specifically Romans 13:1–7). In this passage, Paul is calling for Christians to follow government authorities and not to resist their actions. This could be interpreted to mean Christians shouldn’t get too involved in politics (…) or that open rebellion is never justified. It may also be geared to a specific time and place: Christians in Paul’s age were under constant threat of repression, so they shouldn’t give the government a reason to arrest them. But it does not include divine backing for a government to wage war.
Second, it’s hard to square his interpretation of that passage with others in the Bible. The Bible is not a book of aphorisms, with each verse having a message independent of all others. It’s meant to establish a coherent belief system. So any application of a passage to an issue should be in line with other relevant passages.
Jeffress’ is not. There are many Biblical passages warning against war, such as the famous Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Children of God.” There’s even the next verse in Romans 13 after the above passage, “let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” There is thus little evidence that the Bible supports Trump’s bellicose actions against North Korea.
Finally, his argument doesn’t fit with the long Christian tradition of just war. As I’ve discussed, this ancient tradition can be useful in weighing potential military acts. Just war theory draws in part from the works of St. Augustine. Based on this tradition, there are several criteria leaders must meet before engaging in war, including a just cause, a competent authority, proportionality of response, and war as a last resort.
An in-depth discussion of these points would take up too much space, but even a cursory glance should show military action against North Korea would fail on all these counts. If North Korea were prepared to attack the United States or its allies, a pre-emptive strike by the United States may be justified. North Korea’s missile tests and nuclear development are concerning and grounds for condemnation. But this is posturing, not preparation for an attack.
So Jeffress is wrong on the desirability of war with North Korea, but he is also wrong on his use of the Bible to justify it. Christians (and really people of any faith, or no faith) concerned about certain evangelical leaders’ support for Trump should push back on the details of the policies Trump proposes. But they should also engage with the religious beliefs that underlie some of this support.
This piece originally appeared on Medium.