Church

Pastors MacArthur & Piper, Keeping Faith Out of Politics is Neither Possible nor Proper

Mark DeVine

What accounts for John Piper’s blog post granting Christian absolution to non-Trump voters on the eve of the 2020 election after decades of mainly begging off political questions? What accounts for John MacArthur’s decision to cancel in-person worship services according to government mandates, followed by the reversal of that decision a few weeks later? What accounts for John Piper’s admission that, unlike Doug Wilson, “I don’t understand the world” (mm 1:46:00) and lacks the time for sufficient study in order to speak intelligently about politics, but then weighs in politically and says if you know the gospel you understand enough to speak?

Both MacArthur and Piper have maintained a consistent public posture discouraging Christian involvement in politics. Yet, both support Christian colleges and universities offering the full spectrum of training and credentialing of graduates for a variety of professions, including law and politics.

As baptistic, reformed pastors, Piper and MacArthur are heirs to a rich heritage that affirms Christian citizenship, but which also faced persecution in both its British and Colonial American beginnings. Baptists come by wariness for the state honestly. Piper and MacArthur exhibit reflexive sympathy for separation from the world practiced by non-reformed Anabaptists such as Mennonites and Amish than for any sort of Kuyperian “not-one-square-inch” embrace of political or cultural mandates.

MacArthur contends that Christians involved in politics too often fall into “the temptation to cross the divide between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness and borrow things from the kingdom of darkness that you think are going to aid you.” In 1985, MacArthur said:

“I believe we ought to stand up against abortion and gay rights and the ERA and a lot of other things. I really believe that we ought to take our stand on those issues. But somehow what happens is that in the midst of wanting to take the right and legal means to take a stand and preach and proclaim against sin we get diverted into the illusion that we can change our country by effecting changes in the political system.”

Does “to stand up against” involve voting? Does MacArthur imagine that the divine mandate to love our neighbors can be fulfilled apart from such political involvement? Does MacArthur really doubt that legislation has, does, and shall “change our country?”

Does MacArthur imagine that because much goes wrong when Christians involve themselves in politics, that is a sufficient argument against its practice? Do not all affirmers of original sin expect that a great deal shall go wrong no matter what Christians do or don’t do?

Odd Contradictions

 Since the rise of Trump and the death of George Floyd, one senses that much of the elite class of evangelical leaders have not so much lost their former footing where the intersection of faith, culture, and politics are concerned, but rather are discovering that they never had much of a solid standing in the first place. Thus, the reversals and odd contradictions.

Across the centuries, even radically separatist Christians shift periodically toward political involvement when laws impinge upon what is dear to them. Both Amish and Mennonites reluctantly vote when their community interests are at stake. One might say that, for such separatists, political involvement plays no role in obedience to Jesus’s command to love one’s neighbor but periodically might play a role in self-protection. When Amish use of their land or water rights or the patterns of their exit and reentry out of and back to Amish terrain are threatened, they will vote.

A similar, self-serving pattern of public political positioning is detectible where MacArthur and Piper are concerned. Church growth is dear to evangelical pastors, as it should be. MacArthur sees public political alignment as a threat to the spread of the gospel— “The reason I don’t belong to the moral majority is I’m not willing to alienate all the Democrats. What do I gain by that?” This statement parallels Michael Jordon’s response to the charge that he was not sufficiently vocal on “black issues.” “Republicans buy sneakers too,” was Jordon’s retort. So afraid was John Piper that evangelicals in blue communities might think they, as Christians, must vote for Trump—he overcame his reticence to speak into that political realm he “[does] not understand” to disabuse such believers of that notion.

Extraordinary Challenges

Could it be that scrutiny of the words, actions, and non-actions of MacArthur and Piper across the years reveal neither consistent practice of staying out of politics nor deeply developed Biblical convictions about church-state relations? Could it be their more recent statements display more scrambling to respond to the extraordinary challenges of the woke revolution than the application of any clearly defined posture? Could it be that, until about a decade or so ago, the American church, Christian institutions, and individual Christians have enjoyed the freedoms and protections afforded to them in the constitution to such an extent that deeply developed convictions about many matters related to church-state relations just has not commanded much attention?

This is what I suspect. All Americans, and uniquely those who are in positions of leadership (especially if they are white, “cisgendered” Christians) are now faced with unprecedented challenges, desperately scrambling to make sense of what is happening and to comprehend what obedience to our Lord in these times ought to look like.

Though certain aspects of Piper’s and MacArthur’s eschewal of political involvement parallel those asserted by streams within the radical reformation reaching back to the sixteenth century, in one respect, they do not. Like the radicals, both fear political loyalties may compete with Christian loyalties and result in distorted, impaired or muted Christian witness. Political loyalties threaten to co-opt Christian ones. Fair enough. But radical reformers leveraged their separation from politics to secure freedom to deliver prophetic warnings and divine judgment of civil authorities both for the sake of God’s glory and to serve their neighbors and fellow citizens.

Historical Examples

Pilgrim Marpeck’s evangelical radicalism prompted him to protest the injustices of usury at the risk of his livelihood and his life. Ziegler, appealing to Matthew 23:23 “preached against tithes and rents to the clerical holders of landed properties.”[1] John Wollf “excoriated the magisterial divines for turning the populace against the mere externalities” in banning the mass and destruction of images… “while all the time for their part battened rich and strong, ate well, wore find shoes, and insisted on being called doctor and mater and did nothing to rid their cities and cantons of such grow wickedness as adultery, prostitution, usury, and unjust land rents and tithes.” Swiss physician Otto Brunfels, a non-Anabaptist radical, opposed mandatory tithes and feudal dues unless used for the poor or for education and defended Anabaptists against coercion by the civil authorities.

Conclusion

In contrast, an array of reformed evangelical elites (including Piper and the late Timothy Keller), have stated wariness for political involvement, and far from freeing them to criticize the Democrat party has resulted in their protection from that party and the forces it controls. A partial exception comes with Albert Mohler who said he cannot foresee voting for a Democrat in his lifetime and who spoke of “voting wrongly” in a context that suggests he meant “voting Democrat.” As the little corpses of the aborted and the mutilated remains of trans-surgeries of children mount, one hopes that reticence to love our neighbor through explicit, unambiguous exhortation to Christians not to vote Democrat will recede, and encouragement for Christians to unapologetically pursue righteousness in the public sphere will increase.


[1] For this paragraph see George Hunston Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), pp. 199, 247-253.

Stay Connected!

Sign up to receive the latest content in your inbox.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.