On Sunday, President Trump unexpectedly dropped in on a suburban D.C. megachurch after playing golf nearby. The picture of the pastor praying for him, Trump with his head bowed and eyes closed, the smiling pastor with one hand on Trump’s shoulder and the other holding a Bible, popped up all over the web, with predictably divided reactions.
Everyone needs prayer. Trump certainly does, not only because of his position and power, but because of his character. But the pastor, David Platt, shouldn’t have done it. Bringing the most powerful man in the world up to the front of McLean Bible Church is the natural thing to do, yes. But it’s the natural worldly thing to do.
I think we tend to underestimate how thoroughly Christianity upsets worldly hierarchies, which are based on power: political, economic, or social. David Bentley Hart wrote about this in his piece “Christ’s Rabble.” The church, especially, or paradigmatically, when it gathers for worship, is a radically egalitarian space. There, as Jesus said, the last shall be first. That’s not a pious sentiment or a metaphor for being kind to the people at the bottom. It is meant to be a fact.
When there’s a distinction of rank, it’s a distinction of holiness, but the holy don’t think themselves distinguished. Mostly the opposite. So as distinctions go, it’s not of much practical use. The hierarchies are only hierarchies of service. We speak more accurately of authority than of power when we speak of those in some way above the rest of us. Dante made this point by putting so many popes in hell.
And as it happens, we have direct apostolic instruction on this very matter of featuring the powerful in worship. In his epistle, St. James asks: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” He seems to have had a shrewd idea of the answer:
For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
Look, he continues, God chose the poor “to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him. But you have dishonored the poor.” In treating the poor and rich indifferently, they fulfill Jesus’s command to love their neighbors as themselves. If they don’t, the law condemns them. James even adds a note almost of class struggle. “Is it not the rich who oppress you?” he asks. “Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?”
Yes, we have apostolic and prophetic instruction to pray for political leaders (1 Timothy 2:1–2 and Jeremiah 29:7). That doesn’t even suggest singling out our political leaders for special attention. They are only one group among many that Scripture instructs us to pray for. The pastor invoked St. Paul’s instructions in a statement explaining his actions, but he misapplied it.