By Cory Barnes
Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself.
Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes. (Proverbs 26:4-5 NRSV)
“We should regulate sugar like crack cocaine, it is just as addictive and destructive.” Kayla’s eyes met mine instantly after these words were spoken and we had one of those non-verbal married couple conversations. The conversation was one sided, she said “Do not answer fools according to their folly.” Kayla and I heard this sentence while in the home of a couple who had recently visited our church. My wife knows me well, I had a thousand sarcastic ideas bouncing around in my brain, one of which was sure to have spilled out if not for her wise, glaring, intervention. Often, perhaps most often, we are wise not to respond to fools when they say or do foolish things.
The book of Proverbs is a pillar of Old Testament wisdom literature. The proverbs recorded by Solomon and others comprise a treasure of practical, pithy sayings that can and should guide the people of God in our lives. The wisdom of Proverbs, however, is nuanced. The book of Proverbs does not inflict wisdom upon the reader, the book of Proverbs challenges the reader to be wise, to participate in wisdom. Nowhere is this more evident than in Proverbs 26:4-5.
Proverbs 26:4 offers a precept: “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.” The wisdom of this statement is apparent. How many times have we found ourselves responding to a foolish statement only to realize that the very fact that we responded made us foolish as well. If you want to see this played out, go find any given Facebook discussion thread on the topics of religion or politics. Regardless of where these threads start, they always devolve to the same place: fools answering fools.
Yet the book of Proverbs does not leave us with a half-truth. The inspired author of Proverbs 26:5 offers another related precept: “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.” The wisdom of this statement is also apparent. Recently I was privileged to be the speaker for a church’s youth retreat. I was sitting at a table with some of the students. When one of the students began telling me about the situation at his local school, he commented, “It’s pretty bad, you know, because we have so many black people.” The student then turned to one of the two African American students on the retreat and said “no offense.” Here was a fool whose folly had to be answered! Too much was at stake to let this go, had I said nothing I would be doubly guilty; first for not coming to the defense of my African American brother and second for failing to capitalize on a needed moment of discipleship for my brother who spoke these foolish words. He and I had a rather lengthy talk, I pray God used it to show him his lack of wisdom.
Now comes the moment for this essay to take an unexpected turn. I do not just want us to consider Proverbs 26:4–5 in the abstract, but in a specific case. In the past months the American people have been stunned by Donald Trump’s meteoric rise in the polls. Perhaps most baffling is the broad support he enjoys among Evangelical Christians. One of the reasons this is so baffling is that, at least as it concerns his understanding of Christianity, Mr. Trump is a fool. For proof of this, one need only consider Mr. Trump’s response at the Family Leadership Summit when asked if he ever asked God’s forgiveness for is actions. Mr. Trump responded, “I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so, I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.” This response came in an interview in which Mr. Trump sought to highlight his Christian faith. This is a fool’s answer. Saying you are a Christian but do not seek God’s forgiveness for your sins is equally as foolish as saying you are a carnivore but do not eat meat.
I need to qualify at this point that I do not intend this essay to be an appeal to Christian voters to forsake “The Donald” for another candidate. I merely wish to address a question that I have as a Christian leader (one who usually stays out of politics), “Do I answer this fool according to his folly?” In my conversation with students, church members, and friends (Christians and non-Christians alike), do I have a responsibility to answer this fool according to his folly, or would doing so make me a fool myself? After much prayer on this issue, I have concluded that as a Christian leader, I should answer this fool in his foolish assertions about Christianity.
I do not believe that Christian leaders should engage in a point-by-point deconstruction of Mr. Trump’s policies, nor critique every misgiving of his debate performances. I do not believe that church members should be warned from our pulpits, Sunday school classes, blogs, or Facebook walls of the specific pitfalls of a possible Trump presidency. I would also affirm that if Christian leaders critique the moral failings of Mr. Trump’s past and present, they should be consistent and do so for each candidate.
I do, however, believe that I have a responsibility to say when asked and in some public forums that what Mr. Trump says is Christianity is a fools understanding of the teachings of the Bible. If I do not answer this fool according to his folly, then how will people in the largely Catholic community, in which the church I pastor is located, understand that what Donald Trump espouses as Evangelical Christianity is not Christianity at all? The members of our church family are likely the only Evangelical Christians they know. The only conception they have of what it means to be a Protestant, Evangelical Christian is our church body and whatever is presented as Evangelical Christianity on CNN. Right now, Donald Trump and his gospel of personality are the dominant image they will encounter.
There is another reason for answering the Mr. Trump according to his folly. Unless Christians, Christian leaders in particular, speak out against Mr. Trump how will he know that he is misrepresenting Christianity. We should be shaken by the thought that perhaps Mr. Trump does not know that he is misrepresenting Christianity. Maybe he genuinely thinks that it is perfectly acceptable to appropriate elements of Christianity into his cult of personality. We cannot fail to answer Mr. Trump’s folly and allow such a false view of Christianity go unanswered.
In closing let me make two concessions: First, this is no core gospel issue. I will gladly stand and minister alongside brothers and sisters who disagree with me on this issue. If those in authority over me ask me hold my views to myself, I will do so. I mean to quell controversy, not to create it. Secondly, I understand that this constitutes a slippery slope. I must guard against thinking it is my responsibility to answer all politicians and public figures with errant views about Christianity. Such cannot be the case. But with these concessions in mind, I believe that while Mr. Trump’s false understanding of Christianity dominates discussion in many of our communities, it is unwise for Christian leaders to remain silent in response to Mr. Trump’s foolish remarks. Some fools should be answered.
 According to a CNN article published July 18, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/18/politics/trump-has-never-sought-forgiveness/
Cory Barnes is an Old Testament doctoral student at NOBTS. He also serves as interim pastor at a local congregation.