As I’ve noted previously, John Piper is going to have Rick Warren speak at the Desiring God National Conference this year. And many conservative Bible-believing Christians are very concerned about this. They feel that Rick Warren preaches a watered-down Gospel and that Piper has sold-out on the Gospel by endorsing Warren in this way.
I’ve had blogging friends of mine express deep concern over this decision of my former pastor. I’m aware of at least one pastor who has publicly “separated” from Piper and removed all of his books from their church bookstore in response to this matter. Some fundamentalist bloggers are noting this as yet another example of a lack of discernment on Piper’s part and are encouraging pastors and fundamentalist leaders to not recommend Piper’s works to their congregations.
Now, some are even openly speculating about next week’s Together For the Gospel Conference, and wondering what kind of an impact this will have on the conference. Lou Martuneac a fundamentalist blogger can be quoted on this point:
The revelation of John Piper\’s invitation of Rick Warren to his Desiring God (DG) conference could not have been welcome news for Together for the Gospel (T4G)1 organizers and its key note speakers on the eve of their event. The Piper/Warren issue is sure to be the buzz of the conference. I do not expect anything on the Rick Warren invitation from the platform speakers unless it comes from Piper, which he may feel compelled to address in an attempt to quell the buzz.
The true irony of this year\’s T4G is the theme, which is, \”The (Unadjusted) Gospel.\” Rick Warren is among the high priests of a watered down, non-saving message….
I half-suspect Piper may take the platform at the outset to address the Warren invite. Why? For the purpose of getting it on the table, hashed out and hopefully quelled so that it is not a major lingering distraction during the conference. Nevertheless, there will undoubtedly be a huge buzz on the floor of T4G and in small groups settings throughout the conference….
What will be the reaction of the T4G men: MacArthur, Dever, Sproul, et. al.? I suspect some private attempts to admonish Piper have already taken place. All indications are he (Piper) will reject any admonishment from his brothers. Will there be some public negative reaction from the other T4G men? Will, for the sake of T4G/TGC fellowships, all be forgotten. At T4G will all embrace one another as if nothing is amiss?
Meanwhile, influential bloggers Tim Challies and Justin Taylor have tried to model reserve and charity in this whole debate. Taylor had to shut down comments on his blog due to how bitter and caustic many were. Challies has disagreed with Piper’s decision but also made the following points.
But before I continue, let me offer one more word. John Piper inviting Rick Warren to speak at the conference is not that big of a deal. It matters, to be sure, but not enough to get too riled up. It’s important that we put it in its proper context. Piper did not invite Robert Schuller or the Dalai Lama, someone who outright denies the Gospel. Warren professes faith in Christ and professes an evangelical understanding of that faith. Furthermore, this conference is Piper’s gig and he is free to invite whomever he wants (or whomever he is permitted within whatever structure there is inside of Desiring God). His house, his rules….
…let’s heed Piper’s warning not to fall into an error of secondary separation. There is no need for us to separate from Piper over such a decision. We have plenty of latitude to disagree with him; let’s do so with respect for him and for his long and faithful history of ministry to the church. The sky is not falling, the world will go on.
Doug Wilson has also explained how he thinks about all of this. He has a “wait and see” approach and thinks, we don’t need to “blow into a paper bag” over this. Phil Johnson, while strongly disagreeing with the decision is also concerned over how negative the reactions are to this. He thinks we should not approach this as a cause to separate from Piper in an all-or-nothing sort of way. Johnson was interviewed Tues. and Wed. on Iron Sharpens Iron radio, and the mp3s are available for free download from sharpens.org. [UPDATE: Phil just posted his official response to this on his blog. He has some good things to say which I largely agree with.]
Isn’t this a Big Deal?
Why is it that these leaders and many other less influential theology bloggers (like me) think such an action by Piper is not a big deal? Isn’t supporting someone like Warren a contradiction of the Gospel?
Here are some of the reasons given for thinking this is a big deal:
- Warren pleases people and adapts his message to suit the audience he’s at. He doesn’t strongly teach or write about repentance – this constitutes a watered-down Gospel.
- Warren has had Obama come to his church, and has accepted the likes of Robert Schuler. He has given wishy-washy answers on public interviews to questions related to the Gospel.
- Scripture calls for us to mark and avoid, and separate from those who do not uphold the Gospel. See the following summary of this idea of separation by David Cloud, fundamentalist leader:
We believe that the Bible requires separation from all forms of heresy and ecclesiastical apostasy (Rom. 16:17; 2 Cor. 6:14-18; 1 Thess. 3:6; 1 Tim. 6:3-5; 2 Tim. 3:5; Titus 3:10-11; 2 John 10-11; Rev. 18:4). We are commanded to try them, mark them, rebuke them, have no fellowship with them, withdraw ourselves, receive them not, have no company with them, reject them, and separate ourselves from them. The Bible teaches that the course of the church age is characterized by increasing apostasy (2 Timothy 3:1 – 4:6).
When put this way, such a reaction by Piper makes him a disobedient brother who should be separated from. This is the way most who practice secondary separation would think. It’s not that we separate because he chooses not to separate from people we would (as Piper phrased “secondary separation” in his video defense of this decision). Rather, they think Piper’s refusal to separate is disobedience, and 2 Thess. 3:6, 13-15 would urge us to separate from disobedient brothers.
But what about the Gospel?
I contend that the Gospel is a big enough matter to unify around. In fact the separation texts mentioned above particularly apply to a wholesale rejection of the Gospel. It is true “enemies of the cross of Christ” who preach “another gospel” who are to be so rejected. The withdrawal from brothers in Christ, happens primarily in a context of a local church with church discipline. Even then the erring ones are to be “admonished as brothers” not treated like outsiders.
Warren’s pragmatic approach to ministry may be foolhardy. His answers to Gospel-questions given on the spur of the moment in the context of media interviews, may not be as good as we would like. His books are aimed to less well-read readers, those that abound in today’s world. He connects with them, and appeals to a wide range of people. He aims to win them to Christ after he’s disarmed their defensive reaction to Christianity, but from our perspective he may be going too far in a 1 Cor. 9 be “all things to all” policy. His message may not be as theologically precise as we prefer. But he does not deny the Gospel. He affirms it. He preaches it, and he aims to live it out.
Meanwhile, John Piper is very clear about the Gospel and his books promote a Gospel-centered philosophy and world-view. The fellow speakers at T4G (Mark Dever, C.J. Mahaney, Albert Mohler, J. Ligon Duncan, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur and Thabiti Anyabwile) have many traits which could divide them. Varying positions on the charismatic gifts, the nature of baptism, eschatology, church government, music, and even who they “hang out with” (to use Piper’s expression). Some are very suspicious and careful with Mark Driscoll’s ministry style, others have befriended him. Some have chosen not to sign the Manhattan Declaration for important reasons, others see it as a means to encourage the defense of family values in today’s world and have signed it.
All of these differences matter, and these men don’t see eye-to-eye on a host of other concerns. But the speakers at T4G see the Gospel as being so important, that since they all joyfully affirm a rich, robust, Biblical Gospel message, they can allow this union to define them. Rather than being defined by what they are against, or more minor theological differences, they define themselves as being Gospel-driven.
When we separate over every little thing. When we allow personality differences, or just plain differences of opinion spur us on to cast judgment on fellow believers, we have crossed a Biblical line ourselves. More than that, we allow ourselves to be defined by these lesser things, and in so doing minimize the importance of the Gospel.
In closing, let me ask you to ponder the ramifications of the following texts to the current debate:
Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand…. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. (Rom. 14:4, 10)
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Rom. 15:5-7)
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit\””just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call\”” one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ\’s gift. (Eph. 4:1-7)
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Eph. 4:11-16)
Notice the stress on love, humility and gentleness, and the assumption that those differing with us are not enemies but brothers. They shouldn’t be judged, but may need teaching. We should strive for a sincere and edifying unity. This is the measure of the fullness of Christ. May this be our aim and may we all learn some important lessons as we think Biblically about this controversy and aim to react in a Christ-like and gracious way.