John Piper with Rick Warren: Compromise?
A couple weeks ago, John Piper announced that he had invited Rick Warren to speak at the Desiring God conference this fall. His announcement caused an uproar in some parts of the Reformed blogosphere. Some even questioned Piper’s commitment to the gospel, wondering out loud if he is a “wolf” in sheep’s clothing.
The debate over Piper’s choice of Warren reminds me of my days in an independent Baptist school. In fundamentalist circles, it’s not enough to separate from those who disagree with you (even on minor issues, like the style of music in church or which Bible translation you use). You have to go the extra mile and separate from those who refuse to separate. It’s called “second-degree separation.” For example, someone who is convinced that all Catholics are apostate would not only withhold fellowship from Catholics, but would also withhold fellowship from people who fellowship with Catholics.
The Piper brouhaha is a Reformed expression of this same phenomenon. It is a sign that there some who are pitching their tents in the far corner of the Reformed cul-de-sac, unwilling to entertain the notion that there are other people with legitimate building permits in the same neighborhood.
(Before I make a few comments on this debate, perhaps we should take a deep breath and realize that blog comments may not always be an accurate indicator of where a discussion is headed. It is possible that Piper’s opponents are merely a small, but vocal number and that they do not necessarily represent the majority of those in the Young, Restless, Reformed movement.)
Here are a few of my thoughts regarding this controversy:
1. Willingness to learn from people you disagree with is not a sign that you’re waffling on your firm convictions. It’s a sign that you’re steadfast.
Piper knows what he believes. That’s why he can share the stage with someone he respectfully disagrees with. Piper extended this invitation, not because he is waffling on his theological positions, but because he knows right where he stands.
Insularity is often bred by insecurity. When I was in high school, I constantly questioned my teachers about certain affirmations that didn’t add up. I was puzzled as to why certain books were off limits, or why the preaching of many evangelical leaders was forbidden. The more I sought to understand the rationale behind the interdictions, the more I came to understand that it was an insecurity masked by dogmatism that kept us in our cul-de-sac.
It’s ironic, but true: The more you forbid people to read or hear from those outside your circle, the more you communicate the insecurity of your own position. Your followers will eventually entertain this notion: If they think I could so easily adopt another point of view on this matter, maybe their position isn’t as rock-solid and self-evident as they make it out to be.
2. You can disagree with Piper’s choice and yet still love Piper.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t disagree with Piper’s choice. (It seems lost on people that the title of this conference is Think! The Life of the Mind and the Love of God. Warren’s presence at Desiring God will make Piper’s devotees do just that.) Rick Warren has been speaking a lot lately about the need to use our minds for the glory of Christ. It makes sense to me that he would be invited to a conference about the life of the mind.
Some may disagree charitably with Piper’s choice. That’s okay. In fact, if we never disagree with the people we look up to, we ought to consider where our allegiance lies. But disagreement over this issue should not be cause for attacks and accusations and the withdrawal of fellowship.
Let’s remember that discernment takes place when you occasionally hear voices you disagree with, not when you “Amen” everything coming from someone who sings off the same sheet of music.
3. When you use the word “heretic” to refer to anyone who disagrees with you, you don’t have a good word to use to refer to someone who actually fits the bill.
Can we be slow to label people as heretics? The term “heresy” is generally reserved for cultists and those who deny the Trinity. Jerry Falwell once said that “limited atonement” was a heresy. He was criticized for using the “h-” word so recklessly. Ironically, many of the Calvinists who hammered Falwell shoot he “h-” word at Warren, Falwell, and just about anyone else who isn’t as Reformed as they are.
Rick Warren is not a heretic. You might disagree with his emphasis, the way he does church, or his method of biblical interpretation. But he is a brother. Save the “h-” word for people on their way to hell because of their rejection of clear Christian teaching.
4. Trajectories go both ways.
Some worry about a liberal trajectory in evangelicalism. Rejecting the authority of Scripture is indeed a perpetual danger. We should avoid compromising our convictions about the inspiration of the Bible. We should beware of theologies that would take our focus off Christ crucified and raised for our salvation.
But there can be a fundamentalist separatist trajectory as well. That trajectory, while rooted in a desire for gospel-centeredness, eventually leads to a legalistic separation from brothers and sisters who disagree with us on other issues. The fundamentalist survival mechanism kicks in, and we begin to find our identity in finding additional things to protest.
Once we’re on the separatist trajectory, we exaggerate differences and distinctions in order to provide justification for our group’s existence. We also tend to see “holiness” and “rightness” in terms of the doctrines that set us apart from other Christians, rather than the beliefs we hold in common with other Christians that set us apart from the world.
Piper’s choice of Warren indicates that he is aware of the separatist trajectory and hopes the Reformed movement will not go that direction.
5. Renewal of evangelicalism will not take place without bridge-building.
Evangelicalism is a bigger movement than the Reformed Resurgence. While the YRR movement may signify the beginning of a renewal of evangelicalism, such a renewal will not take place without significant bridge-building.
The evangelical movement has been compared to a village green. If the Reformed simply stand off to the side and castigate those who don’t interpret Scripture the same way, then they will move into increasing irrelevance. Instead, the Reformed need to be part of the conversation – a broader conversation, where “Together for the Gospel” means more than “Together for Calvinism.”
Piper is right to build bridges to the wider world of evangelicalism. Renewal will not take place in a corner, but in all of evangelicalism’s neighborhoods, as gospel-centrality and brotherly love spread through the streets.
6. No matter what we think of Piper’s choice, we could all use a good dose of humility.
There are many who have labeled Piper’s critics were as “out-of-line”, “legalistic”, “angry”, “close-minded”, etc. Perhaps those labels are accurate in some cases.
But let’s not be Pharisaical in the way we call out Pharisees. It’s way too easy for us to be reactionary towards those we see as reactionary. Those of us who support Piper’s decision can be just as self-righteous as those who condemned his choice. We can begin to think, Thank God I’m not like those grumpy legalists!
Not only is there plenty of self-righteousness out there, and I confess that when I look into my heart, I find plenty of self-righteousness in here. We all need the humility that comes from the gospel.