Piper, Warren, and the Perils of Movement Building

Why the debate over separatism still matters.

Collin Hansen | posted 4/19/2010 09:55AM

johnandrick1 You only thought junior high was over. But lately the evangelical blog world has been abuzz because John Piper invited Rick Warren to speak for his Desiring God National Conference, October 1–3, 2010. You see, a lot of folks who like John don’t like Rick. So now some of John’s friends aren’t sure they want to hang out with him anymore. They may not come to his party in Minneapolis. And they aren’t sure that you should either.

Perspective isn’t a virtue often associated with blogs. In a world desperately in need of the gospel, we spend much of our time and energy debating who’s in and who’s out, who’s up and who’s down. Though Piper and Warren are two of today’s most prominent evangelical leaders, you can hardly blame discerning observers for asking, "Who cares?"

At the risk of causing reader whiplash, I want to make the case for caring. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no apologist for the rank tone of debate that helped convince Justin Taylor to close comments on his must-read blog, Between Two Worlds. And the world just might be a better place if those of us who talk for a living picked up our crosses and carried them into the world’s most needy places. At the same time, reaction to Warren’s invitation reveals something that demands reflection. Negative campaigning may be the shortest path to successful movement building. But it eventually leads to a fork in the road, offering the choice of constructive responsibility or destructive cynicism. By inviting Warren, Piper has challenged his followers to choose which path they will take.

Not all of the criticism of Piper for inviting Warren has been unduly harsh. In fact, several thoughtful writers have raised serious questions for both men. Influential Reformed blogger Tim Challies formerly attended a church that followed the methodology laid out by Warren in his book The Purpose-Driven Church. Challies later shifted to a church influenced by Piper teaching.

"[W]hen it comes to Warren’s Purpose Driven model, I’ve been there, done that and have the scars to prove it," Challies wrote. "I’ve seen how his kind of ministry plays out. I’ve read the book Transitioning, which describes the (sometimes brutal) process of making an established church a Purpose Driven church. I’ve seen what it does, I’ve seen how it treats people, I’ve seen how it hurts them and stunts their growth. I’ve received innumerable e-mails from people who have experienced the same thing. And I know that John Piper couldn’t possibly be part of such a church, nor would he ever tell his flock to be part of one.

"While I don’t doubt that Rick Warren loves the church and loves the Lord, neither do I doubt that he does harm to the people and to the Name he loves so much. To invite him to this conference is to downplay all of the harm brought about by his unbiblical and pragmatic style of ministry."

Whatever assurances Warren gave Piper about his interest in Jonathan Edwards and Reformed theology, the Orange County pastor has a track record that suggests a different set of priorities. Facing a tough crowd in Minneapolis, Warren will need to demonstrate that his church’s practices can accord with a healthy regard for doctrinal precision. Past statements, some of which Michael Horton has documented, may dog him. Horton offered a balanced if biting critique of Warren in light of Piper’s invitation.

"Speaking first for myself, I admire Rick Warren’s zeal for reaching non-Christians and concern for global challenges," wrote Horton, systematic theology and apologetics professor at Westminster Seminary California. "I respect him for giving away much of his income for charitable purposes. At the same time, I believe that his message distorts the gospel and that he is contributing to the human-centered pragmatism that is eroding the proper ministry and mission of the church.Judging by The Purpose-Driven Life, Pastor Warren’s theology seems to reflect run-of-the-mill evangelical Arminianism, especially with its emphasis on the new birth as the result of human decision and cooperation with grace.There are also heavy traces of Keswick ‘higher life’ teaching throughout the book. None of this disqualifies him from being an evangelical statesman.After all, much the same can be said of Billy Graham."

Indeed, some of Piper’s modern-day critics would be no more supportive if he had invited Graham, who exemplified for fundamentalists the neo-evangelical compromise. Graham was the most prominent leader of an evangelical resurgence in America following World War II. Graham and his allies struck a middle course between isolationist fundamentalism and ecumenical Protestantism. An evangelical was someone who liked Graham and did not align with the other groups.

Yet today, with these antagonisms diminished, it’s not so easy to identify an evangelical. Some evangelicals claim to be post-conservative. Others are confessional. Still more are progressive, Reformed, emerging, or mainstream evangelicals. A few drop the term altogether and call themselves simply "Christ followers." It was a simpler time when evangelicals found common cause in their mutual distaste for Rome, communism, the National Council of Churches, and the fightin’ fundies. But now we’re realizing that so-called evangelicals often struggle to reach a common definition for the evangel, the gospel. Hence, we splinter into competing camps. This is hardly the posture of a coherent movement.

A quick survey of movement building reveals that many groups struggle to shift from destruction to construction. The Tea Party movement hates taxes and wants to defeat President Obama. But what’s their shared vision for governance? Who knows. The Democratic Party built large congressional majorities and recaptured the White House behind unified opposition to President Bush. But less than two years later, polls indicate widespread voter dissatisfaction with Democratic policies amid intraparty squabbling. Strategists now suggest that Democrats—who control two of three government branches—should blame the minority Republicans rather than try to campaign on their own accomplishments. Back in the realm of theology, the emerging movement began to break up when shared disgust of traditional church practice no longer sufficed as an organizing principle. "Where is your solution?" critics asked. It turned out there was no constructive consensus for how churches might faithfully adapt to the challenges of postmodernism.

The Reformed ranks have swelled with the refugees of pragmatic evangelicalism. Piper threatened this united front by inviting Warren. But Piper, as the movement’s central figure, has always offered more than just critique. He put forward a compelling vision of Christian Hedonism. "God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in him," he writes in his seminal book, Desiring God. As he explained in a video Q+A session, Piper does not want this Reformed resurgence to bear the mark of separatism, an overriding concern for fence building. With influence comes responsibility for guiding evangelicalism according to a compelling, constructive vision for theological reform and spiritual renewal. Piper’s critics may be right that Warren is not the best place to begin this effort. Only time will tell if the restlessly Reformed can settle down with a shared agenda that will captivate other evangelicals to work together and fulfill the charge from our Lord Jesus Christ to disciple the nations.

Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and co-author of the forthcoming book A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir (Zondervan).

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