Rick Warren: Three Primary Concerns

A few years ago I was handed a copy of The Purpose Driven Life and told that I really ought to read it. I knew almost nothing of Rick Warren or his Purpose Driven material, so decided I would read this book that, judging by the shelf space it had been given at the Christian bookstore, was “the next big thing” for Evangelicals. It turned out to be a bestseller in a class all its own, selling over twenty five million copies. As I read the book I became increasingly concerned with what I was reading and provided several articles and reviews that expressed this concern. These articles became part of the foundation for this site. In the years and months since then I have become known as one who is staunchly opposed to Warren and his teaching.

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It has been quite a while since I have written anything of any real substance about Warren so I thought it would be helpful for me to reassess what I believe about him. This may help clarify my position. I have decided to present to you my three primary concerns with Rick Warren, his ministry and all things Purpose Driven. These concerns are: Warren’s ongoing abuse of Scripture, the all-encompassing nature of the Purpose Driven programs and Warren’s ecumenism.

I do not wish to indicate that these are the only concerns I have with Warren, nor do I wish to indicate that there is nothing beneficial happening because of his ministry. I merely wish to express what I feel are three serious, overarching concerns that Christians should be aware of because of Warren’s increasing profile as America’s pastor and as a leader of the Evangelical church.

Warren’s Ongoing Abuse of Scripture

When I speak to people about The Purpose Driven Life or when I read reviews of this book or any of the Purpose Driven material, a constant theme that emerges is a concern over Rick Warren’s treatment of Scripture. This is, to say the least, a major concern.

Rick Warren claims that he quotes the Bible over 1,200 times in the text of The Purpose Driven Life. To do so, he uses fifteen different translations and paraphrases. Appendix 3 contains his rationale for this and he provides two reasons for the number of translations. The first is that in any single translation “nuances and shades of meaning can be missed, so it is always helpful to compare translations.” The second is “the fact that we often miss the full impact of familiar Bible verses, not because of poor translating, but simply because they have become so familiar” (author’s emphases). He believes this will “help you see God’s truth in new, fresh ways.” (author’s emphasis)

While I agree that some translations are clearly superior to others, even on a verse-by-verse basis, and further agree that it is helpful to compare translations, Warren’s logic is faulty as the two reasons he provides contradict each other. If a translation introduces something in a new and fresh way it will necessarily introduce new nuances and shades of meaning. The way to remove nuances and shades of meaning is to use as literal a translation as possible so that the words are God’s alone and are not interpreted by the translator. The author can then exposit the text, clarifying what might require clarification. This is nothing more than the traditional means of teaching what the Bible says. This is similar to the form Jesus used where He said, “You have heard it said…but I say.” He took what was unclear and made it clear.

Warren is also correct that after a while verses can lose their full impact. I know that this happens to all Christians and it is to our shame. But rather than use poor Scripture translations, a teacher should help the reader focus on the fact that as a Christian he should love the Bible as God gave it to us. As with David, God’s Law is to be our delight day and night and not something we grow tired of. Changing the translation does nothing to remedy this problem if the translation is inaccurate.

I would not be nearly so concerned about the use of multiple translations if Warren was consistently choosing translations that were close in meaning to the original manuscripts. The unavoidable fact is, though, that Warren consistently chooses translations that say what he feels needs to be said, regardless of the real meaning of a verse. A clear example of this is seen in his use of Proverbs 29:18 which, in one of his Ministry Toolbox updates, he provides in the King James translation: “without vision the people perish.” He uses this verse in an attempt to prove his statement that “To accomplish anything you must first have a mission, a goal, a hope, a vision.” Every other translation of Scripture provides a more clear translation such as “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint” (ESV). Warren sought out the one verse that says what he wanted to say even while every other translation rendered the verse more clearly. In doing so he has certainly not clarified any nuance or shade of meaning. Rather, he has introduced one.

There is a serious impact to Warren’s use of so many translations in that it speaks volumes of his view of the inspiration and sufficiency of Scripture. While I am sure Warren would affirm the plenary inspiration of Scripture, the reality, as proven by his misuse of Scripture, is that he must not believe that the Bible as God wrote it is sufficient for people today. He must believe that a very loose paraphrase like The Message can impact people in a way that the real translations cannot. He shows that he is not a faithful expositor of the Bible. This introduces a very serious concern with his ministry.

Despite a great volume of criticism about his handling of Scripture, Warren seems to have done nothing to remedy this concern. His recent writings and interviews are filled with the same volume of translations and mistranslations of Scripture.

Beyond the problem introduced by the large number of translations there are some passages where Warren uses the Bible extremely carelessly. Perhaps the clearest example of this is in chapter 10 where he discusses the blessing of surrendering to God. As support he quotes Job 22:21 as saying “Stop quarreling with God. If you agree with him, you will have peace at last, and things will go well for you.” When we look at the larger context of this passage we see that these are the words of Eliphaz, one of Job’s infamous friends. We see that Eliphaz is giving Job poor advice which God later condemns. Warren knows better than this!

A second example is Isaiah 44:2. This is used in the heading of the second chapter and is rendered “I am your Creator. You were in my care even before you were born.” The author chooses to quote only the first part of the verse. The second part, we see, goes directly against what he wants to say. It reads “Do not fear, O Jacob My servant; And you Jeshurun whom I have chosen.” When viewed in the proper context we see that this verse applies only to a specific group (which is, once again, the Israelites). This does not mean that the verse has no relevance to us, but to suggest that it applies directly to the reader of The Purpose Driven Life is clearly wrong.

There are at least fifty similar examples where the author uses Scripture outside of its context or assigns a foreign meaning. When Scripture is not used in the way God intends, this sort of inconsistency is inevitable. Warren’s ongoing abuse of Scripture is my primary concern with his ministry. Just as we would doubt the love of a husband who abuses his wife, so we must wonder at Warren’s love of Scripture if he is so willing to abuse it.

The All-Encompassing Nature of Purpose Driven Programs

Many of the laypeople who began a study of The Purpose Driven Life through a 40 Days of Purpose program had no idea that they were part of a larger effort. It is entirely possible that by the time these people received their book, the church leadership had already begun implementing the Purpose Driven programs and had been doing so for several months. I am aware of several churches where this was done without the knowledge or consent of the congregation. The leadership simply decided to implement the program and went ahead. 40 Days of Purpose was one of the first steps in introducing an entire new paradigm for doing church.

Rick Warren feels that his program is so wholly biblical that he wants to tell you what programs you church should begin, what programs should be stopped and what programs should be put on-hold, at least during the 40 Days programs. The programs extend to every area of church life. Here is what the 40 Days of Community program involves:

  1. The 40 Days of Community Kick-Off Event. This is a message preached by Warren which will be broadcast live via satellite, though churches without satellite capabilities can obtain it on DVD or VHS.
  2. Seven weekend messages and worship plans. The messages were originally preached by Warren in his home church of Saddleback Community Church. Participating pastors are to preach his messages and employ his worship plans which direct which songs to sing. The messages are based on the book of Philippians and Warren indicates they are expository in nature. (Please note that Warren’s interpretation of what constitutes expository preaching is not consistent with what historically has been considered expository. For more, see this article).
  3. The “What on Earth Are We Here For” devotional book with 40 days of daily devotional readings and journaling pages. This book also includes study guides for weekly small group study.
  4. Six small group or Sunday school lessons. These include a video which gives teaching that is then discussed by small group members.
  5. Six weekly scripture memory verses.
  6. Multiple church-wide events which will deepen the commitment of church members are make them active in their church and local communities..

Here are some underlying principles and some prerequisites for completing this particular program. Through the 40 Days of Purpose Program, Warren discovered five principles that he says will guarantee success in the upcoming Community program. Conversely, cutting out any one of these principles will necessarily damage a campaign, curtailing the results. The principles are:

  1. Unified Prayer – everyone in the church must pray for the campaign beginning months ahead of time, for there is power in unified prayer.
  2. Concentrated Focus – The church must focus on just this one program. Multiple focuses will dilute the program and reduce its effectiveness. Each ministry and each program must carry the message of the 40 Days program.
  3. Multiple Reinforcements – The program depends on many reinforcements throughout the week – church services, small groups, daily quiet times and a weekly memory verse.
  4. Behavioral Teaching – Each aspect of the program helps people become “doers” and not mere listeners. After each section there is a homework assignment, activity or event.
  5. Exponential Thinking – Exponential thinking is thinking that stretches faith. It forces leaders to look beyond what God has done before and focus instead on believing God for greater growth, greater giving and so on.

To summarize, 40 Days of Community is a comprehensive program that impacts every area of the church’s ministry for the duration of the program and very possibly beyond. Warren warns that many other programs and activities will need to be placed on hold or even cancelled if they are not part of 40 Days of Community. He advises leadership to begin to address this in advance with those ministry leaders whose areas of ministry will be affected. The program extends not just to the corporate gatherings but also to individual quiet times. In short, if a church is to be successful in implementing the 40 Days of Community Program (and the same is true of 40 Days of Purpose), the leadership is expected and encouraged to include programs that extend to every area of the church’s life. For 40 days the pastor will preach Warren’s messages or perhaps even simply show a DVD of Warren delivering the messages. Programs that are deemed unfitting for Purpose Driven philosophy will be postponed or cancelled. Small groups will study Purpose Driven material and individuals will even be expected to study Warren’s material during their daily quiet times. Even the required Scripture verses will be memorized in the translation of Warren’s choosing.

I believe 40 Days of Purpose and 40 Days of Community are unique in the long history of the church. I cannot think of any other programs that asked a church to turn itself over completely to another pastor for the duration of a program. Warren believes the Purpose Driven principles are so important and so unique, that he asks pastors to hand them his church – programs, messages, worship and even private devotions – for 40 days. At the end of that time he promises that the principles God has revealed to him will have transformed your church. It will be bigger (growth in numbers), be bringing in more money (growth in giving) and stronger (growth in small groups). He asks members of these churches to listen to his messages, his interpretation of Scripture, sing the songs he has chosen and study the topics he has outlined. Warren casts his vision for your church and then attempts to deliver that vision to you. The program is designed to infiltrate every important area of the church and remove those areas that are not deemed important. It is all-encompassing.

Rick Warren’s Ecumenism

The third great concern I have with Rick Warren and his programs involves ecumenism and a general downplaying of the importance of theology and doctrinal distinctives. By “distinctives” I refer not to doctrines that we hold to that serve only to keep us apart, but to the essential doctrines which keep us faithful to the Scriptures.

In The Purpose Driven Life Warren writes, “God warns us over and over not to criticize, compare, or judge each other… Whenever I judge another believer, four things instantly happen: I lose fellowship with God, I expose my own pride, I set myself to be judged by God, and I harm the fellowship of the church.” As we have come to expect from Evangelicals, the “judge not” admonition is given without distinction between judging a person in matters of essential doctrine or in matters of personal preference. There is a great difference between the two – a difference Warren chooses to overlook. Instead he downplays the importance of important theological disagreements and distinctions. Earlier in the book he writes, “God won’t ask about your religious background or doctrinal views. The only thing that will matter is, did you accept what Jesus did for you and did you learn to love and trust him?” While I am sure God will not ask what denomination I was part of when I died, we certainly should not downplay doctrinal views. Our doctrine is integral to who we are and how we live for Him! But, as we see, downplaying theology is necessary for his grandiose plans to succeed.

Within The Purpose Driven Life Warren quotes Roman Catholic figures such as Mother Teresa, Henri Nouwen, Brother Lawrence, John Main, St. John of the Cross and Madame Guyon. Nowhere does he warn that these people teach and believe much that is directly opposed to the clear teaching of the Scripture.

Beyond the downplaying of theology, Warren also advocates closer ties with apostate denominations such as the Roman Catholic Church. The following is an excerpt from an article summarizing Warren’s speech at a conference hosted by the Anglican Communion Network. “He urged the churches to join a ‘new reformation’ to spread the Christian faith and use the resources of ‘the universal, worldwide church of Jesus Christ in all of its local expressions’ to help the poorest of the poor. He predicted that the meeting, which brought affluent Americans together with archbishops from some of the poorest nations on earth, would be viewed by history as a turning point. ‘Now I don’t agree with everything in everybody’s denomination, including my own. I don’t agree with everything that Catholics do or Pentecostals do, but what binds us together is so much stronger than what divides us,’ he said.” He went on to say, “I really do feel that these people are brothers and sisters in God’s family. I am looking to build bridges with the Orthodox Church, looking to build bridges with the Catholic Church, with the Anglican church, and say ‘What can we do together that we have been unable to do by ourselves?'” (link). In one short sentence, “what binds us together is so much stronger than what divides us” he equates the differences between Baptists and Pentecostals or Baptists and Reformed Christians with the differences between Baptists and Roman Catholics.

During an earlier appearence at the Pew Forum, Warren said, “The first Reformation actually split Christianity into dozens and then hundreds of different segments. I think this one is actually going to bring them together. Now, you’re never going to get Christians, of all their stripes and varieties, to agree on all of the different doctrinal disputes and things like that, but what I am seeing them agree on are the purposes of the church. … Last week I spoke to 4,000 pastors at my church who came from over 100 denominations in over 50 countries. Now, that’s wide spread. We had Catholic priests, we had Pentecostal ministers, we had Lutheran bishops, we had Anglican bishops, we had Baptist preachers. They’re all there together and you know what? I’d never get them to agree on communion or baptism or a bunch of stuff like that, but I could get them to agree on what the church should be doing in the world.” During the same appearance he said, “‘I’m not a politician, I’m a pastor,’ he asserted, and then noted that if evangelical Protestants teamed up with American Catholics, ‘that’s called a majority.'” Once more Warren has chosen to overlook theology in order to building bridges between all denominations, regardless of their beliefs.

Warren is willing to overlook critical theological differences that strike to the very heart of the gospel in order to press forward toward his goals. When a person is willing to overlook the differences between Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox theology, I have to wonder what he truly believes. What does he understand of justification if he is willing to push away such distinctives as being of lesser concern than what is shared between Protestants and Catholics? Warren shows that he is willing to let go of the gospel.