So John Piper has asked Rick Warren to speak at this year’s Desiring God National Conference, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God. You may have heard about this, either through buzz in the blogosphere or even from Piper himself in his recent Ask Pastor John session. I have known this for some time now as Warren told me himself when I visited Saddleback last September. So I have had a long time to reflect on it. And having done so, I am persuaded that it is not a good idea.
Before I explain myself, let me provide a bit of background on my relationship with Rick Warren and John Piper. I think people who read this site sometimes imagine that I am more connected with the big-name preachers or authors than is really the case. It’s only fair to point out that I do not have much of a personal relationship with either man. I have met both of them but have spent meaningful time with each of them just once, which means I know them best through their public ministries. I have read three books by Warren and perhaps a dozen by Piper. I have seen both of them preach and have met some of the people who minister alongside them. Perhaps mostly significantly, I have been a member of churches heavily influenced by each of them; the last church I attended was very much built around the Saddleback model while Grace Fellowship Church is very much in debt to Piper. Thus I have seen their churches, their ministries and the effects of their ministries on others.
So much for background. 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.
Having said all of this, I still believe it would have been best for Piper not to invite Warren. In inviting Warren, Piper is implicitly downplaying the reasons that many Reformed Christians have expressed concern about Warren and his ministry and have separated themselves from both. Yet these are good reasons based around sound biblical concerns. Let me look at this under two headings.
Warren has proven repeatedly that he does not and will not honor the Bible. He preaches from the Bible, he knows vast amounts of Scripture and I’m sure he loves studying the Bible. But his ministry makes clear that he does not truly honor it in the way he uses it. I hardly even know where to begin here. Turn to any of Warren’s books and you will see that this is the case. Time and time again he has misused and abused the Bible. Years ago I read The Purpose Driven Life day-by-day and blogged my way through each chapter. I looked up each and every Bible reference. And in almost every chapter I found that Warren had used Scripture poorly, stretching its meaning, choosing translations that, more than being true to the text, furthered his intended meaning. This is the way he always has used Scripture and the way he continues to today. Turn to just about any review of his books and you’ll find multitudes of examples.
John Piper, on the other hand, has a long history of ministry in which he seeks to extend the utmost care to the Bible. He preaches verse-by-verse, carefully expositing the Word of God, seeking to be absolutely faithful to the text. And few preachers have done a better job of this over a long pulpit ministry.
The contrast between these two preaching styles and, even more so, these two ways of using the Bible, could not be more stark. John Piper honors the Bible, Rick Warren very often does not. What frustrates me is that I know Warren knows better! For some reason he does not seem offended by what he must know is his own misuse of the Bible.
This is not to say that with his invitation Piper has endorsed such a way of understanding and using the Bible. And yet by inviting Warren he seems to implicitly downplay its significance. This differs, at least in my mind, from inviting a Presbyterian to a Baptist conference. In that case, the Baptist may say, “I disagree with your theology in this, but I understand that you have been faithful to Scripture, at least in the way you understand it, in coming to this conclusion.” We can affirm that a person can come to wrong conclusions even while honoring the Bible. But I don’t think we can say this about Rick Warren. He abuses the Bible and does so habitually.
I am persuaded that this matters. I can’t think of another speaker Piper has invited to one of his conferences who uses and misuses the Bible the way Warren does. This is not about Warren being a 5-point Calvinist–I think there ought to be room for non-Reformed speakers at such conferences. But that is a whole different topic. My concern here is the way he treats Scripture.
All Things to All Men
Second only to my concern about Rick Warren’s consistent history of misusing Scripture is this: he seemingly seeks to be all things to all men. As you might perceive, I am not using this phrase in a complimentary way. I want to be careful here, but what I have seen from Warren is not so much that he will claim to be both A and B, but that he will claim to be A and Not A. There is a strange kind of subjectivism in his allegiances and in his beliefs.
In the Ask Pastor John video, Piper mentioned a list of questions he asked Rick Warren–questions about what he believes and why. He said that he asked Warren about these things just two hours before filming Ask Pastor John. Yet the conference invitation was extended all the way back in the fall of 2009. This was not Piper asking questions to determine whether Warren was qualified to speak at the conference, but Piper asking questions to defend his decision. And Warren always knows exactly what to say. I truly believe this is one of the means by which he has become so popular and gained such a large platform–he always knows what to say to please a particular audience.
Piper is understandably excited about Warren’s regard for Jonathan Edwards. Yet we cannot deny that his ministry looks nothing like a ministry influenced by Edwards. Can you even imagine what Edwards would say about The Purpose Driven Life or an Easter church service featuring the Jonas Brothers? A and not A.
Here is what I’ve seen and what so many critics have pointed out: Warren will adapt what he says to fit his crowd; he will also adapt how he says it. The message always fits the audience. Now in one sense this is well and good–I will speak differently to a group of high school kids than I will to a meeting of the entire church. But ultimately the message will be the same and what I believe will be the same. Yet when it comes to Warren, there appears to be a great deal of malleability. He will be one thing for one audience and another thing for another audience. He will move seamlessly back and forth. He will be A and then Not A as the situation demands. Here now he has an opportunity to be Calvinistic and to reach out to that Reformed crowd that has been skeptical if not downright scornful about his ministry. And I’ve got no doubt that he’ll play his part. He will probably speak well and blow away the audience. But two weeks later he may be at another conference singing a whole new tune.
Again, this conflicts so plainly with John Piper’s ministry–Piper who preaches the same message in the same way no matter where he goes or who he faces. He may adapt his style to the listener, but never will he adapt his message. Always he will preach Christ and him crucified. He will be unpopular if necessary, but always he will be faithful. And again, in inviting Warren he implies that being all things to all men–Reformed to the Reformed, Emergent to the Emerging–is not an issue of great importance.
Been There, Done That
Allow me one personal note. As I said at the outset, I have spent at least four years in a Warren church and four years in a Piper-influenced church. I’ve spoken to hundreds of people who have been involved in each kind of church. And when it comes to Warren’s Purpose Driven model, I’ve been there, done that and have the scars to prove it. 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.
Before I wrap up I want to affirm my respect for John Piper. There are few men whose ministry I value more than his and few preachers I respect more. None of this is meant to make him out to be a bad person or one who is acting out of ill motives. But I believe he has shown a lapse of discernment in inviting Rick Warren to his conference and onto his platform. And that’s the thing about platforms–once built, they need to be nurtured, preserved and protected. John Piper must know that he is massively influential; this endorsement of Rick Warren ultimately strengthens Warren’s platform and weakens his own.
I am glad that through his conferences John Piper is not trying to build the young, restless, Reformed as much as he’s seeking to just preach truth. That is a good and noble goal. It is a goal that allows him to look outside of a safe little group of approved speakers. At the same time, Rick Warren is way outside that group and for good reason. Warren’s critics have not always been fair to him and yet neither have they been without justifiable and significant concerns. His ministry is in so many ways antithetical to Piper’s. It surprises me and maybe disappoints me a little bit that he has been invited to share that platform.
At yet 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.