It seems that the Christian world is in flux right now. Old alliances have already dissolved. New ones are being forged. But still there is some uneasiness in many. Unexpected events can suddenly seem to threaten to bring this new house crashing down as if it was made of cards. How do we determine who we are going to associate with? How do we decide who to listen to? Now that many conferences do not seem to exclusively invite speakers from their own background, how can we predict who will be speaking where next?
These kind of questions are perhaps at the forefront of my mind right now as I prepare to go to New Word Alive. At Easter 2007, I would never have imagined that by 2010 I would be attending my third conference with the UK reformed crowd. I would definitely not have predicted I would be looking forward to it as much as I am. And I most certainly would never have dreamed that I would have written a book which will be featured in their bookshop, and graciously endorsed by some modern reformed leaders.
Why are the traditional reformed movement and the charismatics being driven closer together? Why is it that later this year the Proclamation Trust is hosting a conference on the role of the Holy Spirit? The answers to these questions, I believe, are also tied up with answers to another question that has been brewing online.
A small number of bloggers (including some very notable ones) are strongly criticizing John Piper for inviting Rick Warren to speak at his conference. Some people who I normally respect have challenged Piper’s decision in what I consider to be outrageous ways. Some of the articles that I have read about this read like they were rushed, and have the intention of adding Piper himself to some list of the “banned” as a form of “secondary separation.”
I have a very different perspective. I believe that John Piper is a man of God who has been given a unique gifting and authority. DGM is the ministry he leads, and this conference is his responsibility. Why would I assume that I have any right or ability to publicly rebuke him on such decisions? I have seen much of Piper’s ministry and it is enough that I instinctively trust him. I believe that he has done a lot of careful thinking and prayer about this. I don’t agree with everything Piper says, but I will never disagree with him without both careful thought and, I trust, a very respectful tone. In fact I happen to think that this decision to invite Warren is a very wise and important one as the rest of this post will explain.
At the core of at least my reasoning to “want it all,” or to put it another way, to learn from as wide a group of people as possible, lies two profoundly important concepts. I suspect that by virtue of their being firmly and comfortably surrounded by American reformed people, most bloggers who have criticized Piper don’t fully grasp either of them.
The first is simply this. We have so many enemies we cannot afford to create new ones in our own imagination. Evangelicalism as a movement is almost dead in the water in both the USA and the UK. Its leaders are either outrightly denying core doctrines of our faith (such as penal substitution) or tolerating and secretly encouraging those who do. Those of us who hold these values, and perhaps even a complementarian view, are being ostracized and persecuted. I genuinely think that our biggest attacks in the future are going to come from within the professing church.
Meanwhile secularism’s militancy continues to increase. There has even been talk in the UK about Christian churches being forced in the future to employ ministers who are openly committing sexual immorality. This kind of thing is happening more slowly in the USA, but is happening nonetheless. An aggressive secularization may well in the end be encouraged by those leaders who are meant to represent us in the name of “Christian tolerance.”
In Mark 9:40 Jesus tells us, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” It is that concept that drives me today when I look at who we can join hands with in some form of fellowship. If someone does not want to blot us out as evil preachers of “cosmic child abuse” and clearly loves Jesus and the Bible, how can we not at least try to join hands with them?
There is a good reason why I probably quote Wayne Grudem, John Piper, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and Charles Spurgeon more than anyone else here. That is because their theology is more similar to my own than anyone outside of the family of churches I am a part of. But I do not only learn from them. Of course there are degrees of fellowship. We can and should “grade” issues in our mind and position ourselves closer to those we agree with more. However, there are many today who would actually have very similar views to mine, whose attitudes I struggle with. The reformed movement has no monopoly on the truth. We do not know everything that there is to know. We should not think that God is limited to working in people on some “approved” list.
The danger is that within the reformed movement we can each set ourselves up as our own pope and be submitted to no one. We might feel so confident of our own judgment that we sit in judgment of other believers. How do so many dare to pronounce so readily against the decisions of a godly man like John Piper? What gives any of us the right to determine with absolute confidence who should be in the “in crowd” and who should not? Why do we feel the need to have a list of “acceptable” people to listen to and another list of “unacceptables” and then impose it on everyone else?
Surely what is more important is that we understand the biblical truth for ourselves so we can readily identify error. If we have a firm grasp on what we believe, and we are convinced that we believe that because of what the Bible says, why would we be so threatened by someone who believes the vast majority of what we do but might differ on a few minor points of doctrine and matters of style? Do we think that one or two talks are going to unravel years of faithful study and listening to godly preachers?
Online one of the dangers is that we can forget we are dealing with people and turn them into faceless enemies we can hurl abuse at. I think that many in some of these posts almost seem to forget that Piper and Warren are human beings, and more than that, our brothers in Christ. We should not wage war against them. Warren has tweeted before about his disappointment and bewilderment that the reformed people “hate” him. He also asked, “Why do those who love grace so much show so little of it?”
In recent times the Christian blogosphere has been rocked by the death of Michael Spencer. It is interesting that none of the eulogies or comments people have made about him have included the kind of abuse that was often pointed his way. Spencer was a complicated individual, and not someone I always agreed with. I thank God, however, that to the best of my memory, we always disagreed amicably. To be honest, I feel like he was more kind to me than some have who should theoretically have agreed with my theology more. I wish that in life he could have received the near universal respect and kindness he is getting in death.
Perhaps we would do well to ask ourselves three questions before we post a strong criticism:
- Would I say that to his or her face?
- Would I say that if I had learned that he or she had died?
- Will I regret it in the morning?
But there is a second reason that decisions about who to learn from are both so important and so easy to misunderstand. This is the fact that there are many different Christian cultures about. We have each developed our own ways of doing church and doing evangelism. We each have our own languages. This can lead us to misunderstand one another and talk past one another. The truth is, we can learn much from each other. Warren’s roots in a very different wing of the church are, to me, a fascinating thing that offers an opportunity for me to re-examine some of my own assumptions that may be almost unconscious to me. By asking why Warren does things the way he does, without judging him for it, I can learn more about why the people around me do things the way we do. Even if nothing changes in the way we do things, the end result will at least be that we have learned more about ourselves.
Having been involved in a church that has been rapidly growing for the last five years, I have discovered that probably one of the biggest ways in which churches differ is actually size. Warren comes from an extremely large church. Some of what he says and does is because he comes from such a church and actually wants it to continue to grow. To many of his detractors who have spent their lives serving in small churches he may as well come from a different planet. But surely we can learn from him whatever size our church may be. Warren does not condemn small churches, so why should we condemn large ones? Surely it takes many different kinds of churches, and sizes of churches, to reach our world? Surely we should be rejoicing whenever the gospel is going out?
We must learn to function more like one army of Christ, while respecting and maintaining our differences, unless fully convinced by Scripture to abandon them.