Politics and the Church: Why John Piper Has It Wrong

Politics and the Church: Why John Piper Has It Wrong June 28, 2012

John Piper is a pastor I greatly respect, and I’ve taken a lot of wisdom from his teachings. But today I want to discuss an area in which he and a great many other Christians, even self-identified conservative Christians, are importantly wrong. More urgently, he is importantly wrong in a way that could provide aid and comfort to Christians farther to the left than he. However, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, so let’s take it from the top.
It began with this sermon on the upcoming Minnesota marriage amendment, which would affirm traditional marriage and prohibit the legal sanctioning of same-sex “marriages” in that state. When we evaluate the sermon by itself, in isolation from any later responses or comments, most of it holds up rather well. (Though since the amendment won’t be on the ballot until election season, June seems a bit early to be preaching on it. Hang onto that thought—as you’ll soon see, it’s an important element in this whole situation.) Piper spends the majority of his time clearly laying out the biblical model for marriage, explaining why same-sex “marriage” is literally a metaphysical impossibility, and explaining why it would be a disaster for society if it were to become the universal norm. So far, so solid.

Then in point seven, Piper lays out four considerations for his congregants to keep in mind while they weigh the importance of this issue as it relates to the legal sphere. There’s an important bit of setup for this point in the unabridged sermon video that didn’t make it to the condensed transcript but is worth transcribing and quoting here:

Here I feel like I’m pushing the upper limit of my pay-grade. My happy conviction is that pastors ought not to be experts in lots of things. And I’m certainly not an expert in civil law and how economics work and how politics work. I just don’t know much. I just read my Bible and try to understand what God says and then say just as much as I know, and I’m counting on a lot of lay people to do a lot of hard work for me. That’s the conception I have. If you think I’m the expert on everything, sorry, it’s kinda late in my ministry for you to be corrected on that. [laughter]

Hmmmm… that seems a bit odd. If Piper is making a big point of emphasizing his general ignorance on all things political, then how does he expect the average, out-of-the-loop, working-class Joe Bethlehem Baptist Church member to vote intelligently? Besides that, pastors are citizens too, so why are we to believe God would want them to be ignorant on matters concerning them as citizens? And what does economics have to do with a discussion of moral law?

But once again, if we were to take the sermon in isolation this wouldn’t seem like that great of a concern. And in fact, Piper fills out point seven with some good, sensible points that seem quite clearly to be implying (without coming right out and saying it) that voting for this amendment wouldn’t be a bad idea. Particularly amusing is his point that there was an amendment about hunting and fishing in Minnesota, so in evaluating where a marriage amendment would fall on the “importance scale,” we could start there. Wink, wink.
Then comes point eight, and this is where things start to get strange and confusing. After preaching 7/8 of a sermon that seems quite clearly designed to persuade his congregants to vote a certain way, Piper loudly and repeatedly affirms the importance of… not doing that. In fact, he makes it plain that he thinks the church and her leaders should stay out of politics altogether:

[Note: Portions of the second and third paragraphs were transcribed directly from the video.] Don’t press the organization of the church or her pastors into political activism. Pray that the church and her ministers would feed the flock of God with the word of God centered on the gospel of Christ crucified and risen. Expect from your shepherds not that they would rally you behind political candidates or legislative initiatives, but they would point you over and over again to God and to his word and to the cross.
Please try to understand this: When I warn against the politicizing of the church, I do so not to diminish her power but to increase it [original emphasis]. The impact of the church for the glory of Christ and the good of the world does not increase when she shifts her priorities from the worship of God and the winning of souls and the nurturing of faith and raising up of new generations of disciples. It doesn’t. It feels in the moment like it does. “Ha, look how many people showed up for the rally!” Or “Look how many signatures in that church they got!” Or “Look how that committee is functioning.” Or…  It feels powerful. Give it a generation. And little by little, that vaunted power bleeds away the very nature of the church… and its power.
If the whole counsel of God is preached with power, week in and out, Christians who are citizens of heaven and citizens of the democratic order will be energized as they ought, to speak and act for the common good. It’s your job, not mine. Don’t look to me to wave the flag for your vote, or wave the flag for your candidate. I may not like him, or it, because of what God says.

This is problematic for many reasons. First, Piper makes no distinction between endorsing a specific piece of legislation on the one hand and endorsing a candidate on the other. These are two different animals. When you’re talking about a piece of legislation, you’re talking about a clear, written statement that is focused on a single issue. When you’re talking about a candidate, you’re talking about a person who may have a mixed bag of policies and whose future actions you can’t predict with total certainty. This is even true for candidates you may have some reason to like. Personally, I’m very choosy about whom I vote for. I might even sit out the 2012 election, even though I could say good things about Romney. My point is that a referendum is cut and dried, but a person is not. I can easily imagine cases where one would be morally obligated to vote for a particular amendment. I would almost never say one is morally obligated to vote for a specific candidate. Therefore, because these are two very different things, it’s illogical and unhelpful for Piper and his ilk to conflate them.
Secondly, this error could be more than just illogical and become downright damaging if Piper’s philosophy were to be applied in the way he is proposing. I could sympathize with a pastor who didn’t want to automatically endorse whoever the Republican candidate is out of blind party allegiance. But Piper is implying that he wouldn’t even allow his members to circulate a petition in his church, no matter how vile the moral evil they were opposing by gathering signatures. There is no biblical or theological warrant for that, and he is seriously confused if he believes he would be strengthening the church that way. If he truly wants Christians to be “energized as they ought, to speak and act for the common good,” he should recognize that activities like gathering signatures or holding rallies are a natural and important part of this process. And while it’s true that we shouldn’t be too quick to hang all our hopes on conservative politicians, once again, it’s irrelevant and water-muddying for Piper to bring this up in a discussion of a marriage amendment.

But there’s more. And it gets worse. A lot of you have probably read the Star Tribune’s coverage of this sermon, which made it look like Piper and other pastors were “opting out of the marriage fight” in Minnesota. Upon the release of Piper’s response, in which he said the piece was partly right and partly wrong, many evangelicals quickly  dismissed the article as a completely unreliable piece of leftist propaganda. “Oh, well that’s just a bunch of liberals twisting Piper’s words. Moving on…”
But the fact is that it wasn’t just propaganda. In fact, the most damning bits of the report came directly from John Piper’s own representative. Amazingly, most every conservative evangelical reaction I’ve seen has either ignored or completely missed this fact. Look at this:

“Basically our position is, we’re not taking one as a church,” Mathis said. “And by addressing this in June rather than October or early November, there’s no effort here for political expediency, trying to get certain votes out of people.”

Time out. What did he just say? He said Piper’s sermon was deliberately scheduled so as NOT to coincide with the election. In other words, he did not preach the message when it would be most relevant and most needed… on purpose. Mathis also took care to emphasize that Piper “did not hold back over concerns the church could lose its tax-exempt status,” so as not even to leave that hypothesis open for outside onlookers trying to reconcile Piper’s reluctance to support the amendment outright with his clarity in expressing where he stood on the moral issue. (Even so, that would have been a bit contemptible and wimpy, but more logical/understandable than turning the whole thing into a matter of principle.)
Mathis further stated that “He [Piper] wants to avoid the political realm as much as possible. The Christian Gospel is not left, it’s not right. It is what it is.” Here we go again with the pointless, cliched meme about the gospel not being left or right. Just what we need. (An added irony to this whole thing is that Leith Anderson, the other pastor who refused to take an official stance, offered as his reason that he was no longer an active pastor. So apparently you can’t be political if you are a pastor… but you can’t be political if you’re not a pastor either. I’ll let you mull that over.)

So in light of all this, Piper’s response doesn’t clarify anything. It just makes his position look still more incoherent. He insists the Star Tribune was wrong to say he “opted out,” when in fact he “opted in,” yet according to his own spokesman, “our position is we don’t have a position”! And of course, the obvious question is if Piper thought it important to spend so much time dropping broad hints that this amendment is a good thing, why would it have been such a radical, monumental step to simply conclude by saying, “I place my full support behind this amendment, and as a pastor I encourage all of you to take your part in the fight for marriage by casting your vote for it”? Where is the logic in drawing such a sharp line between the two? The answer is that it’s not logical. In fact, it is so internally contradictory it almost makes one suspect that there’s some church “politics” behind all this. Piper’s basic gut instincts are right and sensible… but perhaps there’s a group of influential people who are telling him to hold back. Perhaps it was someone else’s idea to preach in June instead of November. And perhaps Piper, not being the sort of man to pay lip service to a principle he doesn’t believe, has taken that perspective and done his darnedest to somehow reconcile it with his own better instincts, to convince himself that it all hangs together when it quite obviously doesn’t.

John Piper is a pastor, but he is also an ordinary person, an ordinary citizen like anyone else. Just because he stands in the pulpit while we sit in the pews does not render him duty-bound to muffle himself when it comes to combating the enemy in the political arena. If anything, he has a duty to the other pastors who did speak out plainly in affirmation of the amendment and were discouraged when he did not show his support for them. If anything, he has a duty to be a bold counter-balance to those who are using the exact same apolitical rhetoric as a thin veil for actively pulling the church to the political left. And now he has provided a highly influential source for these people to refer back to. “See, even John Piper says the church needs to stay out of politics.” If he wishes to strengthen the church, he needs to recognize that this is no time for being coy or pulling punches. Right here, right now, “being political” is really just another phrase for fighting the good fight, and it’s imperative that leaders like Piper wake up to this fact and conquer their knee-jerk negative reaction to the word “political.” Regardless of how good their intentions are, they will do more harm than good as long as they refuse to embrace it.

To help illustrate my point, let me close with some sharp but truthful words from a pastor who is of the same mind as I am on this issue. His name is Brad Brandon, and if you go to this link, you can hear his full comments. They take up about a five minute segment from minute two to minute seven.

I gotta tell ya, to say that leading a church or a pastor, or pressing him or the church into political activism, in the context of talking about gay marriage, or same-sex marriage, or defending traditional marriage here in the state of Minnesota, is essentially to say that marriage is a political issue. So again we go back to the argument… all we have to do then is label something a political issue, and all of a sudden pastors and churches shouldn’t get involved. I wholeheartedly disagree. I could not disagree more with him on this particular issue.
I’m not attacking him personally, but I am attacking this point, I am attacking this philosophy, this ideology that says, “Well, we shouldn’t be pushed into political issues.” We can as churches and pastors get involved with political issues. Let me tell you something, the Bible says that the church is the ground and the pillar of the truth, and if somebody wants to drag the truth into politics, then by golly guess what, we as Christians and the church and the pastors ought to go there.

I say Amen to that.

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