You rarely see me criticizing a minister or church leader on the Internet, and the reason is simple: I think the way Christians casually tear each other down in social media, in blogs, etc. is terrible. You see, I was raised to believe a common-sense principle of communication: if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it. Intelligent discourse of issues is rarely served by attacking others and creating an us vs. them dichotomy.
Which is why it pains me to have to call out renowned pastor, author, and speaker John Piper on a series of errors he recently made on his popular Ask Pastor John audio series regarding a subject near and dear to my heart: the rise of the “Dones” in the American Church. (Author and ministry consultant Thom Schultz explains a bit more about the “Dones” here).
In I Will Not Leave Jesus — But I’m Done with the Church, Piper addresses the concept of leaving the organized church but remaining a follower of Jesus, and in no uncertain terms he claims that’s impossible and wrong. Excerpted from the transcript:
To say, “I love Jesus, but I don’t submit to his word” is a lie. “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word” (John 14:23). Jesus founded the church. I didn’t. Paul didn’t. Jesus founded the church. He established apostles to be — according to Ephesians 2:20 — the foundation of the church. And then he built it with prophets and teachers and pastors and ordained that there be a structure of local churches in the body of Christ called the church.
This is not man’s idea. There are a lot of young evangelicals who are cool, hip, and leftward-leaning who think they can substitute something for organized church.
The choice of Jesus over church implies a choice of your opinion over the Bible, because the Bible is where we meet Jesus.
Wow. Where to start? First, I want to make it clear that I have a lot of admiration for John Piper. He has had a very successful and well-regarded ministry for many decades, avoiding the scandal and mindless controversy that so often comes with the territory. Piper has also pushed the boundaries of theology in various places that have surprised people, choosing to make some folks uncomfortable rather than tow the line within his particular theological tradition. So I respect him for that, and thus I find it a little bewildering how he can be so tone-deaf on this incredibly important topic.
John Piper seems to be making four errors in his treatment of the subject of walking away from the church:
- Assuming that someone leaving a church is leaving behind all fellowship with believers in Jesus.
- Assuming that people who are looking for something different than “organized church” are trying to come up with some goofy, politically-motivated alternative to an authentic, Scripturally-sound church experience.
- Assuming that people who are critical of organized/institutional church are critical of the Bible, not critical because of the Bible.
- The questionable theology that Jesus is only to be found in the pages of a Bible, completely discounting the triune nature of God and, in particular, the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer.
I’m not going to go too far into point #4 because that’s a whole topic in and of itself. I just found it surprising as I’ve heard John Piper talk about the Holy Spirit in an almost Charismatic-friendly way in past times. Perhaps this was just a poor choice of words on his part. Anyway, let’s look at the first three points because this is really where things go south.
Reality Check #1: Leaving a church does not imply leaving Christian fellowship
John Piper seems to believe, and logically I suppose given his background as a church pastor, that when someone decides to leave a local church, they’re doing so because they don’t want to have anything to do with Christians any more. Apparently, in his mind, the only context for Biblically-valid Christian fellowship is to be found within the structure of an organized church (presumably with a building, a pastor, regular services, etc. – aka all the things people generally associate with institutional church). Suffice it to say, I find it disappointing that Piper is either unaware of, or dismissive of, the incredibly large and fast-growing segment of Christianity that is following organic church principles (the house church movement, missional communities, etc.). More and more institutional churches are actually choosing to become decentralized and lend their support to communities that provide a faith life and presentation of Jesus far different than the typical Western Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox church experience. This is a movement towards something hopeful and exciting, not just a knee-jerk rejection of the establishment.
Reality Check #2: “Cool, hip, leftward-leaning” Christians are, in fact, the future of the Church
Even more disconcerting than the first error is Piper’s bizarre attack of so-called leftist hipsters who apparently are trying to “recreate” church. He states: “Are you really just…trying to create church? If you are trying to create church, just create it biblically.” I must confess I’m at a loss as to what, exactly, he thinks is being created and what about it is not Biblical. If we’re going to start a discussion of what aspects of a church might be non-Biblical, let’s start with the typical institutional church service:
- Meeting in a sacred building dedicated to religious worship. The fact is the New Testament Church generally met in homes, and occasionally in public buildings which may or may not have had religious significance of some kind. And once Christians started being persecuted by Romans and Jews alike, they had to go underground and hold their meetings in secret. It wasn’t until several hundred years into the history of Christianity, shortly before and during the era of the Emperor Constantine, that Christians started meeting in formerly pagan temples and calling them churches.
- Preaching a sermon every Sunday. Not only is the typical church sermon not a characteristic of the Biblical Church, but having a special service every Sunday is also not to be found anywhere in Scripture! In fact, the only thing we know for sure about the “services” in churches that the Apostle Paul and others founded is that members were able to share freely with each other songs, teachings, prayers, prophecies, and other forms of edification as people were led by the Holy Spirit. There was also lots of eating involved, as the Lord’s Supper was an actual meal, not just a tiny wafer and little cup of grape juice.
- Run top-down by ordained ministers. The New Testament Church was largely democratic and hardly understood any distinction between clergy and laity. In fact, the ultimate goal of every church and every elder/overseer was to bring every single Christian up to full maturity in the faith of Jesus Christ. If your church doesn’t accept the Biblical truth that every Christian is a minister, well, you’re doing it wrong.
I could go on and on! Now, I’m willing to grant you that there may be some truly terrible events being put on by “lefties” out there that don’t have anything in common with the New Testament Church, but unfortunately it’s clear to see that the vast majority of churches in operation today (of all stripes and persuasions) are far, far removed from their 1st century counterparts.
I find it particularly bothersome that Piper is injecting a political posture here. See, I have this naïve idea that Christians of all backgrounds, whether from the so-called “left” or “right”, are supposed to be worshipping God in unity and love. Why is Piper, when asked about people leaving a church because of the pain of seeing a ministry fall from grace, immediately going down a rabbit trail about “young evangelicals who are cool, hip, leftward-leaning” trying to “recreate” the church? This sounds like a fear-based defense mechanism to me, like he’s afraid of where young people all across the country are taking the Church and he just doesn’t like it. Bah humbug, get off my theological lawn. John, you are better than this!
Reality Check #3: Many of the “Dones” haven’t left organized churches in spite of the Bible, they’ve left because of the Bible
Personal testimony time: after my wife Rosemary and I got married in 2009, we went through a lengthy period of soul-searching and comparing notes regarding our various church experiences past & present. Our discussions led us to do an in-depth study of the New Testament and what it talks about in regards to church practice and ministry leaders. I gotta say, it’s amazing what you’ll learn when you have an open mind! In our research, we discovered some startling truths about NT ministry that led us to concur that there simply wasn’t any legitimate Biblical precedent for most of the common practices we’d seen in Evangelical/Charismatic churches. Our faith journey caused us a great deal of pain and heartache, as we eventually left behind institutional church entirely to pursue “organic” church principles as described by pioneers such as Frank Viola, Alan Hirsch, Neil Cole, Felicity Dale, Jon Zens, and many others.
Now I acknowledge that, strictly speaking, John Piper isn’t describing this organic church movement in his interview; rather he’s addressing the phenomenon of “walking away” from church after a scandal. However, in my experience, many of the people who end up in organic church settings first had to go through such a “trial by fire”. This is both good and bad—I’ve seen the dysfunction that can occur when a house church is mainly made up of Christian old-timers whose common ground is a vehement rejection of organized church. But I’ve also seen the joy, the freedom, and the truly Christ-honoring spiritual expression that comes when a group of believers meet simply in simple places to love one another and offer sincere devotion to God. They’re not motivated by a rejection of the Bible and of the Church, they’re motivated by a reformation of what it’s really all about.
As I say in the title of this essay, John Piper’s lack of understanding the “Dones” harms the mission of the Church. But it’s not just Piper—church leaders across many denominations and sectors of American Christianity are missing the boat as well. I’m grateful for innovators like Alan Hirsch and his posse of missionally-minded forerunners who are actively trying to help institutional churches find creative and effective ways to become more organic, more community-relevant, and (ultimately) more Biblical. Not all ministers out there are stuck in the past. But to the extent that the Church at large continues to exhibit the mindset that John Piper displays in this interview regarding the “Dones,” we’ll continue to see the sad decline of public Christianity into irrelevance, ineffectiveness, and indifference.
And yet, Jesus…always seems to have a way of showing up when you least expect him. And thus I trust to see His Body, His Bride, His Church manifest itself in the most unexpected of places. That’s what gives me hope for the future of Christianity.