Closing the Door Just Because We Can

This is an internal memo to myself primarily and then to my reformed brothers and sisters by proxy. Since March 31, much discussion has gone on about John Piper’s invite to Rick Warren to speak at this year’s Desiring God National Conference.

Not surprisingly the reformed blogosphere quickly chimed in with some crucial thoughts on the situation. Two  bloggers I respect who provided thoughts on this development are Phil Johnson at Pyromaniacs and Tim Challies at Challies Dot Com. In truth, I think these two blogs probably did the best job from my perusal on the subject over the last two weeks.  And as far as I can tell, from a reformed perspective the consensus has been that this invitation was a bad move. Of these, I think Phil Johnson does the best job being fair to the situation.

However, I am not convinced. In truth, all things being equal I admit that I am still an undecided on how I feel about Warren as an invite (clearly a sin among bloggers, who it seems, at times,  are guilty of the idolatry of opinion-ing). I think that Phil and Tim both make some poignant points that are not easily dismissed and my point here is not to dismiss their points. Nor are we to lose sight of the fight over justification by faith alone which seems to be the backdrop of nearly every theological battle within protestant ranks from (at least) the 1970’s.

At this point, however, it seems to me that perhaps we reformers are becoming a bit eager in our tests of authenticity to whom we are willing to share the stage. For the reason of this very conversation I am glad that John Piper has invited Rick Warren because I think that we need to be diligent in our mode of operation as we decide these things as a culture and as individuals.  This may seem a strange twist of events for those who have a pulse on my thoughts of The Purpose Driven Life.

But if I can add anything of value to what has already been said in the blogosphere on the subject, it would be some words of caution. I come to these cautions based upon another contemporary development that I think mirrors in some respects, both the danger of Piper not inviting Rick Warren as well as some of the argumentation used against this invitation. Specifically I have in view the recent developments in the last few years of the heinous, slanderous, and unfoundational attacks by many self-appointed “leaders” in the Southern Baptist Convention who continue to intentionally misrepresent reformed theology to the national corporate SBC body despite multiple corrections and pleas for integrity in representing opposing viewpoints. From this viewpoint then perhaps my concerns will be heard as I hope for them to be received – not that we abandon our distinctions in this conversation, but that we would seek to uphold them with integrity. Our distinctions as a reformed culture are not just theological in nature, but they are also part of our graciousness in dealing with others. Perhaps the following points will help clarify what I am trying to say.

  1. The Law of Charity. This is my biggest concern. Where has our charity gone? When Calvinists are demonized by opposing viewpoints in the SBC with sweeping (unfounded) statements I am constantly crying out “Where is the proof for this?” Of course, in the end I surmise there is no proof. I fear we have fallen victim to a short-handed assumption that everyone knows the proofs of which we claim to be almost axiomatic about Rick Warren among the reformed camp.  For example, it is not enough to make a blanket statement that Rick Warren does not handle God’s Word correctly. Such a condemnation absolutely needs proof. If we claim someone’s handling of the Bible is more eisegesis rather than exegesis than the burden of proof is on us. Similarly, to call Rick Warren emerging or emergent is the sign of a loose tongue when he claims contrary unless we substantiate it with proof. To go about haphazardly tagging his name with these subtitles without documented evidence is not only careless, it is cruel and contrary to all we represent. Now, if there is evidence that he is emerging and his writings and sermons are saturated with abuses of Scripture than those of us who stand to accuse him should have no problem putting together the evidence necessary for the blog-sphere flock of Christ to consider.  I am actually very interested in what this evidence might be, but only if substantiated since Warren claims different. And we must honor his claim and direct our dialogue about him with that in mind. I can only imagine what he thinks as he has read (if he has) blogs on the subject where sweeping statements against him have been made with nothing to substantiate it. The law of charity must rule this day. Let us be above reproach as we consider one outside our camp.
  2. To listen to Piper and then read responses against his position and we should realize that one of the primary concerns is one of separation. The two extremes are what protestants think when we say “ecumenicalism”  or syncretism and at the other end is one of theological isolation. The opposite of what Piper is doing is the example I cited earlier concerning the SBC and Calvinism. The SBC has given us a clear example on how not to do things as we go forth into the future. But if talking at each other is not the answer, what is? A council? I hardly see the value in that other than fodder for Christian Media on some kind of moral Christian victory for “all sides.” Rather, it is at conferences such as Piper’s, where we go in as Bereans, testing all that is said in light of Scripture, taking what is of value and discarding the rest. But isn’t that what we should be doing anyway? Does not “iron sharpening iron” include a little friction. This is not an argument to allow a heretic into the camp, but what of “Of things essential – unity, non-essential – liberty and in all things – charity?” I’ll be coming back to this in a bit. The point is there is value in our gathering together in such a context with our siblings in Christ as these pave the way for heavenly dialogue and not political banter.
  3. Is Rick Warren a Heretic? There is a clear connection with the first two points with this one. If Warren is emergent than I would have no hesitation in saying “Well, of course, he is.” But again that has not been proven. Indeed the opposite seems to be the case. No one denies that Warren proclaims the Gospel…right? It seems that we take issue with when he decides to share the Gospel, but not that he doesn’t share it. (We’ll be coming back to this later too). But if he isn’t a heretic than why are we so eager to castigate him with tag lines? Umm, let me try to make my point like this – “If John Piper invited C.S. Lewis to speak at this last conference would you have opposed him speaking?” Please be honest. I didn’t see anyone protest his last conference when he announced he would be focusing on C.S. Lewis. Yet, Lewis speaks from the grave. And Piper admitted in that conference that admittedly Lewis has some really bad theology.  So, where were our protestations? To merely write off my parallels misses the point, which is this: We are victims of the issues of the day, being hypersensitive to them and thus over-reacting. My proof for this assertion would be that the reason we don’t have a problem with C.S. Lewis as a guest at a Piper Conference is because he is dead, thus making him safe. Now we can debate until we are “blue in the face” on whose writings and work will have a lasting effect on the kingdom of God, but when you consider Rick Warren’s accomplishments in the publishing and selling of his book, along with the aftermath there should be no doubt among us that Rick Warren has garnered as much attention in his life as C.S. Lewis did in his life for similar reasons – trying to further the kingdom of God through their writings to a larger audience that was not Christian. Lewis was an apologist and Warren is not, but again that just makes this point more poignant. Since he was an apologist, I hold C.S. Lewis to a higher standard of doctrinal integrity because of the precision required and yet we would differ with him on a multitude of points.  In the end I’m concerned that we have fallen into the habit of closing the door against other evangelicals just because we can. What I would call “lazy accusations” against Warren I think points to a possible trend that may begin to form if we don’t stop it now.  Can you see how for me this issue is so much bigger than Warren? This falls under “Essentials – unity, non-essentials – liberty and in all things – charity.”
  4. Reminds us of the value of Spiritual Gifts. I think that much of the protestations oriented toward Warren are concerned with when he does or does not share the Gospel. I admit that I openly question things such as having the Jonas Brothers at an Easter service performing and it does greatly concern me. No doubt, then, that much of the objections raised toward him on how and when he shares the Gospel is deserved. However, I have seen no evidence that shows he has abandoned the Gospel. Rather, just that he doesn’t share as often as we would like. We like to say “If I were in that position I would…” But the truth is we are not in that position. Nor are we equipped with his spiritual gifts. I think we would all agree that we would all like to share the gospel more than we do and that in fact all of us have passed on opportunities to share the Gospel only to learn from those mistakes in the future.  And we all can probably testify to the fact that we have been in situations where we felt the Holy Spirit restrain us from proclaiming the Gospel for reasons unbeknownst to us. While our experiences are largely private to individuals, his lessons from mistakes, as well as the leading of the Holy Spirit is public.  If he does present the Gospel, which he claims he does, then I think our criticism of him on this subject should be diligent, but cautious.  We may disagree with his reasoning, philosophy of ministry and many other things that impact when and how, but I have a hard time dismissing this issue when he still does present the Gospel. In fact, in consideration of Rick Warren’s most obvious spiritual gift – that of administration – it is not surprising that he needs some exhortation in this area. No doubt John Piper will be a good impact on him on such a topic since that is Piper’s gift (not that I’m arguing for only one gift per guy, just that these two gifts have the appearance of being their primary gifts, but more on that later). While I don’t know what Warren will say at the conference I seem to think that his gift will come shining through and we who are weak in administration would do well to give a discerning ear.
  5. Finally, I think this situation reminds us that anyone who tries to copy Warren or Piper’s “success” instead of relying on the Holy Spirit has gone wayward. Some of the protestation toward Warren is more against his model as we applaud Desiring God’s model. In many regards, I too am part of this camp, but there is a danger lurking here and that danger is conventional wisdom over and above the Holy Spirit leading us to make our decisions on how to do church. Now, the heart and theology behind Desiring God’s efforts have been God glorifying. But I have to wonder aloud if there haven’t been reformed churches who have modeled themselves after Bethlehem Baptist Church just because of the “success” they have seen John Piper have with it.  This is no more errant than those who model themselves after Saddleback in hopes of having the same results as Rick Warren. But the reality is, as far as I can tell, that both ministries have been wonderful works of God, where the Holy Spirit has decided due to His own pleasure to bless the ministries through the uber-ness of each pastor’s spiritual gift. In fact I can’t think of a pastor who more exemplifies the gift of administration than Rick Warren and I can’t think of a pastor who more exemplifies the gift of exhortation that John Piper.  So then I do not write off Warren’s model for his church, just like I do not write of Piper’s model for his church. What I do write off is either model for your church if the Holy Spirit has not compelled you in such a direction.

So much more could be said. I can think of twenty personal protestations against these very words I write, which should make it clear that I struggle with the topic. I do not think it easy nor do I think we should take it whimsically. I have chosen to make a more general plea for us in the reformed camp to back up and take a breath and consider the integrity of our protestations as presented. I do not question that heart intent behind our argumentation, but am fearful we are assuming too much as we lament this recent development. With that, I hope that this post is full of grace and charity to you, as I have argued we be to Rick Warren.

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