This post has a been a LONG time coming. Years, in fact. I’ve been concerned by John Piper with increasing alarm as I’ve greater understood exactly what he teaches and just how pervasive it is. He is one of the most popular pastors in the world, and pastors who I respect, respect him. I first thought that I liked his theology and I just took a few issues with some of his conclusions, but as time has gone on I’ve realized there is something deep at the core of what he teaches that is fundamentally flawed to the point it brings death rather than life. And he is by no means alone.
Part of coming to grips with my view of his teaching was coming to grips that I don’t view faith through his lens, and because his lens is so popular, it’s easy to fear being put on the outside. I go to a good Reformed church, and I want to be accepted by my good Reformed community (after all, John Piper is SO reformed he considers himself a 7 point Calvinist!). Am I risking that by questioning the underpinnings of John Piper’s teaching? Maybe, but I know that I’m strong enough now to be honest with myself and others, and I believe that the Gospel itself demands those of us who see error speak up when we feel the message is being perverted. For me, it has come time to heed the words of Martin Luther who said “. . . to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”
I have read many criticisms of John Piper (and made some myself). Any pastor as popular as he is will have his detractors: his views on women, his views on divorce, his views on the sovereignty of God, his views on domestic violence, etc. But I think his true error originates from a deeper place. A darker place. And it’s a place that is becoming pervasive in the church. A place the world sees and has learned to avoid because we are not safe to be around. He is just one such preacher of this lie: that human beings are not valuable.
To prove my point about Piper specifically, I will cite this article that he wrote about self worth. In it, while he admits that people have dignity because they are created in the image of God, he quickly dismissed that point as almost inconsequential (emphasis mine):
The imago dei is that about man which gives him the potential to be redemptively loved by God and to consciously depend in gratitude on God’s mercy. It is cited in unbelievers only in Genesis 9:6 (to justify capital punishment) and James 3:9 (where the implication is that we ought not curse man). It is not an important concept to the writers of Scripture, for they were not nearly so concerned as our age with what inheres in man. They were concerned not with who man was but rather whom he loved, obeyed, lived for. Man was fully man not when he fulfilled or expanded anything inherent in himself but when he ceased making claims for himself and took his refuge in God.
This is a crucial point- how we view human beings is a “launching theology”- so much of what we believe flows from it. In fact, I can think of no more crucial theology in all of scripture than this: that human beings are valuable. Everything hinges on it- it’s not a just a bullet point on the list of our redemptive qualities (to give us “potential” as Piper puts it), but it is the very reason our redemption happened at all. It’s the very reason for justice, for love, for mercy. It’s the reason that our scripture was handed down through men, and the reason for the most distinctive aspect of Christianity among all world religions: the Incarnation. There are many beautiful scripture, but this one remains one of my favorites for this reason:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
(Philippians 2:5-11 ESV)
When Jesus became one of us, he demonstrated something that no imagined deity every would- that we were so valued in our humanity that he chose to become one of us. This cannot be missed. It’s everything. And while Piper might readily agree with his words that we are valued, he is quick to dismiss it as a secondary point in his teaching and wholesale with his conclusions. By the latter, I mean he comes to conclusions that can only make sense if you treat humans as unvalued (for example, the statement “In the New Testament the question about remarriage after divorce is not determined by . . . the ease or difficulty of living as a single parent for the rest of life on earth” that occurs in his position paper on divorce).
Recently, a friend told me he’d be interested to know why I thought people were leaving the church. Well, while I’m far from an expert, I think this is it. I don’t think it’s because of light shows and loud music, and I don’t think it’s for a lack of teaching the Bible. I think it’s a lack of valuing people just as they are. And the popular evangelical Christians making the most noise don’t show that they value people. They value ideas. They value theology. Or they value great music. Or they value social clubs. But when you get right down to it, people will sit in the pews and the church will preach at them that they are worthless. That they are worms who should be grateful for God’s attention. And then, even worse, we’ll show them this hatred. This is terrible and nothing like the way the scripture talks about faith, but it’s part and parcel for modern evangelical Christianity. Wonder why the “liberals” are so hostile to us? I don’t. I’d hate us too.
Many of those who know me know that I think and talk a lot about the church’s response to domestic violence. I probably sound like a broken record to them because I return to the subject so often. But I have come to believe that this issue is a strong indicator that we’ve have some launching theology wrong- that there is a rotten core. Because even the world can see how bad it is when an abused wife goes to a person for help and is asked what her sin is. About how she provoked her husband. And told that whatever she does, she must not leave him. Only perverse minds raised on perverse theology could attribute such council to God, and yet it happens all the time. This is not a problem of a few misguided pastors out of their depth: it’s systemic, and it’s a problem at the root of what we believe, not the fringes. A truly Christian centered theology is going to START with “You are a valuable person, and this is not OK”. But domestic abuse is just one example that speaks to me- the results of placing low value on people show up all over the “ministry” of the church.
I believe the Bible is the only infallible source for truth concerning God’s relationship to man (and vice versa). That being said, sometimes we get away from the scripture and the truth is better proclaimed by the world than the church. Such is the case when Brene Brown delivered her famous Ted Talk on the power of vulnerability.
I’m not saying she’s not a believer, but she certainly arrived at her conclusions from research rather than scripture. And yet, her research bares out exactly how important it is to value people. She says that you can divide folks in to two groups, those who are unhappy and those who are happy, and the clear difference, the ONLY difference, is that the happy people believe they are worthy of love and belonging. Happy people understand that they are valuable. They understand they have the dignity that comes from being created in the Image of God (even if they don’t make the connection that the Image of God is the reason why they are valuable).
Brown lists many things people do to try to achieve love and belonging when they don’t believe they are worth much: over indulging, drug abuse, consumerism. The list goes on. And I think the church has become one more avenue for them try to achieve connection. People hurt for connection, so they come to us. And they hear the John Piper’s of the world tell them to not think much of themselves, and rather think much on God. They don’t establish connection or feel love or belonging. They just feel more of the same. And it might draw people in the way so many unhealthy things do as we try to prop ourselves up and achieve worthiness, but it won’t bring ultimate life.
Because, in the end, a low evaluation of self isn’t the Gospel. People don’t become worthy of love and connection when they accept Christ and enter the fold. Save for the few people among us who make connection impossible (psychopaths and sociopaths), people are already worthy of love and connection just for being humans. The scripture commands us to love widows, orphans, poor, and aliens. Many of these are people not of our tribe, not in the fold. But they are people who God loves, and they are people we should love.
Yes, the Gospel is that there is GREATER life beyond just love and connection within a community: there is ultimate love and connection with God as a son our daughter, adoption into the Kingdom. This is an unbelievable offer that we do not merit and only some receive by grace, but it is not the basis for love and connection. Those are human qualities, not believer qualities.
For too long we’ve listened to false teachers tell us that a low view of ourselves is the viewpoint of scripture. This results in so many distortions that our preaching sounds nothing like the language of scripture, and we don’t even realize it. I can no longer accept this kind of teaching in my life- it’s not Godly and it is not the Gospel. Until John Piper corrects his understanding of the nature of man, he is not worth listening to on any subject. It’s just too critical. I’ve often remarked that his answers about how to deal with domestic violence must mean he’s never actually worked with victims, because if he had and said these sorts of things, it would make him a monster. I still think that’s true, but I also think it’s his low view of human beings that allows him to say what he does. It’s tragic, but it’s a tragedy many are amplifying as they repeat it over and over again, often praising him for his “winsome” style.
We need to do better. We need to be a people that fundamentally view other people as worthy of love and belonging. As image bearers of God. As deserving of justice. Right now, so many people experience church as just another avenue where they can follow a plan to find acceptance, and that’s not what we are here to offer. Telling people who are hurting and in pain “you aren’t worth much” is just going to send them looking for a new drug, because this drug is as ineffective as the last.
We can disagree on a lot of theology. We can even disagree on important topics like gender equality. I might find your views oppressive and you might find mine too lenient. And those are conversations that we need to have- we can learn from one another. But what I will no longer tolerate is this idea that we must debase ourselves to fully magnify God. That isn’t humility (which is a fine quality), but rather asceticism, and asceticism may have the appearance of Godliness, but it has no real power to change us.
What does have power is love. Acceptance. Meeting the broken where they are. Having enough honesty to admit our own brokenness. To build connection with others, understanding we all need it and all crave it, but that we have a better plan than WordPress, Facebook, or Twitter. We have the Kingdom of God on earth. There is no grater institution and no greater plan for humanity then this. Let’s not miss it. Let’s preach it and go crazy with how infectious it can be.
And let the John Pipers of the world catch up when they realize that they’ve had it wrong the whole time.