On a crisp November night in 2016, I stumbled upon a message from John Piper that changed my theological and ministerial trajectory forever.
I was an eager high school senior with a passion for (what I perceived to be at the time) “Big God” theology. At this point in my life, I had spent a year following Jesus and serving my local church. I had been powerfully converted the summer before despite having grown up in a flagship independent Baptist church in Fort Worth.
It was my earnest and genuine goal to tell as many people as I could about what God had done for me in snatching me from the pit of legalism and dead religion. While I continued to have a cordial relationship with the pastor of this church, I openly admitted that I was grateful that God saved me not only from my sin, but from much of the ruinous theology of the fundamentalist movement.
On that November night, I was walking around praying and thinking on these things when I pulled out my phone and saw the following sermon in one of my podcast feeds: “Helping Each Other Endure to the End.” It is still one that I will listen to whenever I have lost sight of the vision of the ministry to which I believe God has called me.
The sermon was preached by John Piper at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis on Jan. 15, 1984. It is an exposition of Hebrews 3:12-14: “Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.”
Introduction to Bonhoeffer
It was in this sermon that I was first exposed to the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This would eventually lead me to discovering the Bekennende Kirche, the Barmen Declaration, and the works of Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Jürgen Moltmann.
Commenting on Bonhoeffer’s compelling vision for a united Christian community, Piper remarks, “These words about ‘life together’ have the ring of authenticity for us because they were written not at the nerve center of comfort but on the brink. They have the taste of radical commitment that all of us dream about, many of us crave, and only a few pursue.”
It was then that I was firmly convinced that Jesus truly meant what he said and said what he meant.
For the next few years, I imbibed Piper daily. His “Ask Pastor John” podcast, his “Sermon of the Day,” and his “Look at the Book” video series all regularly made their way into my eyes and ears. He even answered one of my questions months before I graduated high school. As time passed, my theological trajectory continued to change ever so slightly with each passing college course, small group or personal discovery. I no longer identified myself as a “Christian Hedonist” or consumed content from DesiringGod, but, in my naïveté, I had a deep respect for “Pastor John.”
Leaving my fundamentalist upbringing for good
Nearly five years have passed since that night, and now one thing has become heart-wrenchingly clear to me: As I slowly drifted away from fundamentalism, John Piper dived in headfirst.
“As I slowly drifted away from fundamentalism, John Piper dived in headfirst.”
In my fundamentalist upbringing, for example, I had been taught that women do not have authority over their own bodies. This was not only a misquotation of Scripture, but a blatant deletion of words from 1 Corinthians 7:4: “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.”
In my fundamentalist upbringing, I had been taught that God intended for all the races to be separate. This could be seen easily in the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 and the Mark of Cain in Genesis 4. And besides, marrying across the races was just asking for trouble! Conspicuously absent from this racial discourse was the Apostle John’s vision of Heaven recorded in Revelation 7:9: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
I learned about American exceptionalism and the “precious foundation” on which our country was built. Psalm 32:12 was cited often: “Blessed is the nation whose god is the LORD.” And yet it would be many years before I finally learned that such exceptionalism was antithetical to the gospel we claimed to believe because, “The LORD detests all the proud of heart” (Proverbs 16:5a). It also seemed particularly convenient that national calls to repentance included expositions on the sinfulness of abortion and homosexuality, but unjust wars, racism and the plundering of the poor and the earth remained unaddressed.
Seeing Piper’s teaching in a new light
I soon felt horror when I learned what Piper infamously said of wives being abused by their husbands. He quipped, “If it’s not requiring her to sin, but simply hurting her, then I think she endures verbal abuse for a season, she endures perhaps being smacked one night.”
“I soon felt horror when I learned what Piper infamously said of wives being abused by their husbands.”
I was shocked when I discovered that Piper does not believe it is biblical and within the confines of “complementarian” theology for a woman to pray or read Scripture in church. This is despite the fact that the Apostle Paul makes provisions for it in 1 Corinthians 11.
I was revulsed when Piper suggested that while “there is something sexually stimulating” about muscular women, “it probably means the sexual encounter that such an image would lead to is something very hasty and volatile, and in the long run unsatisfying.”
Piper’s praise for Jonathan Edwards
So then, I was entirely unsurprised when Piper recently published a 1,200-word apologia of his slaveholding hero, Jonathan Edwards. At the risk of redundancy (or worse, self-plagiarism), I must admit that my assessment of his piece is identical to my previous assessment of similar remarks regarding slaveholders from another Baptist theologian: It is as tone-deaf as it is misguided. It reeks of a paucity in percipience.
Piper writes of Edwards, “No one had lifted my view of God as high as Edwards had. And as far as I could see, this vision of God served to crush my own bent toward self-exaltation. It was unfathomable to me that anyone should think I was being set up by Edwards to have the mind of a slaveholder.”
“Piper’s defense of Edwards is, most fundamentally, an exercise in utilitarian and egoist ethics.”
Truly this statement is, as Piper himself concedes, the epitome of “wishful thinking.” Piper’s defense of Edwards is, most fundamentally, an exercise in utilitarian and egoist ethics. Piper’s justification for his designation of Edwards as a “humble slaveholder” is grounded in Piper’s own personal experiences with the Edwardsian corpus, and not the objective nature of morality and the classical Christian ethical criterion of the inherent goodness of an action.
But you need not take my word for it, for this is Piper’s own admission:
“I do not wish for one of my heroes to be more tarnished than he already is … . Whatever explanation I might give for why Edwards did not see his way clear to the renunciation of slaveowning at his moment in history, one thing I cannot deny: Fifty years of reading and pondering Edwards has been for me more heart-humbling, more Christ-exalting, more God-revering, more Bible-illuminating, more righteousness-beckoning, more prayer-sweetening, more missions-advancing, and more love-deepening than any other author outside the Bible.”
In other words, it cannot possibly be the case that Edwards was as deviant and problematic as our minority brothers and sisters have cried out in reply to his appellation of “Precious Puritan.” Why? Because of John Piper’s personal benefit. The ethical criterion by which we determine the “goodness” of a thing is self.
A philosophy based on personal feelings
This, however, should not come as a surprise, particularly because Piper’s entire philosophy of ministry is inextricably linked to his personal feelings — a “Christian” strain of Hedonism. After all, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Does it bring you spiritual satisfaction? Then it must be good!
“This, however, does not even begin to unearth his theological rot. Piper steps to depths lower than these.”
Par for the course for a Baptist minister, I will shamelessly alliterate this as “Piper’s perennially postmodern pet project.” This, however, does not even begin to unearth his theological rot. Piper steps to depths lower than these.
Piper opines later in the piece, “The New Testament ordered human relationships in Christ in such a way as to transform the master-slave relationship into something so different from ‘owner’ and ‘property’ that what remained was no longer recognizable as slavery in the traditional sense.” And yet, Piper alleges that although the New Testament ethic was “transformative,” it did not “say in so many words, ‘There are no more master-slave relations in the church.’”
Return to the apologists of chattel slavery
Piper has demonstrated grave errors in his theological judgment. Chief among these is that his rhetoric is identical to those of chattel slavery apologists. Because (so goes the argument) an explicit call to abolition never was given in the New Testament, but explicit instructions to masters and slaves do occur in the household codes, slavery is a divine hierarchical relationship that must be righteously ordered.
Piper’s assertion would be cogent were it not for the fact that it is a bald-faced lie. The simple fact of the matter is that the New Testament does, in fact, not only abolish the master-slave distinction in the church, but annihilate it.
“Piper’s assertion would be cogent were it not for the fact that it is a bald-faced lie.”
How Piper’s reasoning stands up to the witness of inspired Scripture is beyond me. The Apostle Paul wrote Galatians 3:28 under the inspiration of the Spirit, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” He, with the authority of the Risen Christ, commanded the Corinthians not to become slaves of men because they were bought at a price (1 Corinthians 7:23). Enslavers were condemned as not according with sound doctrine (1 Timothy 1:10).
But these words do not matter to Piper. One of the great, tragic and lasting ironies of Piper’s ministry is that his voluntaristic view of God and utilitarian ethics are every bit as self-exalting, God-demeaning and theologically myopic as the caricature of Arminianism he claims to reject. I say this as a minister in the broad stream of the Reformed, Evangelical and Baptist traditions.
Unwitting victims of Providence
For Piper, the game is over before it has even begun. His theological assumptions and hermeneutical presuppositions yield a foregone conclusion of hierarchy wherein image-bearing Black and brown human beings and abused women are unwitting victims of Providence. To demand dignity and equality is an affront to the order of a capricious God in whose unstable and whimsical hands we must place our lives.
This is why he believes wives should endure being beaten by their husbands. It is why the slaveholding legacy of his heroes is so insignificant to him. It is why he has defended the new president of Bethlehem College and Seminary, who believes empathy is a sin. And, ultimately, it is why the church he served for all those decades saw his successor resign in the wake of elders accusing him of preaching a social gospel after the death of George Floyd.
His destructive theology is, at present, paying the piper.
Selling his birthright
Like his old friend in Louisville, John Piper has sold his proverbial birthright for a bowl of porridge. Like his hero Jonathan Edwards, his legacy is tainted and his theology is forever compromised by his personal failings. Piper’s abysmal lack of care and empathy will perpetually enjoin him to that ever-growing list of Christian celebrities whose fall will bring immeasurable hurt to innumerable sheep in Christ’s fold.
Tragically, any good a person may derive from his voluminous theological and pastoral contributions is hidden behind an insurmountable pile of double-speak, hypocrisy, compromise, innuendo, inconsistency and incoherence. In the words of Frederick Douglass, Piper’s religion is “the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”
“What started my journey with John Piper has now ended my journey with John Piper.”
What started my journey with John Piper has now ended my journey with John Piper — an intense desire to embody and participate in the presence-mediating, kingdom-furthering and world-renewing redeemed community of Jesus Christ.
Bonhoeffer’s theology has stood the test of time and continues to tower above the pygmies because he understood something Piper has yet to grasp: “So often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to ‘offer’ something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.” All that remains when hierarchy replaces compassion and order replaces empathy is “empty spiritual chatter and clerical condescension which chokes on pious words.”
No truer words have been spoken about Piper’s abysmal finish in Christian ministry. And so, I bid him farewell.
David Bumgardner is known to those attending this year’s SBC annual meeting as “The A/C Guy” because of his moment of fame at a microphone. He is a 22-year-old senior at Texas Baptist College, theologian-in-training, evangelist and content creator from Fort Worth, Texas. He is passionate about gospel-focused theology and Christ-centered expository preaching. He is a member and minister at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, where Dwight McKissic is pastor. Follow him on Twitter @david_bumg.
Of all topics, why did John Piper choose to focus on the propriety of women teaching men? | Opinion by Kate Hanch
Six ways ‘American Gospel’ is small-minded and abusive |Analysis by Rick Pidcock