A Conversation with the Pastors
Desiring God 2006 National Conference
The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World
What follows is a lightly edited transcription of an interview conducted by Justin Taylor on September 29, 2006.
Justin Taylor: Pastor John, in the summer of 2006 you spent two months poring over the commands of Jesus in the Gospels in order to write the book What Jesus Demands from the World. I’m wondering what that amount of time spent with the words of Christ did for your own soul? Was there anything that you learned personally or took away from that time? Were you changed by doing that exercise?
John Piper: First, it’s a devastating thing to expose yourself to five hundred imperatives in the Gospels and dozens and dozens of demands from the One who has all authority in heaven and on earth, because his standards are so radical, going to the root of all your behaviors. Jesus is not concerned with what’s on the outside, but he always is pressing down into the bottom: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 5:20) — their problem was they were whitewashed tombs.
So my preparation for the book was eleven weeks or so of going deeper — having my heart exposed to its anger or impatience or unforgiveness — and clamoring then for the second impression, namely, that the Son of Man came into the world not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). I didn’t come to call the righteous but sinners (Luke 5:32). So you have this radical demand running side by side with these spectacular offers of mercy for those who will be the tax collector and despair of his own righteousness, instead of the Pharisee who is thanking God that he’s worked in him righteousness and he’s going to bank on it at the judgment day (Luke 18:9–14). So there was hope, and there was desolation — and if I understand the Gospels right, that’s the way it’s supposed to happen.
I think the personal effect of this preparation time was to intensify my desire to be in the face of a pluralistic world and to say as publicly and as provocatively as I can that all authority in the universe belongs to Jesus Christ. It doesn’t belong to Muhammed, and it doesn’t belong to any Hindu god. It doesn’t belong to Moses. It belongs to Jesus Christ. And if you don’t bow the knee to him, you will perish. We need to proclaim that God is angry at the whole world. If you don’t obey the Son, the wrath of God rests on you. There’s so much mealy-mouthed hesitancy to talk about the most important things in the world, namely, getting right with a holy God who will crush you forever if you don’t go to the Son that he provided. I came away feeling like I just don’t want to play games anymore. Life is short. I don’t know how long I have. Jesus as he stands forth from the Gospels is spectacularly supreme and beautiful and glorious and tough and tender and worthy and attractive and satisfying. Why wouldn’t you want to give your life to this?
Justin Taylor: All of us here believe in the supremacy of Christ. But there are different views among evangelicals concerning how Christ relates to culture. And Pastor Tim, this next question is for you. You’ve said the relationship of Christians to culture is the current crisis point for the church. Can you flesh out your understanding of the relationship between Christians and culture and the biblical way to influence culture?
Tim Keller: The classic book by Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, lays out five approaches (and I’ve read so many interpretations of the book that I’m not totally sure what a couple of his approaches really represent). But there are five basic approaches: (1) withdraw from culture; (2) fit in with culture; (3) try to take over culture with a certain amount of political force; (4) just evangelize people (so if we change enough people’s lives somehow the culture will change); and (5) the worldview-ish approach (you can’t just convert people; you have to disciple them to think worldview-ishly). One person has said that there is probably both a healthy and an unhealthy version of each one of these five approaches to Christ and culture. So maybe there are ten approaches.
On one end of the spectrum is the Christ against culture approach, which creates a really thick countercultural Christian community. In Minneapolis, Bethlehem Baptist Church should not be just a group of evangelizing, discipling people, but an alternate, diverse city, showing Minneapolis what Minneapolis could look like under the lordship of Christ. And so, on the one hand, I’m real big on that idea of countercultural community — a really thick, different Christian society.
But then somehow, at the other end of the spectrum, there has to be Christ transforming culture — engagement to the rest of the city in service. You can’t just go out there and serve without emphasizing the countercultural aspect, and you can’t just emphasize the countercultural aspect without pressing the idea of service. What do I mean by service? Well, “service” can be defined as serving the needs of your community. Service is saying to the people around you, “We want to make this a good city for everybody to live in, and we’re going to minister out of our difference. So we’re going to give our income and care about the poor. We’re going to be doing these things as a response to Jesus Christ, as he is in us and leading us. But it’s going to benefit everybody. Everybody in the city is going to be benefited by us simply living out what Christ wants us to be.”
The Christ against culture view is usually considered the Anabaptist approach; the other Christ transforming culture view is considered the Reformed approach. But I really think some kind of ReformedAnabaptist approach is necessary — there’s got to be some sort of merging of those two things, and it can’t just be one pasted on top of the other. If you’re countercultural without serving the rest of your city, it’s selfish, and it’s really not Christ. But on the other hand, if you’re just out there serving people without creating these very thick, countercultural communities in which the values inside the community are very different from those outside the community, then in their passion for “justice,” people will simply end up assimilating into the society.
Justin Taylor: So what if serving one group in the community is viewed as antagonistic to another? For example, if you want to serve unborn babies, wouldn’t a lot of people view that as antagonistic too?
Tim Keller: In an article entitled “Soft Difference,” Mirslav Volf points out from 1 Peter 2 that the pagans will glorify God through the good deeds of Christians — but it also assumes Christians will be persecuted too (Volf, “Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter”). And I think Volf is absolutely right in saying that if you live out the life Christ wants you to live, there will always be some overlap with your surrounding culture in which they will admire much of what you do, and they will be very offended by other things you do.
So for example, if you’re in the Middle East, Christian sex ethics are viewed as great. But the Christian approach to forgiveness would be considered stupid. In Manhattan, the Christian approach to forgiveness is wonderful, but the sex ethics are repressive. And so I think Volf is right in saying that wherever you are, if you simply live out your countercultural servant life, part of what you do will be attractive and part of what you do will be offensive, and you have to let the chips fall where they may. You will be a savior to those who are being saved, and you will be a stench to those who are not. So you will be both attractive and repulsive.
Justin Taylor: What about approaches to pop culture? Pastor Mark, you go to movies. You watch TV. You listen to modern music and go to comedy shows. Pastor John — you don’t! So John, how do you stay relevant by mainly avoiding pop culture? And Mark, as you take part in pop culture, how do you stay faithful and transformed rather than being conformed?
Mark Driscoll: I do believe, as Tim alluded to, that the two problems are syncretism and sectarianism. Syncretists go too far; sectarians don’t go far enough. I think Jesus prayed against both in John 17:15: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world [that they would be removed from a lost, dying culture], but that you keep them from the evil one.” And then he goes on in verse 17 to say, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” Jesus is praying for us, that we would be in this world with the people in this world but that we would be tethered to him through Scripture and truth, continually sanctified through Scripture so that we become neither accommodationists nor syncretists. Those who are culturally relevant without being biblically faithful tend to be relevant heretics, and those who are faithful to Scripture and removed from culture can sometimes be irrelevant orthodox; our goal should be relevant orthodoxy, to do like Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9: by all means to take as many opportunities to reach as many people as possible. And I think that is the continual tension of what it means to really be a missionary.
I would respectfully disagree with Niebuhr’s approach to culture because the essence of Christ and Culture is mono-cultural, and we live now in a day of pluralism, diversity, and multi-culture. Not only are there five or ten views of culture; there are also hundreds of cultures and subcultures with their own values, languages, and tribes. As missionaries, how do we incarnate into culture to bring the truth of Jesus to a people group? Whether it’s tattooed Indie rockers or hip-hoppers or orthodox Jews, whatever it might be — how do we do that faithfully? That’s the missiological question.
And that’s where the tension between Christ and culture comes in. There’s the left which says we should just be syncretists and not tethered to Scripture — and there are those who are more sectarian that say we should just stay tethered to Scripture, and buy canned goods, and hope for the rapture so that we could just leave (which is not very missional). The goal is to be like Jesus, who was fully in culture, fully identified with people, went to parties, had friends, participated in customs and such, never sinned, never did go too far, but went as far as he could to speak to people about the need for him and the repentance of sin that he demanded.
In Seattle, the city that I live in, I can’t assume that the culture and the cultures that are there have any biblical mooring whatsoever. So to lose Scripture would be absolutely unfaithful to God, but to not have a way of communicating it effectively would really reduce the forward progress of the gospel, and I want both faithfulness and fruitfulness. That’s always the tension.
John Piper: My short answer is that I think I’m weak and therefore would probably become a carnal person if I plunged more deeply into movies than I do. That’s the first answer: Piper’s weak; he has to steer clear of certain kinds of things in order to maintain his level of intensity.
The second answer is that I think there are common denominators in human beings that are so massive that one can get a lot of mileage out of feeling them very strongly. For example, take the fact that everybody’s going to die. You should try feeling that sometime. Just feel it. Everybody’s going to die. And everybody loves authenticity. Try to feel that and go with that. People generally like to be held in suspense and then have something solved. I read the newspaper, listen to a little bit of NPR, and look at advertisers. I think they’re the ones who study human beings, so I just try to read off what are they doing there. But mainly I’m trying to understand how John Piper ticks. I go deep with my own heart and my own struggles and my own fears and guilt and pride and then figure out how to work on that, and then from the Bible I tell others how they can work on that — and there’s enough connection to be of some use.
Justin Taylor: Let me switch gears a little bit to the whole emerging-church conversation. John, you met recently with Tony Jones, who’s the national coordinator for Emergent, and Doug Pagitt, who is also involved in the leadership of Emergent. Is there anything you can tell us about that meeting or anything that would be helpful to share about your time together with them? And how did it come about?
John Piper: Tony and Doug took the initiative to e-mail me and asked if we’d be interested in meeting with them — I think because they read the blurb on this conference and were ticked off by it!
It was a very profitable time for me. I like these guys, by the way. I like them because I think they’re both hotheads, and I think I am too. That was a personal impression. However, my root sense is that ultimately, for Tony and Doug, committed relationships trump truth. They probably would not like the word “trump” but would rather say that committed relationships are an authentic expression of the gospel, and that to ask, “What is the gospel underneath, supporting the relationships?” is a category mistake. And so I just kind of kept going back on my heels, saying I just don’t understand the way these guys think. There are profound epistemological differences — ways of processing reality — that make the conversation almost impossible, as if we were just kind of going by each other. What is the function of knowledge in transformation? What are the goals of transformation? We seem to differ so much in our worldviews and our ways of knowing that I’m not sure how profitable the conversation was or if we could ever get anywhere.
Therefore I can’t make definitive statements about what they believe about almost anything, except for a few strong statements about certain social agendas in which they would clearly come out of their chair on the hatred of human trafficking or something like that. But as far as their beliefs on certain doctrinal issues, I can’t tell, because as I pushed on them, I could tell that their attitude was: “That’s not what we do. That’s not what we do here. We don’t try to get agreement on the nature of the atonement. That is alienating to friendships to try to do that, so we don’t do that.” And because of that, I say, “Well, I don’t even know where to start with you then.” This shows how different we are, because Galatians 1:8 says, “If we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” And that’s not friendship. Paul insists on establishing the gospel, whether there is a good relationship or not. I came away from our meeting frustrated and wishing it were different but not knowing how to make it different.
Justin Taylor: Mark, you’re in the unique position of having been in both worlds — can you give us a recap of your journey, and how you went from being travel partners with Tony, Doug, and Brian McLaren to being at a Reformed gathering like this?
Mark Driscoll: By the grace of a sovereign God, obviously. I’ll tell you my story briefly. I was raised in an Irish Catholic working-class family. My dad worked to feed five kids by working as a union drywaller until he broke his back hanging drywall. My mom was charismatic Catholic, which I think means you pray in tongues to Mary (I’m not kidding). And so, as I grew up, I didn’t know the Lord. In high school at the age of seventeen I met a beautiful gal, who was a pastor’s daughter. She was the cutest gal I’d ever seen. She’s here with me, my wife. And she said, “I’ll only date a Christian.” I said, “Well, praise the Lord!” And had she said, “I only date cowboys,” I would have said, “Yeehah!” So I started seeing her.
And I kind of thought I was a Christian, because being a Catholic boy I thought that just meant you believed in God and were a good person. Well, I started reading the Bible that she gave me, and in college, at the age of nineteen, God saved me as soon as I started studying Augustine for philosophy and realized that sin is the problem. I didn’t think I was a sinner until I read Augustine and learned that pride was a sin — then I realized I had all kinds of problems. And so God saved me in college. He spoke to me to start a church and to marry Grace and to plant churches and preach the Bible and do the things I’m doing now.
We got married and moved back to Seattle to start a church. I had not been to Bible college. I had not been to seminary. I’m in a city that is one of the least-churched cities in America. I started with a bunch of tattooed, pierced, chain-smoking, Indie rockers for a core group. Good luck taking ten guys committed to anarchy and making them into the foundation of an evangelical church! I started Mars Hill, and it was a really painful experience because I didn’t know what I was doing. So I was looking for someone to talk to, to help me figure out what in the world I had gotten myself into.
I got a call from my friend Bob Buford of Leadership Network, and they were doing this young leader conference. So I ended up going to Mount Hermon, California, to speak at a pastors’ conference. I’d never been to one. I didn’t even know they had such things (I was kind of isolated up there in Seattle). There I spoke on the transition from the modern to postmodern world, and epistemological issues. This was almost a decade ago now. It opened a lot of national doors, and then we started traveling and doing conferences. Leadership Network put a speaking team together, and then they hired Doug Pagitt to oversee that group. As soon as they did, that’s when I started having some friction.
Personally, I hope that Doug would call me a friend, and we do know each other and have had a friendship in years past. But they were looking at things like open theism, female pastors, dropping the inerrancy of Scripture, penal substitutionary atonement, literal hell, those kinds of things. I was strongly evangelical and Reformed but moving toward even deeper Reformed convictions, and so that led to a real breech with where the group was going. Once Brian McLaren was brought on to travel and speak with us, that’s when I hit the eject button, because I just knew that there was going to be a series of fights around the country, and I also knew that I was immature. Sometimes I would get angry and frustrated, curse, and act immaturely. Even in representing my side, I was not doing that well, so I decided to go home and work on my church and grow in my faith and repent of some sin in my own life — so that’s what I did.
Since that time the Emergent movement has spun out of that, separate from Leadership Network. And then, in my church, God has blessed our Acts 29 network. So I guess I broke off very, very, very early on; I was one of the early founders and then broke away from the movement. I find that there are more guys going that direction over some of these same theological issues, moving toward more of a Reformed and evangelical, historical, classic Protestant position.
Justin Taylor: Tim, if you could put on your prophet’s hat for a minute, is the emerging church movement going to be a footnote in the history of evangelicalism, or is it going to be a chapter? Is it going to be more akin to the seeker movement, which clearly wasn’t just a fading fad, but instead has lasted and is still lasting? Or will it simply be replaced in a few years with the next new thing?
Tim Keller: It depends. If you define evangelicalism in a kind of John Stott sort of way — that unlike liberals, evangelicals hold to historic Christian orthodoxy, the authority of the Scripture, the deity of Christ, and so forth; but unlike fundamentalists, they are concerned about social justice and are more engaged in the culture — Stott would say that if you define evangelicalism that way, the seeker movement is inside evangelicalism. Its members would downplay and sort of put some of those cardinal doctrinal issues off to the side, but they don’t deny them, whereas the Emergent church is moving away from that orthodoxy.
I do know that the liberal, mainline church has developed a kind of post-liberal reaction to the older liberalism — you can see it at places like Yale and Duke. It puts more emphasis on the canon. It puts more emphasis on reading the text. The commentaries that come out of this movement don’t tear the book apart but actually try to listen for the text. They don’t believe in inerrancy. They have a very different understanding of truth. They would say that if the interpretive community says this is truth, then this is truth, and so on. Today’s liberal mainline churches have moved away from the mainline older liberalism. It’s less strident in some ways.
I think that in the same way, the emerging church represents a kind of post-conservativism. It’s actually coming out in the very same spot. It’s moving away from evangelical orthodoxy, and it has a lot in common with the post-liberals. In fact, the only difference between the post-conservatives and the post-liberals is what they used to be. The post-liberals used to be in mainline churches; the post-conservatives used to be in evangelical churches; and now they’re coming together. I’m doubtful as to whether those two groups are going to become a cohesive movement, because I think they’re going to have trouble. They don’t have institutions, and I do think you need institutions.
Evangelicalism developed in the United Kingdom and the United States because of certain institutions: a couple of key seminaries laid the groundwork for the movement, and Crusade, InterVarsity, and Navigators raised up the foot soldiers. Because of this, evangelicalism created something different. But I don’t see that in the emerging church — it’s so anti-institutional, so afraid of authority, that I doubt very much that it can create those institutions and become a cohesive movement. There might be some sort of post-liberal/post-conservative theological party that comes together, and I think it could produce writers and lots of books, but I doubt that they’re going to create churches or any strong communities and institutions.
So I see Emergent churches moving away from what we would call “historic evangelicalism” — and no, I don’t think it’s going to be a strong movement. Though ten years from now I may be eating my words!
Justin Taylor: Mark, you’ve said the two hottest theologies today are Reformed theology and Emergent theology. On the Reformed track, why are tattooed, chain-smoking Indie rockers listening to John Piper and Tim Keller? Would you agree these are two of the most influential guys in your network?
Mark Driscoll: Yeah, I think there are a few. Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology has been very helpful. C. J. Mahaney’s influence has loosed up Reformed cessationism a little bit and opened the way for a lot of young guys who don’t mind Reformed theology as long as it’s not hardcore cessationist. They want to raise their hands and sing a little bit and not have anybody call them names. And I think the thing that makes Dr. Keller very appealing is his concept of urban missional engagement. There’s a return among a lot of young people to the city, and there’s a love for the city, and he’s providing a theological-missiological framework that’s very gospel-centric.
Then there’s Dr. Piper’s commitment to the authority of Scripture, the supremacy of Jesus, and just flat-out passion. I think it’s the passion that draws a lot of the young guys, because he seems to have encountered a Jesus that does more than just encourage him or motivate him. He’s inspired by and passionate for the Jesus that he’s met, and that makes people want to know that Jesus. I think that those variables working together — the biblical passion, the urban missiology, and the non-cessationist freedom — are what I would consider the elements of the new Calvinism, I hope. I think they’re good elements — freedom, mission, and Christ-exalting Bible theology — and a good, solid, rigorous place to begin.
Justin Taylor: John, I know that foreign missions are something that’s almost always put on the back burner. With all this talk about North America itself being a mission field and all this talk about contextualization here, do you get concerned that foreign missions and going to people who have never heard the gospel in the first place are getting lost in all our talk about being missional and focusing on cities here in the United States?
John Piper: I would be concerned about that if I saw good evidence of it. I don’t know the Acts 29 movement well enough to know whether those churches that are planted feel that passion. I do get concerned about that, because I think the Great Commission is not anywhere near finished. I think the unreached peoples that are left to be reached are the hardest ones to reach. They tend to be Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist, and they tend to be poorer or very, very hostile. They don’t want you to come, but that’s no excuse for us not to go and proclaim Christ. And so, yes, it’s a big concern.
I think there are two concerns. One is that, in the fascination with reaching Seattle, Christians there might simply be overworked and have no time to think about foreign missions. And why would you want to send away your best to India when there are so many to reach in Seattle? If I were talking with Mark about this issue, I would ask him about that and say, “How are you doing? Are you raising up an army to go to the unreached peoples?”
The second, more subtle concern I have is that I believe the seeker-sensitive way of doing contextualization is having a trickledown effect in missiological contextualization in a very harmful way. And I think it is partly influenced by fear — fear of not succeeding — so that if you go to an Islamic people, and they will not use the term “Son of God” and want to be called Muslim, then you just adjust. You say, “Okay, we won’t call Jesus ‘Son of God,’ and we’ll call you a Muslim follower of Jesus.” And if they want to read the Koran, you say, “Okay, you read the Koran. That’s a good, holy book, but be sure you read the Bible also.” That sounds so chic and American. And so foreign missions can be undermined both ways: (1) just forget that they’re there, or (2) go with a compromised message or a view of contextualization that is driven by fear, because you could get yourself poisoned.
As I read the New Testament and the radical Jesus that we serve, what’s so mind-boggling to me is that some of the main Emergent leaders talk about how Jesus has been domesticated by the church, and they want to recover the “radical Jesus.” In my judgment, the Jesus they’re recovering is not radical. There is no radical Jesus without hell. Everything becomes Milquetoast without the wrath of God. He came into the world to rescue us from the most horrid thing in the world. And once you get that straight, then having your head chopped off is minor. It’s minor because we don’t fear those who can kill the body and after that have nothing more that they can do. Who talks like that today in America? “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). If you strip that away from Jesus, he’s a local guy. He’s just no big deal.
“Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom” (Acts 14:22) — that’s the message that I think will make an army of missionaries go finish this thing. And it will be finished. Jesus said so: “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).
Justin Taylor: Tim, switching gears back to the domestic front. How do you counsel professionals in Manhattan to think about their vocation? It seems to me that there are the two extremes. There’s the secret Christian that nobody at work even knows is a believer, and the other guy who’s always leaving tracts in the bathroom stall. Where’s the middle ground? How can people be appropriately missional at work?
Tim Keller: Generally speaking, I believe that what you want is Christians to think out ways of applying the gospel that are counterintuitive but at the same time attractive to other members of their vocational field. They need to let the gospel shape the way in which they work.
You know, a great example of this is a Christian guy named Mike who came to Redeemer. He got a vision for integrating his faith with his work — he saw an area of the financial world in which he knew that certain companies making major real-estate prices had to rely on a kind of company that gave them information. Mike discovered that most of the people in this field were gouging their customers, because if their customers were more well-informed, they could make better choices. He said, “I could bring some justice and some fairness into a field and still make a ton of money, because if I go out there, and I’m just more honest and open with my customers — explaining that I’m here to serve you instead of use you — everybody is going to come to me.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Within a couple of years, he really made a certain part of the field more transparent. Buyers and sellers know better what’s going on, but he’s still making a ton of money. His company’s grown enormously. And he’s spun off five or six nonprofits to do work in the community. Mike constantly says to everybody, “You don’t have to be a Christian to work in this company, but it is based on Christian principles. You don’t have to be a Christian, but you need to know that we do what we do because of service, honesty, and integrity.” His Christian faith has had a great deal of impact, not only in his company, but also in his field. It’s not just, Oh, I’m doing well in my field and so people are going to listen to my testimony. He has to deal with integrity. There’s got to be some kind of overlap between what he does and his beliefs, and then he’s got an opportunity to speak in a much more organic way about his faith.
Proclaiming Christ in the workplace is complicated. Part of the real problem is that we pastors don’t know the vocational world, and the people in the vocational world don’t know theology. It’s very, very difficult for people to build those kinds of bridges. For example, the first time I experienced this was when a young man who was a soapopera actor became a Christian at Redeemer. He was on the soaps in New York, and he sat down with me right away and started asking me questions. He said, “I’ve become a Christian, and I want to know what you think of method acting?” I said, “What’s method acting?” He says, “Well, in method acting, you don’t act angry; you get angry.” I said, “Well, that doesn’t sound very good. For example, what about lust?” “Yeah,” he says. “Okay. That’s really not very good,” I said. He started asking me all kinds of questions, and I realized I knew nothing about the acting field. He clearly saw there were all sorts of implications of Christianity that had to do with his field. I didn’t know the field; he didn’t know theology. We had to spend a great deal of time. He had to educate me, and I had to educate him.
We ministers don’t like that. We went to seminary! We know all about it. But if you’re going to actually help people integrate faith with their work, they have to educate you as much as you have to educate them. You’re working on it together, and that is very, very different from the way in which I do other kinds of discipling and training. It’s really a very complicated field of discipleship.
More Messages from Desiring God 2006 National Conference
The Supremacy of Christian in a Postmodern World (David Wells)
Truth and the Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World (Voddie Baucham Jr.)
Love and the Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World (D.A. Carson)
The Church and the Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World (Mark Driscoll)