Audio Transcript

Pastor John, you have a new title at Bethlehem Baptist Church, the church you led for over thirty years. Along with it, there’s a new document to explain your new position within the church, and it’s titled, “Pastor Emeritus: A Covenant Between Bethlehem Baptist Church Council of Elders and John Piper.” Explain for us who wrote this document and why? And what purpose does it serve?

It may be helpful, Tony, to share a few thoughts about the role of a pastor emeritus. This is the title that the elders at Bethlehem have decided to give me as a member of Bethlehem after 33 years as lead pastor for preaching and vision.

What Is an Emeritus?

So what about the term emeritus? What does it mean? *Emeritus is a Latin word referring to “one who has earned his discharge by faithful service.” It is kind of the opposite of a dishonorable discharge in the military.

First Timothy 5:17 says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” Well, I was honored a hundred ways while I was a pastor of Bethlehem, and when the title emeritus was proposed for me, I felt honored again — doubly honored, more than doubly honored. It is a way of honoring this old guy whose ministry you look back on and you say, “I thank God for that.”

Is Retirement Biblical?

So one might ask, “Well, is it even biblical to retire from the eldership?” I think the answer is it is not biblical to lay down ministry and play games till you are dead at 65 or 95. That is the typical American view of retirement, and it strikes me as unbiblical. But it does seem wise and biblically warranted. The priests, for example, stepped aside in the Old Testament when they were 50, not when they were worn out, but when they were 50. It does seem biblically warranted and wise to shift one’s focuses and hand off certain responsibilities.

So my focus has shifted off of pastoral leadership of the church onto leadership in the Bethlehem College and Seminary and at Desiring God. In a real sense — these aren’t elder-like responsibilities — I regard what we are doing right now in “Ask Pastor John” as an extension of the teaching role of my elder qualification.

Why the Title? Three Reasons

So a key question then becomes, “Why produce a document called a covenant between me and the elders of Bethlehem with a list of ministries that I am committed not to do without the explicit permission or the mandate of the new lead pastor?” One good friend of mine said to me when he read it, he said it didn’t sound like it honored me because it had so many limitations on me, like I am a threat or something. So let me put that in perspective and try to help people understand the nature of this animal and this situation.

Here is the first thing: except for the proposal that I be called emeritus, I wrote the whole document. People can read it over at Bethlehem Baptist Church. I just Googled it a little while ago just to see if it works. I typed in “pastor emeritus, John Piper, hope in God,” and boom, it came right up.

So they can read it. We went back and forth tweaking the wording, but virtually everything that is there I proposed and I wrote, except for the paragraph on honoring me with the title emeritus. And I did it for reasons. They are biblical and experiential wise reasons, and here are several.

1. Let leaders lead.

The New Testament has the expectation that duly appointed leaders will lead:

  • Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders.”

  • 1 Thessalonians 5:12 also says, “Respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord.”

  • And 1 Timothy 5:17 says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor.”

Now combine that biblical principle of leaders should lead with the well-known fact of experience that new leadership in an organization can be quickly compromised by well-meaning people who default to treating old leadership as true leadership. Add to that this fact: I led the church for 33 years as the preaching pastor. Imagine. Except for a tiny little handful of older people, every single one of the 5,000 folks who was there when I left the church last year came under my leadership.

I am what they knew as the pastor of Bethlehem. And in that setting, how should people view my role now? Because I love to be a member of the church and serve these ministries that have grown out of the church. This covenant is a way of saying, “John wants the new leadership to lead. He wants to guard against any possibility that his influence would weaken or compromise the new leadership in any way.” The best way to make clear what aspects of ministry I will do without explicit invitation and permission, or not do, is to put it in a covenant.

So this is not the restraint of a power-hungry, older pastor who can’t lay down the reigns, I hope. This is a restraint — it is an expression of the zeal — of that older pastor who is jealous that nobody touch the reigns in the hands of the new leadership, not even inadvertently. Let leaders lead. That is the first reason for a document like this, to protect the new leadership from any compromise.

2. It protects and honors new roles and responsibilities.

Here is the second one. It doesn’t just protect that leadership. It protects and honors my new role as a leader in the seminary and at Desiring God. I have a new full-time job that people need to understand. About three fourths of my time I serve at Desiring God with “Look at the Book,” “Ask Pastor John,” writing blogs, and involvement with the staff. And one fourth of my time, I am with the college and seminary as Chancellor and Professor of Biblical Exegesis.

That is a full-time commitment purpose for this 68-year old guy who has to pace himself a little differently than he did 30 years ago. So the second reason the document is valuable to me and an honor to me is to protect people’s expectations of me in roles that I don’t have anymore and new ones that I do have.

3. The title and document encourage clear communication with the church.

The last thing I would say is that one of the legacies I left at Bethlehem, I hope, and which is preserved, I hope, is the lesson that I learned over the years that clarity and precision and explicitness, especially in writing, is a way of leadership that maximizes accountability, minimizes confusion, minimizes misunderstanding, minimizes selective memory.

And the best way to do that is write things down and make them precise. I believe over the years that habit among our elders has served our people really well. It has served peace. It has served love. It has served accountability. It has served candor and openness. So, I am happy that we produced a document like this.

Bethlehem Is Home

I am loving being back at Bethlehem. I have been there about six weeks now, worshipping and loving every minute of it. I feel honored by the title Pastor Emeritus so that this little event here, “Ask Pastor John,” is legitimate. We can still use the word pastor. I love worshipping with the people.

I am glad there are clear lines of responsibility and that they are drawn up in a document, and I am so eager to see God bless this church, bless Bethlehem College and Seminary, bless Desiring God in the next decade. And if God gives me life, I expect to be right in the thick of it.