Where Do You Draw Lines for Ministry Partnerships?
Every Christian is faced with hard decisions about who we will (and will not) spiritually associate with. Today we take up the topic and talk about John Piper’s affiliations, whom he hangs out with and why. Pastor John, I know from our private conversations on the Leadership Team here at Desiring God that you have given a lot of thought to this topic of whom you partner with. You let us read a personal document you wrote that lays out your own thinking here. And I was wondering if you could walk us through that thinking on the podcast today.
Over your decades of ministry, how did you decide about how broad your associations would be? I know there are listeners who wrestle with this issue, even if your position as a Christian leader is uniquely different. If you could, for listeners of the podcast, explain those convictions.
What might be most helpful is for me to describe how I have made certain decisions about the degree of unity I expect in the various settings that I’m part of and why I’ve made those decisions. And I should say at the outset that most of these decisions that I’m going to talk about for the next few minutes are not explicitly demanded in the Bible. I believe they’re informed by the Bible; I’ve tried to do it that way. But they’re not the kind of decisions that cause me to say, “Now, everyone should do it this way.”
I’ll mention six kinds of associations over the years with other believers that I faced as expectations for leadership came my way — kinds of togetherness where I had to make decisions about whom I’d hang out with and whom I wouldn’t. As I mention them, think of them as concentric circles moving outward, with the first, most inner circle being the one where I expect the most agreement and the sixth and farthest-out circle where I expect the least agreement in those I’m together with.
1. Elders and Church Staff
So here’s the first one: my elders and staff of the church where I was the lead pastor for 33 years. As much as it lies in my ability, in my power, I’m going to work in that setting for deep and detailed theological unity, as well as ethical unity on biblical convictions on major issues, as well as ministry-philosophy issues — like a strong commitment to world missions, youth ministry that’s not biblically empty fun and games, worship services that are serious joy and not living-room, casual, slapstick, “howdy partner” kinds of gatherings.
The reason for the tightness at the staff and eldership level is that we together are charged to teach this body of believers what is biblically true in doctrine and what is biblically right in behavior, and we need to pull together as an eldership. The less important doctrine is to a pastor, the less he’ll care about this kind of unity.
I’m sometimes appalled at how some pastors say they can have staff that are all over the map theologically. I think that’s possible because his preaching remains distant from the specifics of the text and distant from doctrine. I think this breeds weak churches that become mirrors of the culture sooner or later.
Another reason this kind of philosophical unity and ethos unity is needed among the elders and on the pastoral staff is that we have to make choices that are not specifically prescribed in the Bible. You have to. Will women do the pastoral prayer? Will worship leaders wear torn jeans? Will we encourage coffee in worship? Will the youth bob for apples in a toilet bowl filled with Mello Yello? And a hundred other choices that are not laid down explicitly in the Bible.
“Without a significant ethos and philosophy unity, the conflicts on a church staff can become unlivable.”
And without a significant ethos and philosophical unity, the conflicts on the staff can become unlivable. So it almost goes without saying here — but not quite, so I’ll say it — that with all this theological and ethical and philosophical sameness, unity, I really do want personality diversity and ethnic diversity on the staff and the elders. That’s because my own limitations in personality have to be compensated for in others so that the people are helped by having people of different personalities on the council.
2. Church-Planting Network
Second, a church-planting network that I support and am part of. It’s just the next concentric circle outward. We have one life to live, and we have to make choices about what we think will make the greatest impact for the glory of Christ and the good of the nations. And when I ponder where my church-planting energies should go, my answer has been that I want to plant churches — I want to be a part of that movement — that believe our elder affirmation of faith. So, the Treasuring Christ Together network of churches that has grown up consists of churches whose elders affirm these truths.
“We have one life to live, and we have to make choices about what will make the greatest impact.”
It’s a pretty significant affirmation of faith. It’s the same one we use here at Desiring God. On the other hand, the philosophical and the ethos dimensions are not as tight in my association with those pastors. I don’t have pastoral oversight in those churches, and so I don’t exert that kind of influence, and I’m willing to live with that.
Behind this choice — this measure of unity and diversity at the church-planting level — is the conviction (and I could be wrong about this) that over the long haul of, say, thirty, sixty, one hundred years, the greatest good will come through greater doctrinal faithfulness than through greater numbers of churches that are doctrinally diffuse. That’s a conviction that I’ve operated with. I hope it’s true.
3. My Own Conferences
Third, conferences that I’m responsible for leading. That would include, for example, the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors that I was basically responsible for from 1988 to 2013, as long as I was the pastor there at Bethlehem.
And here, my tolerance level of differences was greater than with the elders and the church planters. And the reason for this is that the people who came to speak at these conferences came with specific assignments, and they didn’t have significant influence in the conference on numerous other issues where there might be some significant differences between us.
Nevertheless, it makes a difference to me what the speakers believe and how they live and lead outside the conference. I would not want to have a speaker who was outspoken and widely influential on issues that I regarded as harmful or unhelpful to the church. But I have invited speakers who were less Calvinistic than I am but who didn’t foreground this.
And my rationale for this wider diversity was that the spirit of wider fellowship with doctrinally serious people, with a manifestly high regard for the inerrancy and preciousness of Scripture, would, in the end, commend the more rigorously biblical-theological vision that I was trying to spread over those thirty years.
In general, I wanted to promote the truth and the beauty of the doctrines of grace and the preciousness of serious, God-centered worship and the radical commitment to a lifestyle of global missions. I looked for people who loved the vision of God that I cherished, even if they did not fully understand it in some cases or replicate it.
And now only God knows whether the strategy that we chose was the most effective, but that’s how we made our choices. And I’m sure I made some mistakes in that process, but you do the best you can.
4. Others’ Conferences
Fourth concentric circle moving out: speaking at other people’s conferences. How do you make decisions there? I’ve experimented on this, being unsure about the implications. In general, I avoided generic conferences that cared little for doctrine, let alone Calvinistic doctrine. I wanted to invest in people and ministries that wanted to advance the importance of biblical Reformed truth, not just vanilla evangelicalism.
A few exceptions I would not repeat would be a leadership conference that I went to where I was followed — you won’t believe this — by an effort to set a new world record on the number of people sitting on whoopee cushions. And there were a few other fiascos like that, which some of our listeners know about.
I tried to balance — and with lots of input from the Desiring God team, like you, Tony — I tried to get input for the downside, the upside of being part of a conference that might not foreground all the truth and method I prefer, versus the upside of speaking the truth I love into a new audience who may not even know who John Piper is.
And I think sometimes, in weighing the pros and cons there, we got it right, and sometimes we didn’t. But that’s how I tried to go about it, anyway, with concentric circle number four here.
5. Debates and Conversations
Here’s number five: participating in debates and conversations, public and private. Now this would include, say, public debates like the one I had with Greg Boyd on open theism, or the one with Sam Storms and Wilson and Hamilton in eschatology. It would include private group gatherings behind closed doors or phone calls with groups to deal with issues. It would include whom I choose to write against or for.
I wrote a whole book against N.T. Wright’s view of justification, and another one against Robert Gundry’s view of imputation, though I hold these men in very high regard for much of their work. So those aren’t always easy calls to make. The only limit I would put on such togetherness in debate or conversation is that it needs to hold out real promise for doing good.
If I thought that my presence with a teacher that I thought taught error — even to debate him — would give an unhelpful prominence to his views that they didn’t already have, I probably would decline just because I didn’t want to foreground or lift up the prominence of his error. I dislike books, by the way, and discussions that give the impression that theological views are like grocery shopping, and you could just choose among many brands of cereal without too much harm. I would not be inclined to be a part of those kinds of discussions or publications.
6. Rallies with Common Cause
Here’s the last, widest concentric circle: events like a pro-life rally, where I and others are asked to pray and, say, give a five-minute meditation. This is as wide, I think, as I’ve ever gone.
It excludes multi-faith prayer services, where the interfaith focus pretty clearly communicates that the participants agree that all these paths to God are legitimate. “Muslim, Hindu, Bahá’í, Jewish, Christian — they’re all the same; let’s just all pray to the same God.” I’ve never been a part of one of those services.
But the pro-life rally does include Roman Catholics who pray and speak alongside me. And I regard Roman Catholicism as a serious, harmful aberration from the true gospel and the true church. And the reason I go is that, in my judgment, fallible as it is, few if any among these hundreds of people think that my presence at this pro-life gathering shows that I am soft on Roman Catholicism. I could be wrong about that, but that was my rationale.
Partnerships with Staying Power
So, wrapping it up. What I think all this comes down to, for me, is making the judgment call about whether a strong, explicit, joyful, Bible-saturated, Reformed, complementarian commitment — shaping and guiding my preaching and speaking and publishing and organizational leadership — whether prioritizing doctrine like that will have the greatest impact for fruitful evangelism, multiplying of healthy churches, reaching of unreached people groups globally, the faithfulness of radical prophetic witness to the culture, earnest love and holiness among God’s people, or whether those aims would be better accomplished in the long run by a more muted doctrinal focus and a bigger tent of partnerships.
That’s been the question for me. And given what I see in the Bible in the foregrounding of truth — in the Bible especially — and what I see in church history, I don’t think doctrinally minimalist movements have the God-centered, Christ-exalting staying power or transformative power that spiritually vital Reformed, complementarian, rigorously biblical movements have.