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John Piper and an 'upper-middle-class' emerging church

UPDATE: John Piper announced his time off from ministry 2 days after this post. Bad timing on my part. See my follow-up post also - Cutting John Piper some slack on the emerging church.

ORIGINAL: John Piper is a well respected pastor and teacher so his words on the emerging church this week are creating some discussion. Michael Krahn asks if John Piper's new definition of the emerging church as an "upper-middle-class, white departure from orthodoxy" is correct. My two cents.

john piper


The EC leaders John Piper has met are, most likely, upper-middle-class people with Seminary degrees and salaries and mortgages and new cars so I can see why he would say that. But in fact the opposite is true, esp. when you look at the global movement, and I find the statement quite insulting to the many EC leaders who have given up their comfortable salaried pastoral positions in the traditional church (like I did) for the downwardly mobile lifestyle of ministry among the postmodern generation and in new forms of church where a salary is unheard of and probably not even considered. Most EC leaders cannot afford to attend Seminary, and nor can they get time off from their job at Starbucks to attend Christian conferences where people like John Piper and the upper-middle-class tiny minority of EC hang out.

Has the emerging church movement, as popularized by the American publishing industry and Christian conference business, degenerated from a grass-roots renewal movement, reforming voice, missional conscience and sustainable church planting movement to a theological discussion for upper-middle-class Seminary grads with too much time? Well, thats another question.


Perhaps in Minneapolis where John Piper hangs out there is a lot of white people [SHOUT OUT TO SCANDANAVIANS . . . YEAHHHHH!!!!!] representing the emerging church and coming across John Piper's path. I dont know. But from what I have observed, the EC movement in each country and region generally reflects the ethnicity of that region. Sometimes, quite unusually - like the case in Japan - the newly emerging church is more contextual and national, and less international, compared to the traditional churches that often attract foreigners and missionaries looking for something like back home in the Bible belt. I was just talking recently with the emerging church leaders in Brazil and guess what . . . they are all Brazilian and not white. But the challenge for them is more cultural than ethnic. Likewise in the USA, the real challenge as I see it is not the multi-ethnic shift but rather the multi-cultural shift which is far more difficult.


Well, as John Piper correctly observers, the EC is a "constellation" and inside this diverse world there are plenty of people in all theological camps and certainly enough heretics among which one can find a worthy Emerging Church Patsy, whose downfall might threaten the whole movement [not likely]. But something bigger is going on. What has been defined as "orthodoxy" is being challenged by a new generation with a new approach and a new mindset. And although a particular man-made doctrinal construction may have been considered as "orthodox" by one generation, it will need to be reestablished by the next if it is to regain and maintain credibility and usage.


The idea of "imputed righteousness", championed by John Piper in his recent writings, in particular, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright, was undisputed as orthodox evangelical doctrine when I was younger. Dang - we even sang songs like

"I am covered over by the robe of righteousness that Jesus gives to me. . . . When he looks at me He sees not what I used to be but he sees Jesus".

We didnt think twice about it. It was just assumed that the church had always believed that the moral righteousness of Christ is somehow transferred over to us, or imputed in us, creating a righteousness cloud that blinds God to our past discretions.

But now this doctrine is under question, along with some other doctrinal discussions in the EC world, and is creating ripples as a new generation tries to re-source (see D.H. Williams for how I understand that term) its Christianity with the wider and longer history of God's people and as it tries to square the doctrine handed over to it with the biblical revelation. Sometimes there is a conflict between the two.

New questions arise. For example, If the idea of "imputed righteousness" is so central, why is it not mentioned explicitly in the Bible. Tom Wright asks this question in his book 'Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision, which attempts to give some answers to John Piper's challenges. I found Tom Wright's book to be more compelling than Piper's book on the subject of righteousness and Paul, although both books are excellent and represent sound scholarship and teaching. Wright suggests that the idea of "imputed righteousness" is not what Paul was getting at in his writings. Rather, according to Wright and a lot of EC folk who agree with him, Paul sees justification as a legal declaration of the accused being in the right because of Christ's finished work on the cross, but not a transfer of moral righteousness.

Last year I predicted that the EC would lean towards Wright rather than Piper on this issue. That was probably a no-brainer. But the conversation continues and it involves new questions - not "Is this doctrine orthodox or not?" but perhaps "What was Paul thinking when he wrote what he wrote?" and "How has the church through the ages understood that passage?" and "How does that verse or passage fit with the wider sweep of Scripture [including the Old Testament of course]?" and "What kind of theological/eschatological thinking were the intended readers getting into at the time that would impact their understanding of this passage?"


I hope John Piper will see this NOT as a "minimizing" of doctrine but instead as an opportunity for more doctrinal conversation with the Emerging Church leaders [and the many who have graduated from this term] and are casting doubt on other recent doctrines particular to the Western European mindset, but still stand for the missional, biblical, Trinitarian emphasis that has undergirded it over these past two decades.

Interested in this conversation? Take a look at my friend Andrew Perriman's thoughts on Piper's "imputed righeousness" on his blog, entitled "Open Source Theology: Collaborative Theology for the Emerging Church". Also read his response to Tom Wright's book on this issue. While it is true that some doctrines are pushed to the back and others are brought forward, in response to a changing world, I would argue that EC leaders do not "minimize doctrine" in general, but in fact are very interested in doctrine, even the doctrine of John Piper. BUT a narrative understanding of God's revelation rather than a focus on our many recently-created theological terms, will create a new set of questions and assumptions.

Related on TSK:

John Piper in a Postmodern World,

When the darkness will not lift, by John Piper,

John Piper and the Desiring God Conference.