Tuesday, December 15, 2015

John Piper: Jesus ≠ Organized Religion

Anyone who knows me knows I like John Piper. Quite a lot. I appreciate his scholarship, his passion and his earnestness. When he is talking about the sovereignty of God or about missions or any number of other topics he is usually right on the money. However he seems to suffer from the same malady that afflicts so many other leaders of institutional churches, namely he can't seem to envision the visible church as anything other than some form of organized religion that is based in Western culture rather than Scripture. My latest rant stems from an "Ask Pastor John" segment: "I will not leave Jesus - But I'm done with the church". Here is the question:
Pastor John, what would you say to this: “I’m not walking away from Jesus, but I am done with the church. I can’t trust the leadership. I held a certain leader in high esteem. So I am not going to walk away from Jesus, but I am done with the organized aspect of church life.”
Piper answers with this single sentence initially:

If you do that, you are walking away from Jesus.

Let me stop right there before going on to the rest of his answer. His response is that Jesus and organized religion are one and the same so if you walk away from organized religion you no longer have Jesus. You can't have Jesus without organized religion. His answer betrays a very superficial sort of response. Of course you can't have Jesus without organized religion because that is how we have always done it! Organized religion provides a means of controlling people, if you don't get in line with organized religion, you don't get Jesus. Let me put it another way: What Piper is suggesting is a Protestant version of the Mass where the clergy were the gatekeepers of access for the average person to Jesus. Piper and so many other like Kevin DeYoung and company have simply replaced the Roman priesthood with the religious structure we call the local church. In place of the priest and the Eucharist you have the pastor and the organization. In other words according to Piper you as a Christian are not permitted to come confidently before the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16) unless you do so in the form of organized religion.

I am not saying one cannot encounter the living Christ in an organized religious setting. I did and often do as do countless other Christians. I recognize that Christ is bigger than modes of gathering. What John Piper seems to be saying is "No, you cannot have Jesus outside of organized religion." and that my friends is not correct. Piper goes on:
Here is the reason: To say, “I love Jesus, but I don’t submit to his word” is a lie. “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word” (John 14:23). Jesus founded the church. I didn’t. Paul didn’t. Jesus founded the church. He established apostles to be — according to Ephesians 2:20 — the foundation of the church. And then he built it with prophets and teachers and pastors and ordained that there be a structure of local churches in the body of Christ called the church.
Piper here undermines his own argument. What did Jesus found? He founded THE CHURCH. What did Jesus not found? Organized religion. In a few months Together for the Gospel will convene with the theme of Protest, protest against Rome and yet ironically we have John Piper and others who will be speaking on that topic affirming the sort of clerical barrier to Christ that Rome used to fleece the poor for centuries.

Notice the last sentence. He sort of slips in there that Jesus "ordained that there be a structure of local churches". Except that He didn't. The church under the apostles as described in Scripture is very much not given specifics and it certainly doesn't demonstrate any of the common attributes we see in organized religion. There was no professional clerical class that lived off the offerings of the church. There wasn't an infrequent, ritualistic rite of "communion", instead the church gathered to share meals. The gathering wasn't focused around a monologue sermon. The church didn't take up an offering that was primarily used to ensure a comfortable place for Christians to sit passively and largely mutely week after week. What we know of the local church gathering under the authority of the apostles was that it was participatory (1 Cor 14:26), often centered around a meal and was focused on equipping the church for the work of ministry, which included taking up offerings to aid the poor (1 Cor 16:2-3), not pay the staff. Pastors weren't there to be permanent employees of the church, they were there to equip newer Christians (Eph 4:11-14). In fact I would say quite firmly that cultural, linguistic and technological differences aside, the apostles would have no idea what was going on in most organized religious "worship services". Let's continue:
This is not man’s idea. There are a lot of young evangelicals who are cool, hip, and leftward-leaning who think they can substitute something for organized church. Well, I would have to look at what they are substituting and say: Are you really just creating church, trying to create church? If you are trying to create church, just create it biblically. Start a biblical church. And that means listening to your Master and his word and his apostles.
Actually most of what we do in organized religious settings is precisely what he says it is not, namely man's idea. Then we get to perhaps the clumsiest of his arguments, the old "if you disagree you must be one of dem lib'rals!". Would anyone read what I post here and have posted here for years and mistake me for some who aspires to be " cool, hip, and leftward-leaning "? I am many things but cool, hip, and leftward-leaning are three things I am not and it says a lot about the weakness of an argument that the liberal hipster strawman is summoned forth. Sadly after that ham-fisted statement he gets to what is the first real concern, namely is what is replacing organized religion based in the Bible? That is what we should be concerned with, not with defending our pet model of church. He has an important point here, one that needs to be explored because believe me it is a serious concern that I have expressed many times but by this point he has likely lost anyone who is looking for a real answer other than "No organized religion, no Jesus". His final paragraph: 
So the choice of Jesus over church implies a choice of your opinion over the Bible, because the Bible is where we meet Jesus. You can’t make Jesus up. You can’t make him up. He is the Jesus of the Bible or he is the Jesus of your imagination. If he is the Jesus of the Bible, you take the whole Jesus. You can’t carve him up in pieces. And the whole Jesus is the Jesus who loves the church. He died for the church.
Again, JESUS DIED FOR THE CHURCH. He DID NOT die for organized religion. He did not leave marching orders for the church to form self-contained, competing local gatherings where people get a religious fix for an hour or two a week in relative anonymity while watching a performance by a paid professional. Jesus didn't die so you can get out of hell and in return all you need to do is subsidize a weekly sermon or as I describe it "Show up, shut up and pay up". 

No one I know of that is honestly questioning organized religion is choosing Jesus over the church or vice versa or any such nonsense. They are simply asking if organized religion is what Jesus wanted and what best manifests the family of God. They ask because most of them love the church. Jesus loves the church. Jesus died for the church. I love the church and want to see her healthy and prepared for an uncertain future. Clinging to organized religion as the gatekeeper of my access to Jesus is unbiblical and unhealthy. Arguments like this one from Piper do a disservice not only to genuine seekers who are asking legitimate questions but to those who are rightly fed up with organized religion and see in Piper's statements reinforcement for being fed up.

The church is called to love one another, love our neighbor, love our enemy and above all love our God. It is not called to trudge along in organized religion because we lack the vision and indeed the courage to question the structures others have left in place for us. John Piper has done himself and the church a disservice by his flippant response to a serious question. I thought better and expected more of him.


Aussie John said...


"I love the church and want to see her healthy and prepared for an uncertain future. Clinging to organized religion as the gatekeeper of my access to Jesus is unbiblical and unhealthy."


Dwight Gingrich said...

Your post reminds me of some words I quoted in my last post, words written by Everett Ferguson:

"The person of Jesus is more attractive than those who claim to follow him are. But… one cannot have Jesus without the church. We hope to show that Christ or the church is a false alternative… To emphasize Christ is to make his church important...

"Perhaps the problem for many has been in taking the church too much in an institutional sense and not sufficiently in terms of a people, a redeemed community... The church may often have been presented in such a way as to obscure Christ."

That's all I posted on that topic in my post, but you can find the rest of the post here if you want to hear more from Ferguson: http://dwightgingrich.com/church-of-christ-ferguson-1-introduction/