John Piper has taught me much over the years. I consider it an honor to count him as a friend, and I am deeply saddened by his recent announcement that he will be taking a leave of absence for the remainder of 2010. In explaining his leave of absence, he writes:
The difference between this leave and the sabbatical I took four years ago is that I wrote a book on that sabbatical (What Jesus Demands from the World). In 30 years, I have never let go of the passion for public productivity. In this leave, I intend to let go of all of it. No book-writing. No sermon preparation or preaching. No blogging. No Twitter. No articles. No reports. No papers. And no speaking engagements. There is one stateside exception—the weekend devoted to the Desiring God National Conference combined with the inaugural convocation of Bethlehem College and Seminary in October. Noël thought I should keep three international commitments. Our reasoning is that if she could go along, and if we plan it right, these could be very special times of refreshment together.
As I contemplated Dr. Piper’s words, I could not help but realize that even in what must be a devastating moment for him, he is still teaching those of us who are listening. Here are a few things I hope we all learn:
1. I hope we learn that no man is indispensable, and that that it is the Lord, and not man who can proclaim, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt 16:18).
John Piper is arguably the biggest name in evangelicalism today. He is known throughout the world for his unique gifts and extraordinary mind. He is a modern-day Jonathan Edwards who would never admit as much. Even so, he is not the cause of Bethlehem Baptist Church’s success. That distinction belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ. John Piper is no more than decorated dust, and he knows it (that’s one of the things I love most about him, and one of the reasons his announcement is so surprising). God has used him in amazing ways, but the Lord’s work does not rise and fall with a single man. It never has, and it never will. I hope we learn this lesson over the next eight months.
2. I hope we learn that there are pastors out there who take their calling and qualifications seriously.
How often do we hear about pastors whose marriages and families are in complete shambles, but they hold on to their pulpits? I receive emails frequently with questions like, “my pastor just got a separation from his wife, but he won’t step down... what should I do?” I went to seminary with a pastor who was arrested for having sex with a teenage girl and was in the pulpit the next day. Another pastor here in the Houston area was caught on tape sexually harassing a male staff member, and is still in his pulpit years later in spite of the fact that the vulgar tapes (exposing both his bisexuality and his indecency) were played on the local news (see story here)!
As a result, many people have a bad taste in their mouth when it comes to pastors. Now here comes John Piper who writes:
Noël and I are rock solid in our commitment to each other, and there is no whiff of unfaithfulness on either side. But, as I told the elders, “rock solid” is not always an emotionally satisfying metaphor, especially to a woman. A rock is not the best image of a woman’s tender companion. In other words, the precious garden of my home needs tending. I want to say to Noël that she is precious to me in a way that, at this point in our 41-year pilgrimage, can be said best by stepping back for a season from virtually all public commitments.
That’s right... no adultery, no scandal, just a man who recognizes his need to turn his attention toward home in an effort to live up to his calling as a husband, father and pastor in ways he has not done in the recent past. What an incredible testimony to the rest of us! Moreover, what an incredible testimony to a world that has grown weary of pastoral scandals.
3. I hope we learn that no ministry is as important in a pastor’s life as the ministry of marriage.
For generations, pastors have felt justified (if not obligated) in sacrificing their marriage and family on the altar of ministry. Billy Graham, for example, has been painfully honest about his failures in this area. In one Father’s Day article, he wrote:
Whenever I did get home for a short stay between engagements, I would get a crash course in the agony and ecstasy of parenting. If Ruth had not been convinced that God had called her to fulfill that side of our partnership, and had not resorted constantly to God’s Word for instruction and to His grace for strength, I don’t see how she could have survived.
Franklin was almost six by the time Ned came along. With two boys in the household, my fathering was more urgently needed than ever. Still, sometimes I was away for months at a time (emphasis added).
Unfortunately, since his kids “turned out alright,” people rarely mention this tragic side of Billy Graham’s ministry. Others like Charles Stanley have gone as far as getting divorced (after years of separation) without even missing a stride! And this after telling his congregation in 1995, “If my wife divorces me, I would resign immediately.” (see here)
The message in each of these cases was clear: “Ministry before marriage!” However, John Piper, though he, like many of us, may have fallen victim to this mantra at some point, has here said (about as clearly as a man in his position can say) “Marriage before ministry!” I pray that God not only heals John’s marriage and family; I pray God uses his stance to drive me and others to our knees in humble confession and repentance for any and every instance where we have neglected our first ministry... that of our marriage.
4. I hope we learn that it’s never too late to improve your marriage.
There are people out there who have endured difficulties in their marriages for years. Many have lost any sense of hope that things will get better, or that their spouse could even be willing to try. May this bold and biblical act by John Piper serve to remind us all that God is able to bring about change at any stage in a marriage. John writes:
Personally, I view these months as a kind of relaunch of what I hope will be the most humble, happy, fruitful five years of our 35 years at Bethlehem and 46 years [sic] of marriage. Would you pray with me to that end?
5. I hope we learn that the world loves it when we fail.
When you preach like John Piper does, you make your share of enemies. Unfortunately, many of these enemies will jump at this opportunity to gloat. They sense blood in the water, and they are already starting to circle. (see here and here, for example) I am not arguing that John Piper or anyone else is above criticism (see Tim Challies’s recent blog about John’s decision to invite Rick Warren to this year’s Desiring God conference for an example). However, this goes beyond criticism.
6. I hope we learn that a true plurality of elders is not only biblical; it is also a great blessing.
Men like John Piper are often thought of as “Lone Ranger” types whose name and reputation are so big that no one would dare question or challenge them. However, anyone associated with John’s ministry knows better. First, John is committed to a plurality of elders model of church leadership. Second, the elder body at BBC is a true plurality. John is truly accountable to the elder body (see here). This is a great comfort for those who serve in situations where there is true plurality. However, it should serve as a great warning for the “Lone Ranger” pastor with no one to keep watch over his soul, and no one (with actual authority in his life) to ask him the hard questions.
7. I hope husbands learn to “live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” (1 Pet 3:7)
We mustn’t forget that at the heart of all of this is Noël Piper. At bottom, this is about a man who recognizes the need to “live with his wife in an understanding way...” and his failure at some level to do so. This is about a husband saying to his wife, “There is nothing in my life (other than my walk with Christ) that supersedes my relationship with you... not even my international fame.” Regardless of the outcome, this should be a lesson to us all.
8. I hope we learn the subtle power of pride
The sin to which John refers in his public announcement is pride. He writes:
I asked the elders to consider this leave because of a growing sense that my soul, my marriage, my family, and my ministry-pattern need a reality check from the Holy Spirit... I see several species of pride in my soul that, while they may not rise to the level of disqualifying me for ministry, grieve me, and have taken a toll on my relationship with Noël and others who are dear to me.
Pride is a frightening sin. The Bible is replete with harsh warnings for the proud: “Love the LORD, all you his saints! The LORD preserves the faithful but abundantly repays the one who acts in pride.” (Psa 31:23) “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.” (Prov 11:2) “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Prov 16:18) “ And of course, we all know, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”” (James 4:6; cf. Prov 3:34)
Ironically, John Piper is known as a humble man. In fact, I have characterized him that way myself. Anyone who has spent time with him would probably agree. Nevertheless, his own words reveal how easy it is for pride to take hold, and take its toll even in the life of a quiet, unassuming, deferential man. This should cause those of us in public ministry to tremble.
9. I hope we learn to allow for discretion.
If we are honest, we would have to admit that we all want more information. What are the sins? How long has this gone on? Is there more? These are the bits of information our flesh craves. This is especially true in our facebook, twitter, blogspot, podcast world where we have almost unlimited access to the thoughts, words, and sometimes secrets of celebrities both inside and outside the church. We feel as though we have a right to know. However, we do not. This is a private matter between a man and his wife. He has dealt with this with the elders to whom he is accountable and they have determined that there is no need for information beyond what has been provided.
Reading what a man like John Piper writes, hearing what he says, and getting a glimpse into the way he thinks are all privileges. Reading someone’s blog, however, does not mean we have a relationship with them. And even if we did have a personal relationship with him, that wouldn’t give us the right to intimate details about his marriage. Perhaps there is more to come about the relation of these particular “sins” to his public ministry, but for now this is a marital issue.
My prayer for John and his family is that this time will give them the space they need to heal. Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that the Christian version of “The National Enquirer” will kick in soon enough and we’ll probably have pictures of John above captions claiming that he’s actually an alien from another planet (thus explaining his extraordinary intelligence), and his wife just couldn’t take it anymore.
While this is obviously an exaggeration, I hope it proves to be based on a completely unwarranted fear. However, I doubt it.
10.I hope we learn to “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:12)
I feel sorry for the pastor who heard this news and said, “‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this [struggling pastor].” (Luke 18:11) News like this should cause us all to proclaim along with Paul, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Tim 1:15)