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Listening in the Church

~some concerns, just three years late.

I love John Piper. When I was a struggling and unhappy Christian a few years ago, his book "Desiring God" helped me realize that it's o.k. to be happy. If anything, true joy was essential for my walk with Christ; and as a closet legalist at the time, those words brought sunshine to me in those dark days.

But, there was one incident a few years ago that has bothered me: It was Piper's dealings with Rob Bell.

A few years ago, I heard a report by John Piper on Rob Bell's little book, "Love Wins." Piper tweeted his opinions about the book to his readers, "Farewell, Rob Bell." It got quite a firestorm. Bell's friends, such as Doug Pagitt, thought Piper's quote was meant to cause further division within the church, while many of Piper's friends, such as contributors within the TGC and T4G, praised Piper's succinctness and willingness to stand up to a potential false teacher. At my seminary, Piper's opinion was gold. Many students already condemned Bell as an "extreme emergent and a soon-to-be heretic." We heard that Bell's new book would deny eternal judgment and advocate universalism. Even though the book hadn't been published and at the time and was impossible to read, Piper's quote solidified the conservative culture prior to reading it, and abracadabra: a heretic was beginning to be formed!

Logic? Maybe, not.

What continues to fascinate me about that occurrence years ago, and continues to concern me now, is that Piper never read the book. Rather, he tweeted his thoughts from a book review Justin Taylor made. To make matters more concerning, Justin Taylor never read the book. Rather, Taylor wrote some concerns from a book review that happened to be on a book that wasn't even published.

So, let me get this right:

Piper doesn't read Bell's book
      Rather, Piper reads a blog Justin Taylor wrote about Bell's book.
Taylor doesn't read Bell's book,
      Rather, Justin Taylor reads a book review about the unpublished book and writes his concerns.


Bell is a heretic because Piper heard it from Justin Taylor, who also happened to have not read his book.

Now, it doesn't take a logician to see what's wrong with this argument. Let's make a counterargument to test this kind of validity. If there is a counterargument, we know the argument doesn't work and another one must be developed to validate it's point.

Let's pretend you have a neighbor named Cathy. Now, Cathy has never met you in person.
      But, a few months go by and she happens to hear from her neighbor Phil that you abuse your children.
Your neighbor Phil has also ever met you.
      Rather, Phil knows you're a Christian, and he believes, "All Christians must severely spank their children." So, Phil tells Cathy, "we need to be on high alert because he abuses his children.


You must abuse your children because Cathy heard it from your neighbor Phil, who also happened to have never met you. Therefore, you're an abusive parent.

This was essentially the argument that was posited by Piper and saliently adhered to by T4G, TGC, and my seminary. This is quite concerning.

Do unto others...

Now, we need to ask the question, is this how an argument should be developed in the Christian evangelical community? Most people hearing the report about Cathy and Phil would be upset, and respond by saying, "This is misrepresentation and libel" And if the incident with the neighbor was true, everyone in that community would have a right to get upset at such false slander.

But, here's the problem, I'm sure some people reading this blog are asking, "I get the neighbor part, but why is he bringing in Bell? Is he advocating Bell's book? If he is, Peter must be turning liberal. He should probably be on watchdog list.". . . which is exactly what's wrong with our evangelical insecurity in many conservative communities. It's the same insecurities and reactive behavior that led Piper and Taylor to make assertions without knowing or engaging prior to reading someone. I call it insecure because academics and pastors who cast opinions about books or anyone prior to reading or researching come across as not being secure in their own position. Why? It seems if they were to listen and research prior to positing rhetoric, they'd be showing their own community that the other person won the debate. It's similar to a spouse who continues to de-value their partner's views in a conflict. The spouse feels that if they were to listen, they'd lose their voice and allow the other to win. This cycle happens more than we realize.

But, would listening lead to this conclusion? Church history doesn't indicate this is always the case. The Medieval Church developed a tripartite system: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Grammar involved knowing the terms and the context. Logic involved knowing how the argument was constructed. Rhetoric was the reader's opinion and testing whether the argument works. One was not allowed to go to Rhetoric until the other disciplines were performed. Listening also values human relationships. You may have learned by personal experience that when someone hears you for the first time, it's in that moment you realize where you've been hurt, where you've been wronged, and where you may have hurt others. Listening provides the safety and security to make the problem much easier to handle: "It's the kindness of God that leads to repentance."  I wonder what would happen to our relationship with people "on the other side" of evangelicalism if we listened better. Disagreements? Yes. Bitterness and more division? Yes, but not as much.

Finally, listening is essential to loving others as ourselves. Would Piper appreciate his neighbor making the same argument against him as the argument above? Likely not. But in the same vein, it's always dangerous to cast off a person from a community without engaging them; for if Christ engaged with prostitutes, why not Rob Bell? Unfortunately for Piper and many in his community, those concerns seemed nonexistent at the time.

Again, I greatly admire Piper, and I can't count the number of times his preaching has convicted me of my self-righteousness, my greed, my lust. I also can't count the number of times I've made opinions without considering others, reading them, or engaging them. But if we can't read a book or have a discussion prior to developing an opinion, why offer our own? 

In this matter, it seems it would have been wise to have either read the book or confess we're too weak in our conscience to have read it and do the un-American thing--refrain from speaking our view. "Brothers, we are not professionals." We need people in our churches who will at least inquire prior to speculating. 

Now, a person may respond by saying, "Bell did advocate universalism! Ok, so Piper stated his opinion prior to making it. He was right!" Two responses: there's some question on whether Bell was advocating that view. He denies that he was several times. Also, even if he was does universalism, does rushing toward any opinion prior to understanding or reading someone ever the right thing to do? Going back to the neighbor example about, let's say Phil's report about one neighbor was correct. In fact, if he's that hasty in slandering you, he likely was correct once or twice. But, was he correct about you? In this incident, no. Whether Piper and Taylor were right in this incidence is not the point.  It's whether such hasty cycles within evangelism is ethical, biblical, or kind.

Old dead scholars can still teach us how to listen. 

Sometimes I wish Herman Bavinck was still alive. Bavinck would've had a field day if he'd read many of our tweets, blogs, posts, and conference talks that refuse to ever invite or engage in people from the other side. Maybe because Bavinck came out before Star Wars? But, Bavinck would often know other's opinions so well, that a Roman Catholic priest told me once, "If I need to get a brush up on my own doctrine, I read Bavinck. He knows my views better than I do."
Piper's tweet was over three years ago, but it still bothers me because I don't think many in the church have made inroads in this area. It's like we're afraid to listen. Afraid to engage. I'm hoping the next generation will be like Bavinck: better listeners and better researchers. We need men who can read, men who can wait, men who can listen....Why didn't I mention women? Well, they're often better at listening and my little fiasco is with a bunch of men at this point.    


  1. The fact that you have to add so many qualifiers to your post ( "I like Piper") proves the point.

    Also - you have a blog??! Cool.

  2. Thanks for commenting Sarah. The qualifiers are from Bethany.


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