My Thoughts on Piper’s Thoughts on the Tornado and the ELCA

steeple.jpgThis morning John Piper wrote a blog post over at the Desiring God Blog that created a bit of a stir.

No stranger to bold public statements and not one to shy away from comments that may stir controversy, or even, for that matter, public statements of his interpretation of providence, Piper offered his take on what God may have been up to yesterday afternoon when a tornado hit south Minneapolis.

This morning I posted a link to his post on my Facebook page with the comment, “This is chilling,” but then removed it after having some reservations about Piper’s thoughts.  In the meantime, my inbox started to fill with emails from people (mostly NHC folks) wanting to know what I thought of what Piper said.  Well, that was enough to bring me out of blog hiding and write again.  So, here goes (I should hasten to say that my thoughts do not necessarily represent the position of NHC or its pastoral staff or elders):

I don’t think it’s best to pass judgment on Piper’s post as a whole.  As I see it, there are at least three separate issues involved in evaluating what Piper wrote.

1. The statement of biblical truth

Piper is absolutely correct in his stance on homosexuality as being contrary to God’s design for human sexuality, as well as his stance on the grave danger of condoning sin in the name of God.  He writes, “Official church pronouncements that condone the very sins that keep people out of the kingdom of God are evil. They dishonor God, contradict Scripture, and implicitly promote damnation where salvation is freely offered.”  Without a doubt, he is correct here.  What the ELCA is doing is deeply evil because they are condoning something God condemns while claiming that the love of God justifies their actions, as though ‘love’ entails the unquestioning approval of any lifestyle a person happens to find appealing.  Here I cannot fault Piper’s strong words.

2. The wisdom of publicly interpreting providence

This is where I thought Piper began to go off the tracks.  It is one thing to affirm that God hates sin and to affirm that God governs everything in his creation, including weather and the tornado in south Minneapolis in particular.  It is quite another thing to suggest that God sent a tornado into downtown Minneapolis to warn the ELCA against their initiatives.  To be fair, Piper exhibits some caution when he writes, “Let me venture an interpretation of this Providence with some biblical warrant.”  In other words, he’s not claiming that this is what God is surely doing (a la Pat Robertson post-9/11).  Rather he seems to be offering a suggestion as a means to spark reflection.  Moreover, I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad idea to offer tentative interpretations of providence.  We all do it all the time, don’t we?  Think: “I think God was probably showing me through this…,” or “Clearly, God was letting me know through this that…,” or “I know that God was trying to tell me through this that….”

Nevertheless, conclusions about what God is doing in his direction of the natural world when He himself has not given an explanation for the events (as he often has done in the history of redemption) must always remain very, very tentative and represent a very dangerous undertaking because one might publicly ascribe to God thoughts and motives that are not necessarily accurate.  That’s a big wager.  Even if I had made the connection Piper made between the tornado and the ELCA, I think the extent to which I would have made it public would have been saying to my wife, “I wonder if God was….”

3. Awareness of public perception

Should believers tremble to make statements that they know will be unpopular among the general public?  Absolutely not.  We must obey God rather than men.  Should believers soft-peddle to seekers and people who are interested in Jesus but not interested in the hate-mongering that too often has characterized evangelical social and political dialogue?  Not at all.  We should expect our beliefs to cause consternation and stumbling.  Nevertheless, I think there is a place to recognize that we, as evangelicals, have done ourselves no favors in terms of making it clear that we believe homosexuality to be contrary to God’s design for human sexuality and therefore sin and yet we believe far more ardently that those who have chosen homosexual lifestyles bear the Imago Dei, are no worse sinners than we, are not more deeply in need of saving, reconciling grace than we, and ought to receive our love and care just as fervently as any other person we encounter even as we call them to repent and trust in Christ.

Piper should have been more aware, in my opinion, that to the watching world his comments will sound identical (though they are surely not) to Pat Robertson’s unbelievably self-righteous and irresponsible remarks after 9/11.  It’s not Piper’s fault that his remarks will be received that way.  But it’s where we live, and I believe Piper’s remarks will make it even more difficult to win homosexuals to Christ because he has planted unnecessary stumbling blocks that have nothing to do with the gospel of Christ crucified for sinners.

To put it another way: Why this sin?  If the ELCA was considering passing a resolution that allowed ordination for pastors who live in lavish houses and desire to live in comfortable affluence I highly doubt anyone would have made the tornado/ELCA connection even though the Bible speaks far more fiercely and frequently against those who desire to be rich than it does those who choose homosexuality.

That’s my two pennies.

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23 thoughts on “My Thoughts on Piper’s Thoughts on the Tornado and the ELCA”

  1. Thanks for posting a link to Piper’s statement and your response. I hadn’t seen it and am glad I had a chance to read. Matt and I just read it together. Your two pennies were well-articulated and helpful. Your last paragraph especially poignant.

    I might just have to read your stuff more often!

  2. Bryan,

    Let me kick this off by saying it is very, VERY rare that I venture to offer any kind of commendation to folks expressing their religious views. As an atheist, I find the chances are rare to find any sort of actual common ground from which a calm, rational discussion with someone arguing from a position of faith. By and large, if I don’t hate what is being said, I don’t bring it up.

    That said, I read your response to the John Piper blog post, and I have to say thanks for saying this:

    “To put it another way: Why this sin? If the ELCA was considering passing a resolution that allowed ordination for pastors who live in lavish houses and desire to live in comfortable affluence I highly doubt anyone would have made the tornado/ELCA connection even though the Bible speaks far more fiercely and frequently against those who desire to be rich than it does those who choose homosexuality.”

    My laundry list of complaints about Christianity is long, and you deftly brought up a discussion point I’d like to see more people of faith (particularly those so obsessed by the “sins” of others) having.

    Good job, Mookie.

  3. Bryan,
    I’ll keep my comments out of public view. 🙂 I thought you did a good job in analyzing Piper’s comments on the tornado.

  4. To put it another way: Why this sin? If the ELCA was considering passing a resolution that allowed ordination for pastors who live in lavish houses and desire to live in comfortable affluence I highly doubt anyone would have made the tornado/ELCA connection even though the Bible speaks far more fiercely and frequently against those who desire to be rich than it does those who choose homosexuality.

    Cause this is about the only sin that denominations are falling over themselves to enshrine into their constitutions. Sure, plenty of churches live out a materialistic worldview, but few if any actually have the audacity to put that into writing (perhaps the prosperity gospel folks qualify as an exception, but I know Piper has taken them on with guns blazing in the past and would have readily done so had a gale swept Benny Hinn away).

    That said, I thought Piper did a wonderful job of making his post not so much about homosexuality but about all sin. I count at least a half dozen spots where he made an explicit effort to equate homosexuality with other sins. I guess I’m not sure what else he could do. Those who want to hear him say “God hates gays” will hear it no matter what he actually says.

    Piper could have said something to the effect of “This is one possible interpretation of the tornado, but God may have had a half dozen reasons for it (and probably did), and maybe none of them included my thoughts. But maybe one of them did…”

  5. Anonymous,

    Thanks. I take your thanks as highly as the rarity with which you offer them to folks expressing their religious views warrants. That was kind of you.

    I suspect that many of the complaints on your laundry list are valid. I often find myself in the same biblical and theological camp as people I don’t like very much (!) because they have the same convictions I do about how Scripture addresses certain issues, but they go about expressing and living out those convictions in ways I think are deeply loveless, proud and self-righteous. We need to do better. We need to look more like the one we say we follow.

    Obviously, it would be ridiculous of me to apologize for Christians. But I can tell you that I’ll continue to urge people in the community I serve to hold up mirrors before they point fingers. Or, as Jesus would say, to take the log out of our own eye before attempting to remove the speck from someone else’s.

  6. As a related note, PB, have you recently seen Tony Jones’ blog on Beliefnet? This week’s posts have been particularly disheartening for anyone who was hoping that there might still be a glimmer of hope for the Emergent Church.

  7. Darius,

    I could be wrong, but my sense (mainly from the blogosphere) is that Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt are increasingly coming to be seen to be on the far-left fringe of the emerging movement even by those within the movement, such as Scot McKnight.

    While Jones is leading people astray, I’m not entirely displeased with the direction he’s going because I think he’s slowly backing himself up to the edge of a cliff and I think he’s going to walk off and become an entirely irrelevant voice sooner rather than later.

  8. Darius,

    I think you’re missing my point. I don’t think enshrinement of sin in a document is the main issue.

    At the EFCA National Conference this year we had a room full of pastors many of whom are living in open, public sin (e.g. excessive wealth, gluttony [we have a LOT of big pastors], self-aggrandizement) – not to mention all the EFCA pastors (55%, if I’m not mistaken) who admit to viewing porn regularly. And despite all of that the EFCA endorses the ministry of all these men.

    So, why wouldn’t God be much quicker to send a tornado our way? Why would he be more inclined to send one toward the people endorsing homosexuality?

    1. Brother – You are so right here….which I think is the point of Luke 13. And I think JP was trying to say this – it is for them to repent and for us. I love JP too, and maybe he should be careful. I can’t imagine having every sentence I wrote analyzed the way this one has. This is one of the first times I agree with some of what Greg Boyd wrote (who responded) on this (as you seem to do as well).

  9. Just read your post.  Wow.  I’m so thankful for what you wrote.  Really.  And thank you, so much, for affirming that those practicing homosexuality are no greater sinners than ourselves.  I have a couple very close friends at work – mainly my boss – who have been so burned by the church’s condemnation that they tremble at the very word “church.”

    Anyway, thank you for chiming in and responding to the many who, I’m sure, are coming to you with all these questions.

    You’re the man.

  10. PB, I think the difference (besides the obvious “homosexuality is their sin versus looking at any of ours“, which may in fact be the main reason for many Christians and something Jerry Bridges focuses on well) is between explicit support of sin and implicit support of it. The ELCA wants to explicitly support the ordination of homosexual pastors and deny the view that sexual orientation hurts anyone’s spiritual condition. Meanwhile, while no less sinful (perhaps in some cases, even more dangerous), evangelical pastors implicitly denying the Bible by their lives is more a case of remaining sin in them. Most of them would never preach a message claiming that gluttony is next to godliness. In fact, probably a good number of them would admit to wishing they were more self-controlled when it came to food (or whatever). That’s true for all Christians, we all have areas where we would like to be more godly.

  11. I really appreciate you taking the time to write this, Bryan.
    I don’t share all of your religious views, but thank you nonetheless.

  12. The tornado may have had no relation to what was going on inside the convention center… but very odd coincidences and the fact that the weathermen STILL have yet to figure out where it came from or even classify it seems to point to a possible correlation.

    Either way, I know a few Lutherans who took it as a message… of course, it’s probably all the wrong Lutherans. The ones who needed to take heed are blind and deaf to the prods of God.

  13. Here’s a quote that sums up my feelings on the matter quite well (I’ve heard it in several different forms): “I am still uncomfortable with Piper’s conclusion. But I’m more uncomfortable with those whose theology doesn’t even allow for such an act of God if He so chose.”

    The danger in this case seems to be more from the anti-supernaturalism crowd that scoffs at the idea that God would send a tornado to get the Church’s attention.

  14. You are about this point:

    “If the ELCA was considering passing a resolution that allowed ordination for pastors who live in lavish houses and desire to live in comfortable affluence I highly doubt anyone would have made the tornado/ELCA connection even though the Bible speaks far more fiercely and frequently against those who desire to be rich than it does those who choose homosexuality.”

    There would be plenty of Christians taking severe notice of any church organization that was having a conference that would focus on pushing for the acceptance – celebration even – of pastors or members who take “pride” in their love of money and claim that it is not sinful because, perhaps, times are different now and so many other people have money now and so God is okay with us loving money.

    Look at how many Christians (and non-Christians) are outraged by the prosperity Gospel today.

    We certainly would make a connection between a strange, unexpected tornado hitting a downtown that’s never seen a tornado right at the location where this conference was being held right at the same time this issue was being proposed…

    It’s one thing to be tempted by sin and fail…it’s another thing to throw annual parades and give God the middle-finger about a sin.

  15. I haven’t read your blog in some time so WOW! Big topic. I think what has made the biggest impression on me is my own reactions, thoughts and emotions. My initial reaction to your response, to JP’s blog and to the comments – and then how those emotions, thoughts and reactions changed. The topic of homosexuality is more visceral to me than I think it ought to be. It seems like I get more worked up when I am left with the impression that there is one team having a pep rally in favor of something that goes against my Biblical views, so I feel the need to throw my own pep rally. But it is more than that, what is it about this particular topic that seems so threatening to me (and, obviously others)? I should view it no differently than I do any other sin.
    Secondly, we are not one Church, we should be, but we are not. This makes it particularly difficult to self-regulate. What we do have in common is GOD and HIS WORD and when one of us stands up and says that what the Bible says is not true, we have an obligation to hold them accountable. I do not speak for GOD, but I will defend HIS WORD. But I must not let my passion for CHRIST and HIS WORD be twisted into hatred for people – sin yes, but not sinner. For if sinners are the enemy, then we have met the enemy and he is us. So I must put my anger where it belongs, the sin. And that does not just apply to homosexuals, but to the ELCA as well. That’s tough. I talk a better game than I play, but I am working on it.
    Lastly, I agree with PB, if you are a major Christian figure with a wide audience you should be especially careful when publicly interpreting the intent of GOD. Even the Pope rarely speaks “ex cathedra”. The Bible is clear about the consequences of prophesying, so it is certainly not something I would do lightly. I think that I would not stand too closely to JP – lest the lightning strike. Having said that, if I were attending the ELCA conference at the time, it would most certainly give me pause to think if, just maybe, the writing was on the wall…

  16. Denny Burk nailed it: “Piper is merely applying Jesus’ words about calamities to a current calamity. Jesus did in fact teach that God uses seemingly random calamities to remind all of us of our need for repentance. That truth applies to John Piper’s cancer three years ago, it applies to Denny Burk’s car accident last November, and it applies to Lutherans meeting in Minneapolis this week. As Piper said in the original article, the warning applies to “all of us.” That truth should not be controversial among evangelicals. God help us that it is.”

  17. “Cause this is about the only sin that denominations are falling over themselves to enshrine into their constitutions. Sure, plenty of churches live out a materialistic worldview, but few if any actually have the audacity to put that into writing (perhaps the prosperity gospel folks qualify as an exception, but I know Piper has taken them on with guns blazing in the past and would have readily done so had a gale swept Benny Hinn away).”

    I agree totally. I have thought this to be true of American itself. We have never been a perfect country, but our laws and public behavior was in accordance with the scriptures. Now our country like the ELCA is not only doing wrong but sanctifying it.

    It is equally wrong to say that God has to always demonstrate His wrath. If that was so we would all be dead. Since tornadoes are not common in that area, one would be hard press to it is just an ordinary occurrence.

  18. Great post PB, similarly to others, the last paragraph was very important. Why this sin? I do kind of cringe when I see someone like John Hagee going into depth on the sin of homosexuality when I can picture him at the buffet after church in a form of slavery to the prime rib station!! I don’t hear him railing against gluttony. A simple metaphor really helped me recently: A friend and I take a college exam, perfect score 100, passing grade 70. I get a 60 he gets a 40. Does my score make me better? No…we both failed. This is how God views us (Romans 3:23). Who is worse in God’s eyes? The homosexual in the pew or the man with the judgemental spirit sitting next to him?

    I believe that those who struggle against sin, seek to be obedient, have victory and failure but always strive with a proper posture of the heart, directed towards God, ultimately please Him. The enshrinement of sin into official church policy cannot but anger God, especially when it comes from church leadership.

    The bottom line for someone as bold as Piper, is that Biblical principle and ‘postmodern’ culture are moving in opposite directions. As time goes on, ANY attempt to frame ANY issue Biblically is going to seem foolish, preposterous, and even dangerous by our secular culture. I belive we are blessed when we speak truth and the world despises us for it. Easier said than done.

  19. ….I love the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke: The pharisee prays and thanks God that he is not an adulterer, extortionist, thief or murderer, and tells God that he tithes and fasts. Essentially saying “thank you God that I am not like THEM.” The tax collector beats his chest and prays “Lord be merciful to me a sinner”. Jesus says the tax collector is justified in God’s sight.

    We do need to realize that just as Christ would love the homosexual and probably hang out with him, he would call him to repentance. He would also and equally tongue lash those whose self-righteousness makes them blind to their own sin.

  20. We left the ELCA a couple years ago during the process which was clearly leading to the “support homosexual lifestyles in pastors” vote. We saw the “storm” coming. My parents attended some of the ELCA conferences and heard comments while waiting in line to eat about once these older people who are resisiting the change die, the way will be made clear for gays as role models in the church.

    All are sinners, yes. But holding up these lifestyles as pastoral examples, as acceptable choices for our youth, does not equate with a pastor liking to play an “expensive” sport like golf, or buying a boat or owning a nice home.

    You’ve played that “rich vs. poor” card. But God came that we might have life abundantly. Having material blessings is not forbidden if one is generous.

    Who is to say what material blessings are “too much” for another person? One man lives simply, shares, yet saves $100. Another spends $99 on expensive hobbies, gives $1 to charity, and ends up with nothing. The frugal one has accumulated more. So, is he more of a sinner? Supporting the gay lifestyle is something entirely different, clearly not condoned by scripture.

  21. Gang, the “spectacular” nature of Piper’s comments can *only* be considered interesting if he believed that God did not usually control random or natural events like tornadoes (or sunny days or fog or mountain goats foraging).

    But his brand of hard Calvinism doesn’t leave room for such spectacular (i.e. unusual, uncommon, interesting because it’s different) pronouncements. I would posit that Piper was being mundane, though loud, in his blog post. Yelling, “I AM BREATHING NOW.” is the Calvinistic equivalent to “GOD MADE THE TORNADO HIT THERE”.

    meh and uninteresting. The real question is why did Piper say it? What was his motivation? Of course we can always answer that God made him do it.

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