Fiery preacher leaving pulpit, but this won't be his last word

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 29, 2012 - 10:48 PM

John Piper will still be warning sinners, just not as Bethlehem Baptist pastor.

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Bethlehem Baptist Church Pastor John Piper

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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John Piper will not be in the pulpit, promising God's judgment against sinners, for much longer.

After more than 30 years as senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, the fiery preacher of hardline biblical values is retooling his priorities.

But he won't go quietly into retirement. At 66, he still has the passion to write books, preach and tour the country with his Desiring God ministry, just not so much for the day-to-day duties of running a megachurch with close to 5,000 weekly attendees.

"I have ... a limited amount of energy, and I want it to go toward reading, writing, preaching but not organizational efforts at meetings," Piper said in a recent interview.

A prominent theologian and author of dozens of books, Piper is considered one of the most influential voices in conservative evangelicalism. His voice has energized some and appalled others.

When the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed in 2007, killing 13 people, Piper called it a sign of God's wrath over sin. When a tornado damaged the steeple of Central Lutheran Church in 2009, he said it was "a gentle but firm warning" to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America convention, which was voting nearby to allow openly gay clergy to be pastors.

Yet Piper disappointed some of his allies this year when he refused to endorse the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in Minnesota. He preached against gay marriage but did not join other religious leaders in explicitly urging members of his church to vote for the amendment, which was defeated in November.

"I'm not a crusader when it comes to parties or legislation or politicians," Piper said in defense of his actions.

"Usually evangelicals work like this. You have the very conservative, Republican types. And you have the more socially oriented, Democratic types. And they both worship the same God, read the same Bible and vote for different people. And what I want to do is on every issue ... say, 'We're not Republicans. And we're not Democrats. We're Bible people. We're Christ's people."

Finding Calvinism

Reared in South Carolina by an evangelist father and a homemaker, Piper decided on a religious calling while attending Wheaton College in Illinois. He went on to complete a bachelor of divinity degree at Fuller Theological Seminary in California. There, Piper became greatly influenced by the writings of Calvinist Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards. He embraced the Calvinist belief that God has deemed who will and won't be saved and a person's free will has little to do with his or her salvation.

After completing his doctoral work in New Testament studies at the University of Munich in Germany, he taught at Bethel College in Arden Hills from 1974 to '80.

Char Ransom, a 50-year member of Bethlehem, was on the pastoral search committee that called Piper as pastor in 1980. She said congregants were impressed with his command of scripture, though his theology did drive some away.

"There's no question, he's a controversial figure," said Ransom.

"The doctrines of Calvin that he adheres to were very hard for the people at Bethlehem, the old-timers, to handle at first. I would say the people who have left over the years have a hard time with that doctrine. I personally found it totally refreshing. I could see it in the Bible."

During Piper's tenure, Bethlehem grew from a one-campus congregation of nearly 300 members to a church with three Twin Cities locations, a seminary and close to 5,000 attendees.

Piper is widely seen as a leader in a movement to emphasize the Calvinistic elements of evangelical theology.

"Calvinism for me is a theology that's just pushing your nose into [a God who is] really big," Piper said. "You can't ignore him. In any part of your life. Your economics. Your family. Your business. It's in your face."

"Sin really is Hitler. It's destroying people everywhere, forever. Hitler tried to destroy people in this life. Sin is destroying people forever. And God hates sin. And he hates the doing of sin. And he will punish sinners."

'The anti-slick preacher'

A slightly built man, gray-haired and bespectacled, Piper is soft-spoken and self-effacing when he's not preaching. But once he steps to the pulpit, his presence fills the room.

A 2010 survey of U.S. pastors ranked Piper among the 10 most influential living preachers -- alongside Billy Graham, Rick Warren and Max Lucado.

"John Piper is sort of the anti-slick preacher," said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, a Christian firm that conducted the survey. "I would say he's very unconcerned with people's perception of his brand. And I think that's driven by his theology. He'd be very comfortable not being heard from as long as the message went forth. And I think that's endearing to a lot people. It's not all about him."

Tony Jones, a theologian-in-residence at Solomon's Porch church in Minneapolis, is one of Piper's frequent critics.

"I don't think the fundamental nature of God is wrath at human sin," Jones said. "I'm not going to say God isn't disappointed by human sin ... but at the very core of Piper's theological vision is that God's wrath burns white-hot at your sin and my sin. When I read the Bible, that's not the God I find."

Piper offers no apologies for his theology.

"If you try to throw away a wrathful God, nothing in Christianity makes sense. The cross certainly doesn't make sense anymore, where [Jesus] died for sinners." His views of the tornado and bridge collapse, he said, "are rooted in the sovereignty of God. Even though people see them as harsh, negative, wrathful, whatever, they are good news."

He said he considers himself a "happy Calvinist -- which is an oxymoron. I'm on a crusade to make that not an oxymoron."

No sign of retirement

Piper will stay on as a Bethlehem associate pastor until Easter. Ransom says the transition is a pivotal moment for the church, but it is less painful because she and other congregants are happy with his replacement, Jason Meyer, 36. Meyer shares Piper's Calvinist theology, has experience as a pastor, and has taught at the college and seminary Piper founded at Bethlehem.

Once he steps down in the spring, Piper said he and his wife of 44 years, Noel, and their 17-year-old daughter, Talitha (their youngest of five children), will move to the Knoxville, Tenn., area, for close to a year while he works on his writing. Then they'll return to their home in the Phillips neighborhood, near Bethlehem's downtown Minneapolis campus.

"It feels symbolically significant to me to say to Jason, 'I'm not going to be around. This is your baby,'" he said.

Piper thinks he still will occasionally preach at the church. One thing he most definitely will not do is "retire."

"I don't think that's a biblical word," he said. "No offense to people who do it.

"I feel God's pleasure when I preach. I feel really alive."

Rose French • 612-673-4352

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